Buying into real village life

It may seem like all of Britain is seeking a gite in France, but it is still possible to live in remote surroundings at great value. As Ginetta Vedrickas reports, there's even a hillside hamlet for sale (all you need is a few sheep)
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The Independent Online

As increasingly exotic destinations entice British buyers abroad, buying in France may - on paper - appear unadventurous. France is still the second most popular overseas hotspot with some areas now saturated by British buyers, but head off the beaten track and it is still possible to find rural splendour where British voices are as rare as hens' teeth.

As increasingly exotic destinations entice British buyers abroad, buying in France may - on paper - appear unadventurous. France is still the second most popular overseas hotspot with some areas now saturated by British buyers, but head off the beaten track and it is still possible to find rural splendour where British voices are as rare as hens' teeth.

Graham Downie left the UK, where he spent 20 years as an estate agent, for a rural village in France where he now heads search agency Cognac Property services. "I've done my time getting the 6.48am into Waterloo and not getting home until 9pm. We wanted a complete change," says Downie who now lives with his family in the small village of St Meme les Carrieres, eight kilometres away from Cognac. Increasingly he finds clients also want unspoiled and relatively unknown locations with few other British owners. "People looking for holiday homes want to be within 10 minutes of sizeable towns but those looking to come here permanently want peace and quiet and a house with land."

Downie recently found a property for clients James and Charlotte Grayson who wanted a semi permanent home with land and stabling for their horses. Their budget was €300,000 (£214,000) and it took Downie six weeks to find "the one", a detached four-bedroom Charentaise farmhouse complete with pool and period detail in a small hamlet south west of Angoulême. "This was possibly the hardest search I've done as finding that amount of land here isn't easy or affordable."

The closer you get to the wine growing area of Cognac the higher the prices. It is still possible to buy a typical farmhouse with land for under £200,000, although it is becoming rarer warns Downie. "The French have wised up to the fact that British buyers will pay top prices and there is a lot of junk out there to sift through." And living in a rural environment can also be challenging: "When it's cold and rainy and your kids are ill you realise that it's not for the faint-hearted, but when the sun is out and you have the vineyards, sunflowers and your own large plot of land it's paradise."

VEF's Rhona Booth agrees. Having spent several years in Brittany, where there are now many British owners, she has moved south to the Gard. "It's changed our lives completely. This part of France is still unknown to the British market, really virgin territory, and here people live their lives outdoors." Booth is currently selling a property which will ideally suit anyone wishing to escape the crowds, an entire hamlet in the centre of the Cévennes National Park, for €1,121,300 (£770,000).

Perched on a rocky outcrop between two streams, this entire Cévenol village has a wonderful setting and 65 hectares. Its current owners run "natural holidays" with organic and yoga themes and are mainly self-sufficient using produce from their land. The hamlet is made up of a main house plus five separate gites, which have all been created from trees grown on the land. VEF's MD Trish Mason says, "This property is extremely unusual as it's the first hamlet on our books for five years."

VEF now has 30 offices across France but when Mason started the company and moved to France 18 years ago, hamlets for sale were both affordable and more common. "Buying whole villages really wasn't that unusual but it is now." Mason then found her own bit of "hidden France" in the Limousin area where she bought a period house for £45,000, which today is worth £600,000. "Then it was hidden, really very unspoilt, but it's attracted so much media attention that I felt it was time to leave."

Mason now lives in the Gard region, which she describes as "totally unspoilt yet cosmopolitan". "Here we're close to the Spanish border so you get a mix of people, it's very international. In Limousin people were either French or British, two very divided camps, so it was definitely time to move on." Mason is now developing a 12th-century farmhouse and hopes to see comparable returns to her Limousin property. She believes that clients are now driven mainly by investment potential. "Capital growth and rental returns are buzzwords; it's not their hearts driving them any more," says Mason.

And it's easy to see why British buyers are investing here. France recently topped Europe's list of countries with the greatest capital growth, 15.5 per cent in the last year with bigger rises in the south, and 54 per cent over the last three years. Trish Mason intends staying in a region she loves for its traditional values. "People here always buy locally sourced produce and you still see them leading their sheep up to higher ground." But buying in a relatively undiscovered area can bring other rewards, says Mason: "I believe that I can treble my investment in three years."

Cognac Property Services
(00 33 6 68 53 12 81; www.cognacproperty.com). VEF UK (020-7515 8660; www.vefuk.com)

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