Retire to an Affordable, European lifestyle in Sun-kissed Spain
By Marsha Scarbrough
Spain promises expats sunny weather, European sophistication, and first-world infrastructure at an affordable price. Although Mediterranean resorts are a popular choice, Spain’s diverse geography and climate offer many options from seaside living to mountain retreats to pastoral farms to exciting, culture-packed cities.
The largest country in Southern Europe, with a population of over 46 million and an area over 195,000 square miles, Spain has less population density than most Western European countries as well as a stable democratic government, secure banking system, dependable infrastructure, and colorful culture. However, Spain’s friendly, helpful, and life-loving people are its most seductive asset. Although speaking Spanish makes life easier, most Spaniards speak some English and are delighted to practice. You can easily get by with only English, and since most expats in Spain are from the UK or Germany, North Americans have the advantage of being a bit exotic.
Climate in Spain
Although Spain is generally sunny, it is actually the most climatically varied country in Europe. For hot summers and mild winters settle along the southern Mediterranean coast or inland in Andalusia including Malaga, Seville, Cordova, and Valencia. The strip from Malaga to Granada has the warmest winters in Europe. Hot desert and semi-arid climates can be found in the south at Almeria, Alicante, and Murcia. Barcelona and north-eastern Spain feature a humid sub-tropical climate. Madrid and the cities of the central plateau have hot summers (often over 95 F) and colder winters, when temperatures may occasionally drop below freezing. Higher altitudes have a greater the chance of moderate snow. The rainy climate of Spain’s north Atlantic coast is similar to that of Washington and Oregon earning it the nickname “Green Spain”. The major mountain ranges, Picos de Europa, Pyrenees, and Sierra Nevada, have an Alpine climate.
Cost of Living in Spain
International Living’s 2019 Global Retirement Index found that Spain has the second lowest cost of living in Europe (Portugal is slightly lower). Of course, the cost of living varies by location and lifestyle. Barcelona and Madrid are the most expensive cities. Prices are also high in San Sebastian, the north coast of Catalonia, and the Balearic Islands. Malaga, Alicante, and the Canary Islands are among the most affordable areas. Valencia, Granada, and Seville fall in the mid-range.
Food prices are reasonable. Spain’s warm climate means lots of locally-grown fruits and vegetables are available. Olive oil and wine are plentiful and inexpensive. Near the coasts, seafood is fresh and affordably priced. $100 a week would provide ample groceries for a healthy Mediterranean diet.
Utilities (electricity and water) can range from $70 to $200 or more each month depending on climate and square footage (using air conditioning during the summer heat can push these costs up). Mobile phone plans run from $17 to $40. Wi-Fi and internet packages are about $14 to $40. Mobile/internet bundles range from about $34 to $85. Higher-priced plans offer customer service in English. Fiber optic broadband is widely available.
Owning a car is optional, and living without one results in significant savings. Gasoline is expensive at $1.50 per liter ($6 per gallon). Parking is impossible and pricey in cities. Public transportation is cheap, comfortable, and efficient. A senior resident of Madrid pays less than $14 a month for unlimited metro and bus rides. Taxis, Uber, and a Spanish app called Cabify all offer rides at reasonable prices.
Infrastructure in Spain
Tap water is drinkable all over Spain, although the flavor varies. Madrid takes pride in its especially clean and delicious water. Water is heated in first-world-style water heaters, often the tankless, on-demand type. Roads are paved and well-maintained. Bridges are modern and well-built. Major cities boast clean, efficient underground metros and extensive bus systems. The glitzy department store, El Corte Ingles, is ubiquitous. Huge supermarkets, like Mercadona, Aldi, and Carrefour, offer a wide variety of groceries and household goods. Gyms, yoga, CrossFit, Pilates, Zumba, boxing, and other fitness options are readily available.
