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Buying a Place in France? Read This First…

September 11, 2012

It was a big, loping hound, about the height of a small child. It belonged to the owners of a nearby cottage in L’Éruption, the small hamlet in southern France where we used to take our summer holidays in the 90s. Toto was a gentle animal of advanced years. Gentle was good, because there were often small children around, including our own.

One year, when we arrived at L’Éruption, we encountered Toto, but no owners. The husband, James, was a writer. He had recently taken off to the US. The wife, Annie, had a new relationship with a guy in the local village, and was spending more time at his place than at hers. Toto, it seemed, had friends in the hamlet who fed him, including the local farmer, M Charpentier. But beyond seeing to his basic subsistence, none of them appeared to be keeping a close eye on him.

This was immediately apparent because the poor mutt had lost much of the use of his back legs, and was dragging them along in a hideous limp. We asked around for Annie’s whereabouts, and it turned out that she was not even in the country at the time. So something had to be done.

We went down to the village to see the local vet, and explained Toto’s predicament. He was mystified as to why we were getting involved, but assuming we were prepared to pay, offered his assistance. “You want me to kill the dog?” he asked. Well, no, we said – not wishing to be party to an act of canicide on an animal for which we had no responsibility. “OK”, he said, “I will prepare a cortisone injection, and you can give it to him.” It was, after all, the end of the week, and he was not prepared to come out and do the job himself.

Which was how we ended up in a French country lane late at night, surrounding the unfortunate dog and plunging a big needle by torchlight into the creature’s neck. Or rather my wife did, since she had injected countless humans during her career in emergency medicine. Without any great expectation of a result, we left Toto to hobble off and slump into his familiar repose.

For a couple of days he was not in evidence, and we worried that the cortisone had not done the trick. Perhaps he had gone off to a quiet place to die. Until he came galumphing towards us on four perfectly working legs, looking as perky as pensioner on pep pills.

“Il marche!”, cried one of our number eager to practice his French. “Le chien – il marche!” We crowded round, eager to witness a drug-fuelled miracle. Toto, clearly revelling in more attention than he had enjoyed for most of his benighted life, lurched happily from person to person, scattering small children like ninepins in the process. That night he demonstrated his renewed gusto for life by stealing two large steaks from our barbecue.

The miracle of Toto was the last notable event to go into the family’s French annals. The next summer we went to Cornwall, so we never found out the ultimate fate of L’Eruption’s very own Lazarus. But he was an old dog, so he probably didn’t stumble on much longer.

If that tale sounds like a poor imitation of Peter Mayle in Provence, it’s not the only one. A haunted death mask on the wall of our barn. Incessant rows between Sandy and John, a young British couple who had moved to the hamlet to live the dream, culminating in John waking one morning from a wine-fuelled sleep to find his vital documents, passport and all, ripped in shreds and floating in their swimming pool. James, equally oiled, attempting to mediate between the warring parties, while another member of the group crept up to their window to eavesdrop, ready to intervene if a three-way war broke out.

Then there was James’s and Annie’s relationship. Annie’s fury when James took himself off to a nearby town so that he could concentrate on his writing, only for Annie to find him soaked in pastis, misbehaving in an unspecified manner in one of town’s numerous bars. The sleepovers, that attracted youngsters on holiday from miles around. The fetes in their barn, during which Annie’s elderly mum was wheeled out from the converted cowshed next to the house to regale us with Irish rebel songs. The brouhaha when Sandy – in the act of walking out on John – ran over the foot of a very fierce Corsican friend of James’s.

Never a dull moment. When James and Annie parted company, she put the house up for sale. We thought seriously about buying it. But when Annie became aware of our interest, the price mysteriously rose a few points, and we moved on. Besides, without the main dramatis personae, L’Éruption was unlikely be the source of such gruesome fun in years to come.

Fast forward fifteen years. It’s 9.30am in the middle of nowhere, near another hamlet that doesn’t appear on the satnav. I’ve been sitting out on the terrace for the first couple of hours of daylight, looking out at fields, woods and, in the foreground, trees whose branches are bent with the weight of fat quinces and peaches a week or two away from ripeness.

Our kids have grown up, and last year we decided to join the Volvos full of Brits of a certain age who come to this region after the pesky youth have gone back to school and university. Lo and behold, we’re here again this year.

At night, it is so silent that you can hear your heart beating. Right now, all you can hear is the sound of cooing doves, the occasional tractor and rustling leaves from trees that show little sign of summer’s end.

Southern France in September has little of the bite of the English autumn. Here, in the region of Lot et Garonne, the evenings are still warm enough for sitting out – in the few restaurants that are still open, or in front of the converted wine vault that is our home for the next couple of weeks. There is a fair chance that the weather will stay fair – 30C during the day, dropping to 18C at night – for the duration of our stay. In England, September nights are chilly, though daytimes can be quite warm when the jet stream allows us a last defiant blast of summer sun.

