Category Archives: Houses


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I meant to post ‘one year on’ pictures eight months ago, but didn’t.  It turns out it’s time-consuming, this farming, bricklaying, basic rural living stuff, especially when funded in part by time-consuming journalism, and you have a social life, and an alternating real deep need to sit around with a glass of wine and a book. So these – finally – are vintage shots of a very unfinished restoration job as it was in June 2015. Yes, relax friends: we do now have a toilet, and the black sackcloth spiderwebs are mostly down.
The other reason for putting it off is that I couldn’t find anything that conveyed the sweat, tears, hours, injury, blasphemy and sacks of cash shoved into the house hole. Nothing with a VOILA! Changing Rooms reveal.
Looking at the pictures – much like looking at the wall, or the ceiling, or the paving, or the drainpipe, or the garage which could be a bedroom, or the kitchen (medieval) and the actual farm in its entirety has me hyperventilating, and reaching simultaneously for a brown paper bag and the To Do ledger. I look at the bathroom, fashioned out of a derelict shed stuffed full of partridges, and all I think is that the shower glass needs cleaning (which of course it does).

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The farm is one of five carved out for the sons of a local landowner a hundred or so years ago. No-one remembers what its name is, or when it was last lived in, although it has most recently been used for storing partridges, and as an easy-come, easy-go roost for swallows and house martins (and much more). The long barn with its elaborate tiled floor was used for hay; and the great fireplace played its bit in the annual matanza – or pig killing, the highlight of the farming year.
At least the walls and roof are sound, and it has plenty of water in its own well. There are many decaying Andalucian farmhouses and cortijos in the fields around here, and they’ll never be replaced. Growing olives and raising goats keeps things ticking over, but don’t cover the cost of major structural repairs. Some people stay put and let the place crumble around them; more – as happened here, many decades ago – retreat to the nearest village, get the benefit of heating and a social life, and use the old farmhouse for storing tractors, camping out in the summer, or cooking lunch (as demonstrated above by Fernando’s cousin, Fernando, who I found rustling up a revuelto of eggs and the wild thistle).
I don’t want to change it’s thick-walled central core as much as clean it, add a bathroom, turn the second floor grain store into a bedroom, rewire. The kitchen’s a bit basic. It involves a lot of complicated decisions, but mainly, right now mucking out so we can move in at the end of the month. So it is that my days are spent at the desk editing a major hotel project, and every evening until the light fades, in a mask and rubber gloves removing dark webs as thick as tweed, carrying buckets of water from the outdoor tap, and scrubbing walls and floors with fizzing Salfumant agua fuerte. Turns out there’s an old red tiled floor underneath the packed mud. Every evening ends with a wash and manzanilla at the venta. Lucky them.

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Tense Negotiations

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The farm was 40% over the absolute maximum budget pencilled in for the perfect property requiring zero work but, as Manolo said, what was the harm in meeting the owners again, so we rolled up to negotiate.  I told everyone I loved the place, thought the price was very reasonable, agreed there was a lot of land, commiserated with the three brothers for having to sell, took a picture of some yellow flowers, and then went off to look for the puppy.

More people were milling about than I’d imagined, most of them owners of a sort, and the animals were distracting. The darker donkey got my notes which I’d left on the car seat between its teeth. I like notes. I’m actually a REALLY GOOD negotiator with notes – negotiating access to panda breeding labs in China and the FARC in Colombia, and being a stickler in big media acquisitions – but everyone has to SIT DOWN and TAKE TURNS. There was the sound of trailing exhaust pipes and chassis being dragged over rocks as more cars summited the track, and more people arrived to join in the discussion – or various discussions. With more dogs – mainly dobermans. As it got dark we moved inside and nine people talked at once over the barking, and birds (I think they were birds) crossed back and forth.

Dave, whose Spanish is rudimentary, was gazing dreamily out of the window, (bikes, probably) and oblivious to the fact the conversation had finally shifted from asparagus to business, making it difficult to confer.  The vaguest chance that we could make a deal was floating off on a wispy cloud of yada yada, and it was pretty much all my fault, coming at it a) with very small amounts of money, and b) like a dippy loser in a rom-com.  And I really wanted the farm. Yes . . . a ramshackle, ancient place with no kitchen and dubious electrics . . . I’d die without it. I shot my hand up. What about staggered payments spread over a year, a vastly reduced price but still higher than we’re comfortable with in return for the brothers fixing the collapsing road bridge and turning the room that’s currently full of partridges into a bathroom? It was a yes. We agreed a moving in date (May 2nd), and all kissed each other as I wondered exactly what I’d done there.

