Buying Property in the South of France? Great Idea!

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The French real estate market has had an historical appreciation at a rate of between 3 and 5% since the early '50s - with the exception from 1992 to 1999 when prices went through a deflationary period due to a dip in France's post-war economic development. Having shot out of that period, prices are back on their way to previous levels but haven't quite got there yet. There is still time.

Lord Brougham, on a jaunt from England in 1834 to Italy, was stopped at the Var River located just west of Nice, in the southeast of France. Nice was under the House of Savoy, as Italy was not then a country. An infectious illness had broken out in Nice, and travelers were being turned back. Looking for suitable lodgings he found his way westwards along the coast to Cannes where, so pleased with the climate, he decided to stay. The Ex-Lord Chancellor of England made his home there, returning occasionally to England to laud the great advantages of the French Riviera, its sun and its temperate climate - a long, long way from Victorian London. He must have had an effect, for it is from this time that the English and then Russian influx to the Riviera is dated. Queen Victoria came, and later her cousin Tsar Nicholas of Russia. The intake is yet to abate, and estimates have been made of up to 100,000 local expats residing on the Côte d'Azur (the Riviera's new adopted name).

The south of France stretches from Menton on the Italian border, around Monaco, towards the west along the Mediterranean Sea, and off to the Rhone delta where it swings to the south towards the Spanish border. There it follows the Pyrenees Mountains off to the west once again and towards the Atlantic in Biaritz, the renowned seaside resort of yesteryear. It covers much ground, some of which is not as internationally well known as the Riviera or the Provence, but most of it a delightful place to live.
French life expectancy is around 81 years old and France is also the world's biggest market for anti-stress pills. How does one explain this apparent contradiction? Many reasons have been advanced, but the one I like the most is … the food! And, the wine! French cuisine is nourishing, and varied - from soup to nuts, fruits to vegetables, beef to game meats. The wine is world-class, as you know already. Its cheeses number in the hundreds, and anyone who has ventured into a boulangerie (bakery) will have been seduced by the smell of a freshly baked baguette. It is no wonder that the French, living to an old age, seem to enjoy most of their longevity. (The oldest woman in the world died in Arles just last year.) If they are constant complainers, studies show also that the French in general are quite content with their lifestyle.

So, if seeking your place in the sun abroad, then France should be on your checklist of countries. The south of France has much to offer - still reasonable real estate prices, relaxed countryside lifestyle, and terrific cuisine. The real estate market is buoyant for the moment, having benefited these past two years from many American expats exploiting the high value of the dollar. The quality of construction is in general solid, with some of the tightest construction standards in Europe. However, that doesn't mean that purchasing, or even renting property here is a cakewalk. One must still be careful as in any business transaction. 

There is an abundant demand for farmhouses, either ruins or recently abandoned, for renovation. One must know what to look for, how to estimate its value and how to negotiate a price that will not bankrupt them. For example, that rustic farmhouse at the end of the long, winding gravel road nears a copse of woods within an idyllic setting. Is it really worth what they are asking? Well, if you don't see any electricity lines strung down to the house, you might ask. Bringing in electricity can seriously increase renovation costs. And that old grange that seems to be going for a song. What is the condition of the roof? Have you any idea how much new roofing and framework costs? And what must be done to make it a livable house today? All questions that need answering before you buy, not after! 

The list of questions that you must know to ask is quite long - and ask them you must. Most real estate agents will tell you what they think you need to know about a property, and not a word more. This is simply good salesmanship. A little product information is good, a lot is simply confusing. So, you have to prompt them in order to dig out the facts that will help you arrive at a well reasoned estimate of the property's present and renovated worth. Ditto if you wish to build. 

Is it worth it? You betcha! France has yet some of the most skilled craftsmen in the world. It has a rich cultural heritage in terms of rustic styles, materials and know-how. For instance, if you know where to go you can design your own open fire chimney and they will cut the stone according to your measurements. Ditto if you want a colonnade affect on a side porch. Or, another craftsman will do wonders with stucco modeling to create niches, door or ceiling trims or entire display cases. Painters can apply Provencal colors in a traditional badegeon, trompe l'œil or more rustic styles creating an internal warmth of pastel colors unlike any you have seen. I have even found a mason who builds prestigious houses from cut rock, like the old castles. Evening meals under the shade of a lime tree, with the sun pausing before it dips below the horizon, a glass of red wine, and the world will appear to be all right. You could do worse.
The choice of regions along the south of France is sufficiently large to give you a vexing problem of just where you may want to seek your home away from home. The Côte d'Azur (or, French Riviera) offers its expat communities consisting of Scandinavians, Brits, Yanks, Dutch, Germans, Irish - and some Aussies thrown in for flavoring. It even has two English-speaking radio stations. Both the Swedes and the Germans have local associations that cater to their groups. It is a curious blend of hi-tech and glitz. The annual Cannes Film Festival transforms the place into Tinseltown for two weeks in the Spring. The Côte d'Azur is a small place, however, ensconced between the Mediterranean and the mountains that loom only 20 kilometers inland along a distance of not more than 70 kilometers. It is heavily built, and land is getting pricier by the day. The Provence is more spaced with villages at respectable distances and farmland or vineyards in between. The towns are smaller and life is more rural. The very south is even less populated and if you are seeking to be alone, the stretch from Perpignan to Biaritz will suit you, with concentrations of English and Dutch "colonies" here and there. The land of the Musketeer d'Artagnan and his Armagnac in the Gers is wide open and the fields never ending, with a gentle and simple local people, all or mostly all still tilling the soil as the forebears once did. Wherever you go in France you will see farmers tending to the land making a living that is barely acceptable - which is why their sacrifice is so admired by other Frenchmen. The French remain very attached to their national patrimony and the idea of "rationalizing" farming into giant agri-businesses horrifies most of them.

The advent of the Euro is one significant step towards the making of a European identity that respects the individuality of each of its nations. Most Europeans are prepared to accept this. The French are very attached to their cultural heritage and change reluctantly. They have become accustomed to what they call Douce France (sweet France). But, the world is changing throughout. What the French have and what they cling to most, is a savoir vivre anchored in a cultural richness centuries old and envied by many. Why change that for all the Pentiums in the world? Difficult question, that one! But, one they tend to answer in the following manner, "Yes, we will change, but we will do it our way". So, wherever you may decide to settle - whether in a city, village or the rural countryside - France will remain intrinsically France.

Tony PERLA <> For an idea of the content of Tony Perla's guide to buying/renovating/renting property in France click through to the Guide's Index. If you are serious about settling in France, this guide can save you from ten to a hundred times its retail price - just one piece of advice might prevent you from making a serious mistake! Knowledge is power - so why not have a look?

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Article By: Tony Perla, Aix-en-Provence

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