Lured to the Lot
Francophiles find the southwest has rural charm and falling prices, says Helena Frith Powell
What do you do when there are no more stone houses left to buy in the Dordogne? You go across the border to the Lot. The countryside is just as lovely: lush green hills and cliff-lined river valleys. It has plenty of fortified villages and castles — more than 400 sites in the region are listed as of historical interest. The capital is Cahors, one of France’s most beautiful cities. And the best news is that house prices are going down.
“I have just sold a farmhouse that was on the market for €280,000 (£190,000) for €225,000 (£153,000),” says Jean-Jacques Vidaller, of Le Tuc Immobilier. “My message to buyers is not to ignore properties you think are outside your range, as you may be able to negotiate.”
According to Vidaller, English agents have falsely inflated prices in the Lot over the past four years by advertising properties in the UK at about 30% more than they are actually on the market for. French sellers have tried to get in on the act, but the market will no longer tolerate such high prices.
Carl Scholfield, of Vialex International, agrees. “Prices are back to reasonable levels after a steep rise in 2002,” he says. “I have seen at least 50 properties with reductions of between 10% and 15% over the past eight months.”
The Lot is not just attracting Brits from across the Channel but from all over France. Jane Greenwood, an artist, moved to Montcuq from the Côte d’Azur a year and a half ago. “I left my husband,” she confides. “And the removal man told me that all the women that leave their husbands in Provence end up in the Lot. I thought I may as well try it.” Greenwood had spent seven years in a village between Cannes and Grasse. “It was just getting wrecked (by development),” she adds. “The fabulous light that all the artists went there for is still there, but Arcadia it is not.”
Greenwood has bought a small village house that needs doing up. It cost her £50,000, and she predicts she will spend that on it again: “I’m going to try to limit myself to £35,000 but I probably won’t be able to.” She says the most difficult thing about the renovation process has been getting the (male) artisans to do what she wants. “They don’t like being bossed about by a woman,” she says, “so I hired a man to boss them about. The only problem is, he keeps making mistakes.”
Greenwood has rented a shop in the village, where she sells fabrics, stencils and pictures. “I just love it here,” she says. “It’s so pretty. I feel lucky to be living in this little village surrounded by such beauty. My dream was always to paint landscapes and now, within a 10-minute bike ride, I can be at any number of stunning sites.”
John and Jane Parris moved to Lachapelle-Auzac in the northern Lot almost 10 years ago from Normandy to start working on the then abandoned Souillac golf course. They bought an old stone farmhouse that overlooks the Dordogne Valley for £110,000. “We love the way of life here,” says Jane. “It is even more relaxed than Normandy. The only downside is it’s hard to get a decent curry.”
According to Vidaller, the Lot is attracting a new type of British buyer who can afford to go anywhere. “We are seeing a new kind of Brit moving to the region who doesn’t want to be in Provence,” he says. “They are middle-class and upwards with serious money to spend. They are all looking for one thing: peace. I am even seeing French people move up from the coast.” They will be joining Brits that have already fallen in love with the rolling hills and benign climate, among them David Essex, the pop singer and actor, who lives in a chateau south of Villeneuve-sur-Lot. Paul McCartney has also holidayed in the village of Montcuq.
Joanna Bastin and her husband, Charles, a retired investment banker, bought a house in the pretty medieval village of Tournon d’Agenais 10 years ago. “We had been living in Monaco and could easily have opted for a retirement home on the Riviera,” says Bastin, “but we have had a holiday home in the Lot since 1989 and love it here. We love the food and the countryside. The people are great. There are a lot of people around that one would have thought would have ended up in Provence, plus a lot of overspill from the Dordogne.”
Their property, originally two houses, makes up part of the town’s inner ramparts and dates from 1270. They paid £50,000 but have spent at least four times that on renovating it. The work took three years to finish. “It was a complete pit,” says Bastin. “We took out nine dump-trucks of rubbish before we could even begin work.”
The difficulties of renovating a property should not be underestimated, according to Michael Groom, a self- confessed renovation addict who is on his third wreck in the region. “People have no idea how difficult it is,” he says, “and end up in terrible trouble with shoddy workmanship, workmen not doing their job, and so on. Renovating houses in France is not as cheap as people would like to believe.”
