This is a random collection of thoughts based on our experiences over the last 22 years, in no particular order. Please feel free to ask questions about anything else.
Searching for an area. We did this by first living in a van to get around. In hindsight a caravan/ car combination might have given us more comfort and flexibility, but with issues of parking.
Get a map (Stanford’s) of the area you are interested in, at a scale of 1:100 000 or better. Then use this to measure distances. For example, the nearest big supermarket should be no more than 25 kms away, same for good builders merchant (chains are crap), wood yard, mechanic/ garage, vet, bike shop. A hospital is a good idea too, but they are becoming an endangered species outside cities so in this case allow 60 km. Use GOOGLE IMAGES to check out all the villages you are interested in. Likewise YOUTUBE videos.
Estate agents & the internet. Unlike in the UK, most property sales in Iberia are through word of mouth, especially since the financial crash of 2008, when the number of physical estate agents dropped dramatically (in the Sierra de Aracena from 13 to 1) and never recovered. The internet has since grown to fill that gap, but few sites are in english and most tend to focus on the cities and resorts. For rural property it is still best to go there in person and ask around, in the bars, Town Hall, banks (who have acquired a lot of repossessed property recently).
Renovate rather than build new. Planning regulations for the latter are horrendous. The costs are also a lot higher, more than it will eventually be worth.
Rural = cheap + best quality of life. Keep away from any city or beach, at least 100 km. Avoid any area served by motorways or railways (commutable), where there is or was mining, dumping radioactive waste, or any other hazardous industry within 100 km. Search for a council district with a total population of around 2000.
Like minded souls. Although I would never have said this before, you do occasionally need other Brits nearby. Check out sites like WWOOF and WORKAWAY.
You will need in the nearest village an ATM, chemist, post office, petrol station, bar, bakery, and small shop. Living in a village is only for those who don’t need land attached and can cope with the constant noise and intrusion. Outside the village post will not be delivered, nor will you be able to receive parcels via courier.
Areas designated as PARQUE/ RESERVA NATURAL are the government’s way of diverting attention from something nasty buried nearby, avoid like the plague. PARQUE/ RESERVA NACIONAL are bonafide protected areas, but have draconian planning regulations. Best to live just outside the latter.
Gas. There is no mains supply outside cities. You have to buy bottled instead. The first one requires a deposit, from then on you swap it for a full one at a garage/ bar/ builders merchant. You will require a regulator/ valve and length of hose, both available in a hardware shop/ builders merchant. They !3 kg bottle is the standard size, approximately 65 cm high, and weigh over 25 kg.
Amount of land. To be self-sufficient you’ll need at least 1.5 hectares per person, to be sustainable 5 hectares per person.
Physical input required. A minimum of four hours per day, for one person managing one hectare using only hand tools.
Orientation. North facing for annuals/ soft fruit, south for trees, south for passive heating of the house in winter.
Best latitude. The further south you go the slower trees and shrubs will grow, due to the intense heat in summer. Also more water is needed between MAY-OCTOBER for annuals.
Flat or sloping? Sloping for clean drinking water/ easy plumbing/ irrigation/ views, and flat for an easier life working the land.
Type of land. Avoid anywhere with forestry plantations, apart from the massive fire risk, when they are harvested access to your property could be blocked for up to a year.
Avoid land that looks dry, with sparse vegetation, or rocky. There should be an abundance of shrubs and trees, all-year-round. Walnut/ sweet chestnut/ alder/ black poplar/ hawthorn/ and willow are particularly good signs.
Certain regions in Spain have a law making it illegal not to maintain a bare strip around the perimeter of your land, as a fire-break. Fines are instant, heavy, and with possible imprisonment.
Renewable energy. In Spain solar can only be used if there is no possibility of it being fed into the grid or shared.
Water. Do not buy land without it, and make sure the supply is potable as well as all-year-round. Check there are no neighbours who could contaminate it. NEVER accept a sharing agreement. NEVER assume you can drill a borehole or find water. Rainwater harvesting is not for drinking. You will need to be in an area that has at least a metre of rainfall a year. Construct storage for at least 70,000+ litres, based on the needs of two people and a 60 m² roof.
Access . Make sure you chose a site with good all-year access, particularly in the winter. Don’t expect the local authority to maintain any part of a track that is not tarmac/ concrete. Remember also that this is not just for you and your visitors, but emergency vehicles too. 4x4s sound like a good idea, but they simply tear up unmade tracks faster. Also bear in mind the distance to frequently used facilities, should you be without transport for any reason. If your track is also the access to a forestry plantation, it will be rendered unusable for up to a year when they are harvesting.
Weather. In a word, all of Europe is EXTREME compared to the UK. Expect very hot summers (30-40 C) and very wet/ cold winters (snow and frost even). Without 24/7 irrigation during JUNE/ JULY/ AUGUST nothing much will grow.
Language. One of you has to be able to speak the local language fluently.
Healthcare. The state (& private) system in both Spain & Portugal ranges from poor to downright dangerous. There are plenty of practitioners of alternative medicine, some excellent.
Education. Home-schooling or alternative education is recommended.
Residency. In Spain you have to register with the local town hall first, then formally interviewed at the regional police headquarters. This process involves paying a small amount in tax at both stages. It, is time-consuming and very frustrating. Requiring a lot of paperwork, including proof that you have the requisite income/ capital, private health insurance, certified copies of certificates for birth/ marriage/ divorce/ death, and recent photographs. You will also be fingerprinted. If accepted they will issue an identity number and laminated card, which is required for virtually everything. In Portugal the process is a lot simpler and cheaper.
Bank account. In Spain you can open a savings account without residency, but only for a short period, then it is mandatory. High street banks with make a quarterly charge on a balance of less than 10,000 euros, but internet banking is still free. To have a current account you will need a job
Football. Sad but true, if you want to fit in you will have to understand this game and follow a spanish team
Work. To be legally employed (pay NI and gain entitlement to benefits) you need a social security number, which is available at the local Social Security office
Driving. In Spain you have to have your UK Driving Licence changed for a spanish one, at the regional traffic police headquarters. Vehicles registered in other countries can only be used for up to three months before requiring re-registration. Vehicles are inspected annually (six monthly after ten years for commercials) through the state ITV system, which is extremely thorough. Insurance is very expensive through a high street agent, cheaper on-line. Breakdown cover is mandatory (you are not allowed to tow a vehicle or repair punctures). No claims bonus starts from scratch, taking four years to restore. Once insured anyone can drive your vehicle. Car tax is imposed by the local council, some are a lot more expensive than others.
Unemployment and social security Benefits. In Spain benefits are only payable after working for a specific number of months, and last for a short period. Corruption in the system is rife. Temporary employment is available with the local council, for varying periods. They decide who gets this and what you will do.
Bureaucracy is ENDLESS. Plan on spending at least several days a year chasing and delivering documents that government departments already possess but can’t share.
The culture. The magic of living in another country is that it is so different. Some might as well be on another planet. To survive and benefit from this unique experience it is therefore best to forget everything you’ve ever learnt and start afresh. NEVER feel tempted to make comparisons, this just means you aren’t assimilating and irritates the hell out of your new hosts. Corruption is a way of life, so get used to it. Never trust anyone (especially solicitors and the police), cultivate plenty of the right friends, and turn a blind eye when asked to.
Don’t expect too much when it comes to decent puddings/ bread/ cakes/ or chocolate, they just don’t get it.
Cash income required. Regardless of what you were required to prove in earnings when applying for residency, afterwards it should be possible to live well off-grid on just 2,500 euros per person per year.