Times are a-changing

In the first of two articles, Peter Elias chronicles the huge changes that the French property market has seen over the past decade

Writing features for French journals and the French property blog, allez-francais.blogspot.com, I often look ahead to the future and predict what will happen in the French property market. However, I thought that now would be a good time to look back at the previous 10 years, especially at how the decade has impacted upon the thousands of British citizens living or buying property in France.

Ten years ago, the new millennium emerged without the major computer problems that had been widely forecast by technology experts. At this point in time, Brits were embracing the concept of buying a home in France like never before. Whether it was for a holiday home or a permanent residence, France had never seen an influx like it, with Brittany and the Dordogne being especially popular and in great demand.

Compared with the UK, house prices were very competitive and, more importantly, there was a good choice of properties available. British buyers were getting a reputation for buying ruins and restoring them to their former glories, waking up sleepy hamlets that previously had been in decline, and changing the landscape across France significantly. French residents, inspired by their neighbours, started to landscape gardens. They had always had magnificent vegetable plots, but the British influence started a new fashion in gardening. Similarly, the British hobby of DIY resulted in the emergence in France of vast new stores that simply did not exist previously.

The currency of the day was the French franc; expats used a convenient conversion rate of approximately 10FF to �1, so a house priced at 1mFF would cost �100,000. The Nineties had seen poor exchange rates for UK buyers (as low as 7.8FF to �1), but the new millennium saw rates rise to just over 12FF to the pound (actual high 12.2FF), making French property prices more attractive than ever before.

At this time, a handful of currency exchange companies came on to the scene, offering near-commercial exchange rates. However, the vast majority of people used their high street banks to manage transfers between the two currencies. People started to realise how much more they could achieve by using a specialist currency firm, and their popularity grew through the decade, as did the number of companies offering this service. Many were highly professional, but some were undoubtedly more opportunist, set up in home offices, and shall we say, a bit risky. Towards the end of 2009 the most reputable companies had been authorised to operate by the Financial Services Authority.

The euro replaced the French franc in January 2002 although, typically, French prices continued to be shown in both euros and French francs. As an aside, many of the more elderly French people still talked about prices, especially concerning house prices, in old French francs – very confusing! Thus, €1 was worth 6.55957FF and soon a rough conversion rate of €3 to �2 came to be adopted by the British, both in shops and for housebuying purposes.

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Hopping the channel

The most popular form of travel between England and France was the ferry or hovercraft, although the Channel Tunnel had just been completed in 1999 and was operational. At the start of 2000, cheap flights to France did not exist, and air travel meant principally British Airways or Air France and limited routes.

The availability of Eurostar serving Paris and Lille opened up increased options, especially with France’s excellent TGV network. In fact, when we first moved to France, I continued to work part time in the south-east of England, and used to catch the early TGV from Poitiers to Lille, then change platform for the Eurostar and alight at Ashford International. It was very reliable, cost-effective (50% discount if booked a month in advance), comfortable and easily the best option for me.

Then one weekend, I appeared to be stranded in Kent, as the French rail workers were going on strike – help! But this coincided with the launch of one of the low-cost airline operators, Buzz, with a new service between Stansted and Poitiers. One quick telephone call, and a short hop around the M25, and straight on to the flight resulted in me returning to Poitiers ahead of the normal rail schedule. A great new option had entered the equation. More flights became available as each month passed so that, since the end of 2009 most French towns are now served by a nearby regional airport.

Inevitably, with UK house prices soaring, fantastic exchange rates and cheaper house prices in France, a property boom of sorts started in France. By 2005/6, if you saw a property that you liked, you had to move quickly or you lost it. French agents had never experienced times like these before. Many saw the advantages of linking with a UK-based agency, or even directly employing British staff to work in their agencies.

New estate agencies mushroomed in small market towns. Our nearest large town, Niort, had about 60 agency offices at the height of the boom, far too many for them to be profitable, and the inevitable happened. While this unprecedented expansion had been taking place, there had been a massive development in network-style agencies based in the UK, and they too would be hit hard, the most significant casualty perhaps being VEF.

Back in 2000, how did people go about finding a house in France? Well, to start with there was a wide selection of monthly magazines available in large newsagents, plus subscription newspapers such as French Property News. These publications had a good selection of properties for sale, plus interesting stories from expats who had already made the move, encouraging more to follow in their footsteps. In addition, property exhibitions were increasingly popular. The French Property Exhibition evolved from its more humble surroundings at Hammersmith to become a fully fledged event attracting thousands of visitors in 2002 to the show at Olympia, when our business first exhibited. That level of visitors in a weekend was truly phenomenal, and was an indication of the boom years that were to come.

