dilemmas

This week: should we buy a house in France? Lucy's husband wants to look for an old property in France and do it up as a second home. While Lucy likes the idea of becoming one of the locals, their house at home is already a handful and she's worried they'll be taking on too much
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Virginia Ironside

I don't know about anyone else, but whenever I go away from home, even for a weekend, I return to find it's started to deteriorate. The moment I move out, nature moves in. At least two bulbs have blown; the grass has grown knee-deep; a plant has died; a picture's dropped off the wall; a piece of trellis swings loose, and has crashed into a potted plant that lies in ruins on the path; dead bluebottles line the window-sills like raisins; a snail has apparently got into the sitting-room and left a trail of slime; and there's a horrible patch of fur and flea poo on the bed where the cat's been lying. Sometimes a sinister patch has developed on a ceiling, and a crack that was only a hairline before I left has visibly widened. If that's what happens after just two days, imagine what would face poor Lucy weekend after weekend as she raced from French house to English house. It would be like spinning plates and trying to wash them up at the same time. All her life.

Unless they kitted the place out with a whole new range of equipment, which would be incredibly expensive, every journey would mean ferrying across a collection of kitchen implements, computers, hairdryers and the like. You need to be pretty well off to afford a second home in France, with two lots of gas, electricity and phone bills and all the other charges that come with maintaining a home. And let's say they visited it twice a month; at least five days a month would be written off in travelling and setting up and winding down the previous home, if not more.

On top of this, Lucy's husband wants to get to know some of the neighbours. To maintain a second home abroad you have to get to know a few locals anyway, because you have to ferret out some apple-cheeked calvados-maker to keep an eye on the place, some amiable Jean-Paul who sweeps the path of leaves, puts on the heating when it's freezing, opens the windows before you arrive and gets in a few basics of milk, eggs and bread. Do Lucy and her husband speak fluent French? Could they tell whether someone was honest or not, on the basis of sign language and schoolgirl French alone? Similarly they need to have a Fred back in England to do exactly the same, to deal with the day-to-day disasters at this end. As for getting to know the locals generally, what kind of fantasy world are Lucy and her husband living in? Have they ever tried buying a second home in an English village and attempted to chat up the locals? English villagers are miseries enough, but in France the villagers are renowned for being experts at l'epaule froide.

Taking on renovating a house abroad is a job that has to be entered into wholeheartedly, by both partners. It's no good her husband going off with a hodful of bricks, and designs for underground heating, if Lucy's going to be sitting on a bag of concrete whining about when they're going to have their next dish of moules mariniere.

If her husband wants to satisfy his creative instinct and his passion for DIY, he'd be better off constructing a yacht in their back garden. Or, perhaps, even better, a heated swimming-pool. A project like that might even find Lucy joining in some of the diggingn

What readers say

It's been the best thing we've ever done

We bought our cottage in Mayenne jointly with friends in January 1996 and have had such fun planning and working on it. We have worked hard, but enjoyed every minute of it. It will be almost finished at the end of this season, and then we can look forward to spending holidays there as opposed to DIY breaks! However, every aspect of the project - the searching, the paperwork, the planning, the scrubbing, scraping and painting, and meeting the neighbours - has been great. We sit in our large garden at the end of a busy day and revel in our corner of France that is paradise.

Buying jointly with our friends has halved the cost and the work and resulted in countless sociable evenings over bottles of wine discussing everything.

Margaret Moran, York

Our experience was a disaster

Buying a house in France? Doing it up? Becoming one of the natives? Poor Lucy!

Done that, and that, and tried to become one of those, but it didn't work out. The dream is strong, the purchase is easy, the rest is soul- destroying. I speak French fluently, almost without accent; the fluency was much admired but only in a handful of cases did it win me admission to people's homes. They were not my relatives, so I remained a curious outsider to whom everyone was courteous, but rarely what a British person would call friendly.

After seemingly endless toil that bore particularly hard on my wife, we accepted a fortuitous offer from a local person who fell in love with what we had created, and found that our dream had been in Hampshire all the time.

You have to get there in spring before the garden is choked with weeds. Get the roof done at the height of summer before the rain can get in. Forget the trip to Britain for a family gathering. In the north, the climate is no better than here; farther south, it's a long way home, so weekends and odd holidays won't be enough.

John Stanley, Southampton

After 10 years it loses its glamour

My husband and I have just returned from three weeks at our village house in the Aude. Before we went I was keen to try to sell. While we were there, I changed my mind to the extent of saying, "Let's wait until next year." Now I'm keen to sell again.

Why? Because of the work running two houses. Because of the draining of energy in two long journeys. Because we're not getting any younger.

We loved our house. We loved putting it together. But after 10 years it begins to lose its glamour.

I am a fluent French speaker. But long hours of village gossip begin to pall. We know a lot of English-speaking people in the area. But two weeks of dinner parties, and the thought of meeting the same people endlessly, palls even more.

And holidays at the house have lost interest for our children, now grown up. I would say it's lovely to have a holiday home abroad when you're young and vigorous. But treat it as a limited investment.

Mrs AP Pope, Tunbridge Wells

I'm glad we've sold our lovely house

For five years my partner and I restored an 18th-century farmhouse in the beautiful Entre deux Mers region near Bordeaux. We loved it, and the local French people who became our friends. Inevitably it cost more than we had budgeted for, but we were 100 per cent committed, and planned to move there as soon as business ventures worked out.

However, a year ago we sold up. We made a loss but were lucky to sell - country properties in France are cheap because there are many more of them than there are buyers. Our house required continual maintenance that we could not afford. It had also taken every spare day we could find - no one ever needed to ask where we had been for a weekend or holiday. Five years into our love affair we were still in love, and the sale nearly broke our hearts, but we have just come back from Sicily where I wandered over Greek and Roman ruins and swam in rocky coves. I knew we had made the right decision.

Tricia Snell, Isleworth, Middlesex

Next week's problem: should I have a face-lift?

Dear Virginia,

I have been wanting a face-lift for some time now, and as my aunt's died I've finally got the money - pounds 4,500 - to get it done. My sister had an eye-lift last year and looks not younger, exactly, just better. However, my husband's against the idea. He says I'm vain, that it's a terrible waste of money when there are so many other things we need, that lifted faces look phoney and characterless, and that I look lovely as I am. I'm glad he likes my looks - but I don't. My children, however, tell me to go for it. I don't want to go ahead unless my husband is reasonably happy with the idea - he's got to live with the results, after all - but it's my face, and I feel I should be able to do what I like with it.

Yours sincerely, Diana

Letters are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a bouquet from Interflora . Send personal experiences or comments to me at the Features Department, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL (fax 0171-293 2182) by Tuesday morning. If you have any dilemmas of your own you would like to share, please let me know.

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