Invasion of the property-buying classes as Britons occupy Europe

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The Independent Online

Sunny mornings nibbling croissants on the terrace, lazy afternoons sipping aperitifs in the garden followed by quiet evenings at the local bistro. This is the dream sustaining the commuters as they sit on the 7.36 to the City, gazing glumly at the raindrops sliding down the window-pane.

Sunny mornings nibbling croissants on the terrace, lazy afternoons sipping aperitifs in the garden followed by quiet evenings at the local bistro. This is the dream sustaining the commuters as they sit on the 7.36 to the City, gazing glumly at the raindrops sliding down the window-pane.

The idea of owning a second home in France or Italy used to be remote as the chances of winning the National Lottery. But the booming British housing market coupled with the strength of the pound has led to a huge increase in the number of people buying abroad.

A survey published by the Abbey National bank yesterday found that the number of Britons buying second houses on the Continent increased by 75 per cent in the past year. David Wells, of the Abbey National's French office, said that it was a simple question of economics.

"The pound is so strong at the moment and property is so much cheaper in France that people can get a lot more for their money. Even in Italy, which is more expensive than France, you can still get more for your money than in this country," Mr Wells said.

"In addition, transport is now so much easier with the [Channel] tunnel and there are a number of cheap flights available, which are all contributing factors.

"We have a lot of people who are taking early retirement or who have increased the equity on their house by selling at a profit and they are thinking 'Shall I buy a sports car or a Harley Davidson or go on a cruise? Why not buy a house in France?' You can buy a three-bedroom detached house for around £60,000 in Brittany whereas in Hampshire it would cost you two or three times that much - and of course, there you get the quality of life as well."

The most popular area of France last year was the Cÿte d'Azur, followed by the Dordogne and Brittany, In Italy, Tuscany remains the perennial favourite followed by Umbria. Mr Wells said that last year, the average amount spent on a second property was £150,000.

Christine Hilton, of La Residence, an Oxfordshire estate agent specialising in selling properties in France to the British, said the last 18 months had been extremely busy.

"It's not that more people have fallen in love with France in the last year than ever before. It's basically to do with the money. It's like a massive bargain basement sale, except the houses on offer are of high quality and very affordable," she said.

"In the mid-Nineties, there was a huge slump in the property market and although people still wanted to move to France they couldn't sell their properties in this country. At the moment, the domestic market is very buoyant, especially in London, so properties here are selling well and their money will buy more in France than it did a year ago."

Nor is it just rich city bankers buying villas on Cap Ferrat. Ms Hilton said that the bulk of her clients were "Mr and Mrs Average".

"People tend to think that those who buy holiday homes are all affluent but that is not the case. There are teachers, bank managers and postmen and they are all ages. Some people are looking for retirement homes and others want holiday homes.

"Perhaps they have inherited some money from selling a recently deceased parent's house and they decide to invest the money in a second property rather than frittering it away.

"We have recently noticed that a lot of people who have made money on their home in Britain are buying a house in France to live in and a couple of cottages nearby which they rent out for income."

But Charles Auty, of Hamptons International, said it was not just about finding a bargain. "It's about investment in lifestyle. Instead of selling a house in London after two years and making a killing they prefer to have a long-term investment where the prices change very slowly but they can enjoy the quality of life," he said.

Geoffrey Paterson, the managing director of Teamphone.com, escaped from the rat race three years ago and now divides his time between a ski chalet in Verbier, Switzerland, and his office in the City.

"I spend a week in one place and a week in the other," he said yesterday. "In the morning I go skiing and in the afternoon I work. It makes for a much more balanced lifestyle and I do think life should be equally divided between work and play.

"In the summer I do the same thing but instead of skiing down mountains I walk up them. Basically, I am much more available at the end of a mobile phone halfway up a mountain than I am at my desk in London."

And, for the most part, the locals are delighted to welcome the Britons into their villages. In France they would rather see a British invasion than a Parisian one. Les Rosbifs will spend money in the supermarket, dine out in the cafes and restaurants and provide an endless source of amusement with their do-it-yourself repairs and their appalling accents. The Parisians bring all their own provisions, including lavatory paper, and refuse to speak to the villagers, who they regard as peasants.

"It's a fallacy that the locals don't like the Brits invading," said Ms Hilton. "For the most part, when they see the next-door village has a British family they want one too, so they can have someone to gossip about. They often turn up with presents of pickles and tarts.

"The other important factor is that on the whole the French would rather live in a modern house; they have no desire to do up an old wreck, which is exactly what the British love so much, so the two sides dovetail rather well."

At least, they do until it comes to communicating with the locals. A survey by theon-line travel agents BookThat.com found that four out of five Britons did not know the French for "swimming pool" or "beach" and 88 per cent of them did not recognise the word for "summer". At least money has always been a universal language.

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