Geoffrey Donoghue of Always Marbella property sales and rentals, reports on the latest news and events. For more information please visit Always Marbella’s website at www.alwaysmarbella.com
James Hewitt is starting afresh in Marbella.Karen Robinsonhelps him find the perfect bachelor pad.
So why Marbella? I quiz James Hewitt about his chosen location for a new home. The answer exposes the raw wound in the psyche of this 51-year-old former army officer and lover of the late Princess Diana. “I needed a break,” he mutters, eyes downcast. “I did reality television to redress the balance that had gone” – pause – “slightly awry with the written media. I didn’t enjoy it, but it served a purpose.”
Whoa, too much information. I only meant, why did he think the opportunities for a new life and a new business venture were better in the bling-bling capital of the Costa del Sol than in, say, Cape Town, Dubai, Florida or Sydney? But the spectre of his catastrophically misguided kiss-and-tell romance with the People’s Princess, and the attempt to sell her love letters for a reputed £10m, still hovers. It brought the opprobrium of Fleet Street’s moralists down on him like a ton of bricks; a decade later, it seems to have left the man they flayed in print as the Cad still minus a layer of skin.
That balance-redressing appeared to bring only further humiliation. On top of reality shows, there was his appearance on Top Gear in 2006, when Jeremy Clarkson and his sniggering sidekicks pretended not to know who he was and referred to him only as “well-spoken man”.
Hewitt has been living in Marbella for two years, working towards the venture that launched with a local splash last month: a clubby, colonial-style bar and restaurant called the Polo House. In his khaki chinos and pukka suede shoes, an athletic, military bearing softened by shy good manners, he has the vaguely defined role of setting the tone and mood of the place, which is well located for the city’s high-maintenance ladies who lunch. It’s a short totter in bejewelled stilettos down Boulevard Principe Alfonso von Hohenlohe to one of the holy sanctums of Eurotrash chic, the Marbella Club hotel and spa.
So the time is right for Hewitt to swap his rented flat in Marbella’s Ancon Sierra development for his own place in the sun. The hectic activity involved in launching the Polo House having abated (he is co-owner with a business partner whose identity he does not wish to discuss), he’s going house-hunting. It would appear that he’s timed it right: the housing market has tanked since he arrived. Mark Stucklin, who runs Spanish Property Insight, an advice web-site, reckons Marbella prices have dropped by 30% since the 2006 peak. “It came off the boil earlier than the rest of Spain because of the corruption scandals surrounding some of its developers, and it will come out of the slump earlier,” he says. “ It’s the bellwether for the Spanish property market.”
Michael Hornung, director of the local agency Marbella Club Estates, says he’s seen a lot of bargain-hunters in recent weeks – and a €5m bid on a five-bedroom villa priced at €6.5m was “not a silly offer”.
Hornung counsels: “For the quality stuff, you might miss the boat if you don’t step on it” – but Hewitt is not going to be hustled. “There’s no harm in looking now and trying to get an idea of the prices, but I think there’s a bit further to go,” he says.
He admits that he’s not always had his eye on the property ball. “I own a flat in London – if you’re buying it’s in Chelsea, if you’re selling it’s South Ken. Had I sold it 18 months ago, I would have done amazingly well,” he says. He’s now watching the market and plans to sell when prices pick up.
He’s got a budget of €2m, but intends to be cautious about spending it. As we tour prime Marbella, between the immaculately maintained urbanizaciones (estates), Hewitt points out the overgrown, abandoned illegal developments waiting to be pulled down by order of the newly cleaned-up town hall.
“I won’t name the company that tried to sell me a place [for the restaurant] that was not on the plan general,” he says. “That means it was illegal, though I was told it was not. Caveat emptor. Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted.”
For his first recce, he has an appointment with Peter Lundie, a local agent and property-finder who counts Premier League footballers among his clients. Lundie has chosen a three-bedroom, three-bathroom duplex penthouse, priced at €1.15m (down from €1.6m), in the low-rise La Alzambra urbanizacion, which is central and near the Manolo Santana tennis club – Hewitt likes to play several times a week.
Hewitt enthuses over the 108 sq metres of ter-race,especially when he sees the built-in barbecue and the outdoor kitchen (“I love doing barbecues”). He looks with approval at the well-maintained communal gardens and pool, and considers the €250 a month community fee “not too bad”. His verdict? “I think it’s overpriced by half a million euros. They’d be lucky to get €800,000 for that. I’d be willing to offer about €500,000.” Well-spoken man has spoken. And he adds: “Near me, there’s a beautiful two-bedroom flat for €350,000, and it’s in a better position.”
On to the next place, a spacious flat in the Aloha development. The hot tub on the terrace is a big hit – “I prefer that to a swimming pool,” he says – and though Lundie claims the owners are selling because the place is too big for them, single man about town Hewitt says its 200 sq metres are ideal. “I wouldn’t want anything smaller,” he pronounces. The views of La Concha mountain rising up behind the city are a pull, but the €1.4m asking price is not to be taken seriously.
While agents agree that at the top end of the Marbella market – along the original “Golden Mile”to Puerto Banus, where we’re looking – there are few distress sales (unlike in the overdeveloped wastelands down the coast) or buyers requiring a mortgage, pricing seems to be a highly elastic affair. Lundie has just seen a €1.15m flat get an offer “fairly close” to that sum from a Dutch buyer, but still reckons now is a good time to offer €600,000 for a €1m villa.
Prices are even more bizarre at the Casablanca, a new development right on San Pedro beach, the kind of location that has usually been guaranteed paydirt. Unmoved by the proximity of the beach, Hewitt dismisses the penthouse – which, although new, looks like a throwback to the 1980s, with its unimaginative use of space, basic kitchen, poky staircase and clunkywooden doors – as a “huge waste of €1.2m. You’d have to be barking”.
He is a difficult man to please; even after a diversion to a development that overlooks the clay courts of the Puente Romano tennis club, we are no closer to finding Hewitt the home of his dreams. Back along the coast towards the Marbella Club and the Polo House, there’s a pristine, newly rebuilt villa with four bedrooms and a tiny plunge pool for just under €1m. It is part of the new trend to buy the decades-old houses in the heart of beachside Marbella for their prime locations, then knock them down and start again. Hewitt is unmoved.
Then Hornung springs a surprise. “There’s a typical little Marbella Club chalet [there are about 40 villas clustered around the hotel, built over the decades as land was sold off], one house back from the beach, 320 sq metres,” he offers tentatively. So the Cad and I check it out.
There is a beguiling whiff of Marbella’s glamorous past here, as it belonged to the Romanian-born film director Jean Negulesco – of How to Marry a Millionaire fame – who died in 1993. The house, done up in 1960s boho style, with a big fireplace and a rustic beamed ceiling, is for sale following his widow’s death last year. It is faded and dilapidated, rendered warren-like by the clutter of books and film memorabilia, and itself a prime candidate for a knockdown at €1.8m. But Hewitt is charmed. “This is a character place. I’d take my time to do it up and put a Jacuzzi on the roof. I prefer it to anything I’ve seenso far.” Better still, there’s a brick barbecue embedded in an outside wall.
“You could walk to work,” Hornung enthuses.
“And stagger home,” Hewitt adds.
Now he’s actually found somewhere he can picture himself living, it’s time for the big question. Hewitt won’t talk about his most famous paramour, but is there anyone to share his Marbella pad? “I’m looking for a bachelor pad for one, with scope to grow,” is his discreet and optimistic answer.
Polo House; 00 34 952 900380, polohouse.net
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