SQUISHED BY LEMMINGS - Buying a home in Spain
Maggy P -
... looking out saw that many of those trees had
now been felled to make way for a small municipal car park.
LATER . . .In October, still without a response to our offer, we decided
we should go and have another look. So we booked ourselves in for a
week at half-term at the same self catering apartment that we had used
The initial cursory survey, carried out by a local expat builder, had
identified some minor problems with the house that needed to be addressed,
mainly carpentry; doors that needed rebuilding, windows and shutters
that needed renovating. The house itself needed a through scouring,
some rewiring and a coat or two of paint inside and out. There were
a few cracks in the walls, and the stone floors needed work in some
We thought we should go and assess the likely cost of these essential
works in case we needed to up our offer in order to clinch the deal.
There would be no point in buying the place only to be without the wherewithal
to make it sound.
The turbulence on the flight to Malaga was quite severe, but was nothing
compared to the Autumn gales we had left behind in Britain. The sky
was overcast at the airport, but the air was still gentle, warmly caressing,
and we gleefully stowed our coats, scarves, gloves and so on in the
boot of the hire car, and set off on the three hour drive along the
coast and up into the mountains.
We stopped in Orgiva to buy some provisions, and looking up saw that
the road above the town had vanished into a blanket of swirling mist.
We climbed into the murky heights slowly and carefully, as the visibility
was now very limited. Every so often a car hurtled out towards us from
the next hairpin bend at what seemed like reckless speed. They must
be locals we thought, to be sufficiently confident to be taking such
risks. The roads themselves were excellent, well-built and maintained,
but the route up the mountain slopes was giddy-making.
Rounding a bend, we saw ahead of us some twenty or thirty yards off,
at the limit of our visibility, something large and black in the middle
of the road. Creeping closer it materialised as a freshly striated rock
the size of a microwave oven, glistening wetly on the tarmac. Gingerly
we drove round it then, after going a few yards further my husband suddenly
pulled over and stopped. Worried and perplexed, thinking we had a car
problem, he reassured me that everything was fine, but that he really
felt he must just go back and take that rock off the highway in case
it caused an accident.
Melted yet again by the sheer chivalric altruism of the man I loved,
I waited as he got out of the car and headed back towards the hazard
on foot. Gazing at the mist and the dripping foliage, it seemed as if
I was in a tropical Dartmoor landscape. Strange, weird beyond imagining.
And then I saw a few more pebbles trickling down a cliffside on the
next bend. Suddenly the car bounced violently, as my husband jumped
back into the driving seat, slammed the door,and, engine screaming shot
off up the mountainside. I could see he was white faced and visibly
shaking, and after a moment to collect himself he told me that as he
had reached the monster rock in the road, and was considering just how
to lever it into the verge, he had heard pebbles cascading down from
far above and looking up had just been able to dodge a second huge rock
the size of a dustbin as it hurtled down to crash-land alongside its
fellow. Phew! He had been very lucky indeed to have come away unscathed,
and we made it up that mountain road in double quick time.
When we arrived at the village pension where we were staying, we were
no longer warm or buoyant, we were chilly and rather subdued.This was
actually quite scary country. Life here could be vibrant, exciting,
vital, stimulating, varied, fascinating, but it could also be unpredictable,
violent, hard, and dangerous.
We were glad to see that there were logs in the fireplace, huge knotty
chunks of fruitwood, and that the central heating system was working.
We set to, lighting the fire and making ourselves at home. An hour later
the heating went off, and despite our best efforts we gave up on trying
to make the fruitwood burn. The building was of modern construction,
brick built with tiled floors that transmitted every last sound, and
the single-skin walls soon began to transmit the cold as well. Donning
every piece of cold-weather gear we had with us we went out to find
some hot food and comfort. To our surprise the drenching mists had turned
to wet snowfall as we scurried around the village looking for an eaterie
with a functioning fireplace.
Nevertheless, we felt, we were glad to have been able to see this place
in its less benevolent mode. We had a clearer overview of what
we were contemplating and what some of the pitfalls might be. We made
the best of it, ate a hearty meal and bought a mansized box of firelighters
which did a fine job on the lumps of recalcitrant fruitwood. We recalled
the cherries we had picked through the windows of this same apartment
back in July, black sweet and juicy, and looking out saw that many of
those trees had now been felled to make way for a small municipal car
park. No wonder the wood wouldn't burn, it was still green.
The next day the skies had cleared and we met up with some British expats,
a couple we had first become acquainted with during our first visit
in the summer. They had lived in the area for nearly thirty years, and
had in fact stayed in our house on their honeymoon, back
in the seventies. Jonathan and Wendy came with us to look at the old
place again when we got the keys from the agents. And we were very glad
We struggled with the rusty wrought iron gate on the steps and fought
our way through the undergrowth, now laden with bunches of grapes and
ripe rose hips. By torchlight we wrestled with stuck doors and windows,
stiff catches veiled in cobwebs, until finally the dark mustiness gave
way to bright golden light as the sun streamed in.
It was a sweet house, and we again felt that sense of welcome we had
been aware of when we had first seen it. Fronting onto fields and meadows,
far below in the Poquera Gorge, the river roared over the rocks, invisible
but still just audible. Reputed to be one of the original dwellings
of the settlement, there was a feeling of solidity and permanence about
the place. As strangers in a strange land, we had not felt equipped
to take on a more remote homestead. We had seen quite a few of these;
some had terrifying access roads, some had no power or water, some were
ruinous, a few were overpriced.
