A place in the country

Dreams of a house in Creuse inspired Barbara Grosvenor and her husband to start a property search. Would they find the right place?

Towards the end of August 2009, we set off from Portsmouth on our second househunting trip. We were looking for a property to use for long holidays in our retirement, and something we could renovate – we wanted to be creative. These days one can expect to be retired for at least 15 to 20 years and we didn’t want to spend all of that time taking it easy. The arrival of our two grandchildren and another two on the way prompted us to think again about how we could all spend some time together, and a property in France seemed the perfect solution.

Initially we looked in the Lot valley, but our searches took us further north to be within a comfortable day’s drive from the coast. We booked an apartment for a week at the mountain resort Super-Besse in the Massif Central, but also allowed for three days either side to look at the surrounding area. We booked ahead for the first night and drove down to Montlu�on, arriving in late afternoon.

The next morning we met our English immobilier in La Soutterraine – a very pretty ville fleuri. She showed us two houses that both needed complete restoration. The first was in a lovely hamlet and certainly had lots of potential, but the front garden was on a steep slope and parking would have been a problem.

Romantic descriptions

The second had looked really interesting on the internet, with a cellar where children had hidden during both world wars, but the cave was too low and dark for us to see beyond the doorway.

There was also a staircase leading to nowhere’ and this turned out to be on the upstairs landing. The owner had planned to construct another storey, but had then built another house instead.

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The staircase was supposed to be special, and you could see the newel post had been made from a single tree trunk and must have been quite something, but now much of it was crumbling away.

Many of the treads were rotten, and I doubt if it will be safe to show people around for much longer. The agent said she had shown this property to about 10 clients – perhaps they had been drawn by the romantic internet descriptions too.

We returned to our hotel wondering if our dream was an impossibility. These two properties had both looked like good value on the internet.

Farming hamlet

On day two we saw four houses with another agent. We had a chat with him beforehand and explained that we were looking for something we could improve on, but preferably with not too much building work required.

He took us to see a half-renovated house with a smaller dwelling next door and the possibility of making them into one. We could have lived in this straight away,

and that aspect would have suited us very well, except we didn’t like the things that had been done.

Also the garden was across the lane and I couldn’t visualise our grandchildren playing there safely with tractors and other farm vehicles going by. There was a larger plot of land included in the sale, in another part of the village, but we didn’t think that would be very useful in our situation either.

The second property was a very large barn in a farming hamlet. One end had been lived in and could have been expanded to create a reasonable-sized house but the other end was a huge expanse of modern breeze blocks with no character. The garden was a large south-facing field and was attached to the property – that was a point in its favour. A swimming pool was not high on our list of priorities, but we thought it would be good to have enough space for one if we decided later on that it would be a nice idea. We thought that perhaps we could adapt this building to our needs.

The third house had a small garden, rising steeply from the road. We liked the big downstairs room, there was lots of loft space, and a convertible barn next door, but it wasn’t what we were looking for.

To what extent would we have to compromise to realise our dream?

The last house we saw that day, in Creuse, was much more to our liking. It had character, looked solid, was in a quiet hamlet, not too far from the shops in the next village, had a great adjoining garden, and was the cheapest we had seen so far!

Okay, so the roof needed a strip and re-tile but we would be putting windows in the attic, so much of that would be disturbed anyway. Was it just that it looked so much better than all the others we had seen? We decided to sleep on it.

Or rather not sleep actually! The agent had said that at this price it was not going to hang around – what should we do? The first immobilier had given us the telephone number of an English contact who could put us in touch with builders and trades people as required.

We decided to give him a ring. He was happy to go and look at the property and give an opinion. In the meantime we journeyed on to Super-Besse and settled into our apartment. It’s primarily a ski resort but there are some great walks too.

We also spoke to the immobilier to say that we were interested in the Creuse property and would like to view the place again on our way back. That would give us breathing space.

Family holidays

In fact, the week turned out to be a bit of a midlife crisis’. We agonised over what we wanted for our future. Was this too much to take on? Would we run out of money before we finished renovations?

