Where should I buy in France?
Sun-worshipper? Nightclubber? Want to get away from it all and from other Brits? Helena Frith Powell of The Sunday Times advises which area could be the right place for you to buy
So you want a house in France. But where? One of the toughest decisions to make when buying property in France is the first: which of its diverse and distinct regions to focus on. Here is a guide to help narrow your choice — if you’re moving for sunshine, for example, avoid Brittany; if you are a nightclub fiend, forget the Auvergne.
The ultimate destination for winter-sports enthusiasts, this area offers some of the best skiing in the world. Roman Abramovich, the flamboyant owner of Chelsea football club, once tried to snap up all the best chalets at Courchevel 1850 for more than £150m, but failed to secure a deal. Méribel is the most child-friendly resort in Les Trois Vallées, while serious skiers go to Val d’Isère and Tignes, where the nightlife is as lively as the mogul fields. Meg ève is the property choice for sophisticates — it’s St Tropez in snow boots.
Stuart Law, managing director of Assetz France, says the Alps are increasing in popularity: “We have seen an increase in buyers as part of the overall trend for moving abroad, but developers are also moving to the Alps to build because land is so expensive in the south.” For a chalet in a top resort, you’ll pay at least €500,000 (£340,000). A one-bedroom flat will set you back about £100,000.
This region includes the Dordogne and Bordeaux, so there are plenty of links with home. Bordeaux is such a rich and beautiful city because of all the money Brits spend (and have spent for centuries) on the region’s wines. The centre has recently had a revamp and a new tramway put in. It’s a nice place to live in, though the locals have a reputation for being a bit unfriendly.
The Dordogne is synonymous with Brits abroad. Some villages, such as Eymet, are practically English-speaking. There are cricket teams and lots of grocery stores where you can stock up on Marmite. There is a fox hunt outside Pau, one of the most beautiful cities in France, with views over the Pyrenees. They say it rains as much in Pau as in London, but in half the time. The Victorians built mainland Europe’s first golf course there.
Closer to Spain, the region is less developed, and you will be hard-pushed to find a tin of baked beans. But you will find lots of mountains to climb and a rich local diet: foie gras, truffles, snails and pâté.
According to Daniel Taylor, of Vialex International, the market has slowed down. “We have had almost 40 vendors call us this year to reduce the asking price of their properties,” he says. You can pick up a small country house for renovation from £35,000 and a four-bedroom village house for upwards of £55,000. A farmhouse with views of the mountains will start at about £240,000.
A sparsely populated region, much of it above 3,000ft, the Auvergne is a place for hikers and foodies: notable local cheeses include Cantal, Salers, Sainte-Nectaire and Bleu d’Auvergne. The area has wonderful Romanesque churches and medieval castles, but apart from that, culture is a little thin on the ground.
Aurillac, a lovely city at the foot of the Cantal mountains, has the dubious distinction of being the prefecture in France furthest from a motorway. But connections are improving, so property prices may pick up. Clermont-Ferrand, the capital, is linked to the A72 eastwards to Lyon, the A71 north to Paris, and there will soon be the A89 west to Bordeaux.
Heidi Hilpert, from Heima Immobilier, says the region is gaining in popularity with Brits. “They are discovering the charm of the Auvergne,” she says, “but prices are still way below the national average.” You can find a stone wreck to renovate in a remote area from about £17,000. A habitable four-bed farmhouse with land near Aurillac will cost you more than £110,000.
Brittany and Normandy
Anti-Brit riots took place last year in the Breton village of Bourbriac. You’d think they’d be used to us by now: we’ve been emigrating to Brittany since Roman times. Some villages are practically British, and there are locals who resent the hike in house prices. Many concede, however, that Brits tend to buy up old ruins and have revitalised small villages that were dying.
Normandy and Brittany have more than 1,000 miles of coastline and lots of medieval towns and castles for history buffs. Rennes, the capital of Brittany, is only two hours from Paris by train. With its two universities hosting 60,000 students, historic town centre and its famous cultural festivals, it is a good city for the young.
House prices are reasonable in Brittany, apart from in the south, where they reach Riviera proportions. Bob Pearson, of Breton Homes, says some areas, such as the Blavet Valley, have quadrupled in value over the past four years. Four-bedroom houses start at £125,000.
In Normandy, the resorts of Trouville and Deauville are popular with Parisians, so properties sell at a premium. Bruno Taxy, of the Emile Garcin estate agency, says the market is thriving. “It attracts Brits who are after a permanent home but don’t want to feel too far away from England,” he says, “as well as those who are not after excessive heat.”
With its wines, countryside reminiscent of the Cotswolds, easy access to Paris and Lyons (the nearest airports) and fabulously rich history, Burgundy has much to offer incomers. The capital, Dijon, is a cosmopolitan city with plenty of culture, art and restaurants — and prices are still cheap if you avoid the pockets where Parisians have bought second homes.
A four-bed rural farmhouse with some land will start at £105,000. “Prices went up by 7% last year, but it is still one of the cheapest regions in France,” says Benjamin Haas, who runs the Burgundy4U estate agency. The region is popular with retirees looking for quality of life, but the winters are cold.
The world’s biggest vineyard, this is the non-posh south of France, but it’s getting posher. The climate is Mediterranean and the way of life laid-back. It is one of the healthiest places in Europe in which to live, because of the area’s lack of heavy industry and the diet, which includes lots of fish, fresh fruit, olive oil and wine.
