Increasing news of squatters entering empty second homes across Spain is threatening to destabilise the already weakened demand for an extra property in the sun.
The local real estate sector on the Costa del Sol is worried about the repercussion of these negative reports, which are now starting to show signs of affecting markets such as Scandinavia.
In Nordic countries there have been widespread reports of Spanish property owners - some on the Costa del Sol - who have arrived and found squatters have taken over their homes.
Pelle Lundborg, a Swedish businessman who lives in Malaga, says there has been great concern in his home country about the case of a couple who are over 80 years old, built a house years ago and have now spent over a year trying to get it back. He says this is not an isolated case.
"People weren't able to come here because of coronavirus, and when they finally did, some of them found their houses occupied by squatters. And of course they have a problem with the language and the law," he says.
Some in Scandinavia are reportedly now thinking it might be better to buy in Portugal, Morocco, Croatia or Turkey, even though Spain is still very popular.
"People don't understand why the law protects the squatter mafias. It is very negative for the image of the country and it is affecting investors on the Costa del Sol. It is unfair, because in reality it is very safe here," says Lundborg.
He believes the law should be changed but says there is no political interest in doing so.
Violeta Aragón, the general secretary of the Association of Builders and Developers (ACP), says she is aware of the situation but that at the moment the Costa del Sol does not appear to be a problem area. However, when it comes to investing, potential foreign clients don't discriminate. "We see that it is happening in other parts of Spain, and we need to stop it happening elsewhere," she says.
"The security of private property is essential. There needs to be legislation, which at present doesn't exist, that enables someone to have a property standing empty for several months with the guarantee that if someone squats there then they can be easily thrown out," she adds.
Sarah Severin is the franchise holder in Malaga of Fastighetsbyrån, the biggest estate agency in Sweden, and she has numerous Scandinavian clients from other countries as well.
"What are okupas?"
"People there don't know what an 'okupa' [squatter] is. Squatters don't exist in Sweden. This story has appeared in the media there and everyone is amazed at the idea that someone could take over your house and have rights over it. They can't believe that could happen," she says.
She admits the television programme about the Norwegian couple has had a big impact and an immediate consequence. "We received many calls from people who want information about their rights in Spain," she says.
She is optimistic and agrees with the developers that the problem has not affected sales locally so far, but can't hide her concern. "More news like that will negatively effect the market," she says.
Many owners of second homes are also installing alarm systems.
Increased demand for armoured doors
Many people, especially the elderly, middle-aged and owners of second homes, are afraid of finding that someone has got into their property. The government, which has the legislative power to do something about the problem, doesn't seem interested and a lot of people are now installing armoured doors, high-security antibumping doors and alarms, for which demand has shot up.
"In recent months we have installed twice as many as last year. People are very scared," says says Rafael Moreno Escalona, who runs the Interestil company on El Viso industrial estate. "They are more worried about squatters than thieves, because they take over your house and then you have to pay them compensation to get out". During August many installers have been on holiday, but Rafael Moreno decided not to close this year, because demand was so high.
Víctor García-Miña, who runs Puertas Miña, a company which manufactures and installs this type of door, agrees. He says sales have tripled this summer. "Everyone wants their door fitted urgently. Some say they are too scared to go out shopping or to visit their families. We have had so many orders that it is taking us time to meet them all," he says.
Biggest maker is in Malaga
Manuel Ruiz Jiménez, of Segurycal Almayate, says people are as afraid of squatters as they are of Covid-19 nowadays. "They can always get in if they really want to, but we make it more difficult," he says. One of his fitters even found somebody inside a customer's apartment, but managed to throw him out.
The leading manufacturer of armoured doors in Spain is SegureStil, based in Malaga city. Luis María Jiménez, the sales manager, says demand for their products has risen 17 per cent between June and August and 25 per cent compared with last year. "People feel a need to protect themselves," he says.
The luxury property market, less prone to squatters
The luxury property sector on the Costa del Sol does not appear to be affected by fears about squatters, however. José Carlos León, president of Leading Property Agents and owner of NVOGA, says squatting tends to be more of a problem in homes that a bank has repossessed. What's more, most residential developments have private security.
"We have heard of a few isolated cases, but fortunately not on the Costa," he says.
In any case, he recommends that his clients install an alarm "because if you can prove it has been a forced entry it is easier to get rid of squatters," he points out.