As regular readers of this blog will know, my wife and I are Francophiles. We love the food, the countryside, the chateaux, the continuity of architecture from Roman Gaul through mediaeval gothic to the splendour of the Age of Reason. The transport system is as good as any in Europe.

And once again we are thinking of buying “a place in France”. But what? And where? And for what purpose? My wife looks longingly at the ads in the estate agent shop windows, and we have agonised discussions about the pros and cons.

So if you’re a Brit – or any other nationality for that matter – thinking about property in France, here are some of the factors we’ve thought about over the years.

In this neck of the woods, foreign property owners tend to be British or Dutch. The buyers tend to fall into two categories. First, those looking for a second home. Typically they might buy a house, stay there for four or five weeks over the summer, and pay the mortgage by letting it when they are not using it themselves. For the Brits and, I suspect, the Dutch, Lot et Garonne, just south of the Dordogne, is about the furthest place you can reach in a day. If you’re driving rather than flying, and you have a place, say, in Provence, then you face part of your holiday being eaten into by an overnight stop both ways. You can fly, of course, and hire a car from the airport, but the joy of taking your own car is that you can bring all your stuff without EasyJet or Ryanair charging you a fortune for your bags. And, if you’re so inclined, you can pack the trunk with cheap booze on the return journey.

So the question is: if you have a young family, why would you tie yourself down to going to the same place year after year? Simpler surely to rent a gite. And , or even if you’re old farts looking to tick off your bucket list, why tie up your hard earned cash in a property whose value in the current market might decline for the foreseeable years ahead?

Think also about maintenance. Winter months in the South of France can be quite hard. The owner of the place we’re renting at the moment told me that last winter the temperature went as low as minus 19C. When he came over from the UK in April to open up the place, there were eleven leaking pipes to deal with.

And who sorts out the garden? Maintains the pool, if you have one? And if the tenants’ washing machine goes belly, who will fix it? All sortable, of course, but these are levels of complexity you need to think about if you’re going down the second home route. The best situation of all is if you can afford to buy somewhere that you don’t let. That way, you can keep all your nice stuff there, safe in the knowledge that it won’t be vandalised by some scruffy little kid from Eindhoven or Stevenage. But having a place that will only be occupied a few weeks of the year is not an option for most of us. And you are unlikely to be very popular with your neighbours, since your participation in the local economy is likely to be minimal.

The alternative is to go native. To hell with those rotten British summers, the predations of the taxman and those rapacious offspring, let’s up sticks and settle in La Belle France. If you’re going to do that, here’s some advice from a seasoned expatriate.

First, learn the language. If you’re even considering moving to France, you probably have a decayed version of the French you learned at school, which has been enough to get you by in restaurants, supermarkets and the occasional close encounter with ordinary locals. But before you even become an owner, you will have to start engaging with officialdom – notaries, mayor’s offices and so on. True, you can employ an English-speaking intermediary – at a cost – to help you navigate the bureaucratic waters.

But you are only just embarking on what might be a lifetime of dealing with official France. If you are a house owner in the UK, think of all the ways in which you have to interact with government and business. The ability to ask for a croissant will not equip you to pay your property taxes, buy your insurance, apply for planning permission for the pool you’ve always wanted or explain your way out of a parking ticket.

You also have to ask yourself whether you really want to confine yourself to a limited group of fellow nationals. For me this would be hell on earth. One of the reasons I left Saudi Arabia after nearly a decade was that I couldn’t face the prospect of spending another ten years in an extended social circle whose only common denominator, when it came down to it, was money. Groups of expatriates that do not try to integrate with the society around them tend to be inward looking – bound by a defensive sense of community.

I have no problem with people spending much of their spare time enjoying cheap French wine, talking about Arsenal, the progress of their investments and what a crappy place England is. But to do so week in, week out for thirty years must pall after a while. So why not learn some decent French and find out from your neighbours what a crappy place France is?

Second thought. If you move to France as a couple, think carefully. Are you doing this to revitalise your relationship? Because you’re bored with life in your home country? If so, be aware that living in a foreign country will give you a buzz for a couple of years, but the strains that were there before you moved won’t have gone away – they will have been buried in the excitement and sense of purpose. There’s a good chance they will return. And as for boredom, who is responsible for that? The world around you, or the world inside you?

Expatriate life can be destabilising for another reason. Yes, fine, give up your life in the city and drink the slow delights of rural France. But think also about the balance of your relationship. You may both end up not working. Many couples who are quite happy with each other’s company for a few hours every evening and at weekends can end up with homicidal tendencies if they have to put up with their spouse’s company 24/7. Ask some newly retired couples.

