The Francises, the Wards and Mr Booth own second homes in France (like 200,000 other Brits). Is it worth their time and money?

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The Independent Online
An English couple, reeling from a lavish lunch, arrived in an estate agent's office in the south of France late one afternoon. One of them was sober enough to convince the agent that they were seriously thinking of buying a house. He took them to see an expensive but unprepossessing property. "Do you like it, darling?" the man asked his wife. "Yes I do, rather," she replied. "Then you shall have it," said the man and the deal was done. The agent reckoned the house was probably the price the wife had exacted for some unspeakable misdemeanour on her husband's part.

This was an unusually extravagant gesture, but it reveals a principle that applies more generally to the purchases of French houses by British buyers: they do not take them too seriously. So the roof leaks and there is no bathroom - well it is a small price to pay for so much potential fun.

Anyone buying a second home is doing so because they want to, not because they need to. Many of the important considerations that apply to a main home (structural soundness or convenience for work) are not relevant to a holiday home. Instead, buyers choose a region, find a pretty property and buy it.

The problems of maintaining a house so far away, not to mention burglaries or accidents, seem to be met with a calm insouciance. The neighbours are around; it is too rural for burglars; and anyway, there is nothing you can do about it, they say.

According to research done at King's College, London, around 200,000 British families own homes in France. The biggest buyers are teachers - who have long holidays and often two incomes - followed by businessmen, lecturers and retired couples. Most come from the South-east, followed by the South-west and London, with all other regions way behind. The most popular areas to buy in are the Dordogne and all around the coast, with Normandy and Brittany serving the short break market and Provence popular for longer stays.

Between 1987 and 1990, the numbers buying in France rose from 2,000 to more than 20,000 a year, financed chiefly from the increase in house values in England. That has come to a shuddering halt. The people buying now tend to have special reasons - they are working abroad or planning to retire to France - or they are rich enough to be recession-proof.

Many of the richest still turn up on the Cote d'Azur. They are typically middle-aged men who have reached the top of their business or professional tree. At first they spend a few weeks of their holiday there, gradually increasing that as they enter semi-retirement. The more bohemian wealthy tend to go further west towards St Tropez.

Brian and Helena Francis fit into the second category. He was a partner in an advertising agency who now works part-time as a consultant. They have graduated from a small flat to a five-bedroom house with swimming- pool. They are toying with the idea of living there full-time and renting out their home in Surrey.

"I have got to a stage where I could settle in both," said Mrs Francis, from her home outside St Tropez. "If I could bring my animals here I would come more often. We have always loved this area. The Cote d'Azur is very beautiful, but it's too manicured for us. Here you still get little villages with whole communities living in them."

The Francises go to Provence for peace and quiet. While they know their neighbours, they do not immerse themselves in the local social life, nor do they bring their English lifestyle with them.

They organised their purchase through Hugo Skillington, Knight Frank & Rutley's man in Grimaud. He is currently selling a beautiful turn-of- the-century house on the cliffs at Cavalaire Sur Mer, overlooking the Mediterranean. It has seven reception rooms, including a ballroom, eight bedrooms and 10 acres of terraces and gardens with a footpath down to a secluded beach. The price is a lottery-winning 17.5m francs (pounds 10m).

Fiona and Tim Ward got married in France. Both their parents have homes there, so it was not surprising that they followed suit. They bought their four-bedroom farmhouse in Champagne four years ago for pounds 60,000, when the exchange rate was 10 francs to the pound.

They use it for at least one long weekend every month. On a good day it takes them five hours from their home in Surrey. "A lot quicker than driving to Cornwall," Mrs Ward points out. Since the arrival of their son Charles, now 16 months old, they have used the house more rather than less, taking friends over.

Andrew Booth bought his 19th-century Dordogne farmhouse with a swimming pool primarily as an investment. It is normally rented out from May to September. Last year it brought in pounds 15,000. He had hoped to retire there, but his father's death changed his plans and now he is reluctantly having to sell. He bought the house for pounds 160,000, but it is on the market for pounds 129,500 because of the fall in the exchange rate.

Mr Booth is selling through Domus Abroad, which handles the sale of many French properties for British buyers.

Hugo Skillington 0033 9443 2863; Domus Abroad 0171-431 4692

"Friends with young children like coming down here, and my children love to bring their friends down. But we couldn't have visitors solidly. We've tried to keep life as laid-back and private as possible"

"When friends come out they say it is so peaceful. They get the best night's sleep they've had in weeks. I have got nothing but wonderful things to say about it. I hope we have it until the day we die"

"We get down there two or three times a year. It's been enjoyable, but in hindsight I wish I hadn't bought it. I have lost a lot of money because of the exchange rate. Still, I might buy again at a later date"