House Hunter: 'We want to rebuild a French ruin'

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Derek Pooles writes: "My wife Helen and I have been looking to buy in the Charente for many years. As an experienced builder, my grand plan is to move to France some time in the next two to three years to set up a business building bespoke houses for UK clients. We're waiting until our sons Kieran and Ryan have finished school - one is still in the middle of his GCSEs - but I believe that now is the best time to buy, as I think that there are better capital appreciation prospects in France than in the UK.

Everything about moving to France appeals, not least because of the better quality of life, but also because if we stayed in the UK my sons would never be able to afford to buy properties of their own. I've worked out that I can build a bespoke three- or four-bedroom house that would sell for about £150,000. Yet in Newbury, where we live, you can hardly buy a one-bedroomed flat for that.

We have set our heart on the Charente for a variety of reasons; it's the second sunniest area of France after the south, it has easy accessibility to the UK and it has great natural beauty.

I've been searching for a "ruin" preferably with outbuildings to restore and have come close to purchasing something in the past but I've become increasingly frustrated with trying to run a business in the UK while searching for the right deal in France. It's been a nightmare. Agents seem generally poor at responding to enquiries - out of sight is indeed out of mind - and they never return my calls so I've become increasingly desperate and down in the dumps."


Graham Downie replies: "I'm not an estate agent but I am fully registered through the Cognac chamber of commerce. I find houses in the Cognac region for my UK clients and charge them a percentage of the purchase price. My advice is fully independent and, because of this, I can tell it as it is. My clients range from retired couples looking for pretty villages and plenty of sunshine to professionals seeking an area with investment potential.

Cognac is indeed the second sunniest area in France and is, of course, famous for its vineyards and chateaux. There are a host of pretty towns and villages surrounded by sweeping fields of vines and sunflowers. It is in the epicentre of four airports; Bordeaux, La Rochelle, Poitiers and Limoges, as well as close to the TGV and motorway networks.

As for the market, like in many areas of France, the past 18 months has seen an explosion of UK buyers and prices have risen steeply. Fortunately, the market is beginning to settle down and, while there is still a strong demand for houses, I would say we're looking at a rise in prices of between five and 10 per cent over the next 12 months. The real "gems" in the €150,000-200,000 (£100-£140,000) range are becoming harder to find; the Cognac market is still pretty hot, although they are still there if you dig around hard enough. Good properties are selling in a matter of weeks, usually on or close to the asking price.

Derek and Helen love this area and want to buy something with development potential now before they "miss the boat". After talking to Derek it is obvious that he should also be looking at land with planning permission and I've factored this into the search.

I've now visited agents, viewed around a dozen properties, and sent Derek a full report of the best of these which he has narrowed down to a shortlist of three. I've also found a perfect plot of land through an agent in a back street of Cognac, which comes with full planning permission, which would allow Derek to build a house for himself and two other properties alongside it, which could be the perfect launch pad for his new business venture in France.

This would help limit his exposure as, by buying land rather than wrecks, he won't have the worry of his buildings deteriorating further over the next two winters."

Graham Downie runs Cognac Property Services (00336 68531281;


Property one: 1850s house in Lachaise.

Price: €201,000 (£139,000)

Agent's details: This period property dates back to 1850 and is set within a small hamlet called Lachaise. Internally the house has around 244 square metres and the grounds are around 5,000 square metres and contain three separate barns, which could all be renovated.

Property two: A group of buildings near Chateau-neuf.

Price: €209,880 (£145,000)

Agent's details: A group of buildings outside Chateauneuf with 180 square metres of internal space and 10,000 square metres of land. The main house contains a huge grange, grenier and stables.

Property three: House near Jarnac.

Price: €154,965, (£107,000).

Agent's details: This house has 110 square metres of internal space and lies in the heart of a beautiful village 10 kilometres north of Jarnac. Outside there are 1,000 square metres of land and a large barn for renovation.


"I've now returned from my trip to look at properties and, while some of them were beautiful - my wife absolutely fell in love with number one - we changed tack midstream while we were there and have bought land rather than a property.

Graham was really my last chance of finding somewhere as I'd started to give up out of frustration but his advice and help has been invaluable, absolutely spot on. We have now bought the fantastic plot of land he showed us.

This is a far better bet than buying a wreck of a building, which would only get even worse before we get a chance to go out there and renovate in a couple of years' time. The land is stunning, the setting is superb as it looks out on to vineyards and fields of sunflowers.

I've bought two plots with first refusal on the third when it comes up for sale and even if I didn't do anything at all with them, they would be a good investment.

This really shows that dreams can come true."

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