Fit for a king

The enduring beauty of the Loire has been a powerful draw for househunters over the years. Alison Morton reflects on its appeal

 

The River Loire has captured the imagination, and the hearts, of English-speakers for centuries and nobody can deny that this strong attraction endures. Rising at Ste-Eulalie in the Ard�che, it flows for more than 1,000km until it reaches the Bay of Biscay at St-Nazaire. But it’s the western Loire that jumps immediately to mind when we talk about the Loire Valley: ch�teaux, wine, warm weather, and all within a few hours from the Channel ports.

Like all mature rivers, the Loire is very wide at this stage, providing a vast area of beautiful countryside, cultivated and built on by kings and commoners alike. It is also known as the Garden of France due to the abundance of vineyards, fruit orchards, artichoke, asparagus and cherry fields that line not only the banks of the river itself but much further south.

For visitors and residents alike, the quality of the Loire Valley’s architectural heritage is stunning in terms of the ancient towns such as Amboise, Angers, Blois, Chinon, Nantes, Orl�ans, Saumur, and Tours, let alone its masterpiece castles, such as Amboise, Chambord, Uss�, Villandry and Chenonceau.

This ch�teau magic spreads south at Montreuil-Bellay, Br�z�, Oiron and Thouars. And every small village south of the Loire has delights to discover: the packhorse bridge and 12th-century church at St-Generoux, Voltaire’s house and the stunning castle at St-Loup-Lamair�, the dolmens of Taiz�… it’s hard to know where to begin, or indeed stop.

The southern end of the Loire Valley and northern Deux-S�vres not only offer excellent value for money but, according to M�t�o France, are far south enough to enjoy nearly 2,000 hours of sunshine per year.

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What’s more, there are also terrific transport links. The Loire Valley is around four and a half hours’ drive from Dieppe, and six from the Channel Tunnel and. Calais and also has great air links. Airport drive times from Thouars are: Poitiers, one hour; Tours, one hour 20 minutes; Nantes, two hours; and La Rochelle, two hours and 20 minutes. The TGV from Poitiers runs a direct service to Lille, then across the platform to the Eurostar and into the heart of London.

For shoppers, the market in Thouars is one of the biggest in south-west France. For children and adults alike, the zoo at Dou�-la-Fontaine is world class and at Loudun you will find one of the best karting tracks in France. And the good news is that your property pound goes so much further.

 

Trends spotting

The Notaires de France website www.immoprix.com records prices paid for different sizes of property, down to sector level in each department. Average prices cannot reflect the individual details of commune, condition, or land, but this site’s strength is that it shows trends in actual prices paid, not the posted prices.

Following the general trend in France, in Deux-S�vres (department 79) prices fell by 6.5% in 2008-09 but recovered 4.1% in 2009-10, though they have not yet reached the level of the first quarter of 2008. The gap is closing, but local agents reckon it will take most of 2011 to do so. Thus, properties can still be purchased at discount prices. In the Maine-et-Loire (department 49), the trend was the same but more extreme, dipping 7.4% in 2008-09 and recovering 7.5% in 2009-10.

FNAIM, the French estate agents’ organisation reports that in 2010 the number of available properties was low in terms of demand, which led to the remarkable recovery that was seen last year. But it considers that prices stabilised in the first quarter of 2011 and only low figure growth is expected this year.

 

A concrete example…

As a buying agent, I am frequently asked by international purchasers to find property for them, whether as a maison secondaire or a permanent home. I recently carried out a search for a three- to four-bedroom, two-bathroom house with some land and a budget of around €270,000-€300,000. I was pleasantly surprised by the range and quality of the properties I dug out over four weeks’ work to fit my client’s brief.

A well-restored and outstandingly maintained 1850s long�re with three bedrooms and large garden over 3,000m� was an absolute snip at a €231,000. The house was on the edge of a hamlet in open countryside between Montreuil-Bellay and Loudun, had an extra double-glazed building ripe for conversion and the usual outbuildings, including garaging. Through a gate at the rear of the courtyard was a large grass area planted with young trees and shrubs. There was plenty of space for a swimming pool and further planting or landscaping.

Even relatively modest houses in this area have historical connections reaching back over centuries, some to the medieval period. And they’re not all tumbledown piles of stone! One former 17th-century estate house at €299,000 had a (now blocked-up) tunnel running to the site of the former ch�teau.

Another, on the market at €233,000 and dating from Cardinal Richelieu’s time, is on the edge of a village and had a similar tunnel with rumoured romantic connections. Both have been beautifully restored, with modern facilities but retain that elusive, genuine period feel.

In the beautiful town of Montreuil-Bellay, which is packed with history from pre-medieval through to the 1940s era, I discovered a charming maison bourgeoise built in the 1880s. This property boasts spacious reception rooms, huge bedrooms and a light and airy kitchen, all set in a generous garden. Sympathetic replacement windows have helped to create a light and airy feel in the house, even on a dull February day. Although slightly over budget at €325,000, I felt the feeling of space and its being within walking distance of town made this a good-value prospect.

 

mission accomplished

Many people like to convert or expand their new property to put their own stamp on it but although happy to carry out some work, my clients didn’t want to live in a mess for months or bite off more than they could chew. I found an ideal property priced at €263,000 near Dou�-la-Fontaine. A charming long�re that was built in 1900 – resplendent with beams, chimneys, exposed stone and tiled floors throughout the ground floor – it fitted the brief perfectly. And that was before you considered the large creamy stone barn across the courtyard, a cave for your wine, and small orchard of fruit trees.

Running behind the kitchen, utility room and living room lay a double-height 70m� unconverted room with part mezzanine floor ripe for opening up to form a large reception room and/or additional accommodation on two floors. Current accommodation was just under 200m�, so this would be a sizeable addition when converted.

I’ve learnt to look at a far wider price range in France than I would in the UK as price reflects value even less here. And being on the ground, I can walk round and see things as they really are. The lowest priced house I found on this search which offered the same accommodation was €196,000. The cost of refurbishment would have been around €25,000. A bargain, except that it was next to a processing plant, something that wasn’t visible from any of the original photos.

To buy or not?

If you are ready to buy, this is an excellent time to view. You’ll be able to see what’s going on in the area and what it can offer. Buying a property is one of the most important purchases you ever make. It often involves a mixture of head and heart. If you understand the buying process and property laws, speak fluent French and are at leisure to take several weeks to look around, then you will be able to acquire your dream property.

If not, well, I am a little biased, but a professional property finder living in the area has the time and contacts to search for you. They’ll find those gems not on agents’ lists, guide you through the buying process, help cross any language barrier and introduce you to legal, currency and financing professionals as well as the local builder or handyman! n

Alison Morton runs an independent property finding company, Loire Thouet Property Search

Tel: 0033 (0)5 49 66 15 00 www.ltps.fr