A British expat’s tale on why he first rented and then bought not one but two houses in France.
When Carole and I came to live in France nearly 20 years ago we first rented an apartment in a village called Trevoux on the Saone North of Lyon.
I had spent a month travelling around France on a special roaming rail ticket, (the ticket is not being offered anymore), but it was a great way to discover France. I would turn up at a local station and ask the time of the next train – where to – I would be asked – anywhere – I replied. They definitely thought I was crazy.
It was the early 1990s, we decided to leave the UK for many reasons. Gloom and despair were everywhere; we had very young children (two little girls) and the education system we saw in Britain was not good, property values were plummeting and the weather was atrocious (what’s new).
Moving to a new place where at least one or two of those factors looked better seemed sensible to us – so we packed our home into a Volkswagen Beetle and drove to an apartment I had rented in Trevoux for the next four years.
Hundreds of properties
It seemed that I had visited hundreds of properties all over France, but in reality I probably only saw a dozen or so. I did visit over a hundred towns and villages though. My criteria included good access by public transport to a major town, access to an international airport and schools and shops in walking distance.
As those were the days before the internet, I only looked at properties offered by estate agents. Each French town had only a couple of agencies and these mostly concentrated on rentals, not sales. Things are very different now, a town with perhaps four agencies in the early ’90s may now have over 30 estate agents all trying to claw a living.
Searching online for apartments
If you are looking for an apartment rental now, I suggest the first step is searching online. An estate agency of today is unlikely to have the selection of rental properties although in larger towns there are usually agencies that still specialise in rentals. Most owners now prefer private listings.
The disadvantage renting through an agency is they usually take one month’s rent, or more, as their commission each year. As the tenant has a lot of legal protection in France, a substantial deposit is required and proof of income is demanded. But once you have jumped through the hoops and got a tenancy agreement, you have security for a minimum of three years for an unfurnished apartment and one year for a furnished apartment.
We were very happy in our rented apartment for four years. It was a magical time for us, our two little girls, Clio and Miranda, started schools locally and our third child, Jack.
We started our life in France by renting as we had very little money and we also wanted to be sure that making such a big change in our lives was the right thing to do. It was.
Finding a home of your own
Once we were sure, the next step was finding a home of our own. I had had a little business success and by the mid-1990s things were looking brighter. We were told many times we could never move back to England as buying property there was so expensive. But for the price of a small car we could buy an ancient pile of stones in a village in the South of France.
With a small inheritance of Carole’s, we bought a factory which used to make whips in the 19th century in a village overlooking the Mediterranean South of Perpignan. This was planned as our family home.
I started working on this place (in Sorede), but then we found another pile of 10th century ruins in a little village in Herault, Languedoc called Nizas. A rambling labyrinth of rooms, chambers, halls and even an oubliette. We fell in love with it and within 10 minutes signed a compromis to buy. We had to get a loan but as the price was being offered at a low price, we managed to get it.
Importance of the notary
Buying these properties taught us how central to the purchase the notaire is and how little use the estate agents are in France. We also found how valuable the mayor of a community is. In Nizas we were bringing two more children who would use the village school. This immediately increased the infant population by 10 percent and meant the school would be able to stay open, As such, the mayor couldn’t do enough to help us fit in.
At one stage there seemed to be a delay in getting the compromis signed by the seller, we were scared that the time limit would run out and we would lose the sale so I bit the bullet and consulted a notaire who was not involved with the sale. For two hours, I sat in the notaires’ office while he phoned his colleague based at the other side of France to sort out our questions. My joy was doubled when he not only assured us that everything was fine and that we had bought the house, but then said there was no charge for this service as it is part of his official duties.
That became our family house in France. It was crumbing and leaking and had 35 rooms, some of which had not been opened for a century, but still it was ours. Two years of renovation where I learnt how to deal with medieval masonry and lifted thirteenth-century oak beams weighing over two tons, it was ready. And because it was huge, we decided to convert part of it into the rental apartments.
Our business took off so well that we never looked back since. If anything, the lessons we learned about buying properties in France has only encouraged us to get more involved in real estate in France and helped others who are in the same predicament we were once in.