We visited a bricolage to get some ideas of prices. It was difficult to work out a budget. Would the house get enough use? We didn’t want our family to feel obliged to take their holidays there. Would the locals accept us? Would we cope with the language? Would we get bored of the area?

We had sleepless nights and a few arguments, but having this time to chew things over while exploring the mountain scenery, swimming, relaxing and checking out the surrounding area helped us to come to our decision.

We decided we would kick ourselves if we didn’t go for this one. Our English contact had been to view the barn and phoned back with some very positive results.

Friendly owners

We hadn’t booked up anywhere for our three nights on the return, so bought a chambres d’h�tes book to search out some accommodation. Fortunately there was a suitable place in the next village from our planned purchase. That was convenient as we had an appointment with the agent, at the property, on the Monday morning.

It was useful to be staying in the area, which we had previously looked at only briefly, and the friendly owners of the chambres d’h�tes were able to fill us in with details of local amenities and places to visit.

They even knew of the property and the lady said she had thought, when walking past, that it could be made into a very nice house. We were surprised how much we liked the gentle rolling hills, and a day’s touring around the area convinced us that we could spend some happy times holidaying here.

We arrived early at the barn the next morning to start doing some outside measuring before the immobilier arrived.

We had bought one of those fancy ultra-sonic measures, having seen another agent using one last year. They’re useful for measuring dark attic spaces where you don’t want to actually venture right up to the edges. Not so useful, however, for measuring doors and windows. You need to hold something solid against one side of the thing you are measuring, as the beam needs a surface to bounce off. Even then you have to get it in just the right place.

History lesson

It was a beautiful September morning and Geoff imagined himself sitting on the front window sill with a glass of wine in his hand, watching the world go by. He wouldn’t have much chance for relaxing, though, with all the work there was to do – nevertheless, we did need to get inspired!

We were looking at the space in front of the property when a rather senior member of the village happened to wander by. Of course we said bonjour’, and he smiled and readily shook our hands.

We did our best to have something of a conversation and learnt that a previous occupant of the property had been a clog-maker, carpenter and mason for the hamlet.

Further investigation of the house and gardens worked their magic and we decided that this place was ideal in so many ways. The next day we put in an offer of €36,000, 5% below the asking price, and it was accepted! Our adventure was about to begin!

There was a lot to do in the weeks building up to the signing of the final contract. We opened a French bank account, researched everything from underfloor heating to septic tanks, and bought a small caravan to use as our temporary base while we were on site.

Finally, on 1 December, we arrived in Creuse for the signing ceremony. You are advised to check over the property on the day of signing, and since it was three months since we had seen it, that was obviously a good idea.

Rescue service

So we drove up to the front of our barn, just like we had done in September – except this time with the caravan in tow – and stopped outside the front door. And that was when we realised how much rain had fallen in those few weeks. We were now well and truly stuck in several inches of mud!

Geoff can be very resourceful in such circumstances, and after unhitching the caravan, produced from the car some pieces of plywood that we had bought with us to board up the windows. Placing them in front of the wheels, the idea was to drive on to them, but it was no good – the wheels spun round uselessly.

A quick look back at the caravan showed it sliding perilously towards a ditch so we had to move quickly to pull it back. That done we went back to the car, but after trying again realised that we would need to summon help.

Unfortunately, being stuck in mud didn’t qualify as a breakdown’ in the rules of our vehicle rescue contract. The best they could do was supply us with the number of a local garage. We were about to try them when one of our new neighbours happened to pass by.

Seeing our predicament and hearing that we were about to telephone a garage, he motioned to us that that would be very expensive. He took Geoff off round the corner and returned with another of our new neighbours and his 4x4. In no time at all we were out.

There wasn’t much time left to look over the house, but it appeared exactly the same, and having met two of our neighbours we had a good feeling about it anyway. We headed off to the notaire’s office in Bonnat and a couple of hours later we were the proud owners of a beautiful little French fermette.