Remember also that you are moving into a different culture. You might think that a country thirty minutes away from the UK by Eurostar has a culture pretty similar to yours. After all, we’re all Europeans now, are we not? And most of us would heartily subscribe to the principles of liberté, egalité and fraternité. But here’s a story that might make you think again.

An Arab student from one of the Gulf countries went to a French town not do long ago to study for a masters degree. In her culture, the norm is that a women should not have any physical contact with a man who is not related to her. This caused the student a problem in France. She found herself becoming increasingly isolated. Why? Because many French people consider that failure to shake hands with an acquaintance or on being introduced is an insult. It implies that you don’t care about the other person, and that you don’t value their company. Shaking hands in France is a deeply important gesture, far more so in the UK.

France differs in other ways from the UK. In business, there is a high degree of what occupational psychologists often refer to as power distance. In simple terms, this means that there a great respect for hierarchy and authority – far more so than in the UK or the US, for example. So if you start working for a French company as a junior employee, and get into the habit of questioning the decisions of your elders and betters, you will not be seen as bright spark with plenty of ideas. You are more likely to be marked down as a troublemaker. There are exceptions, of course, and the younger generation are less likely to react in this way. But the power is still largely in the hands of seasoned technocrats who have worked their way up the system. Look around – there ain’t many Mark Zuckerbergs in France.

Consider also why you’re moving. Especially for couples, it’s important to have an achievable sense of purpose that you both share. Dreams are not enough. How many times do you read about people who come to France to set up a business – an equestrian centre, an origami school or simply a holiday letting service – who fail because they have no practical experience in running a business.

No detailed business plans can see you through unless you have certain qualities that have already  been tested. Determination, resilience, flexibility, communication skills. So it’s not a bad idea to sit down and interview yourselves. Search for examples of when and where you have shown those qualities in your pre-expatriate life. Take a long hard look at what you’re good at and what you’re not. None of us are superhuman. We all have weaknesses. If you can identify them, you can work out where you will need help and support. This is good advice for starting any business. But starting a business in a foreign country – and I speak from experience – demands more in all areas.

Next up – always have an exit. As you would in a decent business plan. There are hundreds of thousands of expatriate Brits who have bet everything on a better life in sunnier climes – mainly France, Spain, Portugal and Italy. Spain, Portugal and Italy – do those names ring a bell? Along with Greece, they are the financial lepers of Europe – also known as the PIGS countries. How often can we read tales of woe from Brits who have sold everything to live abroad, and now, for a variety of reasons often related to the local economies, have lost everything?

Notice that at no stage thus far have I suggested that property in France, and still less the PIGS countries, is to be treated as investment. Values in many areas have tanked since 2008, and I wouldn’t bet a single Euro, or whatever local currencies might succeed it, on property values appreciating any time in the next ten years. The French economy shows most of the signs of going the same way as Italy’s – floating on a sea of debt and hoping that debt-fuelled growth will pull them out of the hole. The barricades are ready for any sign of serious deficit-reducing measures. And the French are very good at barricades. If you think I’m being over-gloomy, take a look at this assessment in the Economist on France’s prospects, written before this year’s Presidential elections.

So one obvious strategy, if you’re still determined to make the move, is not to put all your eggs in one basket. Make sure you have a plan to get you out of the merde if all goes wrong. Keep a few pennies aside to enable you to move back to your home country. Even better – enough to put down a deposit on a home despite being stuck with a French property you can’t sell for the price you need. All going wrong is not just failure to make ends meet. It can be the collapse of your business or the end of a relationship. Unpalatable as it may be, it pays to work out the what-ifs before you take the plunge. Too many people don’t, and end up suffering the consequences.

France is a great country. If you’re young, single and want to expand your horizons, go work for a French company for a few years. I have employed many UK contractors in France, and I know few who regretted the experience.

If you want a holiday home, there are few more beautiful places in the world than the usual French holiday haunts – great food, lovely countryside and (usually) friendly locals who will be very happy to take your money.

And if, after weighing up all the pros and cons, you decide that your permanent future lies in France, visit those holiday haunts out of season. See what they’re like in November and February. Or even in September, when the sunflowers bend in a deathly kowtow towards the earth, and elderly tourists shuffle around like human equivalents of Toto the miracle hound. Then make your decision.

If any of these options appeal, there’s plenty of reading available. Peter Mayle’s books, such as A Year in Provence, are old chestnuts now, but spawned an industry of clones. Still worth reading though. Also take a look at Stephen Clarke’s Merde series, of which the first was A Year in The Merde.

On reflection, I think we’ll stay as we are. It’s fun looking at all those stunning farmhouses, but quite another matter going through all the hassle of ownership. But you never know. Every time we visit France, the country seduces us anew.

PS: Names of the protagonists (including the dog) have been changed to protect the innocent and make sure I don’t get sued.

From → France, Social, UK

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