Healthcare in Spain
The Spanish constitution requires the state to provide healthcare, so the system is extensive. In theory, you are never more than 15 minutes away from a hospital or heath center in Spain, where there are four doctors for every 1,000 people. Spain’s healthcare system was ranked the eighth best in the world by The Healthcare Access and Quality Index (HAQ) of the British medical journal The Lancet in 2017. The U.S. fell in 35th place in the same ranking. Since then Spain has stayed in the top 10 healthcare systems of the world. International Living’s 2019 Global Retirement Index gave Spain’s healthcare system 85 points out of a possible 100. In terms of worldwide life expectancy, Spain ranks 15th at 81.92 years, just after Canada which is 11th at 82.11 years. USA ranks 53rd at 79.38 years.
Spain has both public and private healthcare systems. In the public system, free basic healthcare is provided to those who contribute to the Spanish social security system and their families. Whether expats can use the public healthcare system depends on their type of residency visa. The non-lucrative (retirement) visa requires that applicants acquire a private healthcare policy. Providers include Sanitas, Cigna, Aetna, and others. Spain is the global leader in organ donation, carrying out more transplants per capita than any other nation in the world.
Quality of Life in Spain
Spain is a safe place to live. Crime rates are low, and you can walk the streets without worry any time of the day or night.
Good food and wine are high priorities in Spain. Besides fresh fruits and vegetables, the Mediterranean diet features lots of seafood, local cheeses, and the beloved jamon. Wine and beer are served at lunch and dinner. Socializing with friends and family takes precedence over work and sleep.
Along with these values comes a joie de vivre that is expressed in crowded bars and cafes as well as a calendar filled with fiestas. Spain likes to party, stay up late at night, and sleep in. Shops open at 10 a.m., lunch is at 2 p.m., and dinner starts at 9 p.m. or later. Siesta after lunch is common. Nightlife is exuberant.
Because Spain was not bombed in World War II, many of its historic buildings remain intact. Its castles, Moorish palaces, cathedrals, and Modernist architecture assure that cultural richness is ever-present.
Travel Connectivity in Spain
Spain is a hub of flight routes to the Americas, Africa, and the rest of Europe. Madrid’s Barajas International Airport, in the middle of the country, is the center of this air transportation network.
Spain’s extensive railway system, which links to France and Portugal, also radiates from Madrid. The pride of Spanish rail transport is the high-speed AVE, which travels at up to 193 miles per hour. AVE stands for Alta Velocidad Española but is also a play on words since “ave” means “bird.” By AVE from Madrid, Barcelona, Malaga, Seville, Cordoba, and Valencia are more or less two hours away in air-conditioned comfort. Conventional trains connect all the other corners of the country. For residents and tourists over 60, Spain offers a “gold card” which offers significant discounts for weekday train travel for a fee of €6 ($6.72) per year.
Several bus companies also provide transport all over Spain with connections to other European countries at reasonable prices. Alsa is the company with the most extensive network.
Cost of Real Estate in Spain
Since the average price of property in Spain is 36% lower than before the financial crisis of 2006, investing in Spanish property could be smart move. Prices across Spain rose 8% last year from $1,781 to $1,932 but still remain 24% lower than 2010, according to the real estate website idealista.com.
In January 2019, the Central Bank of Spain released statistics showing the expected return on residential real estate at 10.5% (capital gain 6.51% and gross rental yield 3.99%), the highest since 2008.
Luxury real estate agency Lucas Fox predicts these trends will continue during 2019 with highest demand in city centers and seaside second-homes. The overall outlook is positive with steady price growth in most regions.
The Best Places to Retire in Spain
The best place to retire in Spain depends on what you like and how you want to live. You may want to settle in an expat beach community on the Costa del Sol, or integrate into Spanish culture in a major city, or find bucolic isolation in the countryside.
The examples given here are for three-bedroom, two-bathroom homes in upper-middle class or historic neighborhoods. Bargains can be found on the outskirts or in working class neighborhoods. Expect higher prices close to the beach.
Costa del Sol – The southern Mediterranean coast of Andalusia province, including Malaga and Marbella, is a popular expat haven, especially with Europeans and Brits. English is widely spoken. Weather and terrain are similar to Southern California. Real estate prices range from $1,453,346 for a luxurious 1,572-square-foot apartment in Marbella’s old town to $503,128 for a 1,087-square-foot apartment in Malaga’s historic center with a parking place and community pool.
