House Hunter: France

We want to set up a B&B in Normandy
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The problem

The problem

ALICE YATES WRITES: My husband and I have always wanted to run a small business of our own. We have recently come into a little money and - combined with the equity from our family home in Gloucestershire - we now have a lump sum of around £300,000 with which to do this. Our dream would be to run a little rural bed and breakfast somewhere in France - can we find suitable properties for this amount of money?

Our favourite choice of location so far is Normandy, an area we have visited many times over the years. We have two young girls (aged four and six), so the area and property would need to be child-friendly. Also, because the girls' grandparents live in Hampshire, easy access to there is pretty imperative.

Will there be any problems enrolling the girls into the French education system, and will they be able to cope with learning in French? We have also heard horror stories about the red tape involved in setting up a business in France. Any tips on how to successfully navigate the legendary French bureaucracy?

The Advice

KATY POWNALL REPLIES: Sorry to put a dampener on your dreams, but I have to sound a note of caution. A B&B (or chambres-d'hôte) in Normandy sounds wonderful but please, please be realistic. First, make sure you know the hard work it would involve - late nights, early mornings, piles of laundry and endless cleaning. Also, bear in mind that competition in Normandy for B&B/gîtes is fierce. In the past 10 years lots of Brits have set up these kinds of businesses and have earned themselves a loyal clientele.

Do your sums carefully - put aside a healthy contingency fund and don't plough your entire budget into the property you purchase. You need to allow time for your business to grow and, inevitably, there will be lengthy void periods, particularly in winter. There are also substantial marketing costs to budget for.

Warnings aside, Normandy still offers well-priced property, and there is a surprising amount of attractive, large, traditional, old buildings well suited to your chosen business. If you buy a property that is already being run as a chambres-d'hôte, you will pay a premium but you can simply take over existing clients and bookings and earn an income straight away. In this case, always check the books and determine the turn-over of the business over the past few years.

If you are going to buy a large property and build your own business, pay particular attention to the area you are buying in. It will need something that attracts tourists - a bed and breakfast in the middle of the nowhere, no matter how idyllic, is unlikely to succeed. You need to tap into an existing market. Either place yourself near a town, or in a village that tourists pass through in order to pick up passing trade. The look and feel of the property is important too.

As for your girls, they are young and therefore should adapt easily to the move. State schooling in France is of an excellent standard and as EU citizens, your daughters will have exactly the same rights as French children. Of course they will be daunted on their first day, but they have each other for support, which helps. They will make friends quickly and will probably be translating on your behalf before long!

Bureaucracy in France can be daunting but, generally, the trick is to simply relax, be friendly and try not to get too frustrated - there are no magic answers, I'm afraid.

The good news for you though is that if you only rent out six rooms, your chambres-d'hôte won't count as a commercial activity so you can avoid much of the red tape. It is best to check your position with an independent lawyer or tax specialist.

The Solution

Property one: A renovated 17th-century mill

Price: €274,000 (£188,111)

Agent's details: Situated on the edge of a pretty village, next to Le Mele sur Sarthe, which has a large lake used for summer swimming. It offers five good-sized bedrooms and two bathrooms, a wine cellar and two smaller bedrooms, and has original features throughout. Also has 2.25 acres of land complete with garage, orchard, woodland, a pond and a stream.

Agent Normandy Property Assist, 00 33 2 33 85 17 94.

Property two: A 19th-century half-timbered house

Price: €350,000

Agent's details: Situated between Rouen and Lisieux, this is already a successful bed and breakfast with bookings and publicity in place. Part brick and part timbered, the house is in good condition and has six bedrooms and bathrooms and owners' accommodation. The garden is large and contains a stream.

Agent: Domus Abroad. 020-7431 4692 www.domusabroad.com.

Property three: A historic stone house

Price: £247,500

Agent's details: This lovely property is located in the centre of Domfront. The house offers plenty of living space and four bedrooms - all with original features. There is a large attic space that could be converted. The original offices are in the grounds - a possibility for further accommodation.

Agent: Latitudes 020 8951 5155, www.latitudes.co.uk

If you would like House Hunter's help in finding a property in the UK or overseas, write to: The Independent, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS, 020-7005-2000 or e-mail: househunter@independent.co.uk

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