Empty hunting lodge a tale of boom and bust in Spanish property

Estate goes to rack and ruin after developer loses it to bank in Spanish property meltdown

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 October, 2013, 4:49am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 October, 2013, 4:49am

Spanish developer Luis Gonzalez Chozas used to boast of the nobility of the horses at his 600-hectare hunting estate in the lee of the San Pedro Hills, one of the best for boar and deer in the region.

Now, just two years after he lost the property to the bank, wild sheep roam at will and with no hunting, the deer population has multiplied more than fivefold, said Fabian Vinagre, the caretaker of the estate near Caceres, 300 kilometres west of Madrid.

Visitors are rare these days, hosted by Sareb, Spain's bad bank, which is trying to sell the property before the animals complete their takeover.

The story of the farm, called Herb-of-Grace and the Moor, describes the arc of a property boom and bust that saw Spain record the fastest growth since its return to democracy in 1978, and then drove the country to take a €41 billion (HK$430.5 billion) bailout for its banks amid a five-year economic slump.

The property is one of at least 40 country estates Sareb has taken over from lenders, and is among 200,000 assets linked to real estate worth €50.4 billion it must dispose of within 15 years to repair the economy.

"We're well aware that these properties can degrade rapidly so we want to return them to productive use as quickly as possible," said Alvaro Escribano, Sareb's land planning manager. "For every moment that this land stays in our hands it loses value."

Sareb is on a mission to sell soured property assets that it absorbed from eight lenders including the Bankia group that took state aid as the government cleaned up its banking system with European bailout funds. Investor interest is growing as Sareb's efforts to offload shopping malls, housing, office buildings and loans to developers help set reference prices for sales, said Sergio Amelio, head of operations in Madrid at HipoGes, a distressed-asset management company that administers about €2.3 billion.

The halls of the lodge where scores of hunting trophies once hung have been stripped bare and the only sign that stables for 15 purebred horses were in use is a pile of rice husks that served as bedding. Ceramic tiles at the foot of the stairs leading to the property's main three-bedroomed accommodation carry the date when Herb-of-Grace and the Moor was built in 2002 before Spanish lending for real estate climbed almost eightfold to a €325 billion peak in 2009.

The resulting bust put 1.3 million in the industry out of work between 2008 and 2012 as the number of building companies seeking creditor protection jumped to 2,349 a year from 1,064. The crash forced Spain to nationalise four lenders including Bankia, whose €22.4 billion state bailout left shareholders all but wiped out.

In 2011, Gonzalez Chozas, managing director of property developer Construcciones Mego, which was active in the regions of Andalucia and Extremadura, was forced to turn over the farm to Liberbank, a former lender that took €124 million of state aid. The estate was among €2.9 billion of real-estate-linked assets Liberbank then passed to Sareb in February.

Sareb has valued the farm at €3.7 million, compared with a price tag of €5 million about three years ago before it was taken on by Liberbank, a former lender created from the merger of three savings banks including Caja de Extremadura.

The estimate takes into account that the new owner may need to spend as much as €500,000 to restore the property. About nine investors have shown interest.

The bad bank is counting on wealthy investors from Spain and abroad as it puts its "Harvest" portfolio of country estates on sale as part of wider efforts to sell real estate passed to it by struggling banks. The 6,000 hectares on offer in the portfolio account for 60 per cent of the total amount of rural land that was passed to the bad bank.

Sareb's sell-off is part of the process of Spain's recovery from a five-year slump that caused property prices to plunge more than 30 per cent and drove default rates on loans for real estate activity as high as 31 per cent.

The government says the economy is now growing after shrinking for nine quarters. Its treasury on October 15 sold 12-month bills at the lowest yield since April 2010, when Greece asked for the first European sovereign bailout.

Sareb unloaded a stake in a grouping of 1,000 homes in August in its first asset sale and the La Caixa banking group last month sold its real estate arm Servihabitat to TPG Special Situations Partners. Even so, Spain's property market slump is still deep. House sales were down 15 per cent in August from a year earlier and mortgage approvals were down 43 per cent.