Since Sir Nicholas Stern’s climate change report started ringing alarm bells, many of us have been taking a closer look at the sustainability of our lives. Unfortunately, one of the most damaging activities can be second home buying.
This guide offers detailed advice about the steps you can take to ensure that your overseas property is environmentally and socially sustainable. And why sustainability is important for the long-term value of your home and hence your wallet.
The UK has tight regulations governing the environmental and social sustainability of its property market. In certain overseas destinations, developers take advantage of lax legislation and building controls. But even in the UK you must make decisions that effect the environment. Read on to find out.
It is sensible to be responsible. After the builder has upped and left, you might find yourself in possession of a property with problems. There are many aspects to a responsible purchase and they often involve taking a long-term view – structural, ethical, social and environmental. Here are four simple rules:
1. Get proper planning permission and do not purchase until your lawyer assures you that all the paperwork is in place. Overdevelopment can destroy an area and ultimately your investment. Tens of thousands of homes, most famously in Spain, have been built illegally in locations where sufficient infrastructure does not exist. This places unfair demand on local water supplies and sewerage plants, putting wildlife and local inhabitants in danger of pollution and drought. In some places like the Costa del Sol, planning permission has been granted under corrupt pretences – this is beyond your control but you should satisfy yourself that the development has been approved by an official acting in the best interests of the community. The incumbent town hall may have approved its construction but will future administrations continue to support your snazzy resort hogging the view and sapping the local water supply?
2. Enquire as to the green credentials of your development. And be wary of property developments that purport to be environmentally friendly when they have only made some token efforts. It will become obvious once you conduct your research. Arcos Gardens (www.arcosgardens.com), for example, a golf resort on Spain’s Costa de la Luz, has the backing of a construction firm from the US renowned for its environmentalism – furthermore, the Costa de la Luz is one area of Spain in which the regional government has tight control over new development. Another example is Alma Verde (www.almaverde.com), which employed the independent consultants Faber Maunsell to monitor its ‘coolhouse’ system, which uses a series of subterranean pipes.
3. Know what to look for. Environmental sustainability might include: a tree-replanting programme; low-density housing; water recycling; sewage treatment; irrigation systems; geothermal technology taking heat from the ground; solar photovoltaic (PV) panels; solar thermal collectors; wind turbines; combined heat and power units (CHP); rainwater harvesting; links to public transport; use of local building materials; preservation of natural habitats, wildlife, architecture, culture and heritage; employment of local workers.
4. Comply with local taxes and declare the full price of the property. Generally speaking the taxes are going to help improve the local infrastructure and benefit the country. During the buying process, some agents and developers will encourage you to pay in part with cash and under-declare the value of your home. They may tell you it is the ‘done thing’. But globally, the tax authorities are catching up with people and if the next buyer refuses to also under-declare, then your capital gains bill will be huge.
Backed by the WWF, One Planet Living aims to “bring sustainable living into the mainstream” with a number of global developments such as its flagship Mata de Sesimbra in Portugal (www.oneplanetliving.org). Across the Atlantic, Tridel builds award-winning sustainable condo apartments in Canada (www.tridel.com). In St Lucia, Marigot Bay (www.marigotbay.com) has been complimented for its eco-efforts by government inspectors. South Africa boasts Pezula Estate (www.pezula.com), which is a leading eco-resort. One of the most idyllic is Tui Creek, left, (www.premierresorts.co.uk) in New Zealand, where you own part of an operational farm. There are many more new developments than are mentioned here – and remember, buying an old house is often more efficient.
Renovating an old property is a great way to breathe new life into a local community. It can inject cash into local trades, products and services. And it uses “brownfield” land rather than a previously untouched fields. By building your own property you are in a good position to install features that will improve its energy efficiency. While these may cost a premium at the outset, over time you will reap the benefits from reduced electricity and fuel bills. Here are ten suggestions:
1. Ask your builder to double or triple the insulation in your home. And get double-glazing.
2. Make sure your boiler is the right size for you home – it’s wasteful to drive a Mini with a Ferrari engine.
3. Channel grey water from the shower and toilet upstairs to flush the downstairs toilet.
4. Re-use the best materials from the house that you are renovating and do not build with rainforest timbers.
5. Avoid large single-glazed windows on north-facing sides, heated conservatories or garages, gas patio heaters, heated outdoor swimming pools, incandescent light bulbs and tumble dryers.
