What (not) to expect when building an off-grid house in Matarranya

There’s one universal truth: when you have a house of your own, it’s never truly finished. There’s always something to tweak, reparations to be made, maintenance to be done or (if you have a big property and even bigger plans) buildings to be added… but on the grand scheme of things, we could say that our house is now as good as finished. The upstairs (our private area) still needs a lot of work (painting, decorating, installing a shower) and downstairs (the guest area) some minor things (Axel is finishing the tiling of the breakfast room balcony as we speak, other things will be done in fall or next spring).

These days, we’re showing people around the house on a regular base – guests, neighbours, volunteers, people interested in doing a similar project, or just random people fascinated by what we’re doing here. And since we get a lot of recurring questions, I thought it a good idea to put them “on paper” for everybody to read…
Some of the things in this list are things we experienced first hand – others are things we were warned about and were able to do differently in our house. And I’d like to add a question to fellow Matarranya expats here: if there’s anything you feel is missing or anything you’d like to add, feel free to write me / or to comment, here or on Facebook.

1. Budget

You came to Matarranya with a certain budget in mind, and it’s great if that budget allows you to build your dream home in the hills. Sometimes, people don’t think of everything that should be included in the budget though…

  • There are many steps towards a house – permits, assessments, notary costs, more permits, more analysis,… Each step will cost you money.
  • Where do you get your water from? Drilling a well can be costly – and don’t forget to think of the water deposit, different filters (we still need to do something about the amount of limescale, or it’s going to kill our appliances – not to mention our pump), maybe a pressure pump if your water deposit isn’t way above your bathroom (or your shower will be a very sad thing indeed). We’ve also got a system that makes sure the deposito is filled (but doesn’t overflow) on sunny days (we’ve got a solar powered pump), or even on not so sunny days when it’s almost empty – using the generator.
  • What will you do with your land? If you’re not planning to live on it, you’ll probably have a local farmer taking care of it (in exchange for the harvest). If you’re planning on working it yourself (harvesting olives or almonds, setting up a vegetable garden, maybe planting more fruit trees), it’s going to cost money – getting tools and machinery, seeds and plants. Maybe you’ll even want some animals; they will need housing (which might need planning permission) and feeding.
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Our very cool chicken tractor (the chickshaw)… did not come free.

2. Learning from other people’s stories

There are now dozens of people (people on their own, couples, families and communities) who have relocated here to work on their dream; go out, contact them, visit their project, talk to them, listen to them. And I mean really listen to them; almost everybody has stories – good stories, bad stories, funny stories. Of course some people are more pessimistic in nature and emphasise (or exaggerate) the bad stuff – and others are so upbeat they won’t tell you about their bad stuff. It’s easy to listen and think “That would never happen to me” – there’s always two sides to every story, but at least hearing those stories help you create an image of what might happen. You can learn so much from other people’s experiences; the stories from people around here helped us, loads. And they still do!

3. The local community

The success of your adventure depends on several factors – the people helping you achieve your dream is a very big factor.
Coming from a big city and a very automated society, we had to get used to village life here; getting to know many villagers has proven to be one of the keys to success. Go to the local shops, pay your ayuntamiento (the town hall) a visit when you have questions; people here are incredibly nice and are usually more than happy to help. Also, every village seems to have one or two people who know everything going on there; ask for their advice when looking for e.g. a place to rent, people to help out with the work, places to visit,… From the start, we just said hello to everybody we met in the street; now we get a call the day before hunters pass our land (great to know when to keep our dogs and chickens locked up), the older villagers will tell us stories about what happened on and around our finca in the old days, and we feel as accepted in the local community as a foreigner only speaking broken Spanish can be.

