Realite pricks expat property bubble

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The Independent Online
THE DREAM of A Year in Provence is over. Britons who moved to France in the boom years of the late Eighties are selling up in record numbers - or trying to.

With recession in Britain followed by recession in France - leading, in both cases, to a collapse in the property market - many of the 100,000 British families believed to have taken up residence across the Channel are seeking to return.

Out of 5,000 chateaux, farms, cottages and vineyards on the books at Rutherfords, the largest firm of estate agents dealing in French property, 1,000 have been put back on the market by British owners. About a third of these, reckons Frank Rutherford who runs the firm, are linked with money problems or business failures.

He refers to their owners as 'dreamers'. Occasionally it is the chateau that gives them away. More often it is the vineyard. Sometimes they do not speak a word of French and wouldn't know a petit dejeuner from a pissoir. But they've read the paperback, seen the TV programme, set their hearts on running a chambre d'hote, campsite, or small auberge. 'It really was quite extraordinary,' he mused. 'Some people went to live in France with their eyes closed. They hardly spoke the language, they didn't know what to expect. One wonders what they were doing there.'

Sometimes they spent too much buying and renovating their period stone farmhouse in the Lot or the Dordogne and could not keep up the payments. Or perhaps the business sideline they counted on - bed and breakfast for passing Brits, for example - has proved a mirage. Either way, many of them have come unstuck.

It is a reaction to the anni mirabiles of 1989 and 1990 when, after ticking over quietly for several years, the British market for French property exploded. In the mid-Eighties, perhaps 2,000-4,000 cottages and farmhouses were sold each year, according to Dick Schrader, publisher of French Property News. At the height of the boom, it was 25,000.

In May, the findings of an Economic and Social Research Council study on the 'counter- urban' migration of Britons to France will be published. This week Channel 4 devotes A French Affair, a documentary in two hour-long parts, to explaining what went wrong. The programme has an unofficial alternative title - NOT A Year in Provence.

The stories of dreams unravelling range from devastated grape harvests to hard-hearted loan companies.

Paddy and Nell Heyland, now in their early forties, arrived in the Dordogne on a Monday in the spring of 1989 intending to 'be sensible and look around before we made any decision'. By Friday they had made a 10 per cent down- payment on a ramshackle chateau in the Bergerac area. It had 35 acres and cost pounds 92,000.

'We fell in love with it,' said Mr Heyland. Back at home near Diss in East Anglia, where Mr Heyland was a partner in a pottery, they put their pounds 225,000 house on the market. No one would buy it.

Two years later, the Heylands' English home was sold, after repossession, for pounds 135,000. The French company with which they had taken out a two-year pounds 50,000 bridging loan was threatening to foreclose on the chateau. The couple came within 'three or four weeks' of repossession. Two late holiday bookings for the chateau meant they had to move into the outhouses, then unrenovated.

The Heylands, who have four children, aged between 9 and 14, are now 'breaking even' with bed and breakfast and Mr Heyland's new job - renovating the houses of other expatriate Britons and acting as an interpreter. He and his wife, he says, 'have learned to live together . . . Suddenly husbands and wives are together 24 hours a day, which is quite rare in England. It finds out all the holes in your relationship. A lot of people don't think about that. It comes as a shock.'

Mark and Amanda Blanch, in their late twenties, gave up their jobs in record company marketing and public relations, sold their house in Surrey for pounds 240,000, bought a broken- down Dordogne farmhouse for pounds 75,000 and moved there with their baby son Jake in early 1991. Three years later it is on the market again, complete with swimming pool and converted gite, for pounds 135,000.

'We were a bit disenchanted with the gross materialism of England in the late Eighties,' Mr Blanch said last week.

'We were out-and-out party types but then we had Jake in 1990 and that changed our perspectives a bit. I wanted to be able to see my children while they were growing up, which I would not have been able to do if I had stayed in the record business. Also, my job wasn't going particularly well. It was a collection of events that decided us to move.'

The couple's capital is now exhausted. They sold off their estate car and many of Amanda's dresses. Mark set up a gardening and property maintenance company but found the social security costs crippling. They want to stay in France - but he aims to find a job in the music business in Paris.

'It is gorgeous here but it's a bit too rural for me at this stage in my life,' he said. 'I am too young to give up working with my brain. We didn't have any particular criteria for moving here. We had never been to the Dordogne before and we just thought it looked lovely. We wanted to be in the sun all the time, but after three years that isn't so important. The children were only seeing their grandparents once a year and if you want to see friends, they have got to come for a week to make it worthwhile.'

Dr Keith Hoggart, senior lecturer in geography at King's College London, and author of the ESRC study, says the failed dreamers are still in a minority. Most people who have settled permanently, he says, are adamant that they will not return to Britain in any circumstances.

He acknowledges that many were 'fleeing the economic, social and political changes in Britain in the 1980s rather than going to France in a very positive way' but says there is now a wealth of information available to the prospective expatriate. 'I don't think (ignorance) is the problem that it was in the late 1980s,' he added.

Mr Rutherford is not so sure. The property market is starting to pick up again and already people are inquiring about vineyards, he says. Mr Blanch, meanwhile, says there is 'no manual on how to live in France . . . There are millions of books but until you come out and do it you don't learn the ins and outs - you only do that through your mistakes'.

(Photograph omitted)