Buying land in Spain safely: what you need to know

Considering buying land in Spain for your dream villa project? While this is undoubtedly going to be one of the biggest, and most exciting, decisions of your life, there is a laundry list of things you need to be aware of before you take the plunge – especially if you’re not familiar with Spanish regulations.

The law, conventions and business practices in Spain are different to those in Northern Europe, so to stay safe you’ll need independent professional advice to ensure the land you want is all above board.

Things go wrong when buying land in Spain, but in the majority of cases, the issues could have been avoided with a basic understanding of the process and the opinion of an experienced and independent architect who will ask all the right questions on your behalf and advise you correctly.

Planning regulations for land in Spain

Plot for sale Marbella
Amazing plot for sale in Marbella

If you’re buying land in Spain for development, or buying a villa to refurbish, then it’s vital that you establish the planning regulations before you buy.

There are two broad categories of land in Spain: urbano which, broadly speaking, is zoned for development and rustico, which isn’t (you will hear English speakers using the words “rustic” and “urban” to describe these categories).

But it’s not quite that simple. Urbano land isn’t necessarily restricted to urban areas as we understand the word in conventional English. You may find “urban” land for sale located in the countryside, next to villages for example, or in an area that has been zoned for development. And under some circumstances, you actually can develop rustico land.

With both types, there are sub-categories to understand, as well as regional laws to know about. Local town halls may interpret the law differently and in some well-publicized cases, contradict the regional authority. It takes in-depth knowledge to get this right, so it’s best to hire qualified local professionals to assess the situation for you.

Spanish jargon for buying land in Spain, simplified

Technical architect Spain
Technical architect in Spain

Some terms describe the legal status of the land from a planning perspective (such as urbano, urbanizable, no urbanizable, and protegido) and some terms describe the current state of the land for sale (such as suelo urbanizado), which will include all its services and infrastructure; suelo en desarrollo and suelo sin desarrollar.

Sound complicated? Let’s break it down:

Suelo urbano
This is land which is generally within cities or close to towns and villages. It is clearly marked on the local plan (Plan General de Ordenación Urbana), which is freely available for inspection by anyone who asks the right department at the local town hall. Suelo urbano generally would have all the services established, however, in some cases, they may need finishing off which would imply costs and legal fees.

Suelo urbanizable
This category refers to land for sale that’s in the process of being rezoned so it can be legally developed.

On this land outline, planning permission isn’t necessary. You apply for detailed planning permission from the local town hall.

Suelo urbanizado
Land for sale which is fully urbanizado will have all the services already established such as roads surfacing, pavements, street lighting, main drainage, mains water, mains electricity, and telephone landline. Check this list off and if something hasn’t been installed find out of there is a chance a charge will be imposed on the owners of the plots to install this service.

Suelo rustico
All rustic land is governed by the national law and by the land laws of the autonomous regions, even though it belongs to the jurisdiction of a local town hall. Building on rustic land in Spain is rarely simple. In fact, rustic land is, by definition, not buildable. However, in specific circumstances, building can take place in these areas.

For example, if there is a declaration of public interest; or the drafting of a Land Use Planning Instrument, such as the proyecto de actuación en suelo no urbanizable. These circumstances can vary greatly between municipalities. For example, it may be possible in some municipalities to build on 2% of the area a total construction of 4% – so you would need a lot of land to build a substantial house. There may be other regulations that stipulate that the buildings be used for agricultural purposes. If you are thinking of doing this, the regulations need to be carefully studied.

Take note that for rustic land you must have the approval of the regional authority in addition to the approval of the local authority. You may be handed some official paperwork outlining the approval of the local authority with nothing from the regional authority.

The regional authority of Andalucia has been tightening the regulations in recent years (for example, see New Decree below). To build or renovate on rustic land in Andalusia, you have to demonstrate that the building you propose is necessary for either agricultural use or for rural tourism. In the case of the former, this would mean being registered for tax purposes as a farmer and being able to produce the documentation to support this.

Protegido
Some land is more heavily protected (protegido) than others. To build a house in Spain on heavily protected land, you may have to get authority from a number of different bodies, such as environmental protection, national parks, wildlife protection, river and water authorities, road authorities… as well as the local town hall and the Junta de Andalucia. All this can take time and needs to be professionally presented to stand a realistic chance of success.

Restrictions and regulations for building on land in Spain

Experts surveying before buying land in Spain

Before buying land in Spain, make sure you get the town planning certificate (cédula urbanística or certificado urbanistico), which specifies the planning zone, use, building space and building type for any plot of land.
Also be sure to check the local building norms for such things as height of buildings, whether you can put in a surrounding wall, the colour of exterior walls, number of balconies and so on.