The Languedoc is easy to reach using the TGV high-speed train from Paris to Montpellier, the capital. Local airports include Montpellier, Nîmes, Perpignan and Carcassonne. Montpellier itself is chic, offering lots of culture and great shopping. What’s not to like here? This is a region for wine- and sun-lovers, but don’t consider it if you are mad about punctuality.
The past five years have seen a 50% increase in local property prices at least. But the market is now slowing down, says Mike Monkman, from Languedoc Houses. “Prices have levelled and sellers are more conservative in their expectations,” he says.
A detached stone cottage to the north of the region will start at about £160,000. This is where to look if you want value for money. Prices rise dramatically as you move closer to the sea. In the popular medieval town of Pézenas, for example, a three-bedroom flat will cost about £100,000.
There is a dearth of good-quality property at reasonable prices along the coast, where househunters are now being shown modern bungalows for astronomical prices. Sadly, the rise in prices has led to a big building boom; parts of the region have been wrecked by cheap housing and tacky theme parks.
To the French, Limousin is the place God forgot, the countryside at its most rural and remote. The farmhouses can be splendid — vast affairs with high-pitched roofs — and the scenery (because of the area’s high rainfall) is reminiscent of Sussex in the north and Devon in the south.
Limousin is cattle-raising country and still the cheapest region in France — but prices are set to rise, thanks to an extension of the A89 from Bordeaux and the A20 from Paris, plus a new airport near Brive. “We’ve seen a dramatic increase in people buying in the region, partly due to the arrival of low-cost airlines,” says David Frere-Smith, from French Property Links.
Village houses needing work start at about £18,000. A four-bedroom farmhouse with land will cost about £83,000.
This vast region stretches from the Spanish border all the way to Limousin. Its capital, Toulouse, has everything you would expect from a leading French metropolis: theatres, great restaurants, cinemas, an international airport and even an Ikea. An added bonus is its range of Asian restaurants, something Brits in France often miss.
The second city is Cahors, a pretty, medieval place surrounded by attractive countryside. The land here is mainly agricultural — lots of fields with vast hay bales, swathes of sunflowers and stunning views — and the cuisine tends to be heavy: foie gras, cassoulet and Roquefort cheese.
Midi-Pyrénées is a rich region historically, its landscape dotted with ancient villages, castles and Romanesque churches. The new Millau viaduct, connecting the motorway from Paris to Barcelona in Spain, at the point where it is interrupted by the River Tarn, is worth at least a visit. The view from the bridge south is one of the most spectacular in France.
Property is still relatively cheap in this region, and you can find real bargains in rural areas. Carl Schofield, of Vialex International, says prices are stabilising after a 34% increase over the past three years. “There is an excellent selection of properties on the market, renovated to better standards than before and at reasonable prices,” he says. “I predict an increase of up to 5% in 2005.”
For about £200,000, you can buy a five-bedroom stone farmhouse with some land and a pool. But you may not get to use the pool much — snow in the winter is not uncommon. The Midi-Pyrénées will suit people who like driving, as the distances between towns are vast. And plane-spotters: Toulouse is home to Airbus.
Pays de la Loire
Nantes, the capital, is consistently voted the best place to live in France by the French media. Close to the sea, it is dynamic and popular with culture vultures because of its many theatre companies. Angers, gateway to the Loire Valley, is a pretty town where you can sit at a bar in a cobbled street and simply watch the world go by.
The Mayenne, one of the region’s five départements, has more chateaus per square mile than Paris, but it is not the most welcoming place — some Brits living there say they feel discriminated against. The Vendée, with 100 miles of sandy beaches, is the most visited place in France by the French after Provence. Property prices vary: the Mayenne is cheap, but the coast is expensive. “On the coast, a four-bedroom farmhouse will cost you about £
140,000,” says John Evans, of Eclipse Overseas. “Inland, you’re looking at closer to £105,000. Anything that is good-quality is selling very quickly at the moment. There is a lot of demand.”
The Pays de la Loire as a whole has been declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco, which calls it a “cultural landscape of exceptional beauty”. The climate is a bit like Dorset’s, muggy and rainy, but much warmer. Go here if you want somewhere different. Which area you pick will depend on what kind of character you are. In cosmopolitan La Baule, you can rub shoulders with glamorous Parisians. In the Mayenne, you’re more likely to rub shoulders with livestock.
This will not suit those of you moving abroad to get away from Brits — it is crawling with them, but with good reason. The climate is fabulous, the mixture of mountains and sea is stunning, the light is unrivalled and the nightlife is wild. The downside is that it will take you hours to get to the beach in the summer, and parts of it have become horribly built-up. Prices are also pretty steep. And if you’re looking for your dream house on the beach at Cap d’Antibes, think again. “It doesn’t exist,” says Emile Garcin’s Bruno Taxy. For just over £1.3m, you can buy a four-bed fisherman’s cottage close to the beach at St Tropez. Bruno concedes that properties on the Riviera are often overpriced. A similar property in Lubéron, a mountainous region in western Provence, would be half as much. The region’s capital is Marseilles, France’s oldest city. The area around the old port is lovely and the cobbled back streets are worth exploring, but it’s a pretty unromantic place, trying to live down its reputation as the drug capital of France. Aix-en-Provence is a better bet if you’re after urban living. Nice and Cannes have little to recommend them beyond shops and the beach. St Tropez is more charming, but with prices to match.
More France Please, We’re British by Helena Frith Powell and Buying a Property in France, a Cadogan guide, are available at the special Sunday Times Books First prices of £9.49 and £11.69 respectively, with free p&p in the UK, on 0870 165 8585
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.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. Helena is working on a thriller called Thin Ice that will be published in 2021 as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles came out in hardback in 2016 and in paperback in April 2018.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France 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