Be realistic - not romantic

Buyers braving the French market must not be taken in by the mystique of restoration, writes William Raynor
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Once upon a time not so very long ago, Liz Oliver recalls, a client of her company, Francophiles, asked her: "Where exactly is Calais?"

As the company specialises in selling residential property in France, the question seems to be etched on her memory in the same way that the name of the French port is said to have been engraved on Mary Tudor's heart.

"Fortunately," says Mrs Oliver with a sigh of relief, "most of the people who come to us are now much better informed, and we don't get quite as many dreamers as we did in the late 1980s."

With more than 2,000 properties on its books - properties which range from cottages to chateaux but tend, she says, towards the upper end of the market at FFr500,000 (pounds 55,000) plus - the Maidstone-based firm sells to a wide range of clients.

Unless they can afford the Cote d'Azure, those looking for holiday homes often favour Normandy and Brittany - "being quick and easy to get to".

Some, possibly 10 per cent, seek to cover their annual running costs or provide themselves with a small income by entering the gite market - a gite generally being defined as a holiday rental property, farmhouse- size or smaller. Converting farm outbuildings into gite complexes was one of the dreams which turned sour for many Britons, because costs ran away with them.

Now what is much more popular is to buy property with one, separate, gitable building, or for owners to let their houses during peak months and take their own holidays when vacancy allows. For anyone wishing to do the same, two things follow: there is no point in buying miles off the tourist track in the middle of France; and being, of necessity, in a more touristy area, the property will be more expensive.

But - inadvisable as it is to give figures where variations are so great - the exercise can be lucrative, commanding, for instance, in the South- west, rentals for four-bedroom farmhouses with swimming-pools of pounds 800- plus a week in August.

Of Francophiles' clients, though, the majority are people who have taken early retirement, have houses to sell in the UK and good pensions to live on, looking for permanent homes and therefore "wanting to live in the southern half of France because of the weather. The South-west is the most popular - the Dordogne, Lot, Charente, Gers".

So, is Mrs Oliver one of the people responsible for turning swaths of the Dordogne, to name just one area, into a warmer corner of the Home Counties, with Victoria-bethan casements which scream Surbiton or Godalming, and brass-door furnishings instantly identifiable as best B&Q?

Emphatically not, she says. "We don't work in any areas like that. There are touristy parts of the Dordogne, and it's always been popular with the English.

"But we tend to steer away, because, nice as it may be for them to have a few English to socialise with, most of our clients want to be among the French.

"A lot of them don't speak the best of French to begin with, but a lot also go with young families whom they want to go to French schools.

"They usually want to live in rural areas, rather than in towns, where they can get far more than they could for their money than in, say, the South-east of England, and where they can have more space and a different quality and pace of life."

For instance, for FFr1.3m (pounds 140,000), Mrs Oliver says, she has just sold two houses, each big enough for a family, on seven acres of land. And, she says, the cheapest house she has sold this year has been for FFr70,000, in the Gers, on one acre, with a magnificent view. "It's a ruin, of course, but the buyer's delighted and plans to spend years restoring it."

Not that she would normally advise prospective buyers to do this. "In the past," she says, "a lot of people were taken in by the mystique of buying to restore, only to find the job proved bigger than anticipated.

"Some of the properties on our books still need more work but their British owners have run out of money.

"Generally, it's worth getting something which needs less work - being more realistic, in other words, and less romantic," she says.

This point is emphasised by Dick Schrader, co-founder and managing director of French Property News, which has a monthly circulation of 18,000, and the organiser of several annual French property exhibitions.

"Although countryside properties in France can cost dramatically less than in the UK, and you can still get one in poor condition for a few thousand pounds, it's probably better at the end of the day to pay more for something that's inhabitable now," he says.

"Most people underestimate the cost of restoration,and often properties can sell for less than they would cost to rebuild."

But, Mr Schrader believes, most people who buy property in France, in whatever state, are stayers.

At the best guess, some 100,000 properties are owned by Britons who tend to be seeking a lifestyle they can't find in the UK.

"They're not so much sunseekers as the people who buy in Spain," he says, "and probably not so much `cachet buyers' as people who chose Italy because it's the `in-place'. They're looking for something different - countryside, restaurants, ambience."

Now, as Mr Schrader and Mrs Oliver agree, is a "critically good time" for Britons to buy: the French domestic market has still not recovered fully from recession; flexible planning regimes mean farmers can vacate old houses and build nearby anew; and the rise in the pound from FFr7.5 to more than FFr9 puts the icing on the cake.

But, Mr Schrader warns: "Although there's plenty of property for them to buy, the good stuff goes quickly and they shouldn't take too much time making up their minds."

But buyers must take time to be sure of exactly what they want, and of what they're getting, before they sign anything. Otherwise, they could find themselves in the unfortunate predicament of several of those who, too late, have realised the benefit of spending an extra pounds 1,000 on fees for a specialist solicitor and notary.

One such specialist is Malcolm Keogh, who is based in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, and has spent the past eight years guiding hundreds of buyers through the intricacies of French property law.

One crucial reminder, he says, is that , between buyer and seller, the notaire responsible for the legalities of the sale is theoretically neutral, but in practice, living in the same small place, is often inclined towards the seller, and unlikely to raise any points of contention or disadvantage, such as disputed access or the existence of rights of way.

"As far as the notaire's concerned, he warns, "anything like this you will be deemed to know, so it makes sense to have someone like me asking all the awkward questions on your behalf, just as you expect your solicitor to when you're buying property here."

If time's a-pressing, or you simply wish to make the whole exercise even more stress-free, you can always enlist the services of a property-finder - someone like Arthur Ward, an ex-barrister whose consultancy is based in London, and who charges fees from pounds 1,000 to pounds 3,000 on selling prices from FFr200,000 to FFr2m to save you the tedium and expense of sifting through unsuitable particulars and looking round unsuitable properties.

Which prompts another reminder: France is surprisingly large, and distances between likely buys can therefore be considerable.

The final injection of reality comes from Malcolm Keogh: "Remember that the notaire acts also as a tax collector and that notarial fees and taxes account for 10-12 per cent of the final price - against 1 per cent for our Stamp Duty here.

"Because this takes so long to recoup, you don't buy in France for short- term investment. You have to buy for use and enjoyment."