Britain versus Brittany?

Split decision? No, it’s a knockout! Chris Slade explains why Brittany remains a huge favourite with the British...

We’re just back from a stint doing some much needed work on our house in Brittany. Since our reluctant return to the UK, I’ve read stories of some no going back’ Britons who are... well, coming back. There are tabloid tales of many returning. But it’s a little like a reality show on TV... some can and some can’t hack the new life, whether it’s a question of not having grasped the nettle firmly enough, or the cold economics of money no longer going far enough to cover the outgoings. Some stories like this are to be expected. But there are solid elements of the British public who are still maintaining that well-trodden path just oneway across the Channel.

We were fortunate to buy a house in Brittany (for the price of a secondhand Ford Sierra – well, it was 10 years ago!) when bargains, in need of renovation, were thick on the ground. But, if those having problems in the Dordogne, as an example, are coming back to the UK as rebounding economic migrants’, aren’t they likely to experience similar problems once they are back in Britain within the home’ economic climate?

In our line of work, we see many people change their lifestyle between Britain and Brittany. It has always reassured me that, once settled, and with a solid work ethic and strength of resolution, they fit into their new community with confidence. That a high proportion of them work in building-related trades is perhaps not surprising. But there is strong French government legislation against people working within the black economy and punishments are harsh – not just for the perpetrators but also for their clients – so be warned. Having a friend in the trade isn’t always a suitable excuse.

But there’s a rich diversity among other incomers’ too; teachers, librarians (all hail to anyone whose grasp of the French language can take them this far), market gardeners, writers, illustrators, graphic and web designers, thatchers, estate agents (of course) and even a chef working in a respected and busy restaurant.

Naturally, there is also a raft of B&B and g�te owners and hoteliers whose incomes depend on the travel, tourism and property-seeker markets.

We have friends too who, as pensioners, integrate very well into their local community, with yoga, coffee mornings, arts festivals, charity telethons and French Scrabble sessions at the Salle des F�tes – all a means of integrating with their new neighbours.

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There are encouraging concessions for pensioners (even those from the UK) in France who may be on low fixed incomes. They take the form of an exemption from local community charges, for example. This is encouraging for those who have perhaps been hit by their UK pensions fluctuating in value as a result of the falling pound to euro rate.

Market watch

The property market across the Brittany peninsula is definitely picking up and, with 700 miles of coastline and a vibrant regional authority, Brittany is constantly adding to its reputation as a tourist destination.

Those who have had a longterm desire to make France their home are finding, as the UK lending market eases, that they are once again able to sell or rent their UK property to fund their move.

One of Brittany’s advantages is that it is accessible without it being essential to fly there. Long-term availability of lowcost, short-haul air travel is uncertain. BMI Baby, as an example, has pruned its longer distance flights into France by suspending its service to Bordeaux. If this becomes a trend then Brittany property values will strengthen, making now an excellent time to buy, as there are still many price dropped’ bargains as well as properties just coming on to the market being priced to sell rather than sitting on the shelf waiting for an economic miracle.

A return to normality’ is on its way but it is still likely to be a long convalescence. However, first to rally as would-be purchasers are those who are attracted to Brittany as being just across the water’, keeping family contacts within easy reach and also meaning their new home is conveniently located for friends and family to visit.

The most popular area from our band of clients is still the C�tes d’Armor, where access by ferry from Portsmouth bears the majority of the traffic on the western Channel. The property style of choice, and still the most abundant, is the traditional rustic stone home with a slate roof. Those most sought after will also have an outbuilding for development into accommodation for extended family use or as a vehicle for that all important home plus income’ requirement.

Central Brittany represents great value for money, being inland rather than immediately on the coast, which carries a premium. Properties further inland are within easy reach of the north or south coast, as well as being close to many inland lakes that offer woodland walks and watersports (some have manmade beaches too).

In fact, the coast is not far from any part of the Brittany peninsula, making it an ideal holiday destination, much like the UK’s west country.

Curiously, the most popular price band for those viewing recently has been within the €200,000-250,000 bracket as well as those over €500,000 (those escaping fat cats?). The lower end (€100,000-150,000), where most activity was seen prerecession, is only expected to pick up more noticeably when the UK economy comes further back on track.

Entente cordiale

One of the noticeable differences between Brittany and much of Britain is the lifestyle. Brittany is more rural than urban; newcomers often say that Brittany it is like the UK back in the 1940s and 50s – uncrowded and unhurried – and that standards of education and healthcare are noticeably better than they are regarded to be in the UK.

Brittany is evolving as a very attractive part of the EU. Many Breton communes operate a welcome programme for newcomers to their villages and towns. AIKB (www.aikb.fr) is a great organisation, which exists to assist with integration and work opportunities, and also organises language learning programmes (both French and English), business set-up seminars and group visits to places and events with both British and French guides to bridge any cultural gaps. All very refreshing!

As a neighbouring farmer pointed out to me – I first met him when he was cutting down a stand of Laurel trees just after we moved into our house in Brittany; it was on what we thought was our land but which he maintained was his, just a border skirmish which we still laugh about at social events – “We’re good friends... You’re from big Britain and we’re from little Britain... Le secret est dans le nom”.