How we found our perfect French property
PUBLISHED: 16:07 22 August 2017 | UPDATED: 16:11 22 August 2017
British author Beth Haslam shares her experience of searching for and buying a property in France
Why did you decide to buy a property in France?
Our story of buying French property is a bittersweet romance. A tale of gradual allure followed by several disasters, it thankfully has a happy ending.
We had holidayed in France for years. Skiing in the Alps, beach breaks on the Atlantic, halcyon interludes in the countryside – all our visits had been super. As semi-retirement approached, we decided to buy a second home. I love my garden, growing veg and walking my beloved dogs. Jack, my husband, does not. On the other hand, he is never happier than when making or mending things. These range from cars to furniture to horribly oily machines. We are both country folk, and this heady combination meant we needed a country property with enough space and a decent climate to indulge our outdoor pursuits. We quickly ruled out the UK, because of unreliable weather and the high cost of land. So, Europe was the answer.
France, which suited our modest language skills, also ticked the vast majority of our other boxes. It was very accessible with good infrastructure, had locations with a great climate, and boasted amazingly low property and land prices compared with the UK.
How did you start looking for your French property?
Filled with naïve confidence, we researched properties. Each evening after work, I trawled the internet. This was harder than I’d expected because of our unusual specification.
We wanted a small house that didn’t need renovation. We didn’t want a pool. But we did want at least 100 acres of mixed fields and woodland. Frustratingly, properties with 100 acres all seemed to have enormous houses, often châteaux, but neither of us wanted to rattle around in a vast property, and I refused to spend my dotage with a duster in hand.
To find the climate we wanted, our search took us to the south of the country. This was fine by me. I’d always been filled with romantic thoughts of living in Provence anyway, so that was top of our list. We then added its western neighbours: Languedoc-Roussillon, the Midi-Pyrénées and Aquitaine. I soon realised that focusing on the ‘southern belt’ was vague at best. France is big, really big. With scant knowledge of each region, my steep learning curve ended up almost vertical.
Then came another problem.
I was primarily dealing with French local estate agencies and quickly found my language skills inadequate. When I tried actually talking to estate agents, things got infinitely worse. Most conversations are spoken at twice the standard speed, and often shouted. Add to these a thick local accent, and I was frequently sunk.
After numerous anguished conversations, I came across some English-speaking agents. These are often self-employed people who work with estate agencies and service the international market. It was a heavenly discovery.
What about property viewings?
Some six months later, we had a shortlist of 12 rural domaines (estates) to visit. They ticked most of our boxes, and I was convinced each would be ideal. It would just be a question of which we liked best.
How wrong I was. One day in mid-April, we packed up the car and our two portly dogs, Sam, my adored Australian Shepherd, and Biff, our Norfolk terrier, who had issues. Why the dogs? Because, despite Jack’s moans and groans, we had never holidayed without them. I wasn’t about to start now.
Our journey of over 3,000 miles took nearly four weeks and became an epic adventure. Before we had even viewed the first property our car was almost written-off by a violent hailstorm that hit the delightful town of Mirepoix. Thank goodness my husband is an engineer. He quickly patched up all the broken bits and we continued from property to property in a pebble-dashed car.
Sadly, each property turned out to be vastly different to the literature, causing my short-tempered husband to explode on several occasions. A couple may have been suitable had it not been for the weather conditions. Visiting these exposed another flaw in my research. I should have taken into account prevailing winds – one of which, we were gaily informed, sent the locals mad for months on end. Then there were the mountains (I still have no idea how one of the properties managed to perch on a near-vertical slope without subsiding into the ravine below). We battled on, solemnly grading each as awful, seriously awful or downright terrible.
Were you put off from buying a property in France?
Ironically, despite failing miserably with bricks and mortar, our affection for France was steadily developing. We found ourselves in countryside that was exquisitely beautiful and charmed with wildlife. Scents of rosemary, thyme and hints of lavender pervaded the air in Provence. Languedoc-Roussillon was lush, then craggy and simply gorgeous. Aquitaine’s endless pine forests led us to the ocean where massive sand dunes bordered magnificent beaches. We saw places, and viewed buildings, steeped in fantastic history. And we met remarkable, charming people.
How did you eventually find ‘the one’?
Eventually, we came to the end of my research list with nothing to show for it except a battered car. Completely dejected, we were about to return home when our ever-optimistic agent called about a “perfect” estate that had just come on the market. This time he was right! So, quite by accident, we found our ideal property (although inheriting a moat was never part of the plan). We visited the domaine on our way back to the UK and instantly fell in love. We had found our home.
What do you love about France?
What do we love about France? Where do I start?! We eventually settled in the Midi-Pyrénées, about 60km from Toulouse. Our home is snuggled in the depths of a fruit-growing area. The countryside is decorated with tiny, ancient villages. Here, the mode of transport between each is generally a tractor. Life ebbs and flows with the seasons – nice and slowly, but with purpose. It’s like stepping back in time 50 or so years.
This is a place where those silly old values such as courtesy, helping one another out, and giving gifts – just because – are commonplace. It is very special.
One thing I worried about was how we would be received. We, les anglais, had bought a house with a rich history, from an extremely well-known French family. Would they hate us? Not a bit. From the first day, visitors arrived to welcome us and offer help. They didn’t care that our French wasn’t up to scratch; they just wanted us to feel part of the community. We were overwhelmed by their kindness.
The temperate climate is perfect for us. It’s also ideal for traditions such as the weekly markets where we arrive each week, catch up on the local gossip, and barter for impossibly fresh goods.
Fêtes are an integral part of life too. Each one proudly celebrates a local product – wines, fruit, livestock and garlic – we celebrate it all. And each is brilliantly supported with everyone enjoying the party atmosphere in streets filled with the heady scents of food and drink. Then there’ll be a regular metallic thwack as another metal ball hits its target in a keenly fought match of pétanque. This is life in the south-west of France.
Tell us about your property
And then there is our home. Despite undertaking a total renovation (which practically finished us off), we adore our eccentric collection of buildings. Some date back to the 16th century, but our particular nest is a now-modernised farmhouse cottage – so cosy I want to wrap my arms around it every day and give it a big hug.
Our land is a perfect combination of forest and fields. We share it with wildlife that includes wild boar, deer, hare the size of small dogs, and pheasants. As a nature lover, it’s like living in paradise.
Hitherto, my published writing had been in a different genre. Our househunting adventures changed all that. They were so extraordinary I felt I had to share them. Natural disasters, near-death experiences on crumbling roads, dog catastrophes, eccentric aristocrats – you name it, it was chucked at us. I couldn’t make this stuff up.
Now, as I begin writing Fat Dogs and French Estates Part IV, I am describing day-to-day living. I’m desperate to share our latest exploits. But this book will also be a celebration of our love affair with France and her people.
Moving here is the best thing we have ever done.