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Rural v Urban: The Rules

So you are thinking about buying that piece of land and designing your Spanish dream home yourself, away from the coast and further inland - where it is said to be a much cheaper option. But - "Buyer Beware" - obtaining planning permission might not be so easy to arrange. It is important that you realise and are aware of the fundamental differences - first, between rural and urban land; and second, to be sure of the local planning build ratio allowance that complies with the regional criteria for construction.

All too often we see foreigners buying land in Spain, who are led to believe, that what the locals say goes for everyone – the problem starts when you come to register the full build of your new dream home; especially on rustic or agricultural land. In Spain, every regional government has its own system of dealing with new build developments, whether they are defined as rustic or urban. In Valencia and Andalucia there have been many changes in the last few years that affected buyers, often widely publicised in the international press.

Here the Andalucian government has also realised the trend for foreigners to buy cheap land, and consequently have started to put pressure on local town halls to be stricter with granting planning permission - especially in agricultural areas. Buyers of rural land will often be left waiting for months for permits, and this can be extremely frustrating for those keen to get on with their projects. Here, at Tropicana we are often asked the question… "Am I free to build on this (or any other) land?"

The short answer at first is no, before you buy any land you must check that it will be eligible for a building permit. Any plot classed as a 'finca rustica' has been zoned as agricultural or rustic land and that means that it will fall into any one of the three categories of Protected, Restricted or Building land.

Urban land is simpler to define as it is land that is within the local planning scheme approved by both local and regional government. As a general rule of thumb, in our area the present cost is between 250 to 450 Euros the m2; depending on location, services available, sea view, land incline, etc. However in order to grant building permission the proposed building must comply with certain criteria and again here there is variation between rural and urban planning regulations. Generally the plot should be able to connect to utilities, drains, water and electricity. The building must comply with certain European directives, including 10 year build guarantee, and since September 2007 should be at least 20% energy self sufficient to encourage the personal provision of solar and wind energies. Finally you should check with the local planning authority the ratio of build to land – town centres for example allow up to 100% while outland districts may only allow 25%. Your Spanish lawyer and architect will be able to advise you on this matter in far more detail.

Rustic land is far more problematic. The golden rule here is to remember that it is the regional government directives that dictate the land registry protocol and not the local town halls. This is especially significant if you are registering your new dream home in the countryside rather than converting an existing registered cortijo – even if it is classified as "in ruin". The Junta de Andalucia (our regional government) states that (new) buildings built on rustic plots are minimum 7,000m2 of land to a ratio of 100m2 built for a single storey property (and this is below 300m above sea level). Above 330m then the land required increases to as much as a 30,000m2 plot size for the same build volume. Other issues too affect the qualification of the rustic lands status; dry land, irrigated, olive or almond groves, fruit trees, agricultural use and so on all compromise the registration of your building. Rural plots in our area generally start from 6 Euros the m2 (for dry land) to as much as 60 Euros or more for productive fruit farm land. It is, at this moment in time, not uncommon to find that in some cases where the seller is trying to register their dream country property, then they may have to prove their employment status as a farmer or agricultural worker in Spain before being granted building permission or ratifying the built property. In order to meet such a stringent ruling, the seller may find that they are also subjected to a whole set of economic and social issues that affect their legal, fiscal and residential status both in Spain and in their home country; and consequently making the task of registration both frustrating and complex.

While local town hall authorities can give building permissions for property over 45m2 built for new builds on smaller rural plots usually around 3,000m2 to 4,000m2; like in Jete, Otivar, and Itrabo; the problem arises after the build is completed and when the land registry declines to stamp approval of the licence, since by the Junta directive there is insufficient land in order to justify the registration of the full build to be legalised. In Spain, like many other countries, wooden/timber homes are considered as temporary dwellings. In Almunecar, for example, permission for timber homes on rustic plots is granted but only as an 'apero' (agricultural use dwelling or storeroom for tools) and the maximum registered size of such a build is just 50m2 to get the licence endorsed.

You need to be a realistic when you buy in rural Spain, and also be aware of the lesser known issues, like - mortgage problems (bank valuations of country properties are much less - if at all  - compared with urban properties), rights of way for neighbours, hunting rights on land close to the plot, irrigation and access to water rights, internet access, and septic tanks are just some of the additional issues that need to be considered. If after all considerations, you are still keen to build on a rural plot then you need to find a good architect, preferably one that has been recommended locally. The architect will put together the plans for your proposed home and help you to submit these plans, with the application and the fee, to the town hall, and often using your lawyer as a point of contact. This application will cost between two to eight per cent of the estimated construction costs, and is an autonomous fee where the rate due is often dependant on the town hall authority. Again, and generally speaking, inland based local authority rates are much cheaper. The average time span for the application is between three and six months after applying, assuming that all is in order and compliant with building regulations and local directives - after all, you won't see brightly painted or flamboyantly decorated houses in the traditional Andalucian settlements of the Costa Tropical and its inland villages.

Since 2010, many provincial authorities having actively decided to curb planning development in traditional historic, or culturally significant areas; and to this extent some local authorities will now insist that prior to planning approval, submitted (and architect authorised) plans must first be channeled through the environment/culture department of the regional authority before being granted. This can delay the planning process by several months, and needs to be considered if you are considering to buy an urban plot in an historical area. Here on the Costa Tropical, the most affected areas are the San Miguel district (casco antiguo) of Almunecar and also the old town of Salobrena; that is the typical white village homes that surround the hill top castles. At present there are strict rules concerning colour, appearance, extensions and construction of new properties; and because these areas are pitted with historical evidence and various remains then in certain cases and prior to licence approval, the authorities will request prior to giving building permission that excavations are made which will be performed by specialist archeologists - and these will be paid for by the owner of the land.

Edit: 08.2017