Kelvin Rees has a long-held plan to move to Spain, and 2020 was to have been the year it happened. A four-year impasse — which he attributed to a sluggish market after the Brexit referendum — finally ended in the sale of his home in south-west England in January. By February, he and his wife Pamela were house-hunting in Andalucía.
When Spain went into lockdown to help stop the spread of coronavirus, the couple were in Salobreña, near Granada. Shortly after lockdown lifted, they completed on a four-bedroom villa nearby for “over €1m”. Just what their residency status will be when they actually move in, however, is unclear.
With less than five months until the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31, the Reeses are not the only Britons worrying about the residency process — which, even at this late stage, is subject to change in EU countries.
At least the couple has acquired a permanent address; many more buyers, delayed by coronavirus travel restrictions, are only just heading out to France and Spain now to look for properties. So will they have time?
While they are open again now, the offices dealing with Spanish residency applications were closed for several weeks during lockdown and the process ground to a halt. “Between Brexit and coronavirus, it’s an absolute mess,” says Rees, 60.
In Spain, there was a “churn” of transactions when air-travel restrictions were lifted in June, says Andalucía-based Alex Radford of My Lawyer in Spain. But this slowed when the 14-day quarantine for travellers returning to the UK was introduced on July 26.
Yet Britons are still flying out to complete — or even start — the purchase process (which typically takes six to eight weeks).
A new Foreigner’s Identity Card became available from July 6 in Spain for Britons who qualify for ongoing residency rights before the end of transition. To apply for residency — and this is also true for anyone hoping to move to France, Portugal or Italy — British citizens must secure a permanent address, open a local bank account and show sufficient funds and healthcare cover (over-65s can apply for free state healthcare).
“I am advising property hunters to get a Spanish bank account open as soon as possible, find an address — or a 12-month rental contract if they haven’t yet bought a house — and apply for an NIE [tax] number,” says Radford. Bank statements must show proof of income of at least €5,500-€10,000, depending on the region.
In France, the new residency portal has been delayed from July 1 to October 1. Although British citizens must be established in France by December 31, they have until June 30 2021 to apply for the new permit, says Joanna Leggett of Leggett Immobilier: “Because the French buying process takes three to four months, there’s a real impetus for people to find a home by September.”
Charles Miller of Charente Immobilier concurs. “The pressure is definitely on for those British buyers who want to move to France,” he says. “We are completely inundated with inquiries and visits.”
Some are delayed by failing to sell their UK properties. Victoria Frampton had hoped to have her family moved out for a fresh start in the Haute-Garonne, a department in south-west France, by September — a decision crystallised by remote working (and schooling) during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We have done a virtual viewing on a seven-bedroom, seven-bathroom house with a swimming pool [for €699,000] in Ausson that we absolutely love,” she says, “but can’t pursue it further until we find a buyer for our house [in Somerset]. And that isn’t happening.”
Another option is a rental contract on a French property. “You don’t have to live in France for 90 days before December 31, you simply have to have proof of a stable residence by then,” says Barbara Heslop of Heslop & Platt solicitors. “Alternatively, if you are residing with family or friends, the local mairie [town hall] may issue a certificate confirming you are resident.”
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According to Charles Cramailh of Leggett’s property management division, there has been a big increase in Britons looking for rentals after the summer months. “But buyers renting to get residency need to have utility bills put into their names, and a lot of gîte-owners won’t do this,” he says.
Frampton has already ruled out this option: “Rental websites are terrible, and it is difficult to find a nice house.”
In Spain, attractive long-term rentals are easier to find online but they do not automatically come with the one-month break clause that French rentals do. “Long-term rentals [10 months-plus] are easier to find in the low season [September-April], and not hard to arrange,” says Raquel Perez of Perez Legal Group in Marbella.
Gary Stevens is able to stay at a friend’s home in the Charente, in western France, until he finds a property to buy. After selling his print company, his long-term plan has also suffered setbacks — a deal for a property with a lake fell through 10 days before lockdown.
But last month, he drove a van-full of furniture to France and, with his wife and children, is viewing properties priced at about £400,000. “We need to be [registered] in France to access the healthcare and to get the twins into their new school,” he says.
If they receive their residency permit they will be allowed to run holiday lets, one of the most popular ways for British expats to earn an income in France. “Provided a UK national proves residency by December 31, they will benefit from the provisions of the withdrawal agreement that safeguards their freedom-to-work rights,” says Heslop.
If they miss that date, while Brexit will not prevent UK nationals renting out their holiday homes in France, they may have to pay higher taxes. In some EU countries such as Spain, non-EU property owners — third-country nationals — are liable for a higher rate of income tax (24 per cent, rather than 19 per cent).
Might this make vendors in very Brit-centric markets worry that British buyers will dry up in 2021? In the Dordogne, one of the French departments with the highest volume of British expats, company owner Robert Inman is trying to sell his three-bedroom home with 2,500 sq m of land in the bastide town of Molières. After 17 years, he wants to return to the UK.
“In the past two years the number of British buyers here has dropped, just like sterling, but there’s been a rise in Dutch, Scandinavian and Belgian buyers, as well as the French. Even if the British stop coming, I am not worried. The market appears busy — I have viewings booked in,” he says.
Despite there being no restrictions on Britons buying holiday-home properties in most EU destinations next year, the freedom of owners to spend unlimited time in their second homes will change.
“After Brexit we won’t be able to enjoy the 50/50 split between the UK and France that would be ideal,” says Ian, from Kent, who flew to France in July to find a property in Charente-Maritime. “We will still keep a UK property but we are now weighing up where it is more tax-efficient to base ourselves.”
Most EU member states have already confirmed they will allow UK nationals to enter and remain for up to 90 days without a tourist visa. In Portugal it is 180 days, and Spain looks to be following suit, says Radford. Like other non-EU citizens, they will also still be able to move to such countries. It will just be more complicated.
European homes available to buy now
Villa, Comporta, Portugal, €690,000
Where In the coastal village of Comporta, in the Alentejo region of Portugal, about 1hr 30 minutes’ drive from Lisbon.
What A new three-bedroom villa in the Quinta da Comporta development. Available through Knight Frank.
Villa, Tuscany, Italy, €1.9m
Where Above the Pergo valley with views of Cortona in the distance. The drive to Florence is under two hours.
What A six-bedroom villa with 64 acres of grounds, including an olive grove and vineyard. The property is available through Savills.
House, Dordogne, France, €2.995m
Where Outside Bergerac in south-west France. The drive to Bordeaux takes about 1 hr 30 minutes.
What Built in 2017 in a traditional style, the house comes with a fully restored 18th-century guest house. Through Christie’s International Real Estate.
Villa, Hydra, Greece, €4.6m
Where Within walking distance of the port of Hydra. By ferry and taxi, the journey to Athens airport takes less than three hours.
What A five-bedroom house built in the 18th century with a large garden and pool. Available through Christie’s.