Six years before his retirement from the Metropolitan Police, Bob Giles was already planning his escape to Corfu. On a holiday to the Greek island with wife Tricia, the couple fell in love with the scenery and made friends with a local taverna owner who invited them back for Easter. From then on, Bob and Tricia had a goal: they took Greek lessons, wrote to expat magazines, and even found out how to export their car legally to Corfu.
"I retired on 17th April 2002, and by the 22nd we were living in Corfu," says Bob, who had spent 30 years with the Met. The couple had decided to rent initially, to find out what living on the island was like, and had a secured a house several months earlier.
It had stunning views, but limited space and was close to Corfu's noisy main road. The couple stayed there for 18 months, but by that time, they had already decided to build their own house, and had bought the plot of land on which their home now stands.
"Originally we had this romantic idea of finding a stone built house and renovating it," says Bob. "But when we looked around, we found that we'd missed the boat. The best older properties had gone, and the ones we were shown looked like a bomb site."
In February 2003 they started looking at plots instead and were soon shown a pair of adjoining plots in the village of Loutses, above the north-east coast of Corfu, looking across the straits to Albania.
"There was a stunningly clear view that day, and you could see the snow on the mountains in the distance; we thought: we'd like all of this," says Bob. The plot was much bigger than they had ever considered – just over an acre – but the Gileses decided to take the plunge. By May they'd bought it – sooner than they'd even anticipated.
The first task was to employ a surveyor to determine how much of their land fell within the development zone; at the same time, the couple was selling their house in England to pay for their new home. The first bulldozers moved in during September 2004, to level the site. By this time Bob and Tricia had moved to a small cottage in Loutses, where they would stay for the duration of the build. "We had to be on site for the archaeological excavation, to make sure we were not building on the site of another Pompeii," says Bob.
By this stage they had also employed an architect/constructor who was going to build the house for them. They were introduced to her by the person who was instrumental in helping them obtain the land, and her price for the house with 150 square metres of floor space seemed considerably cheaper than the going rate.
It was, however, an appointment that Bob came to regret. "Our relationship has not been the best," he acknowledges, with a degree of understatement.
After the initial flurry of concrete and steel work, building slowed right down, and contractors didn't turn up for weeks at a time, says Bob. He paid all the contractual stage payments by the book, even when no work was going on, while the architect made endless excuses about the lack of progress.
And there were disagreements on specific issues. As the house was to be their year-round home, Bob had decided that he wanted double glazed PVC and aluminium windows rather than traditional timber; the architect was less than enthusiastic. When he said that he wanted gas central heating, she refused outright, claiming that it would be like having a bomb in the house. On another occasion she "went ballistic" when she found out that he had been talking to one of the tradesmen.
In the end Bob and Tricia decided that they would move in on 1st July 2006 "come hell or high water", even though the house wasn't completed. They did so, and nearby English friends helped clean the house, while in the absence of a staircase, many items had to be lifted to the loft area by ladder. Snagging – the builder fixing the small problems that occur with any new building – simply didn't happen. "It's not been the happiest experience," says Bob. "If they had built continuously we could have been in a year earlier." The missing pieces were eventually installed one by one, and by the time the house was finished the total bill came to over £300,000.
Landscaping on a Greek hillside proved another major task and expense, but Bob was impressed with the overall quality of his house, which he reckons would easily withstand an earthquake.
In spite of the problems, he doesn't regret building their house in Corfu. "I would do it again, but differently," he says. "I would employ an architect, but I would also employ the electrician, the plumber and other contractors myself. And I think if you're not in the country, you definitely need a project manager you can rely upon."
Alexander Garrett is a freelance property writer who contributes regularly to The Observer and British Airways' Business Life.