Try before you buy a home overseas

Posted: August 31, 2010 in telegraph-co-uk

The best way to check out your dream home overseas is to stay for a while and see if it is to your taste, says Rupert Bates.

By Rupert Bates
Published: 12:18PM BST 26 Aug 2010

Try before you buy a home abroad: the hamlet of Rancale, Umbria

Trial in style: the hamlet of Rancale, Umbria
Try before you buy a home abroad: Jumby Bay, Antigua, offers buyers a test run

Jumby Bay, Antigua, offers buyers a test run

It speaks volumes for the British obsession with property that people are prepared to write a large cheque on the strength of an artist’s impression of a home overseas, with the sun dancing on whitewashed walls and the ocean impossibly azure.

We squeeze an avocado in the supermarket before putting it in the trolley and yet we do not see, let alone touch, a brand-new home, reserved off-plan and perhaps a year away from being built.

That blind faith in never-ending capital growth in the overseas property market is changing. The credit crunch saw developers go bust, leaving half-finished sites along Spanish coastlines or in Eastern European hills and losing off-plan buyers their deposits.

Now, as the ultimate antithesis of buying a house that does not yet exist, a few overseas developers are offering house-hunters the chance to try before they buy.

For 50 years the Italian hamlet of Rancale, in the Upper Tiber Valley in Umbria, lay derelict until it was bought by Paul Belcher, the managing director of the developer Ultissimo ( who restored the farmhouse for himself.

The farm buildings have been converted into eight homes, combining reclaimed local materials with modern fittings. Prospective buyers can stay at one of the three remaining properties (on sale from £300,000). They can check first-hand that the stonework is authentic, the Renaissance city of Assisi really is only 30 minutes away and the broadband signal is strong.

“When you buy a car you insist on a test drive. So why not ‘test live’ your potential new home?” Belcher says.

That’s my holidays taken care of, I think to myself. I could travel around the world posing as a wealthy, interested buyer and blag free accommodation in luxury properties.

“We would offer it only to seriously interested buyers at a market rent, refunded if they buy,” Belcher says sternly.

This is a world away from the high-pressure inspection trips offered by agents who never let you out of their sight and show you only the properties where they take the biggest commissions.

Belcher makes sure “test drivers” can vet the neighbours, too (and vice versa), tailoring visits according to their interests, be they food, golf, art or antiques. “We let the other owners know who is coming out,” he says. “They will chat with them by the pool, perhaps have dinner or play tennis with them. A happy owner is your best sales tool. But I am not hovering around at the end of the visit with a contract to sign.”

It sounds like a “does your face fit?” golf club membership application, but what if owners knock on Belcher’s door insisting that the latest test driver is totally unsuitable for Rancale, unable to tell a chianti from a Peroni and a philistine when it comes to Renaissance art? “Equally, would that person want the others as neighbours?” Belcher agrees. “Nobody wants to move into a small holiday-home community and not get on.”

It certainly would not work for every home or development. Last year, Serge Cowan of Unique Living offered “try before you buy” on Spain’s Costa del Sol, where 95 per cent of the agency’s sales in the past two years have been resales, not new builds.

One family was allowed to rent a multimillion-pound villa in the hope it would lead to a purchase, in which case the rental fee would be taken off the sale price. “It was a disaster,” Cowan says. “The property was just too perfect to have kids all over the furniture. It also allows prospective buyers the opportunity to pick holes in the house and try to negotiate down.”

The luxury Caribbean resort of Jumby Bay (, a 300-acre private island off the coast of Antigua, discreetly offers “try before you buy”. The catch is it could cost you £12,000 a night to try and £22 million to buy on this island, which is entirely owned by those who buy property there, with just 56 homes planned in total.

Andrew Robson, the head of sales at Jumby Bay, says: “A lot of eventual buyers got to know Jumby by staying in the hotel or renting a house. If someone were seriously interested we might, with the owner’s permission, get a night or two free, but if you’re looking at spending this sort of money, why would you need a free night?”


1 Take the children. They are good judges of character and neighbourhoods, and can tell you if floor-to-ceiling windows are suitable backdrops for indoor football.

2 If the local bars offer all-day English breakfasts, go straight back to the airport.

3 Vet the neighbours as thoroughly as they vet you. Tight line calls in a tennis game will tell you all you need to know; swimming-pool etiquette is often a deal-breaker.

4 Unless you have the gall of Frank Abagnale Jnr (Catch Me if You Can), you cannot just ring up, pretend to be a prospective buyer and get a free week in the sun.

5 Test-drive the amenities. Did you see any gardeners? Is the swimming pool clean? The laundry was collected, but was it returned?

6 Ask the right questions on the ground. What are the local taxes?

7 Research the area. Is that a bulldozer crashing through the olive groves in the valley beneath your hilltop idyll?

8 If laptops and mobiles are life-support systems, test-drive them, too. “Wireless” in some places means the local bar owner can pick up BBC World Service for you if you buy enough of his pasta.

9 Learn the language. Do you want to integrate into a community, or live in Surrey-on-sea?

10 If you cannot get free nights, book a holiday out of season in the area. It could be closed in winter, or a rural rave capital.

  • Tell us your favourite place to live for a chance to win a free trip to your dream destination. It could be a street in Sydney, a beach in Thailand or a cottage in Dorset:
  • The World’s Best Places to Live is sponsored by HSBC Bank International, providers of specialist offshore savings and investment solutions for people living and working abroad;

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