The Midi-Pyrénées: High altitude, low prices

House prices vary according to the local climate in the stunning Midi-Pyrénées
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The Independent Online

The Midi-Pyrénées in south-west France is a stunningly beautiful region that is increasingly attracting British investors. The area has plenty to recommend it, including lovely period architecture, good health and education services, a great climate, low crime rates, fabulous food and wine, superb skiing and the Mediterranean coast only a couple of hours' drive away.

It is also relatively under-developed. Its eight departments cover a vast area - almost 46,000sq km - yet are home to only two-and-a-half million people. As a result, life is conducted at a wonderfully relaxed pace. This is traditional France where the people are warm, welcoming and friendly, leisurely two-hour lunch breaks are the norm and people don't bother locking up their bicycles when they are out shopping.

Hardly surprising, then, that house prices in the Midi-Pyrénées are high. "You are looking at around the £200,000 mark for a basic holiday home - a two-bedroom stone cottage - and an additional £50,000 on top of that for a place you could live in full-time," advises Dan Brewer of VEF - a UK-based agency that specialises in marketing properties in the region.

However, there are significant variations in prices depending on where you buy. They tend to be highest in the central heartland around Toulouse, Montauban and Cahors - all beautiful medieval towns with thriving arts scenes and great nightlife.

They are also popular holiday destinations where many British tourists make their first acquaintance of the region and develop a liking for the local foie gras, Armagnac brandy and fine wines. It's a trek getting there by car - about a 10-hour drive from Calais - but you can fly from Gatwick to Toulouse in 90 minutes.

Outside the region's central area, property prices fluctuate quite a lot, according to the climate. This depends on altitude in a region where the lower-lying slopes can be basking in Mediterranean sunshine while higher southern peaks trap storm-clouds that can rage for months.

"As a rule of thumb, the higher the altitude, the lower the prices," says Nick Stallwood of the French Property Shop - another UK-based agency with a portfolio in the region. Stallwood generally advises his clients against buying properties above an altitude of 400 metres unless they can face the prospect of savage winter weather conditions.

Different regional weather patterns are reflected in architectural styles. Stoutly built properties that are beamed and well insulated with clay tend to be more prevalent in the chillier southern climes while airier Mediterranean style houses are more the norm towards the north and east where one also encounters quite a few stunning 14th- and 15th century castles.

Prices to the east of the Midi-Pyrénées, in the unspoilt countryside around Aveyron, are quite a lot lower than in the region's central heartland. This is a rural, unindustrialised stretch of country that was until recently somewhat landlocked and cut off.

Road connections have now greatly improved and the drive from Toulouse to Rodez - Aveyron's principal town - can now be completed in under two hours. Ryanair also offers cheap direct flights from London Stansted to Rodez that take about 90 minutes.

This improved accessibility and the relatively low prices have led to Aveyron becoming an increasingly popular destination for British buyers. Typically, they are looking to buy not in Rodez itself but instead in one of the many nearby medieval hilltop villages such as Saint Antonin in the Tarn-et-Garonne about an hour's drive to the south.

Quite a few of these villages have been colonised en masse by the British buying up local period properties. "It's a snowball effect," says Stallwood. "Friends and family tend to start buying in the same spot and gradually local English-speaking communities start to develop."

A similar pattern is developing, too, in the more picturesque villages of the region's central heartland such as Villefranche-de-Rouergue near to Montauban and Caussade over towards Cahors. However, one of the drawbacks of this trend has been to significantly drive up local property prices.

Those on tighter budgets might be better off house hunting in the south west of the region towards Lourdes in the foothills of the Haute Pyrénées. This is the gateway to most of the major ski resorts and is about an hour's drive from Toulouse.

It's a sparsely populated area of green, rolling hills and mountain meadows knee-deep in wild flowers. The climate is still relatively temperate in these parts and property prices in villages around the picturesque towns of Aurignac or Castelnau Magnoac are often up to a third lower than they are further to the north. Another alternative for those on limited budgets but wanting to buy on the lower slopes is to consider opportunities for self-building.

Land is ridiculously cheap by British standards and construction costs remain low. Also, if buying a plot of land through reputable agents, help will often be forthcoming in arranging planning permission and in dealing with the legal formalities.

For those prepared to put in the effort, buying a plot of land and starting from scratch can often work out as the most cost-effective option. For example, a four-bedroom new-build house on a prime site - inclusive of initial outlay, legal and building costs - is likely to cost as little as around £150,000.

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