Today, homes are where the French live

The euro's arrival has started a surge of British buyers across the Channel, says Penny Jackson
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Fears that the strength of the pound cannot continue indefinitely has led to a buying spree of second homes in France. The steady flow of francophile buyers has surged over the past two years and the arrival of the euro appears to be encouraging even more.

Fears that the strength of the pound cannot continue indefinitely has led to a buying spree of second homes in France. The steady flow of francophile buyers has surged over the past two years and the arrival of the euro appears to be encouraging even more.

The French market has moved beyond fashion, Vivian Bridge of North and West France Properties, says. "It is no longer for those who like to be cool, but for buyers from all sorts of backgrounds who have to the time to enjoy the lifestyle and weather. On average, countryside prices have increased by 35 per cent in the past 10 years, but a quarter of that has been since the year 2000."

This weekend prospective buyers have the chance to check on values for themselves while catching a flavour of all things French at a show in Olympia, west London. "Vive la France" is a celebration of the country's food, wine, scenery, craftsmanship and houses. The property exhibition brings together more than 100 agents and developers, surveyors, architects, lawyers and financial advisers covering the 22 regions. There is even an interior and design section.

Buyers may well have graduated beyond derelict barns, but they still prefer old stone houses to new properties, and nearly always want to convert or restyle in some way.

"The British want what they can no longer find at home, space and somewhere that is truly rural," Mr Bridge says. "They do not need to buy in the middle of towns for security reasons because there is respect for property in France. This is apparent in its lower insurance rates."

In Normandy, a typical cottage with two bedrooms, in an acre and a half of grounds costs between £45,000 to £50,000. "But an increasing number of buyers want to derive an income, typically from a gîte complex in selected spots in the north and in the Charente southwards. There, £150,000 would buy a four-bedroom house with outbuildings."

But perhaps by the far the biggest factor driving purchasers, certainly at the top of the market, is the ease with which people can work from a base abroad. David King, of David King Associates, who has long experience with property in Provence and on the Cote d'Azure, is finding an increasing number of buyers with their own companies have detached themselves from the day-to-day business and can spend long periods in France. "A laptop and a mobile means they can keep in touch and the greatly improved air links make travelling to and fro easier and cheaper."

Most, Mr Bridge finds, want to be away from the coast but close to a village. The British tendency to be surrounded by land as a protective barrier is not necessary in France, where there is very strict planning.

Near La Rochelle, a favourite resort of the French for its sandy beaches, and sailing and golf course, David King is selling a 19th-century country house with six bedrooms, three reception rooms and two acres of land – with more available – for 735,600 euros (£450,000).

It is more than a holiday retreat and he expects it to be bought as a semi-permanent home. It is the kind of property that he says would fetch about £2m in southern England.

The historic chateau has always captured the imagination of the British buyer and Chateau de Tertre, an architectural gem, only 30km from Caen and surrounded by orchards and farmland, has outstanding features. Its French owner lovingly restored it as a small hotel with gold-leafed Louis XVI drawing room, wood panelling and magnificent stone staircase. It has nine bedrooms and a third floor waiting to be refurbished. The grounds include a lake and a small island. It is being sold by Hamptons International for £1.1m and the interest is mostly coming from the UK, from people who wish to turn it back to a family home. A victim, perhaps, of the slowdown at the top of the market, its price has been reduced by £70,000.

The speculative nature of property purchases in the UK is absent in France and those who went down that path in the Eighties got their fingers burnt. Advisers regard property, even in Paris, as a long-term investment to be enjoyed not least because the costs incurred by the buyer are high compared with the UK.

There are always temptations, though. A memorable advertisement ran a few years that went something like, "Smelly old place, riddled with damp, belonging to a pig farmer, wonderful views". Eye-catching gimmick certainly, but the vendors knew it would be a mistake to underestimate the appeal of the neglected property "with potential" to the prospective British buyer.

But picturesque outcasts should come with a health warning. Stephanie Dobson was told by French agents that her pretty cottage on a hillside in the Dordogne, two miles from a village, would sell only to another holidaymaker. "It's heavenly to us, but not the French. I bought it for £3,000 more than 20 years ago but I couldn't sell it for more than £80,000. I reckon it costs between £2,000 and £3,000 a year to maintain, so you have to love it for itself."

For more information on the French Property Exhibition: www.vivelafrance.co.uk or ticket hotline on 0870 902 0444. "Vive la France" is open this weekend between 10am and 6pm at Olympia, west London.

North and West France Properties: 020 8891 1750

David King Associates: 07020 94 00 20

Hamptons International: 020 7589 8844

Tips for buyers

  • Caveat emptor: there is no such thing as "subject to contract";
  • Purchaser is responsible for all fees;
  • Notaire fee is set down by law based on purchase price. It can range from 10 to 15 per cent plus VAT at 19.6 per cent;
  • The estate agent's commission may be in purchase price;
  • Forming a company to buy could be a way around difficulties with inheritance and succession.

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