Costa del Almeria – From Adra to Murcia, a hot desert climate promises warm winters. This landscape served as movie locations for Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns and David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. Ecologically-significant and breathtakingly-beautiful Cabo de Gata-Níjar Natural Park is the driest place in Europe. In the seaside town of Mojacar, a 1,356-square-foot townhouse with an ocean view, private pool, and garage is listed at $223,632.
Costa Blanca – The Mediterranean coast between Alicante and Valencia includes the resorts of Benidorm and Denia. It boasts near-perfect weather with summer temperatures in the high 80 F and winter lows in the mid-40s F. Alicante is popular with Northern European expats. Valencia is the third largest city in Spain, with an extensive historic center and a spectacular arts and sciences complex designed by the modernist architect Calatrava. Both cities have urban beaches accessible by bus and tram. In Alicante’s traditional center, a 1,453-square-foot apartment is $363,423. In Valencia’s old city, a 1,259-square-foot apartment is listed at $245,983.
Orange Blossom Coast – Costa de Azahar runs from north of Valencia to south of Barcelona and features traditional Spanish villages and authentic Spanish beach resorts like Benicàssim with five miles of sandy beaches. In Benicàssim, a newly-constructed 1,184-square-foot apartment is listed at $173,297.
Costa Dorada – This “golden coast” immediately south of Barcelona offers sophisticated living and beautiful beaches in the towns of Castelldefels, Sitges, and Vilanova I la Geltru. In the heart of stylish Sitges, a 1,356-square-foot apartment with a terrace and a balcony is listed at $479,591.
Costa Brava – The wild Catalan coast stretches north from Barcelona to the French border. It’s starkly beautiful landscapes were immortalized in the paintings of its most famous resident, Salvador Dali. In Cadaques, near Dali’s home, a 1,141-square-foot penthouse with a garage and a terrace with ocean view is listed at $514,199.
Madrid – The sophisticated capital of the central plateau offers culture, amenities, and nightlife galore. In the Gaztambide area of upper-middle-class Chamberi, a tastefully-remodeled 969-square-foot apartment is listed at $553,325.
Barcelona – Known for the modernist architecture of Gaudi, this tourist mecca attracts international expats to its sunny seaport. In the hip Gracia neighborhood, a 1,130-square-foot apartment is listed at $557,763.
Granada – The romantic heart of Moorish Spain drips with culture, flamenco music, and fairy-tale ambience. Set against a backdrop of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, skiing and the Mediterranean coast are each a short drive away. In the historic Albaicín district near the Alhambra, a 1,572-square-foot house with a terrace and a parking place is listed at $290,599.
San Sebastian – The jewel of the Basque Country lies on the Bay of Biscay. It’s known for exquisite gastronomy, cool weather (high 70s F in summer/40s F in winter), an international film festival, and a golden crescent of a beach called “La Concha.” In trendy Gros, adjacent to Zurriola Beach, a 1,184-square-foot apartment with a terrace is listed for $521,919.
Bilbao – One million inhabitants of the biggest city in Green Spain surround the estuary of Bilbao. The iconic Bilbao Guggenheim Museum and other infrastructure investments have triggered ongoing social, economic, and aesthetic revitalization which transformed an industrial center into a vital metropolis. In the historic Casco Viejo, a 969-square-foot apartment with two balconies is listed at $257,070.
Galicia – The area north of Portugal offers cool, rainy weather, dramatic coastlines, and low real estate prices. In the Cuatro Caminos neighborhood of the city of La Coruna, a beautifully-renovated 1,216-square-foot apartment with a garage is listed at $310,719.
Asturias – Besides mild, rainy weather, northwestern Spain features a rugged coastline and the snow-capped peaks of Picos de Europa National Park. Near Oviedo’s San Francisco Park, a 1,206-square-foot apartment with a garage and storage room is listed at $324,074. In Barguero, 9.3 miles from Oviedo, a 861-square-foot stone country house with three bedrooms and one bathroom, in need of renovation, is listed at $43,596.