Here, on the edge of a community with everything on hand from a bank
to a bakery, and including a thrice daily bus service to Granada, we
felt we had more chance of making the transition from tourist to resident
at some point in the future.
Wendy and Jonathan went from room to room reminiscing and pointing out
the changes that had been made over the years. They were a lively pair,
knowledgeable about the area and its people, and of course fluent
in Spanish. One of their main sources of income was serving the needs
of wealthy expats, organising projects such as the installation of swimming
pools, supervising renovations and building extensions. This expertise,
combined with their familiarity with the house led to some very unexpected
As they wandered around, they noticed the cracks in the walls and some
in the floors that the initial survey had identified as needing only
cosmetic repair. Going upstairs and downstairs a few times they called
to us and together we made a closer inspection. The sites of the cracks
downstairs corresponded roughly to the ones upstairs, and to our dismay
we realised that this could mean that the whole frontage of the house
might be involved. We also noticed faint signs of water damage in about
the same area upstairs near the ceiling. This might mean that the roof
too was affected. We went outside, and sure enough there was the evidence
that some of the cracks were unlikely to be merely superficial. Some
of the floor level ones even extended across the patio of the next house.
Once again our hearts sank as we saw our dream dissolve in an imaginary
landslip of epic proportions down the hillside and into the Poquera.
Thoroughly disheartened now, we closed the house up again and decamped
to the bar for a stiff drink. Wendy and Jonathan were not at all phased
by what we had seen, and explained that the Alpujarras were subject
to earth tremors all the time, and that cracks in walls and floors were
commonplace.They pointed out that a five hundred year old house in such
a region wasnt likely to be going anywhere in the near future
since it had already withstood half a century of volcanic activity.
The only real question as far as they were concerned had to do with
the more recent activity of the local property developers, who had put
up an apartment block nearby some five years or so ago, against strong
local opposition regarding the suitability of the site. Perhaps this
was what had generated the cracks in our house.
We knew that it was one of the oldest buildings in the village, and
that it stood safely on solid bedrock, because some of it was visible
inside the house in places, at the back, where it connected to the hillside.This
was what helped it to stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
But we were still very worried.
From the bar Wendy and Jonathan escorted us on a tour of the new apartment
block, some fifty meters or so further along the barranco from the house,
just beyond the original village perimeter. Built on two levels, there
was a ten metre walkway between the upper level and the lower one, with
a total of about thirty individual units, fifteen on either side. We
gazed in disbelief at the gaping fissures in the concrete that ran the
length of the walkway on the lower side, six inches wide in parts and
affecting the service steps and balustrades at the entrances to each
apartment. Many of the units remained unoccupied. Now we could see why.
Parts of it looked like a battle zone, with cracked walls and ruined
facades. The walkway itself, built of concrete pavoirs, was rippled
and rucked like a shaken rug, undulating along its entire length.
Wendy and Jonathan explained that when the development was first proposed,
the villagers had opposed the plan because it was well known locally
that the area of land at the head of the barranco was notoriously unstable.
There were several of these smaller ravines that fed the Poquera, and
the forces that were unleashed by the snowmelt in the Spring were mighty
indeed. This was why the land had never been built on before. We looked
down at boulders the size of houses lying in the bed of the now docile
stream, and heard all about the deafening drama that went on when it
was in full spate. We heard too about the pile-driving that had gone
on when the footings for the apartment block were installed, of how
explosives had been used in some places to obtain secure foundations.We
were horrified. Horrified and outraged that profiteering greed had triumphed
over the common-sense of centuries of people living in harmony with
Nature. Gloomily we thanked our new friends, and told them we would
have to think very hard indeed before renewing our offer on the house.
That evening after supper, we returned to look again at the damage the
developers had done to our dream. We followed the gaping crack along
the hillside to where it tapered to nothing two houses along from our
house. It looked like we had found the real reason it had lain empty
for all those years. And we had to accept that going ahead with this
project would in all probability be an exercise in utter foolishness.
What an awful waste, what a terrible disappointment. We gritted our
teeth and slept on it.
The next morning, we went out shopping for provisions for breakfast.
The bakery made exceedingly good croissants and we felt we needed cheering
up. On the way back we decided to stop for a coffee at one of the pavement
cafes. The sun blazed down, the chestnut trees and the poplars afire
with Autumn colour rustled in the clean fresh air. We sat sadly sipping
our coffee, resigned to defeat, dejected. We watched the village bustle
into life, a happy busy community we now knew we could never be a part
Suddenly Wendy and Jonathan appeared, bright and breezy, encumbered
with dog and shopping, and asked if they could join us. They had some
news for us apparently. Having ordered coffee, they explained that they
had discussed our dilemma and felt that a certain friend of theirs may
be qualified to advise us. He was an Anglo-Spanish architect, a specialist
in vernacular architecture from Granada, due to arrive the next day
to advise some clients of theirs about a building project. Having spoken
to him on the phone, he was willing to come and inspect our
house if we wished, and would be able to tell us right away whether
to proceed or drop the whole idea.
We were so deeply sunk in doom and gloom it took a real effort to register
what we were being offered. A faint flicker of hope disturbed the ashes
of our aspirations. With a struggle to muster some social grace and
sense of optimism, we accepted the idea, and arranged to meet the architect
at the house at noon the next day.At least we would have a clearer picture
of the situation, even if our worst fears were justified .
© Maggy P.
One Discovering the house
Part Two SURVEYS and COSTS
of BUYING IN SPAIN