Around this time, the British public became obsessed with, or spoonfed, property-based programmes on the main TV channels, spawning A Place in the Sun and several variations on the same theme. Now, people could actually see that what they had previously thought of as a dream was possible. Perhaps the most memorable programme for me was one called No Going Back, which featured a young couple buying a lake property in northern France that offered fishing holidays. This programme highlighted the ups and downs of life in France, rather than just a view through rose-tinted spectacles. Sadly, the TV programmes then moved on to the disaster stories, especially featuring Spain, which had been badly affected by land-grabs and other problems.

Cyber savvy

The other medium that people used for their house searches was, of course, the internet. Having said that, 10 years ago, not too many French agencies had their own websites. Those that did were almost exclusively in French, and the information available was very limited (often also out of date). In fact, it was this combination that led us to believe that launching our own property business was a great idea. So, we designed our own website and included lots of extra information – not just houses for sale – kept the site up to date and never looked back.

Each year, we have tried to improve the website, add something new, and keep it fresh. Since our launch, we have mainly sold property in the Poitou-Charentes region of France, with the occasional excursion into the Vend�e, Dordogne or Haute-Vienne. For 2010, we are launching a new concept, Allez-Fran�ais Direct, which will be available to vendors outside Poitou-Charentes, offering the opportunity to sell a house at below-normal market rate fees if somebody wishes.

Net results

Don’t forget that 10 years ago, many people only had dial-up access to the internet. Therefore, websites often had a very limited amount of photographs available, and unless they were correctly optimised for the internet, they could take literally minutes to download.

Currently, most properties show half a dozen or so images, and agencies use external sources such as property portals to gain wider exposure for their properties. For our business, we use two or three UK-targeted portals plus a couple of true international portals together with two French-based ones.

We also have a weekly blog – something that would have been unheard of 10 years ago.

We have experimented with video, 180� and 360� imagery and other technology, plus the possibility of floor-plans, but we find that there is no substitute for good-quality digital photographs along with detailed, honest and accurate descriptions. For example we feel that it is important to alert buyers ahead of their visits about power lines, nearby farms, noisy roads and the like.

As with any business, recommendations and repeat business are key factors. We have sold several properties on more than one occasion now, and have also sold to the same buyers a number of times, so if you get it right, it certainly pays dividends.

Our very first sale was a large eight-bed maison de ma�tre near Fontenay le Comte, previously home to French pop star Jean-Luc Lahaye (no, I hadn’t heard of him either). Our client had been told by a French agent that the property was sold, but our agency connection insisted that it was still for sale. So our buyer flew into Nantes, drove down to meet us, did a tour of the property with his video, and announced he was buying! His wife hadn’t accompanied him, but he said that she would be en accord’. What a way to start a business!

Having written columns for newspapers in my previous life in the UK, I was keen to continue doing this on subjects relating to our new lives in France. In 2002, I wrote a piece for French Property News contrasting the features of a 19th-century ch�teau in need of renovation with those of a 20th-century ch�teau built from nothing by an eccentric ma�on. As a consequence of the article, the current owners (Diane and Alan) contacted me to discuss the works required, their aspirations and the process involved. They became not only clients, but great friends, and have built up a popular bed and breakfast business that they are now looking to sell. Their completion was anything but smooth, however – the owner went bankrupt, and their offer had to go before a court before matters could proceed. When Diane and Alan eventually became the owners, they found a loaded gun by the side of the bed and a whip underneath it! Welcome to France...

There are many other interesting stories (perhaps material for a book one day) but one other good example involved our own purchase of a second home in France. The owners were French and we had negotiated the price, some furniture and so on, and then met them for aperos. Finally a completion date was agreed. As we liaised about the plan of action on completion day, they announced that we could stay with them the evening before completion, and they would stay with us on the evening scheduled for completion. This was not for debate or discussion. Totally unheard of in the UK, but why not in France! So we shared their’ house on one night, and they shared our’ house the following day. They took us out for dinner, and we remain in contact, even though they have since moved quite a distance away. There are many other bizarre situations that we have become aware of, that simply couldn’t happen in England. C’est la vie!

In the concluding part, Peter continues his look at the changing trends in the French property market, including the influence of the ever-controversial Sarko’.

Peter Elias, Allez-Fran�ais Tel: (0033) (0)5 49 27 01 22www.allez-francais.com