How to afford a French château
PUBLISHED: 13:46 24 July 2018 | UPDATED: 11:44 25 July 2018
Planning your own escape to a château in France à la Dick and Angel? Here’s some advice on financing the dream of owning a French castle
But with scores of French châteaux on the market for less than the cost of a one-bedroom flat in London, it’s no wonder a torrent of Brits are following in their footsteps. If you want to join them, here is how to afford it.
Find a good agent
Cheap châteaux do exist but very few are true gems, cautions Sarah Francis, founder of Sifex, the agency that helped Dick and Angel find Château de la Motte Husson. “The caveat is that if they are cheap, usually there is a reason. For example, it might be that the drive is shared and you can see the next-door neighbours. It could be that outbuildings have been sold off to raise money and are slap bang next to the château. It could be that the view is of a cement factory or a row of pylons.” A good agent, says Sarah, will eliminate the duds, saving you time and money.
Think beyond the price tag
Restoration costs can be eyewatering as can heating bills and maintenance. Fans of Escape to the Château DIY will no doubt have marvelled over the renovation fundraising efforts of Sophie Duncan and her historian husband James McDonald. With refreshing honesty, Sophie admits they were both “euphoric” and “insane” to take on Château de St-Ferriol in Aude in 1997. “It had one plug socket, one tap, no internal doors and no bathroom,” laughs Sophie. “And we didn’t have a plan.” They bought the 16th-century property for just €60,000, but have spent many times that doing it up and are less than halfway through the work two decades later. Part of the reason is that they are using experienced artisans and quality materials to honour the fabric of the building.
Look up, down and all around
Ensuring a builder and/or surveyor sees the château before you offer to buy it should hopefully flag up any major potential horrors, such as la mérule, or dry rot. Remember a small hole in a château roof can make a big hole in your finances and replacing a septic tank can also be very expensive, warns Carolyn Pratt of Prestige & Châteaux agency in Charente-Maritime. “It’s always a good idea to find out how old a roof is, and be aware that it is only recently that the French have started to use membrane in roofs,” she says. “Also, laws on septic tanks were changed in 2011, so if yours doesn’t conform to the latest regulations, ask the agent to get an estimate for updating or replacing it. In many areas if the property has four or more bedrooms then a soil survey has to be done, which costs.”
Don’t bank on a mortgage
It has become extremely tricky to arrange a mortgage on a French château, and most purchases have to be made in cash, says Fiona Watts, managing director of International Private Finance. Many UK buyers will either sell their main UK residence or remortgage it to use the equity to fund their dream of owning a castle.
If that isn’t an option for you then you will need to turn to the French retail or private banks (the latter won’t consider anything less than a loan size of €2m), she says.
“Your best chance of success is if your château could be classed more as a manoir and is in a good, habitable condition,” continues Fiona. “The banks are more accommodating, especially if you can show that you have a very large savings buffer (at least 24 months of mortgage payments), and that your current level of income isn’t going to materially change or decrease in the future.”
Don’t imagine that your future cash flow projections from the yoga retreat/wine-tasting/boutique hotel will help, says Fiona. “If the bank even suspect that you are turning this into a commercial venture they may also refuse to lend.” Be prepared to put down a sizeable deposit too, she adds, as they may be unwilling to loan more than 60% of the purchase price.
Play the currency market
If you are buying a high-value property like a château, even a small fluctuation in the exchange rate could cost you thousands, says Ryan Kenny, of Hargreaves Lansdown’s currency service. One way to tackle the uncertainty, he says, is to use a forward contract, which enables you to fix the rate for up to two years, either for a specific date in the future or a window of time. “However, because it’s fixed, the downside is that you won’t benefit if the rate subsequently moves in your favour,” adds Ryan.
Another way to squeeze every cent out of your capital is to make a market order. This is where you set a target exchange rate that isn’t yet achievable. If and when that rate is reached, during the day or night, the transfer is automatically triggered. “Be aware though that it doesn’t offer protection if the rate you want isn’t achievable before you need the money,” Ryan cautions.
