A year in Provence or Normandy or Brittany: Even a devalued pound has not dampened the desire to set up home in France. David Lawson offers some tips and meets a couple with no regrets

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The Independent Online
BUYERS can pay a high price for buying French properties through firms in the UK. Some add extra commission to the already steep 6 per cent normally charged by French agents. Now seven top names have set up a one-stop French property shop which pledges not to rip clients off. Groupe France has been founded by Rutherfords, Barbers, Alpine Apartments, Crabb & Templeton, La Collection Francaise, Northern/Western France Properties and Sifex. It covers 80 per cent of France and acts as a clearing house, passing inquiries to members specialising in particular areas or types of property. Groupe France promises that prices will be no higher than in France because commission will be shared with local agents. Members also have agreed to a system of investigating buyers' complaints.

For further information, phone Rutherfords 071- 386 7240; Barbers 071-381 0112.

'CAN WE take the donkeys?' The plaintive cry from a Shropshire family shows that some dreams do not die. Come hell, high water or a devalued pound, the English are still determined to uproot and move to France, donkeys and all.

The flood of cross-Channel buyers hunting for dirt-cheap Normandy cottages has all but dried up in the wake of the property crash. But the dreams still burn. Specialist magazines such as Living France (0234 240954) burst with queries from potential buyers about moving businesses, grannies, cars, kids - and donkeys. The organisers of a French property exhibition in London last week were flabbergasted when thousands of bright-eyed home-hunters overran the hotel. 'If they get the slightest sign of being able to sell their homes over here, they will be jamming the ferries again,' said one pleasantly surprised stallholder.

The enthusiasm of aspiring owners comes despite the fact that the pound now buys 20 per cent less than it did six months ago. 'There have been three similar devaluations in the past 25 years and all were shrugged off,' says Frank Rutherford, who has been selling France to the British for as long as the French Tourist Board. 'Stories of a huge price surge during the boom are a myth.'

Houses still cost between half and two-thirds of the UK price. Values have fallen by up to 25 per cent in parts of Normandy and Brittany during the slump, according to Miles Barber, another market veteran. They might drop again after next month's elections, when a new government is likely to raise interest rates. This may be good for new house-hunters, but it will put even more pressure on British buyers who took out French mortgages during the boom.

Mr Rutherford points out that buying from a British owner could be advantageous: they are happy to deal in sterling and relieved to recoup their initial outlay. That means you can still get cheap homes, although the day of the fully converted pounds 30,000 Normandy farmhouse is long gone. Mr Barber says: 'You have to spend pounds 50,000 to pounds 60,000 for a reasonable home.'

Prices can be double that in the Dordogne, Gascony and particularly Provence, where the market has not suffered as badly. It is likely to be boosted further this year when Peter Mayle's best-selling book, A Year in Provence, hits our television screens.

Tumbledown cottages are still available for pounds 15,000, but no longer appear to fulfil the British buyers' dreams. Perhaps we have got wise to hidden costs. John Keith expected a surge of interest in these rock-bottom prices when he helped set up Browse Partners (061-881 8610), a property-finding service run with the French- based Britons Julian and Wendy Browse, late last year. Almost 200 inquiries streamed in within a couple of months, and a dozen deals are waiting to go through. But Mr Keith's experience echoes Mr Barber's: most people are looking at prices between pounds 30,000 and pounds 50,000.

'No one seems to care about the weak pound because the property is so cheap,' Mr Keith says. 'Some buyers are craftsmen and builders who have no work, so they feel they might as well pack up and create a home elsewhere. Others are taking early retirement, but many just want to get out of the UK.'

Demand is so strong that he has now found similar British 'agents' to help buyers in the Var, Limoges and the Dordogne. The service costs 5 per cent of the asking price, but Mr Keith insists that by helping to negotiate the deal, his partners can cut up to 20 per cent off the amount buyers end up paying for homes.

One warning this new generation of migrants should keep in mind, however, is not to bank on making a killing from their hard- pressed predecessors. 'With buying costs adding 10 per cent to the price of property in France, you cannot hope for a quick return,' Mr Rutherford says.