Property: Oui, oui, je suis un DIYer

Take a tool kit on holiday? That French house had better be worth the effort. By Penny Jackson
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
It is not difficult to spot owners of old French houses. They are ones whose cars are packed, not with tennis rackets and thick books, but with taps, light fittings and electric saws. Their summer weeks en vacance are more likely to involve laying floors than lounging on a sun- bed. Not that they are complaining. The challenge of restoring a run-down property was always a large part of the attraction. It only adds to the eventual pleasure of being able to relax in lovely surroundings, with sharp memories of hours spent building a wall or digging out the garden.

But if a house in France is meant to provide an instant home-from-home, then don't be lured by rural wrecks. Rosie Bellingham was smitten 10 years ago. It took her five years to put her house right and even now her breaks in France are not task-free. "We split the time in half, but never do any work on the first day. As an owner you always see things that irritate you so you end up spending a lot of time fiddling around, improving and cleaning. But it's nothing like the first few years, which were really very hard work."

Ms Bellingham and her first husband bought a colombage - a half-timbered farmhouse - in Normandy, having chosen to spend their money on a place in France rather than move to London. "We swapped an extra bedroom for what is now a four-bedroom, three-bathroom house on the edge of a forest," she says. It took rather more than the price of a bedroom to achieve that though.

"The house was in a dreadful state. The first floor was an apple loft before we converted it. No one should under-estimate the work involved or the cost. You have to work that out and then double it. We did everything ourselves, with friends and decided to do all our buying in England because we were unable to find what we wanted locally."

And relaxing when she arrived was out of the question: "We had to knuckle down and get on with it. But it has been worth it, particularly as we often manage to pop over for weekends."

There is a tendency for British- renovated houses to find a market only with their countrymen. The gentrification of rural properties has had little appeal for French buyers who are not generally prepared to pay a price that reflects years of work.

However, Maurice Lazarus of the London-based Domus Abroad, which specialises in selling British-owned properties in France, has noticed a new interest in the countryside. French buyers, he is finding, are increasingly fed up with the pollution and congestion in the cities but don't want to renovate a house themselves.

Certainly Germans, Dutch and Scandinavian buyers actively look for British- owned houses. "They know that there will be a good ratio of bathrooms to bedrooms and that the work will be to a high standard," says Mr Lazarus. "The French are not particularly worried about having just one bathroom in a corner near the kitchen."

Indeed, Rosie Bellingham finds that her French neighbours think it quite bizarre that she has three bathrooms. But not so if a property is to be let. "Holidaymakers expect far higher standards than they used to at one time," says Maurice Lazarus. "The gite with its rudimentary plumbing is no longer acceptable."

When it comes to cost it is important not to pour money into a property that you will never get back and Domus does not have wrecks on its books. "It is easy to spend pounds 30,000 on a pounds 15,000 house and then find the area cannot support a pounds 45,000 property," says Mr Lazarus, who has noticed prices hardening."Pets being allowed to travel will make an enormous difference."

Domus Abroad, 0171-431 4692


Property: property transactions must be dealt with by a notary, who is more than a lawyer. He or she acts for both sides. The buyer pays notary fees which are about 9 per cent. That includes taxes.

Language: if you cannot read French, you are advised to find a fluent speaker or a solicitor in the UK who is experienced in Anglo-French transactions.

Surveys: not the way in France, but buyers should seek an opinion from someone who is qualified to comment, such as a builder friend or a local recommended builder.

Location: a rural property in a bad position will never become more valuable by pumping money into it.

Management: if property is to be left for long periods consult the agent. A formal agreement would be better, at least until a close personal relationship is established with neighbours. If it is to be let you will need someone reliable close at hand.

Inheritance: French property inheritance laws mean that owners should seek advice from lawyers either in the UK or France.

Investment: country property is not a good investment in France. Buy to live in, for holidays and for fun, but not to make money.