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The Ley of the Land: How Spanish Tax Review Dull Expat Dream of Life on the Costas

Fewer and cheaper sales are not only bad news for owners and vendors but are a cause for concern on the part of Spain's authorities, which have seen income from taxation on property deals fall as the market has stalled.

Whilst the world's economies continue to be buffeted by aftershocks, there are initial signs that even countries worst hit by the global recession of 2008 might be recovering.

Buyers are once more expressing interest in buying property in Spain, for instance, with Britons apparently among those most keen.

Despite official figures suggesting that the drop in prices has not been arrested just yet, some will have been attracted by opportunities which simply seem too good to pass up.

Indeed, plummeting prices and an exodus of inhabitants from parts of the Iberian Peninsula have resulted in entire villages being put up for sale for less than the price of a semi-detached home in the UK in an effort to revitalise communities.

Those people with the means to buy can find relative bargains. Individuals who already own property but are unable to sell have experienced significant headaches.

Fewer and cheaper sales are not only bad news for owners and vendors but are a cause for concern on the part of Spain's authorities, which have seen income from taxation on property deals fall as the market has stalled.

As a result, they have become more pro-active, more regularly and vigorously reviewing sale prices and 'transfer taxes' paid when properties are bought.

It is a move which potentially has consequences for buyers even years after ownership of the homes in question changed hands.

The review is a valid long-standing tax measure under Spanish property law. However, it is not necessarily apparent or brought to the attention of those eager to start life overseas and enticed by apparently low prices.

Price reviews were less notable during the boom years. The amount of tax generated by large numbers of sales and rising values kept official coffers healthily stocked.

When recession struck, though, the amount of transfer tax received fell substantially owing to fewer sales and the lower prices being paid in many cases.

Under Spanish Law, regional tax authorities have powers to examine all property purchases in order to ensure that the correct amount of transfer tax is paid by the buyer.

They were designed to prevent deliberate attempts avoid tax and were intended to be applied on an ad hoc basis. There is clear evidence that such checks are more commonplace and less random.

Buyers might assume that they're in the clear if they pay the quoted percentage of tax on the price they agree with a seller. The exact amount of transfer tax varies between the various autonomous authorities across Spain but is generally 8% to 10% of a sale value.

However, tax offices are allowed to calculate the sum they're entitled to not on the agreed sale value but what they believe to be the 'real' value should this be higher than the transaction price. This official value is set according to a number of factors, including local land values and property records.

There are many circumstances in which owners might be prepared to genuinely accept offers well below a property's recognised market value. They may wish to dispose of a home they have inherited but can't afford to keep, may be selling following a divorce or simply be disenchanted with life abroad. All have the potential to prompt a tax review.

Buyers are not notified once the process starts, something which can happen at any point in the four years after the completion of a sale. Furthermore, they might only realise that they are liable for the difference between the transfer tax paid at the time they took ownership and the official calculation once they receive a demand for additional money at their Spanish address.

Those owners who only use their Spanish properties as second or holiday homes and visit only occasionally may not get their tax bill in their post for some time, thereby missing crucial deadlines and incurring penalty charges and interest.

Even worse, properties can be seized in order to settle the additional overdue tax if the matter isn't resolved for some time.

It is not all gloom, though. Property owners do have a right of appeal and Spanish courts have already quashed some reviews on the basis that the tax authorities lacked sufficient valuation grounds to proceed. Those hoping to avoid having to pay up need to act quickly, though.

Whilst the price reviews should not act as a deterrent to Britons thinking of buying in Spain, they should remind those keen on the Costas of the need to do their homework and make sure that they follow correct procedures.