You’ll also need to check the locally applicable area occupancy rules to find out what percentage of the area you can build on. This will depend on a number of different factors. It may be, for example, that you can build on 30% of the plot you are interested in buying. Another regulation is the total construction allowed on the plot which again will vary.

So you are constrained in how much of the plot you can cover, and you are constrained by the maximum size of building you can erect.

Underground construction (i.e. the basement) will normally not be counted for permitted volume limitations (provided that it is totally under street level), though it will be considered in terms of construction fees. This can still be useful space. Terraces, swimming pools, etc. are also excluded from the calculations.

For houses that are built on a slope, the basement/cellar area is counted for permitted volumes at a reduced rate according to the gradient of the slope.

There are rules governing the maximum height which you will also need to know before buying to be certain you can construct what you have in mind. For example, the regulations may stipulate a seven-metre height restriction.

Style and aesthetic restrictions vary. Quite often you will be free to build what you want within reason. In historic centres, you can expect regulations to be quite strict.

Regulations are continuously being updated and are also open to interpretation by local and regional planning officers. So whatever you are told about what is possible on the land, you will need a current, formal, assessment of the situation before you buy the land and this should be done by an architect. Finally ask your lawyer to confirm that the property, in its current state, conforms with all the local, regional and national regulations.

You should ask an architect to make enquiries with the local town hall (and if necessary, as in the case of rustic land, the regional authorities) that what you plan to do to is permitted under the regulations that apply to the land. They may need to do this in general rather than specific terms if you haven’t had drawings done at this stage. This is best done by an architect in Spain, professional to professional; the authorities like that. Enquiries should be made before you complete on the land purchase in order to understand the attitude of the people involved and establish some positive rapport with them.

Legal documentation and rights

Signing legal papers

There are three basic documents:

  1. Nota simple: land registry
  2. Catastral: local rates
  3. Escritura: title deeds

Nota simple
Check the usage described on the Nota Simple. It will give you a clue as to what planning regulations apply to the land. For example, rustico or residencial, etc.

Note that court orders need not appear on the Nota Simple so you should ask your lawyer to make an enquiry with the town hall (disciplina urbanistica).

Ask your lawyer to obtain a certificate confirming the document he is working with is complete and accurate, because otherwise there is no guarantee from the registrar that it is.

Catastral document
As with the nota simple, check the usage on the catastral. This will give further evidence as to what planning regulations apply to the land.

The catastral value, which is not on the catastral document, is a theoretical estimate of value. It is used to calculate local taxes due on the property for rubbish collection, street lighting, etc. that are collected annually. The catastral value can be found on the IBI statement, which the vendor or their lawyer will give you. There can be an additional tax to pay if the purchase price is lower than the catastral value. The actual catastral value isn’t the one on the IBI statement (that would be far too simple!) It is a multiplier of this. You should also ask your lawyer to look up this information on the appropriate website of the regional authority.

If it’s too late and you have been sent a tax demand, then be aware that appeal times are very short.

Plot borders
The catastral document comes with a plan, which is helpful, but note that the catastral confers no legal rights. Many people from Northern Europe assume that this plan confers their title and that the borders on the plan are the borders of their land.

The borders are described in writing on the escritura (title deeds). They make reference to the neighbouring ownerships and natural features.

On rural property where there is no fencing, neighbours may refer to trees or painted rocks to define where the border between their land is.

If you are buying rural land that is unfenced, this may be partly so that wildlife can cross the territory unhindered. You may wish to resist the temptation to fence if this causes resentment amongst the neighbours who have lived happily next to each other for generations without ever defining or caring too much about where the exact border is.

It is now required, as of November 2015, that whenever either the nota simple or catastral are updated that a topographical survey is carried out and attached to these documents. This is a sensible measure and in time will straighten out all the current discrepancies. It may be something that can be done at the vendor’s expense.

Plot areas
You may have four different sizes in square metres of the land you are buying: one for each document and a measured area. They can all be different. The agent may shrug this off and say that is normal for land in Spain, and they’re right, but you need to get to the bottom of why the areas are different apart from differences in measuring techniques.

In particular, if you are buying a building to renovate, then differences in areas between the documents may reveal that part of the building is an illegal extension. The ”extension” may even be very old and look like part of the original structure. This can be true of buildings in the countryside. Discussions with the local authorities may reveal that you have a considerably smaller area to renovate than you thought.

It is even possible that you are required to first reinstate the building so that it complies with the built area permitted under the site. Then when that is done (and it could take months or even years) you can apply for the licence to renovate the building as you wish.

