Selling France to the French

Local buyers have discovered a surprising taste for British-built property on their own turf, says Helena Frith Powell

Conventional wisdom holds that once you buy a house in France, you can sell it only to other Brits. The French want something different. Above all, they want something cheaper. Conventional wisdom is wrong. All over the country, enterprising Britons are building, selling and finding properties for an increasingly large and hitherto relatively untapped French market.

Take Charles McLeod, a serial entrepreneur.

A couple of years ago, he decided he would like a riverside property in France where he could do a spot of fishing. To his dismay, he found they didn’t seem to exist. At this point, most people would have given up on the idea or looked elsewhere. Not McLeod, who has made a career of setting up companies to satisfy needs of his own that nobody else seemed to be catering for. He created Prestige Riverside Developments, with the aim of building properties along the most idyllic rivers in France.

McLeod’s first project is the conversion of a 13th-century mill in Villeneuve-sur-Lot, in Lot-et-Garonne, that ceased to be functional in 1977. He is putting two large flats in the mill itself, and 10 townhouses along the river. Work has just started, and four of the houses have already been sold — all to French buyers.

“I was expecting them to go to Brits,” says McLeod, whose previous ventures have included Currencies4less, a foreign-exchange company, and Prestige CCTV, a firm that helps people use the web to monitor their homes from afar.

McLeod believes his success is due in part to the reputation of Philippe Gaillard, the architect involved in the project. “He is a larger-than-life local figure, and people trust his work. Once they heard he was involved, they wanted in,” he says. “I also think our prices are competitive, and possibly a little less than the market rate now. When we priced it, 18 months ago, they were spot-on, but the market has moved on.”

The two-bedroom townhouses are priced at £205,300 and the three-bedroom ones cost £274,300. All will have gardens leading to the water’s edge. The three-bedroom penthouse flat in the mill costs £293,000, with the second flat priced at £274,300. The whole development will be within a gated complex.

McLeod also attributes some of the interest from local buyers to the fact that the French do not share the traditional British prejudice against new properties. “They would rather have something new and sell the old wreck in the middle of nowhere,” he says. “The French are keener on new-builds than Brits are.”

When Karl O’Hanlan, 35, moved from Dublin to Béziers, in the Languedoc, two years ago to become a partner in Garrigae Investissements, a property-development company, he, too, was convinced that most of his clients would be British. He did not, therefore, expect his inability to speak French to be much of a handicap.

“I have a French partner who looks after all the construction and planning permissions,” he says, “but on the sales side, I thought I would be dealing exclusively with Brits.”

He has now taken a crash course in the language and hired a team of sales people dedicated to the French-speaking market. “About 40% of our inquiries are from French people,” O’Hanlan says. “I think they are getting more discerning and looking for better-quality developments. In addition, the tax breaks for French people on buying new properties have helped developers like us.”

Particularly popular with French buyers has been a development called Les Jardins de Saint Benoît, near Carcassonne in Aude. “Funnily enough, we are finding that the profile of our French-speaking clients very much matches that of our Anglo-Saxon clients,” O’Hanlan says. “There are two kinds: one is from the north of France, Belgium or Luxembourg, looking for a family home in the sun. The other is already installed in the south, and looking for a good investment.”

The properties for sale consist of one- or two-bedroom village houses and three-, four- or five-bedroom villas. Prices start at £141,500 and go up to £438,300. Garrigae offers a rental service whereby investors are guaranteed an income from their property of up to 5.59% of the purchase price.

It is not just British developers who are finding favour with the locals. So, too, are some of the British estate agents and property-finders in France who had been expecting interest to come primarily from their compatriots.

Patrick Cameron, 64, for example, moved to the High Languedoc from London three years ago and set up Prime Languedoc, a property-finding service aimed largely at Britons or other English-speakers, from Ireland or America. He has found that many of those who approach him are French expats planning to return home after a career abroad.

“Of course, they don’t have the language barrier to overcome, nor are they usually concerned about the purchase procedure, but their main problem is time,” Cameron says.

“I had an inquiry the other day from a French couple in Washington. They are looking to retire to the region in two years, and don’t have the time to come over to look at houses every few months, so they have left it to me.

“In a way, the French are easier to house-hunt for, because they don’t have the preconceptions the English do about wanting old stone and rural locations.This makes my life a lot easier, as there are more new-builds around than old farmhouses.”

Simon Wright, 51, and his girlfriend, Fiona Bennett, 43, have also been surprised by the nationality of their clientele. Three years ago, the couple, who previously lived in Sussex, bought a former wine domaine near Pau, in Aquitaine.

A year ago, they turned the outhouses into offices for the French headquarters of Prime Oak, a British company that makes high-quality oak-framed conservatories, orangeries, garages, swimming- pool buildings and even houses. The buildings, which come in kit form, are assembled on site. Prices start at £7,000 and go up to £70,000 or more.

“We have found strong demand from the locals, who see Prime Oak products as similar to traditional French oak buildings, and want to move away from the breeze-block style of cheap construction,” Wright says.

To help with the French sales drive, they have taken on a French partner, Bruno Vaillard, who was impressed by the quality of the product and felt confident that it would work for locals as well as expats. “Oak is indigenous to southwest France, so it looks good here,” Wright says. “We are finding that locals are beginning to consider our products as viable alternatives to modern houses, especially as the prices are nowhere near as high as most people imagine.”

It used to be that the British bought old wrecks and did them up. Now, it seems, they are building new houses, and doing it so well that even the French want to buy them. So much for conventional wisdom.

– Prestige Riverside Developments; 0845 054 6464, (London agents: Winkworth International; 0845 251 9000, Garrigae Investissements; 00 33 4 67 11 87 19, Prime Languedoc; 00 33 4 67 44 22 60, Prime Oak; 00 335 62 09 40 49,

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