Things to Consider when Buying Rural Land in Portugal
Updated: Jul 21
I have an unusual perspective when it comes to shopping for rural property in Portugal, in as much as I have never stepped foot on a Portuguese farm, and the sum total of my actual experience in Portugal involves a couple of visits to Lisbon, Lagos, and Sintra. Add to that the fact that I don't own property, have never owned property, and likely will never own property. Under ordinary circumstances, that should disqualify me from having any legitimate opinions about buying land in this part of the world.
The past 16 months or so have been anything but ordinary circumstances, however, for the world in terms of the Pandemic, and for me in that the Lockdown afforded me the opportunity to devote a lot of time to researching Central Portugal and homesteading there. Why that particular place and topic drew my interest is a question better answered elsewhere. Suffice it say that I have spent almost a year and half steeped (in a virtual way) in Central Portugal - browsing real estate listings, writing articles, watching vlogs, communicating with ex-pats living there on farms and homesteads, and doing general online research. I find the region fascinating and very attractive, and I look forward to spending time there one day in the future.
If (and it's a very big "if," doing a lot of heavy lifting) I was in a position to buy a piece of land in rural Portugal, here are some of the things I would consider, given everything I have learned since March, 2020.
No matter where you live in Portugal's countryside, having a reliable source of water is of the highest priority. It's great if it's potable (although my impression is that it is fairly rare), but at the very least the property should have water for irrigation and washing. The good news is that almost every farm has a water source of some kind, be it spring, creek, river, pond, well, borehole, or dam. About half of the rural households are connected to municipal drinking water, but I would imagine those households are mainly in and around villages and towns, and municipal water comes at a cost. For those farms and homesteads that rely on their own independent supply, water levels can vary greatly over the course of the year, in some cases disappearing altogether during the hot, dry summer months when it is needed most. Learning as much as possible about this issue for any particular piece of land is the very first thing I would do. Keep in mind that if the land is without reliable water and your only solution is to drill a new borehole, proceed with caution. Boreholes are costly, there is no guarantee that a new one will hit water, and some drilling companies are more reputable than others.
Water in Portugal (Angloinfo)
Water and waste services in Portugal (Portuguese government)
Fire Risk and Prevention
Related to the water issue is the matter of fire risk and fire prevention. Wildfires are a major problem throughout most of Portugal, and so prevention via land management (mostly cleaning/clearing and safe burning practices) is a very big deal there. It is each property owner's responsibility to keep their land as fire-safe as possible, which means removing undergrowth, problem trees and dead vegetation by an annual deadline, keeping a clear zone around dwellings and roads, registering with the fire department any outdoor waste burns during safe times to burn, and refraining from using sparking tools (like a flail mower or a bladed strimmer) past an annual deadline.
When assessing a piece of land's fire risk, a number of variables must be considered:
- Is the property surrounded by a fire break? In other words, is the area around the property (and thus out of your control) cleared of flammable material (i.e., trees and bushes)?
- Does the property contain trees that are highly flammable and thus problematic? E.g., Eucalyptus, Maritime Pine.
- Are the structures on the property immediately surrounded by flammable material? How about its roads and perimeter?
- Is there good access to the land that will allow heavy vehicles to reach the property and, ideally, every corner of the property?
- Is there a reliable source of water on or near the property?
- Does the property feature any steep slopes covered in vegetation?
- Has the property and/or the surrounding area experienced fires in the past?
Of course, risk management is an exercise in compromise that balances benefits and liabilities. The most fire-safe land would be a concrete parking lot with a house in the middle surrounded by a moat, but making your land over in this way would inevitably result in a loss of some of the charm that the Portuguese countryside is so famous for.
Probably the biggest red flag is the presence of either pine (bad) or eucalyptus (reputationally worse, but probably equally bad) forests on or bordering the land, with that forest being part of a much larger forest that covers many hundreds of hectares. You can always clean the forest floor and drop trees on your own property to thin out the canopy and make it harder for fire to transmit within, but making your neighbours do the same can be difficult.
