While the French nobility may have lost their titles during the Revolution, Michelle Denton Cook discovers that the life of a lord or lady of the manor can still be enjoyed today
Exchanging life in the UK for a French farmhouse is a common aspiration but now the French dream is getting bigger and better. It used to be that your only chance of living like a lord was to have been born one – but not anymore. If you fancy being king or queen of your own French castle, now is the time to do it!
With prices for top-end properties down by as much as 50% from their peak in late 2007 combined with a strengthening pound, it is accepted that the time is perhaps better than ever for purchasing a second home in France.
What is exciting is that the sort of figures that would have been required eight years ago for a well-appointed farmhouse now bring some very respectable manoirs and châteaux within financial reach, and, combined with the availability of some excellent mortgage options, many buyers are choosing to stretch themselves to more ambitious investments.
Here in the south-west of France, we are very lucky to be surrounded by châteaux in all different guises. Fortified castles established during the Hundred Years’ War tend to have very thick walls and various defensive elements, from moats to battlements and machicolations (an opening between the supporting corbels of a battlement).
The more genteel châteaux, designed to house nobility or gentry, and generally built in the latter half of the 19th century, are characterised by their ornate stonework and towers, while the wine château can be anything from a magnificent castle to a modest farmhouse. There are also properties called maisons fortes, which are essentially substantial homes that were owner-occupied and had a degree of defensive attributes. In Dordogne alone, it is said there are more than a thousand châteaux.
Rather than cut things fine financially, savvy homeowners rent out their properties for the weeks that they do not use them. Even if it is your main home, you can rent the property out for the peak summer period as a way of funding the financing and maintenance of your beautiful home.
Clearly there are many different types of rental property, from typical self-catered gîtes to luxury châteaux. What is exciting about the châteaux rental market is that it is far less saturated than the typical gîte market.
Moreover, the demand for larger group holidays for friends as well as families is growing fast, with many people choosing group holidays over single family holidays these days. With a larger property you also open up the wedding market as well as residential courses, both for work and leisure.
Gone are the days of the basic rural gîte holiday. Clients are now looking for something special and better than home, and what could be better than being lord of the manor, if only for one week?
Bizarrely, châteaux rentals often work out cheaper per head but with far more space and better facilities, making them very appealing.
The renovation question
A big decision for many, made complicated by the conflicting pros and cons. Renovating a property takes time, money, imagination, hard work and patience – and invariably there is risk involved with cost and time over-runs.
Furthermore, different building materials and working practices – not to mention the language and legal framework – can be somewhat daunting.
However, the benefits can also be significant. You get exactly the look, style and facilities you want and there is significant scope for capital appreciation.
Our advice would be to do your homework thoroughly before taking the plunge if you are to take on a project, particularly as there is such a glut of well-renovated properties currently on the market at low prices.
Live like a king
As a general rule, rental clients looking to holiday on a self-catered basis in châteaux and manoirs are typically looking for the following criteria to be met.
If it is to be a summer rental, a pool is a must. Offering a heated pool will extend the season considerably. Having en-suite bathrooms that are well appointed probably rates as the next most important, and the more, the merrier – particularly if you are keen to attract all-adult parties.
Large well-equipped kitchens, outdoor terraces and BBQs are all part of the outdoor-living dream. We also advise you to offer additional services, such as a chef who can be hired directly by the client.
Convenient though it may be, we strongly advise against equipping properties from large international home-furnishing chains. Guests are underwhelmed on arrival to find exactly the same furnishings that they have just equipped their children’s student digs with, and cheap furniture gets shabby very quickly. French antique furniture, bought through brocantes and vide greniers, is sturdier, better value for money, more charming and ages better, not to mention more photogenic.
While you may not necessarily be able to charge higher weekly rates, properties that are well equipped with additional facilities will always book up faster and sell more weeks per year than those without, so consider offering things like table tennis, bikes, trampolines, hot tubs, books and DVD libraries.
Our most popular profile of rental clients for these larger properties is extended families, where mum and dad will hire the property for, say, their 40th wedding anniversary and come with their children and grandchildren.
We also get multiple families of similar ages who are holidaying together, usually with young children. Structured themed holidays organised by a group leader along activity or interest lines are also popular, examples of which include artists on a course, cycling holidays and wine or golf tours.
The biggest change we have seen of late is the growth of the wedding market where couples rent a château for up to a week, one day of which is for a wedding celebration and the rest of the time for holiday.
Share the love
Holiday rental agencies will typically charge between 10 and 25% of the weekly rate by way of fees. While this may sound high, you should find that the benefits of going down the quality agency route rather than doing it yourself greatly outweigh the costs.
Given their experience of the market, they will be able to optimise your pricing strategies, plus the marketing material they produce should be significantly more effective, with better photos, more effective text, and additional elements such as floor plans.
Agencies aggregate their advertising spend over many marketing channels and cross-reference enquiries to the most suitable and available properties in their portfolio.
Furthermore, they should also be able to advise you on the legal aspects of offering your property for rent, as well as playing a key part in ensuring that everything runs smoothly for your clients.
If you are thinking it all makes sense and you are up for the adventure, one very good way to test the waters is to come down and stay in one of these beautiful properties while you househunt.
Go on… live like a lord, if only for a week.
Michelle Denton Cook is director of Classic French Homes in Dordogne and heads up the holiday rental side Classic French Escapes
Tel: 020 8123 3830