My name is Derek Harper, I am originally from Scotland and now live in Central Portugal with my girlfriend. We never set off to move to Portugal it just sort of happened, you know the way these things do.
Way back in 2002, New Year’s eve to be exact, my girlfriend Nicky Carter and I were having a conversation over a few drinks about the coming new year and our future plans. This conversation eventually got round to talk about places we would like to visit for our holidays in the coming year, we generally tried to fit in a couple of last minute holidays each year even though we both had busy work lives. I was an After Sales Manager at a multi-franchise dealership in the North of England, Nicky ran her own Marketing and PR company, working mostly within the motor-sport industry.We loved to travel and visit far off places when time allowed but over the last few years we seemed to have less and less time to travel. This led us to start talking about the possibility of packing it all in and going off travelling, maybe for a year or so, maybe even longer. It seemed possible, we had no children, no mortgage no reason not to do it. The more we talked about it the more it made sense. We would simply sell our properties, close down Nicky’s company. I would resign from my job and off we would go, a nice early retirement.
A short few months later we found ourselves on our travels. We spent the first year travelling around Europe and North Africa, visiting 19 countries in the first 12 months visiting some fantastic places and meeting some great people. The second year of travelling we were more relaxed and decided to slow down a little, travel a bit less visiting only nine countries. Travelling back to the UK on only two occasions for family weddings during this whole period.
During this time we started to think about maybe buying a place in Europe as a sort of base while we travelled. We talked about buying an old farmhouse to restore over a period of time.It would give us a base and something to do if we got tired of travelling. We outlined a few countries which were our favourites, places we kept revisiting from time to time, among these were the Czech Republic, northern Italy, Portugal and parts of France. We decided to look at property in these countries, and eventually, after much research we decided Portugal was where we would buy.
We spent several months touring all over Portugal from the Algarve to the very North looking for a suitable place to live. We had a healthy budget courtesy of the UK house price boom. We could have bought a nice finished house but we figured if we have the time why not build a house or restore a house ourselves rather than just buy one already done by someone else.
Our search eventually brought us to the region of Central Portugal called the Ribetejo. A region with lakes, rivers, mountains, forests and lots of historic villages and towns and we fell in love with the region. The area around the southern part of the Castelo do Bode lake, we especially liked where the small village of Martinchel is situated. Located adjacent to the lake, properties were and are very popular for Lisbonites to have a second home by the lake, and the prices reflected this. Some lakeside properties in and around Martinchel were over one million euros. We knew that to have a nice house here we would have to build it.
We started trying to find a suitable property or piece of land in or near the village. We spoke to locals in the cafe, the guy who owned the garage, the baker and even the postman as well as looking in estate agents offices in both nearby Abrantes and Tomar during our search. We were not having much luck, although we were meeting lots of locals. There were no other expats here in our region at the time.
As luck would have it one of the agents we had spoken to gave us a call to say that a farmhouse was coming on the market just outside the village. It had two cottages and six other buildings and sat on top of a hill with lovely views. What the estate agent didn’t mention was the houses had been destroyed in a fire 20 years ago and had laid derelect since.
Although we had visited Portugal several times during our travels, our command of the language was basic. Okay if we wanted a coffee or a beer, but when it came to haggling with an 87 year old Portuguese lady over the value of her father’s ancestral home, was a different matter. Eventually over a three day period we managed to agree a price we were all happy with.
I think we learned more Portuguese in those three days than we did in the following three months!
The actual buying of the property was fairly straightforward, although none of the paperwork for the house was up to date or in order. The property also came with a huge piece of land we didn’t want, so we had to arrange for this land, making up half the valley below to be disacthed from the deeds for the house. This did take a little time and we had to visit the local council many times. We also chose not to employ a lawyer to help with any of this, not for any money saving reasons as a Lawyer only charges around 500 euros for this work (as of 2007). Our thinking was if we were here and we have time on our hands why not learn what to do and handle the purchase ourselves. We would read up on what was involved and do the required checks and procedures with the council ourselves.
