With the price of property in England out of our reach but the inclement weather all too close to hand, our eyes turned to France. Having gleaned information on the prices and types of property available from various magazines, we left our jobs and headed off to south-west France.
We were determined to find a house that was habitable, with at least two outbuildings and several acres of land. After 5,000 miles of driving and endless hours spent looking through estate agents' windows, we finally settled on an area known as the Upper Dordogne.
At first, although we spoke reasonable French, we felt more comfortable dealing with estate agents who spoke, or indeed were, English. We found that we were more inclined to accept their opinions on the suitability of an area, a property and its potential. As a consequence, we could have very easily ended up buying an overpriced ruin with many more problems than met the eye.
However, as we began to get a feel for the area and the true value of properties, our confidence increased and we felt more able to deal with French agents.
We soon became aware that in each town all agents deal with the same properties. As a result, on asking to view a property, we were presented with a form to sign stating which agent had shown it to us. This was to safeguard their commission, which is a great deal higher in France than it is in Britain. To avoid having to pay commission, many potential buyers approach the vendor direct, or contact the notaire (lawyer) involved in the sale.
In spite of the 'hard sell', we found viewing properties both exciting and informative. Many places resembled museums, with rooms full of old furniture, and outbuildings a graveyard for agricultural machinery. The owner or agent often spent more time explaining these artefacts and their uses than the details of the property.
Seven weeks after our departure from England, we were shown around 'Fleuret'. The property, which was once a hamlet and home to 12 families, is perched on a hillside facing the medieval village of Curemonte. The view is incredible, the buildings exactly what we were looking for and the main house had the luxury of running water, electricity and a telephone. The estate agent took us to meet the vendor and negotiations began.
Under French law, when a person dies their property must always be divided between their immediate family. In our case, the property was owned by two brothers and two sisters, all of whom had to agree on the price and what they actually wished to sell.
It transpired that the main building was already divided between several owners: the family, a schoolteacher, the bank and the state. The ancient bread oven situated in one of the outbuildings was originally for communal use and in theory, still is, while the surrounding land is criss- crossed with servitudes - public rights of way. Add to this the fact that a small area situated in the middle of the property apparently belonged to a lorry driver, and we entered a bureaucratic nightmare.
All those involved in the sale seemed amused by our concern over what actually was theirs to sell, claiming that what existed on paper did not affect anyone in reality. Having finally established what we were buying, a price was agreed, a figure which shocked us until we realised the family was dealing in old French francs (100 old francs to one new franc).
Unlike in Britain, once you have signed the compromis de vente (exchange of contracts) and left a deposit, both parties are legally bound, subject to relevant let-out clauses, to the sale. This avoids any possibility of gazumping. A date was set for approximately two months later for completion to take place. During this period the purchaser can, if necessary, arrange a mortgage, while the notaire carries out all the administration necessary for the sale. Without a survey to worry about, which is not common practice in France, for us it was simply a matter of waiting.
As the four members of the family were on speaking terms, (not always the norm in the French countryside), the proceedings were not held up and the date was set for the signing of the Acte de Vente (completion). We all assembled at the appointed hour in the notaire's office. The lawyer then read through the papers, which we signed on each page in turn, in descending order of age. Once the formalities were over, emotions ran high and the family, the estate agent and ourselves adjourned to a local bar to celebrate.
With the exception of the formal signing of documents, the whole process was undertaken in a surprisingly relaxed manner. The price was negotiated over a glass of home-made wine in the head of the family's house, and every visit to the estate agent ended with a beer at his local bar. And yet, despite this informality, all the paperwork has, for us, dispelled the myth that the French are always late.
What is perhaps the most important aspect of buying a property is to remember that you are in France and that the French have their own way of doing things.