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Last year’s Santa Agueda celebration

4. The language barrier

Of course, all of this only works if you learn Spanish. We took classes before we got here so we could at least go to the shop or order food at the restaurants; coming here, we took a dictionary everywhere we went (especially convenient at said restaurants). Around here, very few people speak English (or French); they are incredibly nice though, and help us out with grammar and we still learn new words every single day. I learned all about food with Inma, the butcher in Cretas who would share recipes for the meat I’d buy there; our neighbour Enrique shows us how he tends his garden and his fruit trees whenever we have questions (and we learned the names of most vegetables and fruit from him); I learned all about body parts in Spanish doing yoga at Kurkum farm. It would have been much easier to try and speak English and use body language to get around in the area – but we wouldn’t have learned as much, and not made the same social connections.

If you’re not ready to learn Spanish (or you’re just having a hard time), make sure you have a person by your side who’s really on your side when doing important things. For instance, when I broke my knee in my second week here, I could have used somebody to translate my pain during my first few doctor’s visits; it could have saved me the 3 months of “rest” I shouldn’t have taken with this kind of injury, and the months of revalidation that followed. We could also have brought in a native speaker on our side to point out ambiguities when signing contracts; we might not have changed anything about them, but at least we’d be more secure about signing them (and be warned about the consequences).

5. Choose the people you work with

When you’re building a house, you will spend a whole lot of time with the people involved in the project. One person you can’t do without, is the architect. There are plenty of them in the area; some speak perfect English and others don’t, some are all about natural building while others are more into modern architecture; some see your project as a work of art they want to share with the world, while others see themselves as a tool to be used by the client and doing their bidding. What’s important, is that you find the architect that’s just right for you; someone who will listen to your dream and take it to another level. Preferably a higher one.

The same procedure applies to people you’ll be working with while building your house. So far we’ve been incredibly lucky with most of the people we’ve worked with – it feels good working with local people and locally made stuff. Most of them take a real pride in their work and did (or are doing) an amazing job; I guess it’s no fun to bump into people at the village fiesta if you’ve done a lousy job at their house 🙂

Work in progress

Work in progress

6. Pay attention to the details

There are some particularities about the Spanish culture (or nature), that are slightly different from many other countries; I thought I’d list a few…

  • It was logical for our architect & builder to place the windows on the inside of the walls. In Belgium & Holland, you’ll place them in the middle, so you have a window sill outside AND inside…
  • Standard beds are smaller in Spain than they are in many other countries. You can still find king size beds (or at least, beds that are 2 meters long) in many specialised shops though. Take into account that when your architect designs the bedrooms, he’ll probably put a 1m40 x 1m90 bed in the design (and make the room look bigger than it actually is)
  • Ever wondered why traditional Spanish houses don’t have big windows? You’d need a very big overhang (all around) to keep the sun out in the heath of summer… For instance our bedroom has a 2m covered balcony in front of the sliding door / window, but we still get sun inside (from the side) until about 11 o’clock on the longest days of the year (and it only gets worse after that, as the sun is slowly getting lower).
    Our living room windows are a lot smaller – but as they have a smaller overhang as well, we’re getting full sun through those windows until about 14h in the middle of summer. Which makes the living room the hottest room in the house; usually by midday, it’s hotter inside than outside. Curtains help to a certain degree; the sun will still be on the windows and the heat will still get in, but part of it would be stopped if you leave the curtains drawn when the sun is out. We’re planning to have outside shades installed – probably a project for next spring though.
    Big windows can be annoying in winter as well; the sun will come in almost horizontally, and even in winter the sun can be pretty harsh. Last winter, I struggled to find a good spot to work where the sun would not be in my eyes nor on my computer screen. Thankfully, curtains would solve that.
  • Our beautiful fake wooden floor (in one of the guest bathrooms)

    Our beautiful fake wooden floor (in one of the guest bathrooms)

    At first, we really wanted a wooden floor; since good quality wood is not from here, you can either go for the fake stuff (we have wood-looking tiles, and so happy with them!), or pay a lot more money to get imported wood, or just go for a different quality (and I don’t mean better). Also, due to the huge differences in temperature and humidity, wood will expand and shrink a lot more here than it would in places with a more constant climate.