Get your hands dirty
Brides and grooms are treated like royalty at Château Challain, a grand neo-Gothic jewel north-west of Angers. But behind the fairytale facade, American owners Cynthia and Keith Nicholson are doing a lot of hard labour. “Unless you have an endless bank account, you have got to get your hands dirty,” says Cynthia. “If we hadn’t run a construction company back in the States, we would have got ripped off a lot more because as soon as a contractor walks through the gates of a château, their quotes triple or more. Someone quoted me €40,000 to paint the entrance hallway! I showed them the door and we painted it ourselves.
Luckily, a lot of the work does not require specialist contractors. It’s just labour-intensive.” If you do need to bring in the specialists, you may find it pays off to put them on the payroll, rather than taking them on for one-off jobs.
Grab a grant
One benefit of owning a listed château or one in a heritage area is that the state may subsidise your work to restore, repair or maintain it, especially if you plan to open it to the public. Your regional directorate of cultural affairs (DRAC) can tell you if you are eligible while the heritage association Vieilles Maisons Françaises can advise you on tax exemptions that may be available and help you apply.
Wear more woollies, go solar and buy a forest
When Cynthia looked into installing central heating at Château Challain, she discovered she could pay 20 years of electricity bills for the same price. “Nobody tells you how expensive it’s going to be to heat the place,” she says.
Sophie agrees. Even though Château de St-Ferriol is in sun-soaked Aude, it can be freezing in the winter, she says. “If I had my time again, I’d focus on doing up the attic where the ceilings are lower and it’s a more realistic living space to heat. I would definitely look into alternative heating options such as solar hot water collection using black tiles on the roof.” Sophie also recommends buying a château with adjacent forest as you go through a lot of firewood!
Transfer your skills
All the owners we spoke to have capitalised on their professional knowledge and skills to make a success of their châteaux. Cynthia and Keith at Château Challain used their background in construction to slash renovation costs. Jodi and Peter Gaffey have used their marketing and sales wizardry to set up gastronomy, wine, art and Ryder Cup experiences for guests at La Tour du Château on the Canal du Midi in Aude. At Château du Poiron in Vendée, owner Françoise Duffell is an experienced language teacher and runs Le Poiron Bonjour, a business offering residential courses for Brits who want to improve their French for pleasure, work or holidays.
At Château de St-Ferriol, historian James kept his day job as a management consultant for several years to help fund renovation work, but now puts on tours and talks about Cathar history to bring in much-needed cash.
Châteaux make wonderful wedding venues, boutique B&Bs (these tend to be less expensive than setting up a hotel), and training centres. But to be successful, you need to find your niche and do it well.
Although Château du Poiron is a relatively small castle, Françoise and Mark have a gîte that can comfortably host 29 guests. “It’s quite rare to have such a high capacity gîte and we rent it out most weekends of the year,” says Mark. “It’s our bread and butter and to be honest I don’t think we would have survived here without it.”
Thanks to their prominent position at the heart of Cathar country, meanwhile, Sophie and James have founded the Amis de Château de St-Ferriol, a charitable foundation bringing together people interested in talks and events at the château, including concerts that capitalise on the perfect acoustics. “Doing your homework is essential,” says marketing whizz Jodi, of La Tour du Château, also in Aude. “We find our customers are looking for that authentic French experience. So we have partnered up with vineyards, chefs and truffle farms to offer them those experiences and that’s been lucrative.”
As for Château Challain, its unique selling point is plain to see from the jaw-dropping aerial footage on its website. It has a turret for every season, a dormer for every month, a fireplace for every week, a window for every day of the year and a pair of owners who are still very much in love with their château. “These weddings are really only to keep the doors open, keep the roof on; they don’t put anything in our pockets,” says Cynthia. “But I couldn’t be prouder of the château. We have brought her back from the dead and she will last for many more years than me. That’s the real reason why you do this. It’s not about making money. It’s a passion.”