6. Consider ground-source heat pumps, solar panels (for generating hot water) and photovoltaic panels (for generating electricity) – B&Q now has a range. Install A-rated white goods.
7. However, rather than investing in lots of great new gadgets, the most effective energy-saving measures can be implemented at the design stage. A good architect will make use of the sun by correctly orientating the walls and roof, installing the optimum number and size of windows, choosing the right building materials, utilising natural drafts, and configuring rooms to create different temperature zones.
8. Beware contradictions. It may seem eco-friendly to use local rock than plastic – but not if the rock needs to be quarried and transported, whereas the PVC is already lying in the back yard.
9. Most importantly, use a energy efficient heating system. Consider installing a condensing boiler if you use a gas fire. Open fires are considered wasteful, while wood-burning stoves, Rayburns, Agas and kitchen ranges are thought to be relatively efficient. Buy green electricity. In Europe www.greenprices.com can advise on green electricity providers.
10. Live like a granny – recycle and be economical. Boast about your achievements to inspire others.
There is no shortage of expert companies based in the UK eager to assist: Richard Hywel Evans (www.rhe.uk.com), Bree Day Partnership (www.architech.co.uk), Whitby Bird (www.whitbybird.com), Element Energy (www.element-energy.co.uk), BioRegional (www.bioregional.com) and Carbon Neutral (www.carbonneutral.com) are four of the most experienced
Right. But many governments offer renewable energy grants for the domestic installation of insulation, solar panels and wind turbines. And going green saves money on utility bills. And the hardware needed to go green should get cheaper as demand increases. Demand is certainly increasing: big names such as Al Gore are leading the way; big housebuilders such as Barratt Homes are heeding their advice; and big countries such as China have plans such as its £1-billion self-sustaining zero-polluting eco-city. Besides, cheap products and materials tend to be false economy – quality, durability and sustainability come under the same umbrella. And more broadly speaking, one-third of the world’s carbon emissions come from our homes so investing in measures to help out planet cannot be a bad thing.
From the family that starred in the BBC television series It’s Not Easy Being Green comes www.itsnoteasybeinggreen.org – it has a green forum for all your questions and a great links page to further green quest. Donnachadh McCarthy, author of Saving the Planet Without Costing the Earth has a website – www.3acorns.co.uk – and he also offers a environmental auditing service for individuals and businesses. Elsewhere www.theyellowhouse.org.uk is a highly comprehensive resource with reams of advice, recommendations and useful links.
In terms of the ozone layer, the closer the better. One of the most obvious problems with overseas property ownership is the increased airline traffic it necessitates – and the harmful pollution it in turn creates. There is no easy solution to this problem. Try to use the property yourself for infrequent long breaks rather than frequent short breaks. Consider flying Virgin because of its recent commitment to biofuel research. And offset your carbon emissions at www.carbonneutral.com or www.climatecare.org. If the cost of fuel continues to rise and airline fuel becomes taxable, locations accessible by land and sea such as France and Belgium will become more popular with Brits – buy there now while the going is good.
Try to rent your property to locals. It is good to tap into the local rental market in any case because it opens up opportunities for long-term rental. The local market offers a potentially large rental pool and it may help your integration with the local community.
You want your property to be socially sustainable. In other words, if you have brought economic or other benefit to an area there is less likelihood of you being shunned or new foreign taxes being introduced or land being reclaimed. The area will become a more welcoming place to live and selling the property will prove easier. Discussing social sustainability, James Kellow, whose company A Life Extraordinary is marketing Belize eco-lodges to the UK market, says: “Gated-communities can bring about resentment. Also, over-development has created ghost towns in parts of Spain and Florida when they have been deserted by the travel and tourism industries.”
The driving up of property brings wealth to those who already own property but hinders others from getting on the ladder, and it seems unfair to latter. But property is only one element in an economy, and if a local government is against foreign ownership they will impose restrictions. Within the EU, one of the guiding principles is the free movement of labour and capital. Eddy Crompton, of RealPointItaly.com makes this point: "Overall benefits outweigh the disadvantages. Once-dying communities are coming back to life, new initiatives are constantly being proposed and the villages are being repopulated."
Maybe. But the economic and social benefits brought to an area can outweigh the harm caused. Environmentalism and sustainability is fraught with complexities. Certain types of overseas property ownership are harmful to the planet. Others are beneficial. The main thing is that people are thinking about and addressing the issues.
All circumstances vary. BuyAssociation provides general advice for guidance purposes only. It is strongly recommended that you seek professional advice before making any purchase.
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