‘How did that go?’ said Dave as we got back in the car.


Bring the Money Now



Dring-dring, Dring-dring . . . or the digital equivalent . . . ‘The house is yours. You can buy it. But you have to come fast to the office now. . . RIGHT NOW’ and the agent, or I presume it was the agent, hangs up. I’m still studying my phone when she rings back: ‘And bring the money’. Or the Spanish equivalent.

Unfortunately I was in the middle of a feature on Google Glass and neurodata. But the next day the house was miraculously still available. What’s more we had the opportunity to see inside it, which seemed like a wise idea  – not upstairs, because there are no stairs anymore. It was a bit of a mess. Cosmetic, apparently. Presumably the previous buyer had taken a look inside and backed out – literally – but they hadn’t shown up with the deposit, hence the house was up for grabs again. The views are spectacular, at least. Herded along, still slightly ambivalent, we  paid a small wad of euros to Unicaja, the bank that owns it in order to take the property off the market while we checked the paperwork, got Manolo – a builder on the side – to give it a once over, appointed a lawyer, set up a foreign exchange account, guessed the costs of putting in new doors, windows, and a kitchen, and decided whether we really, really, wanted this displaced Greek fisherman’s cottage, given that it’s smaller than we need, has no garden, and is in the wrong place. Our furniture and possessions have been in boxes now for 18 months, and I really want my books. So on balance we thought we did.

The day after giving the bank a yes, a message arrived from Molino via Manolo to say the owners of the Perfect Farm would be open to discussing an offer.

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But Lo . . . The Perfect Farm

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Ah yes, he giveth and he taketh away. Shortly after discovering the house in Montejaque that I hadn’t really wanted had been sold, I began thinking of nothing else, berating myself for the lengthy whiteboard sessions in which I weighed up the pros and cons in different colour pens when I should have just headed into Ronda and slapped a wad of cash down on the desk. I imagined a life in Montejaque – freshly squeezed orange juice on the terrace, a little sketching, retiling wearing a turban – that I wasn’t going to have.
Anyway, then I had a call from Manolo saying there was a farm for sale, not too far away: small, habitable, with papers and electricity, and cheap. We went over the mountain and down a bumpy track to see it, and it was perfect: a ramshackle gem. If we bought it, said the farmer, he’d throw in a puppy. Ah well . . . that’s a yes!
And close to Zahara? That’s another yes.
Habitable (sort of)? Yes again.
Very cheap chorused Manolo and Molina, naming a price that was €50,000 over what we could possibly scrape together, neither journalism nor the music industry being what they once were.
We took some pictures of donkeys, climbed back into the Manolo-bile and bumped all the way back in silence.

A Quite Interesting House

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Many months ago a German drew level with us on the mountain road out of a nearby village, Montejaque – quite a feat. He kept up for several bends, and seemed to be saying something so eventually I wound down the window. Turns out one of our rear wheels was coming off. This was the start of a long, ongoing, car care program at Jose Miguel’s workshop on one of the village’s upper streets. The various jobs – adjusting the headlights to point right, not left, scraping off rust, making it go – have an interval for lunch, and, during one, Dave ambled to the far end of a dead end lane leading up from the main square and then dropping down and, on the final crag, spotted a house with a Se Vende sign.
He came back very animated, and so I went with him to take a look from the outside. It looks almost Greek with its Aegean blue doors and windows, and stands on a rocky base looking out over the valley. Immediately below the terrace there are prickly pears, a small-holding and a braying donkey, and above it, a rocky hill. The fig beams of the terrace had rotted, as had one of the doors, but it still looked interesting and ergo, unaffordable.
We called the agent in Ronda who told us it was a bank repossession, being sold for €35,000, which was confusing news. A bank repossession, a house that someone else had lost? But €35,000? A village house . . . but on its own facing nothing but national parkland? Montejaque . . . but near Zahara. Smallish . . . but big enough.
I listed the factors for and against on my whiteboard and got on with other stuff. The idea of a house, any house, even the wrong house in the long term took root, and so with a mix of relief and resignation we toasted our decision, planned where we’d put the furniture, and decided to stick with a blue, but maybe go for a more Nordic, cooler shade, and called the agent to arrange a viewing.
‘Sorry,’ she said, ‘It’s sold.’

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