Yesterday, I had lunch with some friends to say ‘Hasta la vista’. It was great to see them because it had been quite a long time. It’s Covid time. We’ve messaged, and sometimes Facetimed. But we have kept our distance. Especially since, for a while, I was the poster child for contagion. When I get together with them I always learn something new. This time, I came home and Jeff asked me how it was to see them. And now he can’t sleep.
We are excited about buying this house in a rural area. We are thrilled to embrace this new adventure. But now we know of a potential danger that is really good to have in our back pocket. It’s a danger that people with rural properties in Spain must understand. Squatters (Okupas) or ‘Adverse Possesion.’
Apparently, Spain is the squatter capital of the world. And the laws here are kind of in support of it. For those who don’t know what squatting is, it’s when people, who are not you, move into your house and bring their stuff, dog, kids, grandma, whatever – with them. Basically, they steal your house. And they change the locks.
I know my friends weren’t trying to scare us. But my one friend had to leave right after lunch and she told us why. She is staying at her sister’s house on the outskirts of Valencia City because her sister and family are in the UK and they can’t get back due to Covid. And an article in the local paper told of a police raid of many homes in that area where squatters had taken over people’s second homes. And the only reason the police were allowed to get them out is that there was ‘criminal activity – as though stealing someone’s home isn’t criminal. Apparently, you can take over someone’s home and it’s not a true crime unless you grow marijuana while you’re doing it. My friend needed to ensure that her family’s home is not a victim to this scheme, so she moved from her apartment out to the property for a while, until her sister can get back.
I was aghast when they told me this. I had no clue as to squatter’s rights in Spain. I had no idea that squatters had rights. But then they enlightened me.
It seems that the law favors the squatters in Spain. If someone squats in your house – they can’t just break in and sleep in your bed, they have to move their stuff and their family in and change the locks (this is key to keep possession) – you have just 48 hours in which to report them to the police. Within 48 hours, it’s considered a police matter. After 48 hours, it’s considered a matter for the courts. This means you must go through a lengthy, expensive process to get them out. And in the meantime, you can’t live in your own home.
Apparently, this is why Spain is considered ‘A squatter’s paradise.’ They told me it’s well known in Europe. And Portugal is the same. It boggles my mind that when you have two countries containing the most holiday homes in Europe, that the laws protect people who break in and squat in your house. You could show up with your spouse, children, and friends with pool toys to enjoy a summer break in your holiday home and discover that someone is living there. And you can do nothing about it.
I was horrified.
‘What if we go away for the weekend. Or head to the US for a couple of weeks? If we come back and someone has moved in then where do we go? That’s our house! Are you telling me we would have to rent an apartment while we go through the court process to evict them?’
There were nods around the table. And they had examples to back it up. The stories, some of which included strong arming, were terrifying.
‘But this is OUR house.’ I told them. ‘Surely the police would just pitch these people out once we proved it.’
They shook their collective heads. ‘Nope. That’s not how it works. You have 48 hours. If you don’t report it to the police, then they get to stay until you get a court order. That can take months or more than a year.’
And you must continue to pay the utilities while they are squatting, or it’s considered ‘intimidation’ and they can sue you.
There are stories of it taking FIVE YEARS! HOLY SHIT!
But they had advice. ‘Whenever you leave for more than an overnight, you have to have someone come check on the property. A housekeeper, or someone who will work on your farm. Pay them to do it. And also, have a good security system that will sound an alarm, and webcams you can check. Then you could call the police from where ever you are to start the clock within 48 hours. And never leave a window open or a door unlocked, if you leave. Then it’s considered that you invited them to move in.’
Jeff’s mouth hung open when I told him all this. He ran through every scenario. When he woke up this morning he came out into the living room and didn’t say even good morning, before launching into his greatest fear.
‘So, I woke up thinking about this. Since we technically own the house, the sellers could just refuse to move. And we couldn’t kick them out. They would still have all their stuff, and they would have our money, and we could do nothing about it.’
I suppose he is right. That is the law. One of my friends looked it up sitting at the table. The article said that the current coalition government includes Podemos. It’s the far-left party. So while the PSOE wants to do something about this injustice, they can’t because Podemos is blocking it.
Now, I recognize that there are many economic inequities. Huge ones – globally. And abandoned properties in Spain are a real problem. People inherit grandma’s flat and never rent it out or do anything with it because it’s cheaper to keep it. Property taxes here are mostly paid upfront when the property is purchased. It’s 10% of the purchase price and then you pay a few hundred each year, after that. But to take a weekend away or go on August holidays and have someone move into your house – effectively making you, yourself, homeless – is a bridge too far.
Holiday homes are much more of a target than primary residences. There is a real thing called The Squatter Mafia. They will hold your house for ransom unless you pay. And many people find that cheaper than the lengthy court process, as a foreigner. But it’s terrible. As of 2018, there were 20,000 squatter incidents moving through Spanish courts.
I’m glad we know it now. Knowledge is power. We will arm ourselves so we never have to experience this, but it’s just another reminder that we have a lot to learn about how things are done in Spain, and we need to keep our eyes and ears open. I would imagine our house will be less of a target since we will be living there full time. But it’s just one more thing.