Groom lives close to Montcuq and Lauzerte with his girlfriend, Lauren McMullen, a sports marketing consultant. “We looked all over France but narrowed down our search to the Lot area, and particularly what I call ‘the golden triangle’, here in the Quercy Blanc with its pretty white stone houses,” says Groom. “We love the peaceful, unspoilt, wooded countryside with its lovely hamlets and historic bastides. And we have excellent access to the Mediterranean, the Pyrenees, the Atlantic and several international airports. In fact, I went back to England for a lunch a few weeks ago.”
The couple bought La Roque, an 18th-century farmhouse, in April 2003. It had been deserted since the first world war. The restoration work took about 10 months, and the house now has three reception rooms, four bedrooms, five bathrooms and a heated swimming pool. It is set in 10 acres of land.
“Michael was here full-time,” says McMullen. “It’s just not possible to carry out a project like this if you’re not. We’ve seen neighbours try to, and the workmen just sit about all day — and who can blame them?” They are now selling La Roque as Groom wants to move on to another project.
According to Scholfield, the Lot is attracting Brits looking for a career change and a new way of life. “When I first moved here, the demographic profile was ancient,” he says. “We’re now getting much younger people who are looking to integrate and to work here.”
Mike and Sue Spring moved to France 11 years ago to run a wine business. “We wanted to do something different,” says Mike, a former manager in the computer software industry. “We have always been interested in wine, so a property with a vineyard was a natural choice.” They chose the Lot because it suited their aims. “The vineyards we found in the Languedoc were just too big for us,” says Sue, who used to work in recruitment. “Added to which, we knew this region and liked it very much.”
They looked for a suitable property for four years while learning French and attending courses in wine-making at Plumpton College, East Sussex. Eventually, they found Domaine du Garinet, just outside Le Boulvé, which is a 30-minute drive from Cahors. They paid £160,000 for the two-bed house with 100 acres of land, six of which have vines. They also have three acres of walnut trees and a plum orchard. Sue bakes cakes, shells walnuts, makes walnut oil and prepares prunes, which they sell from the domaine and at the local market in Montcuq.
“I make 10,000 cakes a year,” she says. “And during the Seville orange season, I spend two solid weeks making marmalade.” The wine business is going well. Last year, they produced 10,000 bottles of red (AOC Cahors), 1,500 bottles of rosé and 6,000 bottles of white.
“We have no regrets,” she says. “Although the business does occupy our time more totally than we had expected — we don’t get much in the way of holidays or weekends.”
- La Roque is for sale for £595,000. For details, call 01722 717 957 or e-mail email@example.com
- Vialex International, 00 33 553 954 624, www.vialex.com
- Le Tuc Immobilier, 00 33 553 413 248, www.jjvimmo.com
- More France Please, We’re British by Helena Frith Powell is available at the special Sunday Times Books First price of £9.49, with free p&p in the UK, on 0870 165 8585, or visit www.timesonline.co.uk/booksfirstbuyON THE MARKET
Near Figeac, a 45-minute drive from Cahors, this restored two-bedroom stone house with a barn is in two acres of land. It is on the market for £225,000 with Latitudes, 020 8951 5155, www.latitudes.co.uk
In 1¼ acres near Montcuq, this renovated two-bedroom stone watermill has a guesthouse, sauna and swimming pool. It is for sale for £317,000 with Vialex, 00 33 553 954 624, www.vialex.com
North of Prayssac, about 20 miles from Cahors, this two-bedroom house has a terrace and a self-contained one-bedroom apartment. It is on sale for £224,000 with Francophiles, 01622 688 165, www.francophiles.co.uk
This three-bed house in the Gourdon area, a 40-minute drive north of Cahors, has half an acre of garden with outbuildings and an orchard. It is £220,000 through Latitudes, 020 8951 5155, www.latitudes.co.uk
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor in chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group. She writes a beauty blog www.beautyorbeast.uk.
Her third novel, The Arnolfini Marriage, based on a romance that evolves around a van Eyck masterpiece came out in 2016. As well as contributing regularly for newspapers and magazines, writing short stories and studying for a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Cambridge, Helena is also working on a thriller called The Longest Night that will be published in spring 2019. Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles came out in hardback in 2016 and came out in paperback in April 2018.
Helena was educated at Durham University and lived in the Languedoc region of France for eight years, where the family still have a home. She lives between there and London with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019