When it's a peculiarly British love affair

Doing up a ramshackle cottage in France sounds romantic, but think about your reason for buying before you shell out
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More than a few of the cars arriving in France in the school holiday are likely to resemble the inside of a DIY store. Instead of relaxing on beaches, their owners will be knocking into shape some neglected house in the French countryside.

More than a few of the cars arriving in France in the school holiday are likely to resemble the inside of a DIY store. Instead of relaxing on beaches, their owners will be knocking into shape some neglected house in the French countryside.

No wonder people return from their homes abroad exhausted. Days spent laying stone and clearing the undergrowth, to say nothing of the hours spent hunting down the plumber, are hardly relaxing. Yet the picture of a derelict cottage in a lovely rural setting sets the imagination of the British buyer racing.

The strength of sterling has reignited this passion for buying to restore, and a property that costs little more than a second hand car seems irresistible. But before pound-rich purchasers settle on a second home abroad they should weigh up their reasons for buying.

David King Associates specialise in the sale of French property but, tellingly, in Paris and the south of the country. The capital, where prices have risen 15 per cent over the past year, and the Cote d'Azur have a strong international as well as domestic market, unlike rural France which is heavily dependent on UK buyers. In the early 1990s, the recession forced many British owners to sell - with great difficulty since their own market had collapsed and the French tend not to want homes in the middle of nowhere.

"Never expect to make money on a holiday home in France that is not in a prime area,", says David King, who is seeing a record number of buyers. "You can buy a two-bedroom flat in Cannes for less than £200,000, which will always let well. A three bedroom house on the coast or in Provence will not cost less than £250,000 but will always be in demand. At present if you see something you like you have to buy it quickly." The same is true of Paris.

But for those who only want the French countryside and who buy with their eyes open, there are "bargains" to be had. An unrestored house in, say, Normandy can be found for around £11,000, and as long as the first person invited to inspect it is a builder, it could provide idyllic family holidays for years to come.

Jane Mulligan and her husband bought a stone house in a hamlet north east of Bordeaux for less than £10,000. "The first thing we had to do was replace the roof, and that cost us £20,000," she says. "We only manage four weeks a year there at the most and we still haven't finished renovating but we love it. It doesn't matter to us what it is worth now."

The love it warts and all attitude is essential if the house is not to become a burden. Stephanie Dobson reckons that her picturesque cottage on a hillside in the Dordogne will sell only to another English holidaymaker. "It's heavenly to us. I bought it for £3,000 more than 20 years ago but I couldn't sell it for more than £50,000, which just about covers inflation. I reckon it costs between £2,000 and £3,000 a year to maintain."

Where there is a good mix of nationalities buying the market should be more stable. In Tuscany, where the Italians, like the French, find the British love affair with run-down houses bewildering, prices at worst only stopped not fell as in France. Improvements are appreciated by other European buyers and increasingly by Italian Americans.

Robin Parr's Tuscan cottage on a hill cost £40,000, eight years ago. It was overgrown and filled with rat droppings but had breathtaking views. While he has spent twice that amount on it, it would sell for at least six times that today. "I set myself a one and a half hour travel rule and stuck to it. Within that time limit I can get to a ski resort, to the sea, go to two opera houses and see some beautiful church, garden or picture. The airports of Florence and Pisa are within an hour," he says.

"I wanted the restored house to look unrestored. Planning controls are strict and Italian craftsmen are about the most skilled I have ever worked with," adds Mr Parr, who will advise on the restoration and furnishing of old properties. Old houses are expensive because of the restrictions on development and the certainty that the landscape will not be spoilt.

A rather different story in the south of Spain where cranes are scattered through the hills. Unlike Majorca where there are limits to development, new buildings are springing up along the coast. James Barnes of Hamptons International finds there are plenty of people keen to buy off plan.

"A golf development such as Taylor Woodrow's at Los Aqueros near Marbella, will always sell and let easily. A two bedroom flat starts from £100,000. But there are advantages with the second hand market such as distinctive houses in large plots. Marbella has a good cosmopolitan feel and if you don't want to limit the resale potential of a property, it is worth considering whether other nationalities would want to live there."

But it is difficult to imagine many people warming to this advertisement of a French ruin in an English magazine: smelly old place, riddled with damp, belonging to a pig farmer, wonderful views.

David King Associates: 07020 94 00 20; Chianti Estates: 0039 577 731 120; Robin Parr: 079749 42431; Hamptons International: 020-7493 8787