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By Graham Norwood

Editor, EAT and LAT

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Will flight-shaming kill the overseas holiday home?

There used to be a consolation for some estate agents at this time of year - while it was wintry and quiet in Britain, they could always try to sell homes in Spain, France or Italy.

It seems a world away now but before the 2008 credit crunch, selling homes overseas was not a rarity confined just to the posh Savills of this world; local agents would have deals to act as outlets for homes on large schemes, typically on the Costas.

There were companies who bought bargain basement new homes, typically in heavily over-supplied areas of Spain, encouraging Britons to go on four-day inspection trips and line up the little white-painted two-bedroom number that they fancied. 

At this time of year, the attraction of four very cheap days in Torrevieja would be pretty high, despite the trials of budget airline flights and organised visits to tourist-trap bars: it wasn’t difficult to get 80 to 100 to go on each trip, with many signing up as a result.

Some of those companies still exist, and a few trips still occur, but these days the sales of such properties are typically handled direct by the companies, bypassing agents, except for the higher-end ski and architect-designed overseas homes with big price tags.

And several agents have told me that the volume of sales of small homes overseas has hit rock-bottom, thanks to a variety of factors.

Firstly, there’s the exchange rate; homes in Europe are up to 20 per cent dearer now than just three and a half years ago thanks to the sliding pound; secondly it is now extremely difficult to get a mortgage on an overseas property, at least in those areas where the risks of over-supply and poor build quality are high (yes, Spain, we’re talking about you); and thirdly, Brexit uncertainty has understandably gripped this niche sector of house sales.

All the while, the high-value agencies like Chestertons and Knight Frank maintained their international departments although it’s fair to say that they, too, have been up against it.

Some admit that global warming and a general falling-out-of-love with skiing has meant they have had to work harder than before to shift those Alpine lodges that look like cuckoo clocks; interest in golf is declining and with it sales of those homes on the Algarve; volatile politics in places like South Africa have hit the appeal of new markets; and chronic over-supply of homes in the emerging locations of the early 2000s (Bulgaria was the highest profile) have killed sales to Brits almost stone dead.

But while France, Spain and Italy have remained politically stable (well, fairly) and continue to be Britons’ favourite holiday destinations, I wonder whether the overseas homes sector for these locations will suffer again from the latest obstacle - flight-shaming.

For the uninitiated, flight-shaming is the act of environmentally-conscious individuals turning up their noses at people who…well, fly regularly. If you don’t know about it and you are in your 50s or older, try asking your children - they will probably show you to your face.

Flight-shaming is not common, yet, but is on its way to becoming a genuine debate: do we all fly too much and should we become at least a little embarrassed at flying at all given the accelerating pace of global warming?

Greta Thunberg has raised the issue more in a few months than eco-activists had achieved in a decade. Extinction Rebellion - despite its ability to be annoying and inconvenient to the very people it claims to want to win over - is also raising global consciousness.

Meanwhile Bloomberg has just written an article on how overnight sleeper trains are returning to popularity on mainland Europe because increasing numbers want to go between major cities by rail rather than fly. And from April 2020 there will be three Eurostar rail services daily direct between London and Amsterdam, again because of growing demand.

Against all that, what is the chance of any growth in the number of Britons who are going to buy a home in the south of Spain, rural France or out-of-the-way Italy?

Of course, in theory you can get trains to these places, but realistically this is not an option for any but those with vast amounts of spare time. And, of course, the wealthier buyers will still fly, just as they can buy their way through problems like the poor exchange rate.

But with increased taxes on ‘additional homes’ and a puritanical mood music descending on the world, are holiday properties generally falling out of favour? Are they becoming practically more awkward and morally less acceptable, especially if travelling to and from those properties leaves one open to criticism on environmental grounds?

Times are changing: we are all becoming more responsible…but it’s likely to be less fun.

*Editor of Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today, Graham can be found tweeting about all things property at @PropertyJourn

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