It was a steep learning curve and with hindsight may well have been easier employing a Lawyer or at the very least someone who could speak Portuguese to help translate for us. Eventually we completed on the purchase and the property was ours. Though now we had to learn how to design a house and get planning permission and then build it.
The planning process in Portugal is very time consuming, it can take anything up to one year to get the planning approval from the council. Our planning permission took 14 months to come through, held up by various complications to do with us being near the lake and the property being involved in a fire. During the period of time it took us to design the house and wait for the plans to be approved, we had lots of visitors though to keep us busy.
Friends and family from the UK as well as friends we had met on our travels came to visit us from around Europe. Some of these visitors also fell in love with the region we were living in and asked for our help in finding a house or a renovation project for them. As we were waiting for our planining approval and had time on our hands we happily agreed to keep an eye out for suitable properties for them.
We had no intention of working here in Portugal as our idea was to have a sort of early retirement, rebuild a house and have a base to use while we continued travelling. We really enjoying looking at properties for our friends and speaking with the local estate agents and builders. Afterall we did have plenty of time while we waited for the Portuguese bureacratic cogs to turn and our planning application to be passed.
We succesfully helped family members find and buy holiday property here through local agents. Then we started getting people we didn’t know call us up or email us and ask for help and advice. They had been given our contact details by friends of friends. We gladly offered help and advice where we could. People were constantly telling us that they could not find up to date information on the web and some of the books about buying in Portugal seemed to be out of date or not correct. Then Nicky thought it would be a good idea to build an information website, where we could share everything we had learned about buying property and the planning process here in Portugal. That way people could look at the website and get lots of free information, from people who had actually gone through the process.
In 2006 she published the Gekkoportugal website /www.gekkoportugal.com/ and on launch it contained several hundred pages of information on our region and in depth guides about living and moving to Portugal. As soon as the website went live we started getting emails and phone calls from people all around the world looking for information and asking us questions about Portugal. We regularly got calls from people buying property on the Algarve, worried about their purchase, checking if what the developer had told them was right etc. we spoke with many people and heard some frightening stories where people had had problems and things were going horribly wrong for them. People were losing money, getting shoddy work done, generally not being treated correctly by some agents, builders, architects and even Lawyers. We did help resolve a few problems for people and gave unbiased information and advice to countless others.
Around this time a friend of ours, Claudia Silva, who had been an estate agent in Tomar for about nine years, and who had been helping us answer peoples’ questions about property law and solve problems they were experiencing, sold her company. We were all talking one day about some of the contacts we had received from people who were experiencing major problems with agents and how we could help them and the idea we came up with was we should form a new estate agent company and offer a good honest service. Something by all reports people were struggling to find. At first Nicky and I didn’t really like the idea.
It’s one thing to offer a bit of free impartial advice, quite another to start a company and work full time. We hadn’t after all come to Portugal to do that. Had we intended to continue working we could have stayed in the UK.
After a few weeks of talking it over and some encouragement from friends we decided we would form a new company. The estate agency would be called Chavetejo and the offices would be based in Tomar.
Setting up a company here is quite straight forward and we had no problems finding suitable offices and staff. Although the estate agency business was new to Nicky and I, our previous working experiences along with what we had researched and learned here in Portugal about property meant it was fairly simple to get the business up and running and we opened for business in July 2007.
The business went well and was quickly quite successful. At one point we had 12 people working for our new company, mostly Portuguese locals, but we even managed to offer a few expats full time employment. We were selling and renting property to locals and expats alike. Our way of doing business: offering straight forward advice, honesty and only marketing properties which have all the paperwork correct and legal, priced correctly, has earned the company a great reputation. Unfortunately we still reject around 15% of what we are asked to sell simply because some owners think their property is worth more than our valuation