My husband and I spent years ogling real estate online, imagining ourselves living in rural northern Spain, before finally making the leap.
He’s a Madrileño who had left his heart in his country’s northern provinces before moving to the United States.
I’m the American Hispanophile he met and married there.
Together, we dreamt of a Spanish country house with a small farm, hugging the mountains and the beach if possible.
Looking at the prices, it wasn’t a financial stretch. We made our dreams come true a couple years back, but here is what we learned along the way about affordable properties in northern Spain.
Cheap rural properties in Spain can be divided into a few general categories.
There are traditional casas del pueblo (townhouses) tucked wall-to-wall along the narrow streets of quaint villages, and there are farms separated from towns that may include a chunk of forest and a spring.
There are century-old homes that have made it through time in varying levels of livability, cabins high in the mountains, and suburban-style single family homes with big yards built along country highways in the 1970s or ’80s (the Spanish call these chalets).
In Galicia, you can pick up an entire village in an isolated valley where utilities were never installed for the price of a down-payment on a house in the U.S., but the farther east you go the more expensive real estate gets.
Of course the general rules of North American real estate apply in Spain, too: The farther away from places of economic or touristic significance, the cheaper the property. But it’s precisely in these places in between where you can find the opportunity to build a small rural paradise for as little as $100,000.
Living in these out-of-the-way places does require something of a spirit of adventure and a sincere love of being removed from almost everything truly urban. We discovered this when we took our search offline one summer and spent a week exploring properties in northeast Asturias, a province in the middle of Spain’s northern coast known for its virgin beaches and the Picos de Europa National Park.
On the first morning, we were following the real estate agent along the road that leads over the mountain from Cangas de Onís to Ribadesella.
Cangas de Onís, with its Roman bridge, is the area hub for mountain tourism, the springboard to the Picos de Europa National Park, filled with outdoor tour companies, souvenir shops, and hotels.
Ribadesella is a yuppie beach town with a surfing school and 19th century mansions lining the maritime promenade above the urban beach.
Both of these places have, as the Spanish say, ambiente (ambiance) but in between is an area of mountains and forests, rundown towns, half-empty villages, an occasional vacation rental, bed and breakfast, or restaurant.
We looked at properties both on the edge of town and down narrow mountain roads. Here, the feel is tranquility with surprising pockets of liveliness, and the real estate is appreciably cheaper.
They may not be numerous, but we discovered that other expats were also making their homes in these areas, too.
In the end, nothing in Asturias felt quite right, but a couple of years later life led us south of the Cantabria Mountains to the provincial capital of León where my husband landed a job.
Sitting inland and not having major economic importance, the entire province of León qualifies as one of those spaces in between. Here, almost everything is affordable and a lot could even be qualified as dirt cheap.
Our first home here, a furnished apartment in the heart of the historic quarter, cost us $730 a month. Simple pleasures, like a glass of wine at a restaurant patio, are less than $3.
As we got to know the province, we almost wished we weren’t tied down by a permanent job. León is one of those underappreciated provinces where you can live high in the mountains, or in the fertile lowlands closer to a historic town, or even in Spain’s up-and-coming wine region, the Bierzo.
We settled on a parcel of affordable paradise with mountain views in a village some 10 miles outside of León. But the real fun, we found, had been in the hunt.
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