Live the dream in Barcelona – Europe's most vibrant city

April 11th, 2007

More Britons than ever are buying in Barcelona. Graham Norwood gets the lowdown on how to find a chic retreat – or start a whole new life in the sun.

Barcelona is an attractive city for expats “Were I to get the hell out of England today, I’d probably go to Barcelona – it has all the good things, a good way of life, reasonable weather.” So says the diminutive Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone – although, unlike many Britons, he hasn’t yet made the move.

There are now 4,721 British households, from singletons to families, living permanently in Barcelona. That’s up from 1,094 a decade ago – and the number is rising all the time. The classic expat’s property route is to rent in the old town – familiar territory for tourists who throng the city, but also close to areas most sought-after by Britons – and then buy after two or three months sussing out the local market.

Barcelona’s estate agents say that most Britons go for a flat around the old town in the Born, Gotico, or newly regenerated Raval areas, or on the beachfront. Those who know Barcelona well and have a slightly larger budget want a flat or house in the more expensive and elegant Eixample or Zona Alta areas.

Prices are not low in any part of the market – this city is, after all, the most expensive in Spain. The average Barcelona home costs €624,000 (£425,000), some 56 per cent above the figure for Spain generally. Kyero.com, a sales website that measures asking prices, says that a typical one-bedroom flat within the city is €327,500 (£223,000), and a two-bedroom flat €500,000 (£340,000). You’ll need €613,000 (£417,000) for the average three-bedroom home. Move on to a four-bedroom house and you must pay €916,050 (£624,000), while a five-bedroom property will set you back a cool €1.2m (£817,000).

“The preference is for period properties with contemporary interiors, but new-build flats are also popular for occasional use as they’re perceived to be less hassle,” says Alex Vaughan of the Barcelona-based estate agency Lucas Fox. He should know – he is one of the city’s British owner-occupiers, with a flat in a beachfront area called Diagonal Mar. “I’ve lived in London and Paris, and Barcelona beats both hands down,” he says. “It’s a city, but a small, relaxed one, and it’s easy to move around. The weather is great, you can eat and drink well and inexpensively, and there’s a great beach.”

But there is still a chance of finding a relatively low-cost property to refurbish, too. DIY and property speculation are not as popular in Spain as in the UK, so run-down properties can still be found at good prices.

For example, Stephen Proffer, who owns the wine bar L’Artiste Musclé in London’s Mayfair but splits his time between there and Barcelona, has bought and modernised a three-bedroom attico – a top-floor flat – in a house in Barcelona old town. He has built an extra bathroom, enlarged the kitchen, rewired and generally turned the interior into a stylish home for his Spanish wife Lali and daughter Sophia, who live there full time.

The end result is the classic modern Barcelona home, a period property from the outside but with a contemporary interior. “It was a good way into the local property market, and I’d done it before in the UK,” says Proffer. “And it only takes four hours door-to-door. The flight’s easy and there are never really any delays at the Spanish end.” he says.

So, once they have their ideal home, what do the British expats do? “Many hang out in pubs around town,” says Mark Stucklin, who runs www.spanishpropertyinsight.com, an online property advisory service aimed at Britons buying anywhere in Spain. He is the first to admit that, after six years of soaring prices (the 5.2 per cent rise in 2006 was the smallest since before the start of the new millennium), Barcelona is no longer an obvious place to buy purely as an investment, but it has massive lifestyle advantages for anyone wanting an urban second home, or to live there permanently, as he does.

Stucklin owns a three-bedroom apartment in Eixample, a few minutes’ walk from Paseo de Gracia, Barcelona’s version of Regent Street, but with less traffic and more elegance. “Quality of life in this part of town is exceptional. Everything one needs is just a few minutes’ walk away, and there is a good local community feeling,” he says.

“Barcelona attracts young people from all over Europe, so you find Brits, Dutch and Swedes, for example, socialising together. Catalans are friendly but tend to have their established social worlds, so foreigners tend to hang out with each other,” he says.

Britons wanting to move to Barcelona now have to come to terms with the fact that the best bargains have long gone, but agents insist that there is still plenty of growth to come – most predict 5-7 per cent price rises in each of the next two years. They say that up-and-coming areas include St Antoni and Poble Sec, both seeing a lot of new buyers so likely to have higher-than-average growth as demand outstrips supply. The Poble Nou district is being regenerated and many firms are relocating there, again suggesting more price growth in the pipeline.

But this city isn’t really about capital appreciation or rental income. It’s about culture, from Gaudi to Picasso, and a near-perfect lifestyle. Bernie Ecclestone knows a winning formula when he sees one.

Story from The Independent

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