“There’s Nothing I Can Do”

We came to Tarragona to sell the apartment we’ve owned for 17 years. Corresponding with the real estate agent and with the bank via emails and the occasional telephone call, we knew we were in for some pain and suffering. But we couldn’t have imagined how stupid it actually turned out to be.

Spain’s equivalent of a social security number is the Nacional Identificacion Fiscal (NIF) for residents or Nacional Identificacion Extranjero (NIE) for foreigners. You need this number to do any big transactions, so they can tax you. When we bought the apartment 17 years ago, we obtained NIE numbers.

While we were still in the US, Fernando and Angels, the real estate people, had told us that our NIE numbers had expired after 3 months. To get a new one, we needed to apply in person at a national police station. This must be done by appointment, which they arranged for us in Tortosa, a small city an hour south of Tarragona. Why Tortosa we asked? Because that’s where we had to go. Later, we discovered the reason.

The day after we arrived in Spain, we went to Tortosa. Marta and Antonio drove us there and we arrived at the national police station few minutes early. When we arrived for our 11:30 appointment, there were no other people waiting, it looked like we’d get right in. After watching the government functionaries fart around for a while, and seeing other customers arrive and get service, and 12:00 arived, our names were called. We told the guy why we were there and he said, “because you are staying with friends in Tarragona, sorry, you need to go to Tarragona to do this. There is nothing I can do for you here.” We pleaded to no avail. He then proceded to tell us over and over again why he couldn’t help us until we finally were able to leave.

On the drive home, we called Fernando who told us to meet him at the police station in Tarragona. Meanwhile, Antonio called his sister who happened to work with the notary who was going to do the closing, so we could meet with him and review what we really needed.

After the hour drive back, we got to the Tarragona police station. The cop out front demanded our appointment information. We said our friend was inside and he waved us in. Fernando was there telling us that it was going to take at least a week to get the NIE issued. Some time earlier, I read on the internet that the NIE never expires. For a time, the certificate verifying the NIE expired, but no longer. We had Maria’s old certificate, but not mine. However, we knew my NIE number. We took these to the notary, and sure enough, he said that her cert was acceptable, and we just needed to get a new cert of my NIE.

Meanwhile, Fernando got us an appointment at the Haciendas office (local tax collection) to get a copy of my NIE the next morning (which was the morning of the closing). So the next day, we arrived at the Haciendas office where Fernando introduced us to Manuel, his accountant/financial “expert”. Manuel gave us an authorative, pompous explanation that we needed to use our NIE numbers to get an NIF. I had read about this and said the NIF is for residents and NIE was for foreigners like us. He took us to a clerk who confirmed that we needed only an NIE, not an NIF and that we needed to go back to the police station, because the hacienda only handled NIF request, while the police were in charge of NIE numbers. Manuel proceded to explain over and over what we already knew until we were able to get away and go to back to the police station. It turns out that Manuel was the dummy who arranged our futile appointment in Tortosa! This “specialist” was a fool who didn’t know that you need to apply where you live. Turns out he figured the queue would be shorter in the smaller city.

Back to the police station. The same doorman cop was there and confronted us with “do you have an appointment?” We said we just had a question, so he let us in. Eventually, we asked a paper pusher if we could get a copy of my NIE. “Do you have an appointment? I’m sorry, unless you have an appointment, I can’t do anything. If it were up to me, I’d help, but my hands are tied, you need an appointment.” After much pleading and begging, he did ask his boss. 

We waited for the boss who took pity on us (“our closing is in 3 hours!”), listened to our saga, examined the appointment tickets from Tortosa, recognized that we had done every (wrong) thing everyone had told us to do, and she told paper pusher to help us. He then proceded to use skills like we haven’t seen in decades: removing staples, organizing papers, stapling, initialing and of course multiple rubber stamps, both the self-inking mechanical style and the manual ink-pad-slam-onto-the-paper style. He was a bureaucracy artist.

The fee for this was €7.10 each. To pay this, we had to walk two blocks to the BBVA bank where there was an ATM-like machine for collecting government fees. We put in a €20 note, entered a bunch of data, scanned the ticket that paper pusher gave us and received a kilo of coins and one receipt. I had to go into the bank and swap 10 one euro coins for a €10 bill and repeat the whole process.

Back to the police station. Once all our papers were in order, he told us no promises, keep your fingers crossed, I’m taking this upstairs to the boss and with luck he’ll sign it. Come back at 1:00. All this for essentially a xerox copy.

At 1:00 we returned, got confronted by the doorman cop again, waited in line again until paper pusher was free. He was smiling and a little surprised that the system had worked and he had 2 new NIE certificates for us. After some more stamping, stapling and initialing, he handed them over and we headed to the notary for the closing.

At the closing, Angels presented some invoices for miscellaneous fees. Included was a bill for useless Manuel’s services. In no uncertain terms, she received a classic Maria earful about the pain he caused us, with zero benefit: 200 kilometers and €20 in tolls to Tortosa; worthless meeting at the hacienda; we knew more than he did; he spent lots of time explaining why we were screwed when we were screwed.

In fact, everyone wasted our time explaining over and over why things had gone wrong when we had already accepted that we had hit a brick wall. They continued to blah blah blah when we were ready to go. They were trying to make us feel better and therefore make themselves feel better.

In the end, the closing happened, on time. It only happened because we were prepared and had learned the rules. If we hadn’t, we still would own the place and would have to give Antonio power of attorney to sign everything for us some time weeks or longer down the road.

The buyers are a really nice couple with a kid. They will enjoy the place a lot.