Half a world away

Property is at a premium along the C�te d’Azur but further inland it is still possible to snap up a Proven�al bargain, says Jane Bowles

Ever since 1989, when Peter Mayle first published his bestselling book A Year In Provence, owning a home in Provence, one of southern France’s most attractive regions, has surely been the dream of many sun-loving Francophiles.

With its fabulously sunny climate, attractive stone houses, charming street markets and delectable cuisine Proven�ale, few destinations have more to offer than Provence. In recent years, however, poor exchange rates and soaring property prices have put houses in many of the prettiest villages in the region beyond the reach of all but the most well-heeled of buyers.

Good news

At the time of writing, a simple stone house in Menerbes with two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a terrace now comes with a cool €500,000 price tag! The good news is, for property seekers who are prepared to travel a little further afield, there are still a few bargains to be had in this popular corner of France.

According to property consultant Gaelle Perreaux, the continuing high property prices in Provence are predominantly due to increased demand for houses and villas from overseas buyers, rather than the French themselves.

“Even during the recession, English buyers were still actively seeking property in Provence, and they weren’t the only ones,” says Gaelle. “Belgian househunters now outnumber the English; German buyers love this part of France too, and many French buyers are being priced out of their home market.”

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Thus prices have remained consistently high, even during the recent recession. “Property prices in Provence reached a low point towards the end of 2008 and early 2009, but since then they’ve pretty much stabilised and, what’s more, they are now beginning to rise again,” says Gaelle.

Notwithstanding the high prices in Menerbes, a small two- or three-bedroom villa with terrace just about anywhere in the ultra-desirable Luberon will invariably set you back between €500,000 and €550,000.

Further south still, on the C�te d’Azur proper, prices are even higher. A studio apartment in Nice, in a good area, such as the old town or Quartier des Musiciens, for example, will now cost around €200,000. If your heart is set on a three- or four-bedroom villa with a garden or pool on the coast, in Antibes or Mougins, say, then you can expect to pay around a dizzying €2.5 million – and even such a generous budget won’t necessarily buy you a sea view!

“Many buyers have invested in property on the C�te d’Azur over the last couple of years, as a hedge against the uncertainty of the stock market,“ says Gaelle, adding: “Buying a house here is regarded as a pretty safe way to invest your money, and that’s also helped keep prices high.”

Gaelle’s advice to British buyers in search of more affordable property in Provence is to head north and inland, to the hinterland of the Var and its environs. “Head away from the coast to lesser-known towns like Lorgues, Salernes, Villecroze, Callas and Flayosc, and you’ll find much better value for your money,” says Gaelle.

So near so Var

The lush pine-clad hillsides of the Var offer a classic Proven�al landscape that’s relatively unspoilt, and the coast is still only an hour and a half away by car.

The hinterland of the Var also boasts several large manmade lakes, such as the Lac de Ste-Croix near the spectacular Gorge du Verdon.

Towns within easy reach of the lake, such as the picturesque Moustiers-Ste-Marie offer easy access to a wide range of holiday activities, like waterskiing, boating and swimming. “Prices here are considerably lower than in the Luberon, and a three-bedroom villa in this area with a garden or terrace will cost somewhere between €350,000 and €400,000,” says Gaelle.

One English buyer who wisely recognised the potential of this area is Lynda Benson, who bought her jointly owned villa in the verdant countryside a few kilometres from Draguignan.

“My daughter Jane and I were looking for a good-sized house that we could use for family holidays, and also as a source of rental income,” says Lynda. “We needed to be reasonably close to an airport, and we also wanted a swimming pool and tennis court.

“Our friends in London were extremely pessimistic about our chances of finding somewhere suitable at a price we could afford so, to begin with, we looked around in the Languedoc.

“We couldn’t find anything we liked, however, so we headed east and began looking at villas in the Haut-Var. After just a week of searching, we found our house, which is part of the Domaine St-Pierre de Tourtour, a private country estate near Aups, which has a lovely weekend market.

“Our house is set in a pine forest, complete with communal pool and tennis court, and it’s only 90 minutes drive from Nice airport, so it ticked all the boxes.”

It’s worth noting that prices for estate properties like Lyndas, which have communally maintained sports facilities, tend to be lower than average for Provence, at around €300,000 to €340,000 for a four-bedroom house – sometimes even lower if sellers are keen for a quick sale.

Prospective buyers should also take into account the annual service charges, however, as these can be steep, and are also subject to annual price rises.

According to Lynda Benson, there are also distinct advantages to living on an estate, particularly if you are not planning to live in Provence all year round.

“One feels a lot less isolated living in a community, and there are always people around to lend a hand if things go wrong,” she says. “Its also much easier to find plumbers, electricians and gardeners, as there is a pool of workmen one can call on.”

Gaelle Perreaux [email protected]

Lynda Benson’s villa is available to rent, see www.maisonhautecombe.com