France versus Spain - where to buy?

Compare and choose

If you look at a list of the world's top tourist destinations, France and Spain are two of the top three. 82.6 million tourists headed for France in 2016, and 75.6 million plumped for Spain - only the USA and China can compete, and they are much, much bigger countries.

So it's not surprising that purchasers of holiday homes also head for these two countries. But that raises the big question of which to choose. For some, who have links to one country, or have spent time there and fallen in love, the answer will be obvious; but if it isn't, you may need to do some hard thinking before you decide.

1. Climate

France is further north, Spain is further south, so it must be hotter - right?

It's not quite that easy. For instance Galicia, in north-west Spain, has a rainy, lush climate, while the Mediterranean coast of France heats up very nicely in summer. But generally, if you want greenery and moderate summers, France will tick your boxes; if you're happier getting nicely roasted, southern Spain is the place to go. Spain is also, on balance, drier than France - not great news for gardeners.

2. Landscape

Most Spanish buyers head for the south coast, but inland, Andalusia offers dramatic gorges and the peaks of the Sierra Nevada. To the east, you could opt for the Costa Brava, Costa Blanca, or Costa Daurada, but you could also head inland to orange groves, valley oases shaded by palm trees, or forest-covered mountains. While you may not think of snow and Spain as belonging together, there are some good ski resorts in the Pyrenees - and they're quite a bit cheaper than those in France.

In France, there's a huge variety of landscapes, from the dreamy Celtic granite and forests of Brittany to the extensive vineyards of Burgundy or Bordeaux. The Massif Central has several different flavours of mountain for buyers who feel the call of the wild, while Provence and the Dordogne offer charming hills and valleys. Lovers of mountains and winter sports will want to head for the Alps or the Pyrenees.

On landscape points, the two countries are level-pegging - but you may need to look harder in Spain as so much development has concentrated on the coast.

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3. Property prices and markets

Both countries have a wide range of property available from multi-million villas in the most fashionable resorts to rural properties from EUR 50,000 (or even less).

However, the two property markets have behaved in very different ways. After the credit crunch in 2008, the Spanish market crumbled; prices fell more than 30%, and Spanish banks still hold a large portfolio of foreclosed properties. In areas that are focused on foreign property ownership, such as the Andalusian coast, the resale market practically stopped functioning. However, since 2016, the real estate market recovered and prices are raising again.

In France, on the other hand, while prices fell more than 10% after the crunch, they recovered within another three years, and the same is true of new home sales. Even in areas with a lot of foreign owners, the French market is more broadly based and less vulnerable to external shocks, which makes France perhaps a safer bet for investors.

4. The purchase process

Neither France nor Spain have restrictions on foreigners buying property. Both operate notary-based systems.

However, the French system appears more robust and to give purchasers slightly more protection than the Spanish. In Spain, debts transfer with a property, so that if you buy a house with a mortgage secured on it and the buyer doesn't settle the full mortgage, you'll be liable for paying it. There have also been problems with illegal properties built without planning permission, or with an illegally secured permit.

The costs of purchase in both cases are quite high, amounting to 8-10% of the value of the property and even up to 14% (depending on whether it's new or resale, and on the size of the transaction).

So make sure to get professional services and good advices.

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5. Expat community / services

Both France and Spain have areas where there are strong expat communities and many businesses serving them, such as the Dordogne, Limousin, Provence, Malaga, Murcia, and the Balearic Islands. This is particularly the case for anglophones, Germans and Russians, while Barcelona is becoming quite a sought-after destination for Chinese investors. If you're moving to a remote area of the country, though, you may be on your own - this can even apply within a hundred kilometres of the capital if you're not in a touristic area.

6. Residence and citizenship

EU citizens have the right to reside, work, and study in both France and Spain. Non-EU citizens who don't intend to work, and have enough funds to be self-supporting, can apply for a long stay visa and residence permit in either country. However, while French bureaucrats are often infuriating to deal with, the Spanish application process is incredibly frustrating.

If you want eventually to apply for citizenship, France is definitely the better option. Not only can you apply after five years of residence, while Spain demands ten, but you're also allowed to keep your existing nationality - Spain (with limited exceptions) doesn't allow dual citizenship.

7. Football

Sorry, but France wins this one hands down. On est champions! Allez les Bleus!