Buying a second home in the Algarve

Case study: Brian & Debbie

In 2004, Brian Layton, then 61, and buoyed by the prospect of selling his Hampshire water cooler business, set out on a search to find a second home in the sun for himself and his extended family.

Algarve, Portugal buying a second home

Brian & Debbie - buying a second home in Algarve

He wanted somewhere within an easy commute from the UK that would be warm and sunny throughout the year, near to the coast, but also to town life. He started his search in Spain’s Costa de la Luz, but gradually drifted westwards until he arrived in the Algarve. He soon discovered Praia Verde, a vast beach area stretching from the mouth of the Guadiana River at Vila Real S. António, past Monte Gordo almost to Cabanas. The beach was stunning, and he liked the fact that it was relatively close to Faro airport, while being near enough to a Spanish petrol station to be able to nip over the bridge for a cut-price fill up.

Narrowing down his search, he discovered a development only 7 minutes’ pleasant walk through pine woods to Praia Verde, with the shops and restaurants of Monte Gordo also within easy walking distance.

The development was already well established, comprising clusters of 2, 3 or 4 townhouses on small, individual plots. Brian was sold on the location, and settled on a semi-detached unit within his budget, with three bedrooms, under-floor heating and a small pool. Construction of the unit was already well advanced and so there was little opportunity to make changes to the specification.

Having made the initial plunge, and even before moving in, Brian decided to buy the adjoining unit off-plan. He liked the idea of a larger property, with an extra bedroom upstairs, a larger living area and an integral garage. He also bought it partly as a “defensive measure”.

As he started to use the first unit, Brian discovered that Algarvian winters are not always as sunny and warm as he had assumed. During the colder, rainy spells, he realized that it was important to have good heating and hot water systems, but the gas bottles powering the under-floor heating boiler needed frequent replenishment, and the water circulation pump was chronically unreliable. Moreover, the solar hot water heater was of the basic type with an integral storage cylinder on the roof. The controls were difficult to access, and the unit actually leaked glycol. He eventually changed it for a better system with evacuated tube panels and an insulated calorifier.

With the off-plan property, he had more opportunity to input to the specification. He opted to change the under-floor heating to an electric system. He also thought that floor-to-ceiling door openings would be a good idea to promote summer air flow through the house, but this aspect of the specification proved impossible to modify.

It was after taking delivery of the house that Brian started running into real problems. He realised too late that the electric heating system mats had been installed with no insulation underneath, and would therefore be subject to massive heat losses. Neither could the incompetent installers supply a diagram showing the mat positions.

He also asked for a number of additional works, and paid over an additional €20,000 on account to the project management company, and a further €15,000 for an all-weather pool dome, directly to the builder. The builder only managed to deliver €10,000 worth of works before disappearing to Brazil with the pool dome money.

Brian feels that he has been through a steep learning curve. In sharing his experiences with other British buyers, he has discovered that stories of builders’ incompetence and dishonesty are all too common.

“I was naïve in thinking that I could have a greater involvement in the construction. I didn’t know about ‘bandit builders’”, he says.

The experience also fuelled Brian’s interest in sustainable construction methods and low energy buildings, an interest that led him to meet architectural designer Debbie Mauger, now his partner.

Long an advocate of green architecture both in South Africa and the UK, Debbie introduced Brian to the wider field of energy-efficient construction and to some of the advances that are being made. Brian brought Debbie to the Algarve, and showed her his properties in Monte Gordo. They put their heads together and were able to come to some clear conclusions about the state of typical Algarvian construction:

“The properties aren’t that bad”, Brian says, “if people are going to live in them all year round. They can keep them heated in the winter and so don’t get too many problems with damp and mould; but, as second homes for occasional use, they just aren’t fit for purpose. They suffer from poor insulation and inadequate ventilation. Finishes are variable. The ongoing costs of maintenance are high and there is minimal use of renewable energy”.

And about AlmaVerde?

“We think that the AlmaVerde project is a very bold, brave undertaking, particularly as we both know from our own experiences, both in the UK and Portugal, that there is huge resistance to change from the professionals involved in the industry”.

“All aspects of the AlmaVerde design and build are superior to anything else that we have seen in Portugal, mainly because they are totally different. This long-held and ridiculous tradition of using excessive amounts of steel and concrete is being turned on its head at AlmaVerde. The “Coolhouse” project is symbolic of the radical approach to low-energy housing that the project embraces.”

Brian and Debbie are members of the Centre for Alternative Technology, as well as being members of The Sustainable Building Association. They are now in the process of setting up a Hampshire “cell” of AECB, with regular meetings to be held in Aldershot and are working on projects including eco-extensions and eco-retrofit in England.

For more information, email Brian and Debbie at The H2Ozone or AlmaVerde at

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