A good understanding of how much work a given piece of land will require to clean it to legal standards and maintain that adherence is crucial. To put it simply, don't buy property that is too big to maintain in this way given either physical or financial limitations (i.e., it's too much work for me to do and I can't afford to hire someone to do it). This brings up a question that I don't currently have an answer for, namely just how extensively is the owner required to clear flammable material in areas away from roads and structures? If I own 15 hectares, 3 of which consists of groves and buildings which have been cleaned, and 12 of which consists of wild scrub and trees, how obligated am I to clean those 12 hectares? I suspect that I am not so obligated (with the exception perhaps of the property's perimeter), but also that common sense demands I do as much as I possibly can to reduce the risk on my property.
Here is another thing to consider - how will the terrain affect my ability to take care of this necessary work? One of the most efficient ways to remove brush is by towing a flail mower behind a tractor, as well as other types of wheeled heavy equipment that do not perform well on hilly and extremely uneven ground. Being unable to use these means being reduced to using a strimmer (in Canada we call it a weed-whacker or whipper-snipper) which is comparatively slow and physically demanding.
The good folks at Luke and Sarah's Off-Grid Life have put out a couple of videos about fire preparedness and how to register controlled waste burns with the fire department - please see the above YouTube links. For an example of just how devastating a fire can be on a large farm, please see the video below from Quinta Fonte da Pipa:
Portugal Wildfires - This is a very comprehensive website, created in 2018 after the intense wildfires of 2017 by, I believe, property owners who have been affected by wildfire.
Land cleaning and rural fire prevention (Portugal Resident)
The ability to actually get to your land is obviously critical for pragmatic daily-living reasons as well as the above-mentioned emergency vehicle access. Many rural properties in Portugal are served only by dirt roads, often overgrown and in poor repair, often an exercise in mud cut by streams during heavy rains, and often negotiable only by a good 4x4 when conditions turn bad. Having a challenging access road can limit the ability not only of emergency vehicles to reach the property but also of delivery vehicles.
The good news is that the local government is responsible for maintaining local roads and ensuring that they are usable by heavy vehicles. The bad news is that the wheels of government bureaucracy in Portugal can turn exceedingly slow, and it will likely take a while for them to get around to it. I really only have anecdotal evidence to go on here; Project Kamp has a couple of videos about this process.
Have a really good look at the roads to and on any property under examination. If they are unpaved, is there liberal use of gravel? Are there many hills involved? Is there evidence of a lot of water crossing the road? Even 4x4s have trouble negotiating muddy roads when they are steep, and what was only slightly challenging during the summer might be impossible in the winter.
Land in Portugal is classified (or zoned) as different categories, and these categories define what can be done with the land. This is summed up nicely by Guy and Kylie of Eco & Beyond in their post, "Buying Property in Portugal – How We Found Our Dream Farm (and How Much It Cost!)":
"The general designations of land are as follows:
Urban (urbana) – in an urban setting, or designated for building a house. Often on larger more rural land plots the urban plot will be just for the footprint of the house.
Rustic (rustica) – this is typically in a rural setting designated for agricultural purposes. More often than not you cannot build a house on this land without also changing the land designation (which is possible, but often fraught with complexity).
REN (Reserva Ecológica Nacional) and RAN (Reserva Agrícola Nacional) – sub categories of agricultural land that is designated for wildlife protection, national listed sites and pure agricultural purposes. There are strict guidelines for what you can and can’t do on this type of land and you need to consult with both the local Câmara as well as the REN or RAN national bodies."
It's best to avoid the Ecológica and Agrícola designations altogether, as there is more than enough rustica and/or urbana land to go around. Rural plots are often composed of a mix of both urban and rustic, and it is very important that it is made clear exactly how a particular piece of land is classified and what permissions to build (if any) exist. Securing the services of a good lawyer and consulting with the local Câmara is essential, as this issue is just the beginning of the many legal questions that must be answered before making a purchase. Are there debts attached to the land? How many people share ownership? Have the neighbours been given the opportunity to buy? Not to mention the bureaucratic hurdles of getting your NIF, a habitation license (or its exemption), promissory notes, contracts, and more. Also not to mention the fact that what is approved in one Câmara may not be approved in another. It's all negotiable with the help of a lawyer and the right mindset, namely one of patience and respect for the fact that Portugal runs its government the way Portugal wants to run it.
