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In Spain’s Housing Bust, Sell-Off Brings Bargains

Suzanne Daley | The New York Times
Monday, 15 Oct 2012 | 2:01 AM ET

Canet De Berenguer, Spain — For years, the Mar de Canet apartment complex in this beach town south of Barcelona stood empty, another casualty of a real estate crash that left this country littered with ghost towns and half-finished developments no one would buy.

Costa del Sol region in Spain.
Getty Images
Costa del Sol region in Spain.

The Mar de Canet complex in Canet de Berenguer, where Spanish families snatched up units at very low prices.

But recently, the communal pool at Mar de Canet was full of giggling children, and bright beach towels flapped from virtually every balcony.

Mar de Canet's 308 units were sold in less than 30 days last spring, mostly gobbled up by eager Spaniards finally getting a deal they could not resist: choice holiday homes for less than half the price of similar properties on the market.

Banks, which have been sitting on a pile of real estate assets or listing them at only slight discounts, are beginning to slash prices, eager to get out of the business of being landlords.

Some experts worry that they are simply repeating mistakes of the past by handing out 100 percent mortgages again. But giddy Spaniards — those who still have jobs — are lining up to get in on the bargains.

No one expects Spain's housing backlog to disappear soon. The country has more than 1.2 million unsold new homes. And Spain is still far from getting its financial house in order. But to the surprise of many, Spaniards have not lost their passion for buying property, at the right price, and some prefer to put their savings in bricks and mortar rather than one of the country's shaky banks.

So many people showed up on the first day the Canet apartments went on sale here that Jesús Martínez and his wife, who were at work and planning to look the next day, called their parents to rush over and lay a claim for them. The couple bought a two-bedroom unit with a terrace and a parking place for $92,000.

"I think a lot of people didn't manage to buy a flat," said Mr. Martínez, who still sounded a bit breathless and excited over his purchase. "We had never seen prices like this. It all happened in two days."

Many experts see the fire sale prices as the beginning of what will probably be a long untangling of Spain's real estate excesses. In the heady days of the construction boom, banks lent liberally to developers and homeowners alike and ended up with billions in bad loans when the economic crisis hit in 2008. At first, experts say, the banks did everything they could to play down the losses, including keeping property off the market so that its diminishing value could not be recorded.

Even after numerous audits, many experts say the true extent of the bad loans remains unclear, and the recession here continues to pile on. The Bank of Spain said last month that 9.9 percent of the country's bank loans were in arrears, up from 9.4 a month before.

But in recent months many of the banks have been forced to write down losses, clearing the way for discount sales. The imminent creation of a "bad bank" for toxic assets, experts say, will set off even more bargain sales.

Most of these discounts are for apartments in huge developments in overbuilt tourist destinations or distant suburbs. Outside Madrid, Seseña, one of the country's most famous ghost towns, had stood virtually empty since the crash of 2008. But a few months ago, Santander, which owned 500 units, started to slash the prices. By January, the bank was advertising the last remaining units at a third of their original price.

More recently, the bank Banesto listed 1,800 units last month on its Web site, Casaktua .com, at discounts of up to 80 percent, promising homes at prices not seen for two decades. The housing was scattered nationwide.

"This is the year that reality sets in," said Fernando Encinar, one of the owners of the real estate company Idealista.com. "The good news is that there is a strong demand for low prices."

Despite Spain's empty properties, official prices have dropped only 23 percent since 2007. Mr. Encinar says that is unrealistic. If banks want to sell, they will have to double that discount, he says, though the ability to sell varies from region to region.

The number of new mortgages remains about the same as last year. But experts say the banks offering deep discounts are doing most of the business. Eduardo Mendiluce, the director of the CatalunyaCaixa bank's real estate division, said the bank was now offering an average 40 percent discount on its properties. After selling 7, 400 units last year, it unloaded 6,200 in just the first half of 2012.

Not everyone sees the discount bonanzas as good news, however. Some experts are suggesting that banks may be heading for more trouble as they try to sell property cheaply and quickly. In many cases, they say, the banks are offering easy mortgages to customers wanting to buy bank property, with little regard to their financial state.

In addition, they say the banking sector's ability to dole out credit is putting private property developers who are not bankrupt and the average Spaniard trying to sell his property at a severe disadvantage.

In the hills behind the resort town of Marbella, a construction company, Inmobiliaria del Sur, has been trying to sell 48 luxury condominiums in its Alminar de Marbella complex for four years. But it remains completely empty, even with a 35 percent discount.

"We don't get credit from the bank," said Rafael Torres Claros, an engineer and salesman for Inmobiliaria del Sur, which built the complex in the upmarket Golf Valley area. "They don't give it to our customers. For us, it is a constant struggle."

Bank officials acknowledge that their ability to give out mortgages does help them make sales. But they say they have gotten more discerning about whom they lend to. Even if some customers end up defaulting on loans, they say, the bank will still have benefited from the sales, trading a large mortgage to a bankrupt developer for many small ones, the majority of which will be paid.

"Even if they don't all pay," said Carlos Bode Vallespín, the director of Banco Sabadell's real estate division, Solvia, "many of them will pay. And they will pay the taxes and maintain the asset."

Everyone agrees that there are still Spaniards willing to invest in real estate, including as a way to safeguard their money. "The very rich have taken their money out of the country, but the average person still feels that property is a safe thing," said Rafael Valderrábano of the Web site Basicohomes.com. To some degree, the fire sales are a reflection of growing expertise within some banks, which had little familiarity with owning and selling property before. For a while, too, the banks were immobilized by a series of mergers that created administrative havoc in the sector.

But as the dust settles on those mergers, some banks have developed savvy real estate divisions like Solvia, the one that successfully sold the Mar de Canet complex and its sister complex, Faro de Canet, with 289 units here. Mr. Bode says Sabadell is eager to move quickly because its officials believe other banks will soon follow, competing for buyers in hard times.

"We need to be the first," Mr. Bode said, "because demand is limited."

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