It is common that catastral documents are not updated when the property is improved or extended in order to avoid paying increased taxes. You should insist that this is corrected now by the vendor prior to the contract as there may be an obligation in the future to pay back taxes.

When you are calculating the area you have available to build or renovate, bear in mind that permanently covered terraces will count at 50%.

Border disputes
There is a set procedure for border disputes and it involves a lawyer and a topographical surveyor from each party meeting on-site to agree on the position of the border and draw it on a plan.

Access rights
Ask your lawyer to confirm your access rights and responsibilities to contribute to the costs of maintenance of any shared access, and if there is damage to the access road or infrastructure during the construction. Who is held responsible if one of your contractors damages part of the access that is in either private or public ownership? A truck may knock over a street sign. How is the damage assessed and paid for?

Community ownership
Many properties have some kind of community ownership whether that be access rights and responsibilities or common areas.

Ask your lawyer to make enquiries with the administrator about any debts on the property you are interested in or upcoming expenses. Ask to see the minutes of recent meetings.

Services connected to the land

Electricity supply

Most, but not all, urban land will be connected to mains electricity, mains water, and mains sewerage. Ask your lawyer to check for any disputes amongst the community of neighbours over the infrastructure. Services on rustic land vary enormously. You may have to go off-grid. Indeed you may prefer to go off-grid.

Electricity
These days generating your own electricity from the sun is relatively straightforward, saves electricity bills, reduces the amount of fossil fuel used in generating grid electricity and future-proofs the value of your property. If you are on-grid too, you won’t have problems with system sizing so everyone that wants a hot shower can have one – even if you have a house full of guests.

If you allow yourself a backup generator for electricity, life is considerably easier. This is not very “eco” and it is certainly possible to have all modern conveniences and be off-grid. It can certainly be achieved if your home is energy efficient. It needs careful thought and planning of the renewable energy sources and system sizing. At the time of writing, the “sun tax” has not been fully resolved.

Water
Wells and water rights are highly regulated and licenced in Spain. Your lawyer should check all documentation.

Irrigated land (look for the status on the nota simple and catastral documents) is considerably more valuable than dry land, so wells and irrigation rights are jealousy guarded. Obtaining a licence to dig a well may not be easy or possible. The authorities have to manage the groundwater. Your licence may regulate how much water you can draw. All the neighbours may be affected if you dig a well and draw water from it. Water purity may have to be tested and approved.

If you are buying land in Spain with a well and pump machinery, ask to see evidence that it has been serviced regularly.

Rights to water from acecias (irrigation channels) are documented. There may be a community of owners who benefit from the acequia and who maintain it. You may have the right to a certain number of hours a week from which you fill your storage tanks. You should check if the acequia has ever dried up.

Sewerage
I know of a residential “urban” estate where every property has its own septic tank. It is a condition of ownership that you agree that, when the time comes, you will contribute to the cost of a mains system. This could be a considerable amount. In the meantime, every villa has to make its own provision.

Soak-aways need to be carefully installed and managed.

Septic tanks and cesspits should be registered as being on the land. Ask your lawyer for advice.

Topography and geology

Secluded villa in Spain

These can affect the value of the plot considerably.

Topography
It costs more to build on a site with a steep slope. You may have to excavate a platform, build out on stilts, or both. You may even have to accept a building with many different levels. Quite often, the site with the best views is the one that has a slope!

Your architect will need an accurate topographical survey before they can begin to design your home. However, a discussion over the kind of home that is possible can take place with a visual inspection.

Geology
The geology is hidden, so you don’t know what is there until you have carried out a geotechnical survey, which is a requirement of the College of Architects and the building licence.

If an area is unstable then it will generally be known. You can look for cracks (or worse!) in the neighbouring properties.

If you are worried but don’t want to lose the plot to a competitive buyer, you may be able to agree with the vendor that you pay a deposit subject to a satisfactory geological survey.

The presence of neighbouring villas in the same geological area may encourage you to assume your own plot is also viable from a geological point of view.

A geological survey comprises of drilling into the ground, taking samples and analysing them. It can take a few weeks to test the samples and compile the report. If the land is suspect, then a more intensive survey may be recommended, i.e. more samples. If your sample happens to miss a huge rock underground, then the survey report may be clean but you then find you have an expensive problem to remove. So you need a good geological surveyor.

A geological survey is a very technical job with great legal and professional responsibilities. The survey report will indicate the stability of the ground. It will also inform the architect as to the strength and specification of the foundations and the necessity or otherwise of retaining walls. The architect is constrained by the findings of the geotechnical survey.

Before you buy land in Spain, save yourself and lot of time and money by talking to a professional. Eco Vida Homes understands exactly what you need to know before signing on the dotted line, so contact us today!

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