Ah, 2008. At least back then you didn’t have to sit inside your negative equity property

TV review: RTÉ recounts nightmares of Irish people who bought ‘dream homes’ overseas

Maura Hillen O’Donoghue: ‘We discovered that illegal construction is actually a criminal offense in Spain.’

Maura Hillen O’Donoghue: ‘We discovered that illegal construction is actually a criminal offense in Spain.’

 

Coronavirus has turned the world upside down. One of the strange side-effects has been to cast the 2008 financial crisis – in Ireland, essentially a property meltdown – in a more benign light.

Yes, it was terrible. Lives were ruined. Some of us are still living with the crippling debts that ensued. But at least you could range far and wide from your negative equity property and didn’t have to fret about the wellbeing of elderly relatives living under de facto house arrest – however well-intentioned and necessary it is.

So it’s strange to be reminded of that period by Burnt by the Sun (RTÉ One, Monday, 9.35pm), a piece of recession “nostalgia” that recounts the nightmare experiences of people who accepted the dream sold by overseas sales people and developers. We meet Armagh native Ollie Reel, who in 2006 remortgaged his home in order to pay for a beachside holiday home in Estepona, Spain.

“We assumed everything was going well and then a brother of mine went out on holiday to Spain in 2008,” he recalls. “He said, ‘Why don’t I have a look round and see what’s happening,’ and the news he came back with wasn’t good. There hadn’t even been a sod turned on the site. Alarm bells started ringing.”

Ollie Reel has worked with hundreds of Irish people who have lost deposits on properties bought off-plan in Spain.
Ollie Reel has worked with hundreds of Irish people who have lost deposits on properties bought off-plan in Spain.

A story of sun-kissed dreams turned to ashes is similarly relayed by sales executive Christine Matthews, who was 27 when she remortgaged her west Dublin home to buy an apartment in Calabria. But the development stalled after Italian police began to look into links with the ’Ndrangheta, the southern Italian mafia. She continues to live with the consequences.

“I ended up remortgaging [my own home] for close to [€300,000] … and that’s back in 2007,” she says. “The property was probably only worth €220,000. Roll on a year and a half, when the value … went back to around €100 grand. Over 10 years now, it’s still in negative equity. I’m still paying for Italy … I’m paying a much heftier mortgage. I still haven’t recouped anything from the whole saga.”

A parade of financial woe doesn’t necessarily make for gripping TV. But Burnt by the Sun juxtaposes the misery with gorgeous shots of exotic destinations. Even as they bristle with the skeletal outlines of half-finished apartments, the landscapes glimmer in the heat.

It’s a reminder of the allure such destinations hold for all of us confined to rainy, dreary Ireland at present. It also reminds us of another era of fear, of negative equity and job losses. This latest crisis has brought those worries right back – along with so many new ones.

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