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Spanish Secrets: A Law Unto Themselves

In their bid to buy an old Spanish farmhouse Craig Briggs and his wife Melanie experience the snail-like pace of Spanish bureaucracy.

For more of Craig's words about his new life in Galicia please click on Spanish Secrets in the menu on his page.

Ten days had passed since we signed the contract to buy our ruined farmhouse. It was now a matter of some urgency that we returned to the notary office to collect the original signed contract. It’s the buyer’s responsibility to present this document, called an escritura, to the property registry office within 20 days.

Other than staple the original contract into a flimsy binder, make a copy for the vendor, calculate the notario’s fees and rubber stamp each and every piece of paper, I haven’t the faintest idea what could possible take ten minutes, never mind ten days. This is snail-like Spanish bureaucracy at its most impressive.

In the past, this bureaucratic time delay gave unscrupulous villains the perfect opportunity to fleece unsuspecting victims out of thousands of pounds. The sting was simple. The fraudster would advertise a house for sale at a very favourable price. When sufficient people had agreed to buy it, he would have a number of contracts drawn-up at different notary offices in different towns. The swindler would then sell the same house to several buyers from various office locations. The notarios would be unaware that multiple contracts had been prepared. The buyers would be oblivious to the fact that other people in nearby towns were purchasing exactly the same property. Whilst everyone waited the obligatory ten days to collect their official escritura, the criminal would disappear with everyone’s money, never to be seen again.

Fortunately for us, this bureaucratic loophole has long since been closed. Nowadays, as soon as the contract is signed a copy is faxed to the property registry office. Once received, the signatory has 20 days grace to present the official escritura and pay the 7% property tax.

Collecting the escritura would give us an opportunity to quiz the notario about the windows. Yesterday, our troublesome neighbour Maruja mischievously suggested that the openings for the windows at the back of the house were made without the proper permission. Consequently, the owner of the house opposite, who just happened to be Maruja’s sister, might demand that we brick them up. If we were heading for future problems it would be useful to know our legal position.

We arrived at the notary office mid-morning. The small waiting room was already bustling with people. We stepped up to the reception counter and handed a busty young woman our receipt slip. She greeted us with a broad smile and a chirpy, hola!

After thumbing through a pile of identical manila envelopes, she plucked one from the stack, checked its contents and handed it to us.

“Would it be possible to speak to the notario”. I asked.

Asking us politely to wait, she marched across the waiting room and tapped gently on the notario’s office door and entered. A moment later she reappeared.

“Don Arturo will see you now”. She whispered as we approached.

The notario’s full name is Manuel Arturo Vidal Rodriguez; a noble title which conjures up images of a steel-clad conquistador, riding through the Spanish countryside on his jet-black stallion. Nothing could be further from the truth. Don Arturo’s poorly-lit office was well ordered and minimalist. His unusually large desk had the effect of making him look smaller than he actually was.

“Please sit down”. He said in perfect English. “How can I help you?''

We explained about the two small windows at the back of our farmhouse and the comments our neighbour Maruja had made. As a matter of some concern we were hoping he might explain our legal position.

Our enquiry seemed to create more questions than answers. Are the windows built on the outside of the wall, or the inside? Do they open inward, or outward? Do they overlook your land, or someone else’s? How long ago had the opening for the windows been made?

Why is it that lawyers and politicians can never answer a simple question with a simple answer?

The outcome of our meeting was inconclusive. Should the neighbour demand that we brick-up the openings, our best line of defence rested on the length of time the openings had existed. If that was more than 20 years the law was on our side, a fact the previous owner could confirm. We thanked Don Arturo for this time and the useful, if somewhat confusing information he’d given us and left.

For the time being we would wait. Who knows, perhaps Maruja’s sister wouldn’t be a bit like her?

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