In the first of a three-part series, Catherine Cooper takes us through the highs and lows of making a new life for herself and her family in France
It might seem trivial, but one of my main reasons for wanting to move to France was my love of skiing. For several years, every time we returned from our annual skiing holiday, I would start badgering my husband Alex about wanting to move. We could run a chalet in the Alps,’ I’d enthuse. We could eat fantastic cheese and drink cheap wine all the time! It would be brilliant!’But Alex took some persuading – after all, we both enjoyed our lives in London. In time the children were born – Toby, now seven and Olivia, now five – and by the time Toby started nursery, Alex was starting to come round to my way of thinking. When we went to children’s parties, all anybody talked about was schooling. While there was a local primary with a very good reputation, secondary school would be a different matter. Chances were we would either have to move or try to find the money for a private school.With this in mind, along with generally feeling it was time for a change, in 2005 Alex finally agreed a move to France was something we should think about. While I’d always envisaged living in a ski resort, Alex wanted somewhere with some countryside that was a little less insular. Without ever having visited the area, we settled on Carcassonne in Languedoc-Rousillon as our starting point on the basis of a magazine article I had read about it – close to the Pyrenees for skiing, in the south for a nice warm climate, within a reasonable distance of several airports and not overly expensive. The plan was to buy a large family house, part of which we would convert into g�tes to provide us with some extra income. As a freelance journalist, I would still be able to work in France and Alex, as a TV director, might come back to the UK now and again to do some work but most of his time would be spent renovating the house and g�tes.
A good startAfter spotting a house we liked the look of on the internet – a converted monastery with g�tes and pool close to Carcassonne – we flew out that same weekend to go and see it. At the time the UK housing market was extremely buoyant and we assumed that similarly, in France, good properties would be snapped up almost immediately.The house was beautiful and we couldn’t believe how much we could get for the price of our little terraced house in south London. The owner had kindly let us stay overnight in one of the g�tes and we spent the evening excitedly talking about whether or not we could really put an offer in on the first house we’d seen.The next morning was clear, crisp and silent…..until a plane flew over almost skimming the roof-top and both the children started screaming. We hadn’t realised quite how close to the airport the house was.But our short trip to France had firmed up in our minds that a move to France was what we wanted. Over the next few months we went to property shows and scoured the internet looking for suitable properties. Every few weeks we would line up a few to see and spend packed long weekends in France with various estate agents cramming in as many viewings as we possibly could.In total we saw around 25 or 30 houses. Some had looked fantastic online but were so obviously unsuitable when we arrived that we didn’t even go inside. But some were harder to discount. One that we loved was a miniature castle with a beautifully restored staircase that wound all the way to the top of one turret, complemented by an incredible chandelier. It even had a Juliet balcony and a ready-made g�te, but the huge cracks running down both sides of the exterior walls meant we felt we had to say no. Another was great except for the three Rottweilers barking in the next garden. Yet another would have been almost perfect had the owner not sold off a portion of his garden on which a new house was being built. But our real near-miss’ house was an enormous country house near Isle-en-Dodon in Haute-Garonne. It was a holiday home that had belonged to a famous French film producer who had recently died. It had an indoor and outdoor pool, a screening room, old film props in the garden and every room was immense. It even had something I had always dreamed of – a library.This house was about five times the size of any of the other houses we’d seen despite being about the same price, around €600,000 (�521,059), and we were blown away by it. It wasn’t in the best condition but we didn’t let that put us off. Alex and I spent a long lunchtime drawing up plans about how we would turn it into a five-g�te complex and put in an offer, which was accepted. We arranged a trip the next week to sign the compromis de vente. The normal cooling-off period during which you can pull out of a house sale is 7 days but we had it written into ours that we would have 14 days to think about it. During this time we would get a builder to estimate for the work that needed doing and show our projected g�te income figures to an accountant.
