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Portugals New Star

Oct 12, 2007
It is telling of a destinations pulling power that based purely on chats with a local estate agent and a neighbour who could see the house from her garden, Helen and Mike Gosling bought "the most perfect home in the world" in the Portuguese region of Alentejo without setting foot near the place.

If that sounds slightly mad, the five-bedroom, 350,000 (GBP 240,000) house with seven acres of land near Beja, the hottest town in Portugal is not some buy-to-let investment they were about to farm out to strangers, but is the Goslings new home. And like many people, they had never even heard of Alentejo before.

"We saw the house advertised on the internet and did not have time to visit, as we had an African holiday booked the following day, but did not want to lose the property so we went for it, says Helen, 50, who runs a car breakdown recovery business with Mike, 59, in Worcestershire, England.

"We had visited the Algarve and the Silver Coast near Lisbon, but from our reading about the Alentejo we loved the sound of the tranquillity and sense of remoteness," she explains.

Wedged between Portugals two best-known holiday spots, the Algarve and Lisbon, Alentejo has been slow at taking root in property buyers minds, hindered partly by the lack of an airport. That will be remedied if the proposed expansion of Beja military airport, set for 2009, goes ahead, undoubtedly sparking interest in this hidden corner. Until then, Lisbon or Faro are the nearest options, one to two hours drive to most parts of the region.

Even well-heeled Lisbonites, who are dismissive of their neighbouring region, are starting to take note, selling up in upmarket Cascais or Sintra in favour of a traffic jam-free commute into the capital from Alentejo.

It is an agricultural region rooted in traditional cork production, clam stew and polyphonic singing a random selection of its specialities but highlights such as the World Heritage city of Evora and medieval hilltop towns are overshadowed by the Algarves sought-after golf and beach resorts.

"It has taken me a decade to get people to know about Alentejo," says the Goslings estate agent, Bert Snijder from Alentejo Home Tel. 0871 711 8992 from the UK or Tel. +351 269 441 717).

"Alentejo is the same size as the Netherlands but with 800,000 inhabitants compared with Hollands 16 million," says Bert, who, incidentally, is Dutch. "It is the perfect place for people who want to get away from the stress in Northern Europe.

Even in August, you can lie on unspoilt beaches with no one else around for miles."

You can build dream house for relatively little money especially inland, where you can even have your own vines and olive groves. Converting an old farm is ideal for those in search of tranquillity try Beja, Evora or Estromez.

And although you will pay more by the ocean, Comporta, Zambujeiro and Sagres are stunning and offer better value than comparable regions in Spain and France.

Alentejo may be the birthplace of legendary explorer Vasco de Gama, and home to swarthy footballing hero Luis Vigo who is rumoured to be building a golf course in Odemira but the vast region still retains an understated appeal.

The upside of anonymity is low property prices. Coastal properties cost around 50% of what you would pay on the Algarve, and rural renovation projects in various states of dilapidation can be cheap enough to buy with a credit card.

Bert Snijder reports that most of his clients want to be within 40km of the coast, which may only mean a 20-minute drive away, as the roads are empty. The further east you head, towards the Spanish border, the cheaper the properties. But the climate is extreme, with boiling summers and very cold winters.

One inland area predicted to become Portugals next major resort is Alqueva, near Europes largest man-made damn. Its 800km shoreline is a fishermens paradise, and the plans to build golf courses, luxury hotels and restore the nearby rural villages are luring property investors.

Currently, two-bedroom houses in the area cost from around Euro 162,600 (GBP 110,000). With coastal development limited to very low build density and nothing within 1km of the sea, Alentejos Atlantic coast remains untapped, with endless kilometres of white sands that become more rugged as you head south.

Troia on the Blue Coast, south of Lisbon, has been a Portuguese secret for a long time, but now it is being developed, they are building a new marina and golf courses, but they are avoiding dense high-rises.

Vila Nova de Milfontes, with stunning beaches and a cobbled old town, is another resort worshipped by the locals and some German villa owners but few visitors from further afield. There, a one-bedroom apartment will cost from around Euro 118,000 (GBP 80,000), while you can buy large family houses for GBP 150,000.

Prices are slightly higher, due to scarcity of supply, in nearby Zambujeira do Mar, an unassuming fishing village momentarily besieged by rock fans attending its festival each August.

Then it returns to typical Alentejo tranquillity, which is just how buyers like it. Even those who have not been there yet.

Top tips for buying in Portugal:

Alentejo is a huge region with three distinct areas the mountains, plains and beaches so take time to drive around and choose an area before you start looking for a property.

Do not underestimate the language problems. Unlike in the Algarve, English is not widely spoken so seek recommendations of good Portuguese lawyers from English-speaking agents who know the area well.

Buying a plot of land and building your own house works out cheaper than buying a ready-made villa, and means you can design it how you want it. Building costs are around Euro 700 per square metre.

Land prices are determined more by their access to utilities than by location, so a small plot with mains electricity and water can cost considerably more than a larger plot nearby without these services.

Don not assume that if you buy a ruin in the middle of nowhere, you can do what you like with it. Strict buildings regulations apply and vary depending on the local council.

Get a licensed builder. Otherwise you will have to obtain a license specific to your property, which could delay renovations by several months.

If you can not be there in person to oversee building work, recruit a project manager.

Use a Portuguese lawyer who can pick up on the nuances of the contractual jargon. A foreign lawyer may not have the same grasp.

Most people under budget for renovation work. A loose rule of thumb is to take the property price and double it.

Materials and labour are cheap, but re-roofing can be pricey.
About the Author
Alentejo Home is the Real Estate specialist in the Alentejo region of Portugal between Lisbon and the Algarve. Find out how we can make your dream come true at >Alentejo Home Real Estate
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