  • There are technical differences as well – I’m not a technical person so I’m not going into that now, but I’ve been led to understand that you need a different kind of solar panels here than what’s recommended in the Netherlands, a heat pump would not provide the same benefits (and be more expensive) here than in the north, and some techniques that are very common in other countries are barely used here (and vice versa). I’ve heard stories where people absolutely wanted a certain (technical) element in their system, but local people messed up the installation as they had no idea how to do it.
    For more technical stuff, please talk to my husband 🙂

7. A Sound System

One of the things that can make or break your comfort living off the grid, is the presence of a good system. 4 things are most important here:

  • Water – having a reliable source of good water is indispensable. Many people around here dig a well – this can be very expensive, and some are not too lucky with the water coming out (some people in a neighbouring village have water that’s saltier than the sea). If you want a well, make sure you have it dug at the perfect spot by a reliable company; if they had to twice as deep as expected to find water, the owner will need to pay for the thousands of euros worth of extra work…  Some people around here don’t bother with a well or mains water, but just collect rainwater from the roof and / or get water brought in by water tank trucks (or go fill a tank at the village themselves). Do some research and talk to neighbours before taking decisions.
  • Electricity – we have seen awesome off-grid electrical systems, and we have seen very lousy (and overpriced) ones. We are over the moon with our system so far; it works on solar power mainly – but if something happens and the batteries can’t provide enough, the generator kicks in automatically. Also, we made sure we could do several things at the same time – the dishwasher, washing machine and (electrical) oven can all be on while I’m vacuuming without the whole system failing. We have made very few concessions; although I rarely use a hair dryer and don’t care much for an electrical water heater, which are the kind of things that take the most electricity (especially in winter, when there are less sun hours), we made sure our guests will be able to use those if needed.
    Take a look at other people’s systems and talk to a few knowledgable people (I don’t mean the guy selling you his system) before planning your own; don’t rush into ordering a system that might not cover all your needs.
  • Heating & cooling – obviously, there is more work to be done in our house when it comes to cooling; we’ll need outside shades for a fair lot of windows to keep the sun out, we might install some fans in the ceiling at some point as well. Having air conditioning makes no sense to us; if my house were really really cool in the middle of summer, I wouldn’t be able to cope with even moderate heat when going out.
    Many people living off the grid around here seem to struggle with keeping the house warm in winter; big rooms with high ceilings feel nice and airy in the summer, but it’s a lot of extra room to heat up on colder days.
  • Internet and phone connection – to some this is an afterthought, but if you have an internet job like me it’s important. Off-grid houses around here usually have their internet either from satellite or through radio waves; which one is better for you depends on your line of sight (for radio waves you need to be able to catch the antenna in a neighbouring village). Same goes for phone reception; we made sure before buying we had perfect reception on most of our land, but if you don’t a reception booster could help… Again, talk to your neighbours and with other people facing similar challenges.
That should do the trick...

That should do the trick…

8. Start a business

Ah, the joys of starting a business in Spain. To some, it makes sense as it’s a way to get into the social security system and to get VAT back, sometimes there’s even talk of a grant you could get for starting something new that’s beneficial to the area; however, you might not get all the VAT back, I haven’t heard of anyone ever really getting money from that grant and there is a lot more paperwork.
It can also a lot of money, depending on the type of business you are going for. You can’t do without an accountant and those are not cheap; if you start a S.L. or similar, there are notary costs involved as well. Depending on the type of business you might have to meet all kinds of requirements (for instance for a B&B, we need to have chlorinated water, somebody needs to certify your well produces enough water for the amount of guests you’re allowed and things will generally get checked more thoroughly). If you choose to be self-employed, there are the autonomo payments which can be very high. And last but not least, you might not be allowed to officially start your business before all requirements are met, which means it takes a long long time before you can start reaping any benefits.
So if your main reason to come and live here is to start a business, do go ahead and good luck; if having a business would just be a way for you to make things cheaper, please do your calculations before diving into it head first.

