Surreal estate

Residential developments generally start with selling houses and then, bit by bit, infrastructure is built. But Julio Delgado, chief executive of PGA Catalunya, a mixed residential and golf resort some 80km north of Barcelona in the Catalonia region of Spain, says his team has done it “the other way round”.

PGA Catalunya is owned by Irish entrepreneur Denis O’Brien, who also owns the Quinta do Lago development in the Algarve in Portugal. Golf is the common denominator of the two, and there’s a real emphasis on quality – one of the courses at PGA Catalunya is ranked best in Spain by the UK website Top 100 Golf Courses. But that’s not the only thing attracting buyers: “Easy access to Barcelona and top-notch local gastronomy are also big draws for us,” says Delgado. “We are appealing to a more sophisticated buyer than people going to the Costa del Sol only looking for sun and golf.”

The problems of the Spanish housing sector are well documented but O’Brien and Delgado have reasons for cautious optimism: 18 houses are finished and there have been eight sales in the first quarter of the year. The 300-hectare site is also undeniably beautiful, with its villas and low-rise apartment buildings nestling among copses of pine and native cork trees, never too far from the fairways. Two international schools in the immediate vicinity make the resort an option for expat families.

Still, these are difficult times in Spain. According to Caixa Catalunya, a local bank, there are some 818,000 new, unsold homes in the country, which does not include unfinished units. But there are significant regional differences: Catalonia has a smaller proportion of these unsold homes than the national average.

Caixa Catalunya has also reported that sales were down 22 per cent in Catalonia’s new-build market in 2011 compared with the previous year – not good news but the least bad result of all the Spanish regions.

Demand for homes in Catalonia remains “extremely weak”, according to the bank; Spain’s estate agents have shed as many as three-quarters of their workforce compared with the numbers employed in 2007. And Spain’s recent €100bn bank bailout will leave taxpayers in Spain with a liability for years to come.

Pristine coves and whitewashed fishing villages line the coastline north from Calella de Palafrugell, a well-heeled seaside resort in the northern section of the Costa Brava, towards Cadaqués near the French border, where artist Salvador Dalí lived and worked. Here, the second-home market is receiving the euros of German and Dutch house hunters, some of whom got to know this fashionable if rather isolated community as backpackers in the 1970s and 1980s.

Unlike some of the other Spanish costas, sprawl has been largely kept at bay in towns like Calella de Palafrugell and Cadaqués through strict planning rules.

Crisis or no crisis, however, the Catalans know how to eat well. Ferran Adrià’s much-feted El Bulli restaurant in Roses has closed its doors but Girona, the provincial capital of 97,000 residents, has two Michelin-starred restaurants, and others dot the countryside and coast hereabouts.

At PGA Catalunya, Delgado says that although his scheme is hardly immune to the credit crunch, “We take the view that we are not as exposed as other destinations in Spain. It’s true that before the slump we could have sold the semi-detached villas we are offering for €695,000 very quickly indeed. But Girona is a prosperous city, and that doesn’t change overnight,” says Delgado.

For €695,000, buyers get a house on a 700 sq m plot with 200 sq m of living space, four bedrooms, three bathrooms, under-floor heating and a shared swimming pool. The estimated standing charge of €265 per month includes the residents’ club with a gym, plus security and rubbish collection.

Although the resort offers apartments for sale (from €250,000 for a one-bedroom unit), it is unsurprisingly the detached villas – there are plots laid out for 368 of these – that set the tone for the resort.

Vinya Villa at PGA Catalunya, near Girona

Twenty-two high-end plots being sold on a strip of land called the Vinya are practically enveloped by the fairways of the Tour golf course. The villas will be a mixture of owner-specified properties and fully furnished turnkey homes. La Vinya Villa, the first to be completed, has 400 sq m of living space and is on a 2,400 sq m plot. The asking price is €2.3m, which includes a Bulthaup kitchen and Gagennau appliances, air-conditioning and roller blinds that can be raised or lowered at the touch of a button. Monthly standing charges are approximately €400.

Away from the project, a modern, four-bedroom house with a pool a kilometre from the beach in Calella de Palafrugell is available through Finques Frigola for €770,000. In Port Lligat, just outside Cadaqués – and where Dalí’s gorgeous home is open to visitors – €1.5m is the asking price for a four-bedroom house with uninterrupted sea views but a mere 145 sq m of living space (through Corcoll-Mora).

In May the Spanish government introduced a new measure to boost the real estate market and help its vulnerable banks, which hold title to a vast property portfolio: purchases of homes until December 31 this year will only be subject to 50 per cent of the usual capital gains tax, regardless of the year in which they are sold.

If capital gains are probably not uppermost in the minds of most Catalans at the moment, high-speed trains are a different matter. It is hoped that the long-awaited high-speed rail link from Girona to Barcelona, which will cut the journey time from one hour and 20 minutes to just under 30 minutes, should be up and running by the end of 2013.

Ultimately, high-speed trains like those running from Barcelona to Madrid will link Girona to Barcelona and also France – bringing to Catalonia, one day perhaps, a new wave of homebuyers.

Nick Foster was a guest of PGA Catalunya Resort

Buying guide


● The vibrant city of Barcelona is close at hand

● Excellent restaurants and gastronomy

● Beautiful, unspoiled beaches


● Spain’s housing sector is in free-fall

● Fragile local economy

● Colder in winter than the Costa del Sol and the Costa Blanca

What you can buy for ...

€100,000 A wide selection of one-bedroom flats in secondary locations on the coast

€1m A three-bedroom, two-bathroom detached house at PGA Catalunya


● PGA Catalunya Resort:

● Finques Frigola estate agency:

● Corcoll-Mora estate agency:

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