There is location as in a property's GPS coordinates, and then there is location as in a property's proximity to various features, communities, and services. My wish list for the latter would look something like this:
- Less than a 15 minute drive to the closest village with a cafe and somewhere to buy food essentials.
- Around 45 minutes or less to the nearest town with a supermarket, gas station, post office, hospital, vet, and basic government services.
- Less than 60 minutes to the nearest agriculture and building supply stores.
- Less than 30 minutes or so to the nearest water feature with recreation possibilities, such as a lake, river, or praia fluvial.
- Less than 2 hours to the nearest airport. This one is particularly flexible.
- Finally, although privacy is a quality I value a lot in a property, it's good to have neighbours around. I wouldn't want to live somewhere so remote and isolated that I never get to see my neighbours.
Trees of various kinds are an integral part of the Portuguese landscape, defining both the look of the place as well as a huge part of the economy. I would feel distinctly disappointed if our land didn't have olive trees, fruit trees, and cork oaks on it. To that I would add a vineyard as essential, which, while not made of trees, is about as Portuguese as it is possible to get.
There are so many benefits to having trees on the land that to not have them would be unthinkable. They provide shade, food, and revenue, and then top it off by also being beautiful. What a package! There is also the positive effect they have on community building, as many hands are required during the harvest and so helps bring people together.
On the other hand, there are tree species that are not so welcome on the land, as previously mentioned in the section devoted to fire risk and fire management. Eucalyptus and Maritime Pine are problematic in that they are very flammable. The Mimosa tree is flammable, brittle, and its seeds and pods are toxic to humans and animals.
Managing problematic trees is not a simple matter of just removing them all. Even problematic trees provide shade, help prevent soil erosion, and provide habitats for wildlife. The issue as regards wildfires mostly involves trees being planted too close together and thus creating a continuous canopy, and perhaps even more critical, a lack of forest floor debris cleaning. Eucalyptus trees in particular produce a lot of highly flammable debris that accumulates around the base of the trees as their barks sloughs off and drops to the ground. For more information, please see Flammable Trees of Portugal on the Portugal Wildfires site. Worth noting from that article is this piece of information:
"Eucalyptus globulus trees flower from October to March (in Portugal) and produce abundant pollen and nectar (37- 56 mg of nectar per day), which are massively important to honey bees – not to mention birds and butterflies – particularly to see them through the winter months when most other plants are not in flower."
It's also worth noting that pine trees are home to nests of the Pine Processionary Caterpillar, a major pest in the forests of Southern Europe and elsewhere. Not only do they defoliate trees, but they also are covered in bristles that are very harmful to humans and other mammals. Please see Luke and Sarah's Off-Grid Life for an episode where this hazard is discussed.
Clearly, the subject of trees can be a complicated one when it comes to those species that have problems. If there are a lot of pine and eucalyptus trees on a property, active forest management rather than simple removal is probably the way to go. That requires a lot of work, and should be taken into account when deciding how big a plot to buy.
Agricultural Infrastructure and Dwellings
One of the most important features of any potential property is what has been built on it, and in the case of rural Portugal this usually means terraced fields (if necessary), irrigation infrastructure (wells, cisterns, channels), some kind of dwelling, and a number of outbuildings. Stone walls are also not uncommon, the inevitable result of the competing demands of needing to clear a field and not wanting to carry stones very far.
Two of the variables that have the biggest impact on the quality of the agricultural infrastructure and dwellings found on a piece of land are the level of success/ambition/affluence of the original owners and whether or not the land has been abandoned, or at least neglected and not maintained. One possibility is a plot with almost no physical improvements beyond, say, groves of trees or fields for hay, and which has been meticulously managed until the point at which it went on the market. Another possibility is a large and well developed farm with multiple terraced fields, complex irrigation system, sizable farmhouse and multiple outbuildings for animals and storage but which has been neglected and unworked for twenty years. What is more common is a plot that has been long abandoned and has only modest physical improvements, featuring a small stone farmhouse or barn that is either in ruins or is only a roof-tile's throw away from it.
