John Lichfield: Our Man In Paris

For sale: your very own Normandy hovel with leaking roof and no view
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Something new is happening in the once-frozen world of French rural real estate, at least in Normandy.

There used to be two clear markets which hardly overlapped. First, there was the domestic and local market for modern, bijou bungalows - pavillons in French - invariably painted pale peach, with orange roofs. Then there was the market for "old stones with possibilities" (roof preferable but not essential). This was partly a market for the Parisian weekenders. Mostly, it was the preserve of British immigrants and holiday-homers.

Over the past year in lower Normandy, the genres have become confused. The pale peach bungalows are still spreading like bindweed. At the same time, French people, even locals, have begun to discover the delights of restoring old, stone buildings.

Within a couple of miles of our own little house in the Norman hills, there are several abandoned, or under-used, former farm cottages or small holdings under reconstruction this summer. All the owners are French.

As a result, the supply of cheap, rescuable buildings on the local real estate market is beginning to dry up. A new market is emerging, aimed almost exclusively at the British. It might be called the "hovel market".

We took a friend, vaguely interested in acquiring a Norman retreat, to see a tumbledown which had appeared in a local estate agent's window.

At the beginning of the summer, it was advertised ecstatically: "For the lover of nature. Rare. To be seized. €33,000 [£22,300]." By the end of August, the description had been toned down to "possible two room house", for €27,500 or, in other money, about £18,500.

The building consisted of a small stable, three metres by three metres, with a corrugated iron roof. Twenty metres away, there was another set of crumbling old walls, with no roof. The land in between was owned, inconveniently, by two other people. Neither has any plans to sell. There was a possible "garden" a metre wide in front. Nothing behind.

There was no view, except on to a house on the other side of the lane: a bijou, peach-coloured bungalow, with an orange roof.

As we contemplated the complexities, the owner of the bungalow came to investigate. "You are not going to live in THAT, are you?" he asked grumpily.

Er, no, probably not. However, Monsieur Grumpy should not count on no one ever buying it. What could you hope to acquire in a pretty part of rural Britain for £18,500?

In truth, there are still hundreds of empty or tumbledown properties in rural France, abandoned as the farm population has reduced from more than three million to less than 500,000 in the past 40 years.

Many of these properties - ranging from pretty little cottages to Sleeping Beauty chateaux - cannot come to market because, under France's bossy and complex inheritance laws, they are jointly owned by squabbling siblings. If one member of the family refuses to sell, nothing can be sold.

Think twice before buying a hovel without a view, however. A change in the inheritance law went through the French parliament this summer and takes effect in January. It will allow a quarrelsome, property-owning family to take a two-thirds majority vote to sell off an unwanted piece of property.

The law remains opaque and awkward but there could be a trickle, if not an avalanche, of new rural properties on to the market (with and without roofs).

Le Monde is a great, but struggling, newspaper which once catered only to the intellectual, political and literary chattering classes of France.

It has become an even better newspaper in recent years by opening its columns to adventurous new concepts, such as photographs and the coverage of sport.

Old literary habits die hard, however. When someone called Faubert scored a goal for the France football team the other day, his name was printed in Le Monde as Flaubert. The author of Madame Bovary (Gustav) - one of the several great French writers to come from Normandy - would no doubt have been amused at this.

Come to think of it, you could pick a pretty useful French Literary XI. Albert Camus, the existential novelist, was a goalkeeper as a young man. Emile Zola used to play for Chelsea (or was that Gianfranco?). Jean-Paul Sartre was a tricky left-winger etc etc ...