Quote, unquoteWe got the builder in and as we’d expected, the work was going to be expensive – in retrospect, the €150,000 (�130,264) he estimated wouldn’t have even begun to cover the work that needed doing. But it was the accountant’s verdict that really put the dampers on it. There is no way you are going to earn even half that from g�tes,’ he told us.We had been totally unrealistic. A house that size and in that condition could have bankrupted us – plus it would have been impossible to heat! Fortunately we realised this in time to pull out of the sale. It was a lucky escape. We were still dead-set on moving to France but decided to cut our budget and aim for a house with just one g�te rather than several, leaving us with a little bit of money to invest elsewhere. We saw some more houses on more trips, but with the budget cut, finding something suitable was getting harder and harder. Our (well, really my) main stipulation was the house should be not much more than an hour away from the mountains, so our hunt covered quite a large area in a line from Perpignan in Languedoc-Roussillon to Tarbes in Midi-Pyr�n�es and down to the Spanish border.On our final house-hunting trip we had seen all the houses we had booked in to see and nothing had been of interest. With heavy hearts we returned to the estate agent’s office to have another look through their files as we had a little time to spare. We decided to go and see a semi-renovated farmhouse near Pamiers in Ari�ge, which was just about within our revised budget of €350,000 (�303,951).The house was quite some way from the office. The road to it was winding and the agent got lost a couple of times along the way. The property turned out to be a large, traditional farmhouse of which half was still lived in, although the accommodation was basic and half was totally dilapidated. The render was falling off and it was pretty run down, but it had the most amazing view of the mountains. We had a good look round, took some pictures and said we would have a think about it.But we had already fallen in love with it. It was the right size, the right price and had the most incredible view. It needed renovating, which was the kind of project we wanted. A week later we were back to see it again. Despite the howling wind and biting December cold, it was just as fantastic as we had remembered it being. We told the agent we wanted to get a builder to look over it and after we had spoken to him, we would consider putting in an offer. But she could already see we loved it.In the meantime, we went on a skiing holiday and the day before Christmas Eve, Alex broke his leg. In between calls to the insurance company and me fretting about going home alone with the kids leaving Alex in a French hospital in traction over Christmas, I had the agent ringing me, harassing me to sign a compromis de vente as there was another couple interested in the house (with a different agent) and she was plainly worried about losing her commission.My husband has broken his leg, I want to wait to hear from the builder and all that aside, I’m not in a position to rush over to the Ari�ge and sign a piece of paper anyway,’ I said firmly. But we can fax it to you!’ she cried. I put the phone down.But as it was, the builder told us the work would cost around what we were expecting: €150,000 (�130,264) – wildly underestimated, as it turned out later – so we signed the compromis de vente and this time didn’t pull out of the sale. We finally owned our little piece of France – now all we had to do was make it into the kind of house we wanted to live in. Advanced planning
Think about what factors are important to you in a house. Close to shops and schools? In a town, village or very rural? What amenities do you want nearby?Set a budget and stick to it. Factor in any possible renovation costs.Visit property shows and/or contact agents through the internet.Try to spend time in the areas you are planning to move to other than just house-hunting – perhaps take a short holiday there if you can. If you have children, find out about local schools.Start brushing up on your French – evening classes and short courses are available in most towns.
Things I wish I'd known
As a rule, houses in rural France, especially renovation projects, do not generally sell quickly and there is usually no need to rush into a decision. The housing market is not like that of the UK – there won’t always be several people chasing the same property. It is important to take your time.
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Houses are routinely signed up for sale with several agents and this – along with the hefty agents’ commission (between 5 and 10 per cent) – can make them very pushy. Don’t be pressured by them.If a house looks like it is too good to be true on the internet, it usually is.It is worth trying to decide whereabouts you want to live before looking at individual houses – this can save you a lot of time and legwork.Don’t get overexcited about what you can afford. Large, old houses will require a lot of both time and money in maintenance – you need to factor this into your budget.