How buying abroad is different from in the UK

The most fundamental mistake that many people make when purchasing abroad is assuming that things work the same as they do in the UK. Before you dismiss this notion, it should be added that this does not just refer to the buying process, that of course varies from country to country.

But, yes, let’s start with this. Many other countries work with the notarial system with a public official (notaire in France, notario in Spain) overseeing and documenting a property transaction. This person works for neither the buyer nor the seller so should not be confused with a lawyer in the conveyancing process as we know it.

If you wish for someone to represent your interests in the process, it is extremely advisable that you hire your own lawyer to do this, who will advise you in every step, rather than just record the purchase. It is preferable that you choose an English-speaking lawyer if you are not fluent in the local language, but if not possible, you may also need to use the services of a translator.

Just stepping back in the purchase process, the way that estate agents operate abroad is also very different, not just in terms of legal processes and local cultural norms but in the role they perform with international buyers. If you are a local buying a new home, your needs will be very different from an international client looking for a holiday home. In the UK, many agents will do little more than arranging viewings and acting as a middleman between buyer and seller.

Language, lack of familiarity with the location, market and processes means that a more comprehensive hand-holding role will be required for overseas buyers. They might need to advise on taxes, healthcare, renovation costs, local vets and a lot more besides! This of course often translates into higher agent commissions. On the subject of costs, also bear in mind that purchase costs can be a lot heftier than the norm in the UK – in Spain it is typically 11-14 per cent of the sales price.

Finding the right agent is key to finding the right property in the right area for you. Because you may be highly dependent on this person to provide all the accurate advice on aspects referred to above it is essential that you find someone you trust. Ask around for recommendations and do your due diligence on local agents.

Bear in mind that agents are not always regulated or licenced – France and the USA are two examples of places where they are. In the American buying process there is much more transparency than in the UK – and all properties for sale can be accessed by estate agents on a database called the Multiple Listing System (or MLS) so this is a source of extra reassurance rather than anxiety for buyers!

Depending on where you are buying, you may also need to choose between using a local agent that knows every house in the village yet may not understand your expectations, or a UK based agent who does. Buying a holiday home is often so much more about finding the right location – within a far greater area – as much as the home itself.

Another person that doesn’t always factor in property-buying transactions abroad is a surveyor. In Spain, especially, surveys are not a normal part of the buying process, but you can of course find a local surveyor yourself, and there are now companies that provide these for UK buyers, for example, in popular areas such as the Costa del Sol. Again, do your research and seek out the best advice. Don’t leave your brain at the airport as became a common adage of the boom years – take extra, not less, care when buying abroad.

by Liz Rowlinson, overseas property journalist

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