It's the latter situation that most often applies when shoppers on a budget are looking to take advantage of how inexpensive such properties are. If one has limited funds, wants to live off-grid, and is willing and able to install the infrastructure needed to homestead in this way, a cheap chunk of land with a good well, a ruined barn, and room for a yurt, garden and solar array is very appealing. There are, however, a few things to keep in mind when considering a plot like this.
First, there is the matter of the ruin. It is often the case that ruins can be rebuilt only to the footprint of the original structure, and also having a vertical limit; this depends very much on the classification of that particular piece of land and that particular structure. For a close look at what it takes to properly renovate and improve such a building (spoiler: a lot of work), I strongly recommend following The Indie Projects on YouTube; scroll back to the first episode of their Portugal Off-Grid Homestead series (video link above) and watch it from the beginning. Please note that Bee and Theo are having a tough time very recently, and I wish them all the good energy I have. I bring it up here because their latest video, which shares these problems, is not typical of their channel, and doesn't reflect the extensive and very informative footage they have provided during their renovation.
It is a lot of work, and in order for that work to be worth it the state of the walls must be closely examined (and it's pretty much a given that the roof will need replacing). Was the building built competently and are the walls still plumb(ish)? Guy and Kylie of Eco and Beyond are tackling a multi-storey stone farmhouse on their land in Sertã, and their channel is a great lesson in just how much is involved when tackling a project like this. One thing that has become very evident from watching their efforts is that often the wood in a building may look fine on the surface but be hiding a world of hurt just underneath. Again, a lot of work.
Then there is the matter of the agricultural infrastructure. If there is a well or borehole, how much updating does it need? What kind of shape is the cistern in? Is there an irrigation system in place or will one have to be installed? Can such a system be worked by gravity or will it require pumps? If there are terraces, do they need attention? If there are outbuildings, what kind of shape are they in? Typically, all of this infrastructure is made out of stone and cement (or lime) and so require a skill set that not many people have. One way or another, it is a heavy, dusty, messy, slightly toxic and often finicky undertaking. Be prepared.
Looking for an academic paper about terraces and drystone infrastructure? Look no further: Renewing Terraces and Drystone Walls of Algarvian Barrocal. Cultural and Touristic Values
The issue of terrain basically comes down to how flat the property is. The flatter the land, the easier it is to maintain, build on, and cultivate. Flat land is also the most fire-safe type of land in that it is the easiest to clean, potentially allows heavy vehicles, and avoids the hazards of vegetation on a slope. Also relevant is how bouldered the property is. Obviously, a plot that is thick with boulders is not nearly as useful as one that is without.
Ken and Gina of the OKportugal channel moved into a farm that is decidedly flat and utilitarian. The biggest problem they have to deal with in this regard is regular flooding in their bottom field in the winter, which is pretty small beans as far as problems go. They grow olives, grapes and hay on their property, all of which is easily managed with the help of their neighbour, Joaquim.
Personally, though, I prefer a landscape that is a bit hilly and bouldered, and a good thing too because a lot of the Portuguese countryside is hilly, and quite a bit of it is bouldered. It's because of the hilliness that terraces are so commonplace, and the combination of terraces, trees, big rocks and winding paths evokes something romantic in me. Throw in some quirky seating areas in shady nooks next to water features and I am in heaven. This is pretty much the definition of a barrocal landscape, and there is no shortage of barrocal in Portugal.
While aesthetics are under discussion, there is also the fact that sloping land sometimes enables a great view. I am particularly enamoured with Fundão at the moment, situated as it is at the base of the Gardunha mountains with views over the Cova da Beira plains.
If the land does slope, it's best if the slope faces the south, as that is the best direction for positioning solar power panels and gardening projects.
One practical advantage that a slope provides is the ability to use gravity operated irrigation systems, provided the water source is near the top of the slope. Even if the spring or well is lower down, it only takes one pump to take that water up to a cistern that can then distribute the water via gravity to where it is needed.