Spring Property Survey: Hunt is up for weekend retreats: UK buyers came by the boatload to invest in French property, but then came disaster. David Lawson reports

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The Independent Online
WHEN the Channel Tunnel finally opens this year, the first passengers may find themselves greeted with hugs and kisses at Calais by several hundred excited people with strangely familiar accents.

The British have already arrived in northern France. In fact, they started swarming in more than five years ago, goggling at every tumbledown farmhouse with a scrawled a vendre sign nailed to the gate.

They were so cheap] And the tunnel was bound to push up prices, wasn't it?

For a few years UK buyers came by the boatload, wallets bursting from second-mortgages on their main homes. By the peak of the boom in 1989 they had invested around pounds 150m on French property, according to the Banque de France.

Then came disaster. Interest rates soared, redundancies proliferated and prices crashed. 'It's a buyers' market out there now around the mouth of the tunnel in Picardy and Somme,' says Alistair Williamson, a Hampshire-based agent who specialises in French property.

'Prices have come down as much as 20 per cent and there is an enormous amount of property available.'

Those crowds welcoming travellers are not friendly Frenchies but UK owners hoping they can finally unload their burden of bricks and mortar - or columbage and thatch.

But Frank Rutherford, another experienced Channel-hopping agent, says that as the tunnel opening gets closer - and the UK property scene looks more healthy - some sellers may be finding the task much easier.

'We are busier than at any time for the last three years,' he says. The hunt for weekend retreats is hardening up prices, and while there is still too much property around for increases, at least values have stopped falling.

Property is no longer cheap, however, in the popular area up to 20 miles inland and along the Pas de Calais. 'You will need to spend pounds 30,000 on a two-bed farmhouse and perhaps pounds 50,000 on one close to shops and good roads,' says Mr Rutherford.

For the classic tumbledown cottage so beloved of the British - and shunned by the French - buyers must head west into Normandy and Brittany.

This is too far from the tunnel for quick visits, relying chiefly on more ponderous ferries for access. Buyers tend to be looking for something a bit bigger where they can spend more than the odd weekend, and perhaps rent out to help meet costs.

'You can still find an old farmhouse with a bit of land around Avranches and Alencon for pounds 15,000 - although it will cost as much again to do up,' says Mr Rutherford. Competition is much less intense because Normandy is so vast - the equivalent of travelling from Manchester to London.

Average prices are around pounds 20,000 to pounds 25,000 for these DIY dreams, however. 'You can live in a place going for this money while doing it up - just the sort of thing the British like,' he says.

A more important reason than the tunnel for buying now is that the French economy is lagging behind the UK by around 18 months.

'But the banks are supporting property owners and buyers rather than pulling the rug,' says Mr Williamson. Loans are available for between 60 and 70 per cent of the purchase price at rates around 8.75 per cent spread over 20 years. He recommends Credit Agricole as a good source.

Buying from British sellers can also wipe out any dis advantage from the post-EMS devaluation, says Mr Rutherford, as they merely want to get their sterling price back. One disadvantage is that these homes are usually more expensive than those being sold by the French.

Contacts: G A K Williamson 0962-734999; Rutherfords 071 386-7240.