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A Guide to Life in Spain for Aspiring Expatriates

With the chaos of Brexit looming, this may be the best time for 20 years to consider moving to Spain but careful thought needs to be given to expat life in Spain before taking the plunge.

Spain is one of the most popular choices for relocation to life in the sun for Northern Europeans and particularly the British. Unfortunately many do not consider all aspects of that new life before relocating and as a result, may live to regret the move. The recent dramatic fall in Spanish property values makes a potential move more attractive and more affordable but uninformed decisions should never be made. Moving to Spain permanently is not an extended holiday and potential immigrants should not leave their brain at the airport.

The Spanish Climate and Weather

The weather is possibly one of the main reasons why someone from Northern Europe would consider a move to Spain. Many people have fond memories of that wonderful two-week break in the blistering summer heat of the Spanish Costas and dream of waking up every morning to blue skies and sunshine for the rest of their life.

Two weeks of holiday sunshine are paradise but three months of summer temperatures in the high 30s can be very different, especially if you are working abroad. Coastal weather can be like this but even a few kilometres inland the temperatures can be even hotter. Seville is one of the hottest places in Europe and temperatures in the 40s are possible. Southern Spain contains Europe’s only desert which has been used extensively as a film location most notably for Lawrence of Arabia and the spaghetti westerns. Mediterranean Spain is hot in the summer and is best avoided by those who cannot tolerate constant heat.

Central Spain has even more extreme weather with temperatures above 40 in the summer and below freezing in winter. It snows in Madrid! Northwestern Spain is heavily influenced by the Atlantic and has a very high rainfall which results in a very green landscape.

Others dream of mild winters with constant sunshine but many who have never visited Spain in the winter are surprised by the amount of rain which falls. Annual rainfall in Andalucia is higher than that in London but it all happens at once – in the winter. Christmas lunch on the beach is not really typical of life in Spain. For many northerners, the ideal seasons in Spain are Spring and Autumn, but decisions to move for the climate need more than just two seasons of ideal weather.

The Choice of Location When Moving to Spain

Just as with any property purchase buying in Spain needs a careful choice of location. The majority of new immigrants choose the coast because that is the area they are most familiar with. In the coastal resorts, life is very similar to life back home because there are thousands of expats living there either permanently or long term in their second home and some expats do not even try to learn Spanish.

How to Adjust to Expat Life

However the coastal areas have become very built up as a result of the property boom which came to an end in 2008. Unfortunately, there are a many unfinished properties, some only steel skeletons, which is a blight on the landscape and could remain so for years to come. For the more adventurous expat the inland regions should be explored. They are much more Spanish in character but to live there an ability to speak Spanish is vital especially for anyone who wants to integrate into local life.

Wherever you buy care is needed. Make sure you appoint a local lawyer and make sure that he checks that your chosen property is fully legal. If you are buying a property with a view make sure that it can never be taken away. In the past property developers have become adept in getting planning permission to build in front of existing properties with wonderful views even if it means blasting away a hillside to do it. Get someone to check the build quality of the property you want to buy – walls between adjacent apartments can be only one concrete block thick.

Spain’s Language

It is only polite to learn the language of your new country but many expats live quite happily in coastal Spain with little or no ability to speak Spanish. English is spoken in most large shops and supermarkets. There are English speaking schools, banks, lawyers, dentists, doctors and even expat tradesmen to help with household repairs. The only time Spanish is necessary is if you have to go into hospital or you have to deal with the authorities.

This does not apply if you choose to live in rural Spain. Only a few miles inland from the coast Spanish would be vital since very few local inhabitants would have any knowledge of English.

Cost of Living and Currency Issues

The cost of living in Spain has been rising steadily over the last few years. The weekly shopping bill is much higher and now there is very little difference between prices in Spain and prices in Northern Europe. Wine and other alcoholic drinks remain very cheap in comparison to the UK and petrol and diesel are cheaper. Utility bills are very similar to those found in other European countries. Restaurant prices have risen considerably particularly in tourist areas where the (often foreign owned) restaurants tend to set prices similar to those which the tourist would consider good value in their own country. The best value meals are to be found in typically Spanish restaurants which cater for the local population.

For the British expat local prices are also linked to the exchange rate between the Pound and the Euro. For many, particularly for retirees, income will be in sterling and conversion into Euros is necessary. Ten years ago £100 income would have been equivalent to 150 Euros. Today that is more like 117 Euros or a drop in real income of 20% over a period when prices have probably risen by more than this amount. Currency fluctuation can also have a profound long-term effect on property values. With the recent dramatic falls in Spanish property prices this is one factor which could very easily drive buyers into negative equity. This factor must be taken into account in making any decision to relocate permanently. As an expat could you afford to change your mind in the future?

Spanish Healthcare

Spanish healthcare, particularly in the coastal area is very good but unless you have paid into the Spanish Social Security system it is not available as a right to new residents. Therefore, it is vital that any potential expat budgets for private healthcare contributions which for a couple over 50 but under retirement age could currently cost the Euro equivalent of £100 to £200 per month. For EU retirees Spanish state healthcare would be available paid for by their country of origin under EU reciprocity rules, at least until Brexit, if it ever occurs.

Hospital care is excellent and waiting lists are shorter than those in the UK for example but primary care at GP level is very busy with long waiting times in the GP surgery and state GPs may not speak English.

One area in which Spain is weak is in long term care of the elderly because it is a country where the local population tend to be the carers for the older members of the family and not the state.

Long Term Issues When Moving to Spain

For anyone seriously considering a permanent expat life in Spain there are other issues which must be addressed.

Couples must consider how a surviving partner would cope if left on their own.

Could a surviving partner afford to relocate back to their country of origin?

Could language be a long term problem?

Inheritance tax must be considered. Between spouses there is no problem but if property for example is ultimately willed to a non-related beneficiary inheritance tax can be very high.

Relocation to a new country can be a wonderful experience but the decision should not be taken without doing your homework very thoroughly. There is a wealth of information on the Internet and many published books on the subject of relocation to Spain. A good source of information is You and the Law in Spain by David Searle.

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