9. The project and building permit

I am still not 100% certain how a project is supposed to go around here, but this is what I know for sure… Building a house (or more, that’s why it’s called a project) is something that takes many steps. From the moment you agree on the plans with your architect to the moment you have an officially registered house, it will take many years – nothing you can do about that, it’s a slow process.
From the start of the project and the moment you’ll be able to live in your house, a lot of time will pass as well; it is very advisable to think first about the life you’ll live while you wait – most people start out renting a house in the village, but I’ve talked to many people who would rather have lived in a caravan, a yurt or a temporary building on their land in the years they spent waiting. Nothing compares to living on your own land, spending zero on rent / electricity / gas / whatever (unless you count the occasional bottle if you’re cooking on gas) and just being able to do whatever you want, whenever you want it.
Between the day the architect told us the whole project was ready to go into the building permit process (January 2014) and the day we did get said building permit (February 2015) it seemed like so much time passed – and although the foundations were dug in March 2015 and the builder put the last hand to a last detail in May 2016, we’re still waiting for the architect, the builder and the surveyor to come together and sign the “final de obra”, meaning that the house is ready. We know that when we have that final de obra, it will still take years for our house to be registered; as we’re living completely off the grid and no house has been here before, officials will have to come and check if everything has been done meeting the necessary requirements, the architect will have to compose a completely new book of plans and technical stuff (including many small changes the builders have made during construction), and hopefully in a year or 2-3 we’ll be able to go to the notary to sign the enormous amount of paperwork involved… and we’ll have a fully regulated house.

Rain in the mountains - beats a picture of me doing paperwork

Rain in the mountains – beats a picture of me doing paperwork

10. Mañana, mañana… the cultural differences

Most people back in the North would laugh at our ambitious plans – ah yes, but you’re going to Spain and it’s “mañana, mañana” over there. Has that turned out to be true? Well… yes and no.
Our experience working with local professionals is that if you make an appointment, they’ll be there; they might be a bit later (it’s very normal here to be stuck in traffic behind a tractor or a flock of sheep), but “la hora es la hora”. Often though,  appointments are not made for an exact time, but for a certain timeframe like”after I brought the children to school” or “before lunch”. Which might be difficult for people from a time-oriented society (like us!) to understand at first, but you get used to it very quickly; the trick is not to fill your time with waiting for people – but do your own thing until people show up.  One exception to this whole “showing up” thing turned out to be our project manager, who is a total sweetheart but gets so caught up in talking to people about their projects, that he will totally forget about the next appointment he made and either turn up hours late, or not turn up at all (and forget to cancel)… which made for many, many lost mornings / afternoons / full days waiting for him to show up. But since most of his clients know that after meeting him once or twice, apparently that’s ok.
People here do get their priorities straight though; they might tell you they will continue work tomorrow but if their child gets sick or if there’s an urgent job at another client’s place, who can blame them for changing their plans? Also, as soon as it rains, the whole area just hits pause – many roads (to off-grid properties) are difficult to drive on after a rainfall, and also going out in the rain is messy and not convenient. Social gatherings get cancelled, orders get delayed and many people don’t work when it rains… Rain is not a very regular happening here though, so that as well is something you get used to very quickly.

We look back very fondly on the time spent living in the maset..

We look back very fondly on the time spent living in the maset..

What would we have done differently? We regret nothing – but in hindsight, we would probably not have been this impatient to start a business (the B&B) and build the big house – we would have renovated the maset, invested more in tools, machinery and animal shelters / storage / workshops, and get everything else started before starting the big construction project. In the mean time, we would probably have had the time to think about the “whole thing” (the bungalows we’d like to build all around), so we’d have applied for a building permit including everything at once.
Living off the grid in a modest house is actually much more comfortable than we could ever imagine – and the best thing is, once you’ve got a vegetable garden going and some chickens free ranging around your house, living here costs next to nothing (at least, compared to living in a big city). And as I said, nothing compares to living on your own land – when everything fails, things are going sour, projects take too long to be finished, your olive trees failed to produce anything and the fox just ate all of your chickens… You’re still living in one of the most beautiful places on earth. On your own land. Doing whatever you like, whenever you want to do it.

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