Overseas: Le cheap c'est chic

Buying in the UK and Spain has become a nightmare – but you can still find dream homes in France, says Laura Latham
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The Independent Online

Property markets in the UK and Spain may be akin to a roller- coaster ride right now, but France has stayed firm through it all. Prices have risen substantially in many areas but, thanks to the conservative nature of French financial institutions and a less speculative market, there hasn't been the extraordinary highs and lows seen elsewhere.

This means that in many locations it's still possible to find perfectly affordable property. And, while Paris and St Tropez may be out of reach to all but the very wealthy, there's no reason why you can't enjoy all that French life has to offer in its more affordable but no less charming towns.

Montpellier, in the Languedoc region of southern France, for example, is a thriving regional hub and often voted one of the best cities to live in France. Its mix of elegant, 19th-century buildings, great infrastructure and lively student population, coupled with smart shops and restaurants, make it very popular. A bonus is the city's proximity to the south coast, plus easy access to some of the best countryside France has to offer.

"Montpellier is one of the fastest-growing cities in Europe," says Alex Charles of local agency Crème de Languedoc. As a result, the property market is seeing the quickest price rises in the country. However, a decent city-centre studio starts at around £95,000, with two-bedroom apartments in good condition costing from around £240,000. Such property will often be in the city's lovely Haussmann-style blocks, but works out far cheaper than comparable property in Paris.

Montpellier may be popular, but Toulouse also has its fans, and is in the south-west Haute-Garonne, which often tops tables as the best French department to live in. Known as La Ville Rose because of its pink-coloured architecture, Toulouse has a historic centre overlooking the wide river Garonne, and is home to one of the oldest universities in Europe. The city's streets are lively with cafés and markets and, due to its status as the centre of Europe's aerospace and other high-tech industries, there is also huge business potential and a thriving cultural and commercial centre.

"Toulouse is more like Paris than other French cities," says Penny Zoldan of the Latitudes agency. "But it's smaller and a lot friendlier. In the historic centre there are some lovely old buildings, pretty squares and a good transport system, plus there's the theatre, good restaurants and it's surrounded by the countryside of the Tarn and Aveyron."

Zoldan says that central property in Toulouse sells fast when it comes on to the market, with prices starting at around £2,380 per square metre. This would make an 80-square-metre apartment around £190,700, though in the more desirable areas, you will pay from £3,200 per square metre. "With the excellent transport connections it's feasible to own a second home in Toulouse," says Zoldan.

Another of Zoldan's favourite cities is Nice, which she claims is more affordable than people realise. It's true that most beach property will be out of reach of the average pocket but head away from the sea to the back streets, and you can find bolt-holes from under £100,000.

For this kind of price, you'll be looking at small studios or one-bedroom flats of around 22 to 35 square metres, ideal for a pied-à-terre. Latitudes has plenty of property for between £100,000 and £200,000 in Nice, in both new and old buildings, but for something with more space in a better location, you'll need to spend upwards of around £350,000.

"Nice is also a working town, so has plenty of life in winter, and it has some of the best flight connections in France and a great train service along the coast to Cannes and Monte Carlo," Zoldan adds.

With France offering so much to buyers, maybe it's time to pack your valise and head for the Continent.



www.creme-de-languedoc.com ; 0033 (0) 467 381 764 www.latitudes.co.uk; 020-8951 5155

Buyers' guide

*The initial contract (compromis) legally binds you to the purchase, though there is a seven-day cooling-off period.

*Complete structural surveys are not required in France, finding qualified local surveyors is unlikely. If you're buying an older property find a reputable British surveyor. Try www.surveyorsinfrance.com.

n Unless you can negotiate it into the contract, any survey needs to be done before the end of the cooling-off period.

*Prices in France are predicted to start dropping this year, particularly in the low-to-middle sector of the market. Now might be the time to negotiate a good deal.

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