How to buy a sustainable and independent place in the sun

There’s a ‘sense of freedom, and phenomenal cost savings’ living outside a resort

If, like me, you are an avid viewer of A Place in the Sun, you will be well aware of the lure of a beachside apartment or rustic hideaway within walking distance of a lush vineyard – and probably have dreams of escaping to the sun in the not-too-distant future once Covid-19 has subsided.

But while  thousands of Irish people are the lucky owners of a property abroad, many may have opted for the easiest route to ownership and purchased a second home within a resort or managed complex. This may reduce a lot of of the headaches associated with maintenance, security and sourcing services and tradespeople, but it can also lead to much higher outgoings.

Anne D’Avilez has lived in the Algarve for many years, and it was while living there in a resort environment that she met her partner, Rob Brading. They both found they were disillusioned with the whole concept.

“Rob and I shared a common love for Portugal and the same negative feelings towards the sales pitch which people are unknowingly drawn into when buying from abroad,” says Anne, who is from Cork. “And we both identified with the sense of freedom, the phenomenal saving in costs and the authenticity that comes with living outside a resort in the ‘real’ Algarve.

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“Rob had been growing tired of paying ever-spiralling bills for heat, electricity, security and water. So he drew up a plan and within six months we had found the perfect property which needed finishing.”

The three-bedroom house had an existing borehole which provided water and the couple installed 24 solar panels for heating water and generating electricity. Then while Rob installed home security, energy efficient lighting, wifi and CCTV, Anne got stuck into interior design.

With the assistance of a gardening team, the pair brought the landscape back to life and now benefit from the spoils of both a fruit and vegetable garden.

So pleased were they with their new home, that the couple realised other people would benefit from advice on how to do something similar and so they established their company, nobillshome.ie, which offers advice and support to anyone who wants to make a new life in the sun.

“As a potential buyer, resorts can be very attractive as they offer a sense of security, and it is such an easy way to buy into a ready-made social life abroad,” says Anne. “Let’s face it, humans are basically quite lazy, and we like nothing better than having everything done for us. Also, most resorts offer the opportunity to rent out your property during your absence, so it seems like a win-win situation.

“But hidden behind this are management and resort fees – and the rates for electricity, security, water, heat, pool maintenance, gardening, cleaning are all inflated, so you pay for the luxury of living in this environment on a monthly basis.”

She says golf courses, where many developments are located, are open to visitors in the summer and can be “pretty unbearable”.

“While apartment complex pools become packed with visitors, parking spaces are full, restaurants are jammed to capacity and there is a large incidence of antisocial behaviour and you, as an owner, become irritable as you cannot even enjoy the pool area due to packed capacities in the accommodation.”

Another downside, according to Anne, is that owners of resort or complex properties tend to stick with people from their own country so don’t get to interact with locals and experience an authentic way of life.

“Living in a private property [outside a resort] is far less expensive, much more exciting and rewarding,” she says. “It is private without high walls and secure without patrolling security. It is real, rather than modular and plastic. However, it can be as big and beautiful as you want to make it. But it will never cost you the same as a resort.”

Mandy Murphy and Willo Renehan can relate to this – when they bought their house in France in 2018, they made sure to choose something unique to them.

They purchased the six-bedroom period property in the Loire Valley for €340,000 and although it required a lot of remodelling, including rewiring, replacing bathrooms, restoring original features and installing a new kitchen, the couple wouldn’t have wanted to move into a “ready-made” home in the middle of a complex.

“We never had our sights on a resort apartment or new build property,” says Mandy, an executive coach. “We like period properties and wanted to be in a wine region where purpose-built apartments are not very common anyway. Size was also important for us as we wanted a house where we could have all our family or friends to stay.

“From the start, we made a conscious move to update the electrics, insulation, upgrade the boiler and add new thermostats to the radiators and we have a smart heating system controlled via an app. We also connected the house to city gas and are now adding double glazed windows. But we also learned that it wasn’t so much about keeping the cold out in winter but keeping the heat out in summer by using shutters and improving the loft insulation.”

Mandy, who is from Meath, says they had no trouble finding local tradespeople to take on the work and were also fortunate not to have any issues with legalities.

“We were lucky to find an electrician from the UK who had been living in the area for 25 years,” she says. “Neither of us had very strong French, so we were keen to find someone qualified who also spoke English. And once we started the work and learned more about the house and what was needed, we had more time to find local French artisans for other jobs.

“We discovered that we got better workmanship from smaller independent tradespeople than larger businesses. Of course, it wasn’t always easy finding them, but we picked up recommendations from the local DIY shops, social media or even a van in the area with their details advertised on the back.

“And, fortunately, we had no legal issues with the sale – it was process heavy with lots of steps along the way, but it all went smoothly. We were very lucky in our experience as there was no onward chain and the whole process took just 15 weeks.”

Mandy, whose property can be viewed on lamaisontrumeau.com, says buying an independent property abroad doesn't have to be a logistical nightmare, if you make sure to do your homework first.

“I would advise people to use local agents, go to see the property with your own eyes and research local rules as they can be different from what we are used to in Ireland,” she says.

“Also, work on your language skills if you are buying in a country where English isn’t the first language and, if possible, find someone to translate for you as some conversations can be tricky because the different terminology can catch you out.

“I would also advise thinking about a support network if you need to renovate from a distance as you may need to get someone to oversee the work and keep you updated.

“If we were to ever do it again, we would be more realistic about budget and the length of time needed to renovate, but we love our town location which is in walking distance of restaurants and amenities. And right from the start, we made ourselves known to local people as well as restaurateurs and in shops and vineyards. We also donated an Irish flag to the local pizzeria which is now proudly hanging on the wall – so getting to know the neighbours helps in many ways and we are very happy here.”