We'll gîte again: Could now be the time to revive that dream of buying a French holiday home?

Just choose your location wisely, says Sophie Morris
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The Independent Online

If you are thinking about buying a second property abroad to treat as a home from home rather than an investment with sound returns, how you plan to travel to and from the new property needs to be high on your search agenda.

France and other parts of the eurozone have for some years seemed out of the reach of British buyers, despite the allure of cheap flights, because of the powerful euro. Your best option now is to future-proof your foreign home while the euro is down by buying within easy reach of the UK by land. Ash clouds, airline strikes and confusion over the shape of the air industry over the coming decades means relying on a plane is not a sturdy long-term plan.

"Inaccessibility can be a sticking point when selling a second home overseas and some vendors saw their property plummet in value during the recession as a result of airlines reducing or cancelling flight routes," says Andrew Hawkins, head of international at estate agents Chesterton Humberts.

Once you've settled on an area, get moving before you're beaten to it. Though the French property market has been struggling for the past several years, the plunging interest and easy accessibility has already been noted by plenty of UK buyers. In the first quarter of 2010, enquiries from Britons looking to buy in France were up 72 per cent on the final quarter of 2009 and at an all-time high since 2007.

Depending on where you're based in the UK, property in Brittany or Normandy could be easier to get to than a second home here. The ferry port of St Malo in Brittany is one of France's most popular tourist destinations – and for good reason, given it's a stunning walled city with dreamy views. Buying here isn't cheap (around €5,000 per sq m for a place in town with a view) and if you don't want to share your space with other Brits it's not for you, but the access is second to none. A seven-mile drive away is Dinard, a quiet seaside town popular with retirees with a sought-after four-flower Ville Fleurie ranking, which are bestowed only on France's best villages. Cancale, 12 miles east of St Malo, is a small port supported by the oyster trade. It is less popular with the British and prices are about 20 per cent less.

In Normandy, Barfleur, an active fishing village, is known as the prettiest village in France and is half an hour from Cherbourg. Property is popular here and rarely hangs around for long.

Although this stretch of coast across the English Channel is popular with the British because of its resemblance to our own south coast, remember that the scorching summers can turn into cold, damp winters.

Further down the Atlantic towards Spain, the weather is more stable and a worthy alternative to the Mediterranean. When the indiscriminate Eurotrash flock to St Tropez, stylish French people head to the Il de Ré, the chic island off La Rochelle, close to Bordeaux. Fans include Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis and Gérard Depardieu.

Although the French wish they had never been found out, the understated, laid-back pleasures of the Ile de Ré have been an open secret for several years. It is situated between Nantes and Bordeaux and a five- to seven-hour drive from the ferry ports and six or seven hours on the Eurostar from London. The main town, St Martin, is a Unesco World Heritage Site and all property conforms to the whitewashed walls and green shutters rule, with nothing more than two storeys. And yes, it's expensive: Prestige Property Group has a 29m sq apartment in St Martin for €220,000.

The mainland is cheaper. The Ile de Ré is connected to La Rochelle, a medieval port town, by a 3km roadbridge, where you could find a small villa for a similar price.

British people seeking a second home in France have long been priced out of the Provence market, due in large part to the success of Peter Mayle's books on the area and its subsequent overexposure. According to FNAIM, the Association of French Estate Agents, property across the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region fell by 12 per cent in 2009, and buyers are starting to re-engage with the possibility of the Provence idyll. Chesterton Humberts has seen a 50 per cent increase in interest in the area since the beginning of 2010.

Driving time from the Channel ports is 10 to 12 hours. Take the Eurostar and change at Lille for a seven- to eight-hour journey to Avignon or Aix-en-Provence.

"Areas which have rail connections, like Aix-en-Provence or the Luberon, are extremely popular and can command a premium," says Andrew Hawkins.

Your best shot at a bargain might be in the Alps. According to Nigel Hindle, director of buying agent Property Vision France, prices have dropped from between 10 and 20 per cent here, because the typical British buyer has deserted the area in recent years. In Chamonix – the skiers' choice – a 70m sq two-bed might now cost around €600,000.

You should get some independent advice on how to buy in France, but for starters even though surveys aren't standard in France, you can still get one done. Then get a detailed written estimate (un devis) and investigate the inheritance laws, which are different to those in Britain.

On the market

Hit the beach

Ile De Ré, Le-Bois-Plage-En-Ré

Price: €748,000

Agent: Prestige Property Group (prestige property.co.uk)

Tel: 01935 817188

They say: Five-bed 19th-century house with terrace and magnificent garden. Ten-minute cycle from the beach.

We say: Le-Bois-Plage has a 7km beach and the island's biggest daily food market.

Perfection in Provence

Provence, Gordes, Luberon

Price: €1.1m

Agent: Chesterton Humberts International (chestertonhumberts.com)

Tel: 020 3040 8210

They say: Three-bed house with great views of Luberon countryside and a two-bed guesthouse and pool.

We say: Great living space, but you're also paying for its proximity to Gordes, one of the villages made famous by A Year in Provence.

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