Still in the dark about moving?
Property finders say they can take the hassle out of finding the right place to buy abroad. Helena Frith Powell of The Sunday Times explains what you get for your money
Paul and Sarah Skitmore contacted Barbara Wood, who runs The Property Finders agency in Andalusia, 20 days ago. They had spent six months rushing around southern Spain trying to find a suitable home before the end of the school term.
“We needed to get the house before we got the school organised,” says Sarah. “In Spain you can’t apply for a school without a permanent address. And we needed to apply before the end of the summer term in June.” It seemed the harder they tried, the worse it got. Then they contacted Wood.
“When Paul told me about the property they were trying to buy, I realised that they had wasted months on a place that could not be sold along the terms they had been told,” says Wood. For an upfront fee of £600, she will spend up to a year finding your ideal home and then take you through the buying process. Once it is completed, she takes 2.5% of the purchase price.
After looking at two properties that Wood had short-listed, the Skitmores bought an eight-bedroom farmhouse in Rute, Andalusia, in acres of olive groves and with a pool and tennis court, for £210,000. “We are delighted,” says Sarah.
Property professionals such as Wood, working for British people buying abroad, are a growing force in the overseas market. Most property finders charge an upfront search fee, normally between £250 and £500, which is refunded if you buy somewhere, plus a percentage of the sale price. Others take their money from the agent selling the property.
When Paul and Tracey Beaufils moved to the Languedoc region in southern France two years ago, they nearly bought the first house they looked at. “We made an offer and it was accepted,” says Tracey. Confusion with paperwork then lost them the sale. “At first we were furious, but we later discovered it was just as well. The house was on a flood plain. When we drove past it during heavy rains a year later it was under water.”
The couple have now set up the property-finding agency Buy a House in France. “My job is to help people avoid disasters,” says Tracey. She takes clients out for an initial tour of the Languedoc area and then shows them properties. She will also guide them through the buying process. There is no charge to the homebuyer as she takes her fee out of the estate agent’s commission.
One of their clients is Barry Budibent, who retired from BP in April last year. He and his wife, Angela, had spent six months looking for a home in Burgundy. “It was not a good experience,” he says. “We spent a huge amount of time looking at properties which, if we’d been told more about them, we wouldn’t have bothered to view.”
They decided to focus on the Languedoc region on the advice of friends, and came across Tracey and Paul on the internet. “What impressed me immediately was their knowledge of the local area,” says Barry. “On the day we arrived Paul showed us several properties. We ended up buying one of them on that first day.”
The Budibents paid £100,000 for a four-bedroom village house, a price they don’t think they would have got if they’d been acting alone. “I think he saved us money,” says Barry. “And I know he saved us time.”
When Richard Lander, an editorial director with the financial publisher Citywire, decided to buy an apartment in Barcelona, his first move was to hire a property finder: “I don’t speak Spanish and would have found negotiations impossible.”
He found Beatriz Carro, who runs Barcelona Relocation Services, on the internet. “She managed the whole thing, from finding me the place, to marching me into a bank and opening an account. The whole process was easier than buying a property in England. I ended up with a really groovy apartment in El Born, Barcelona’s trendiest part.”
Carro charges an upfront refundable fee of £400 and then a percentage of the purchase price, usually between 2% and 2.5%. “She’s not cheap,” says Lander, “but she’s fantastic and has all the connections to make the process go smoothly.”
However, not all property finders will deliver, and you should do some checking before you part with any money. Jan Pratt, of the property-search company Shortcuts Mallorca, advises potential clients to ask plenty of questions. “Where have they got their experience? How do they know the market?” she says. “In addition, try to get some feedback from other clients.”
Mark Stucklin of Spanish Property Insight, a consultancy on Spanish property, advises checking credentials carefully. “Some of them are really not worth their fee,” he says. “I’ve heard of cases where they have charged thousands of euros to do web-searching you could easily do yourself. If you can’t meet them face-to- face before you take them on, have a good long telephone conversation with them.”
In Barbara Wood’s view, people who don’t charge the buyer can’t be classified as working for them. “If the money is from the seller, how can they be truly objective? I’ve had several clients who were ready to buy a property when I spotted something in the title deed I didn’t like. I am being paid by the client, so I can tell them to just walk away without losing money.”
Paul Beaufils argues that most of his clients end up living within a 40-minute radius of his house, so encouraging them to make a bad decision is not an option.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi-based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor-in-chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019