Bargain hunters’ corner
Still largely undiscovered, Limousin is France’s cheapest region. But househunting Brits are already arriving, says Helena Frith Powell of The Sunday Times
There is a French verb, limoger, which means to send somebody to a godforsaken place, and that makes Parisians giggle at the very mention of Limoges, the largest city in the Limousin region. Generations have fled this very rural area of la France profonde for the cities. But the British have no such prejudices. They are beginning to discover the area. They love it for the peace, the countryside, the food and the lack of traffic.
The region is famous for two things: Limoges porcelain and Limousin cows. There are cows everywhere. It is an agricultural region that looks a little like Devon, with its lush green meadows and rolling hills. The roads are windy and single-lane. It’s just as well there are more cows than cars.
Limousin, made up of three départements — Creuse, Haute-Vienne and Corrèze — has the Dordogne river running through it, and even a few English shops. What it doesn’t have is hordes of Brits and expensive properties. In fact, it doesn’t have hordes of anybody. There are only 42 inhabitants per square kilometre, compared with an average across England of 376. And even though it is next to the Dordogne, Limousin is still the cheapest region in France.
In the Corrèze, you can buy a three-bedroom house with a garden for £80,000. A farmhouse with some land will cost you £135,000. The problem will be finding one. “Everybody is after the same thing,” says Melanie van der Meer, an estate agent with the Vallée de la Dordogne agency based in Argentat. “The Brits all want a property that is old stone and isolated. I try to explain that even if the property is on a road, it’s unlikely there’ll be many cars going past.”
David Lee moved to a hamlet close to Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne just over a year ago. Originally from Lichfield, Staffordshire, he decided to leave England because he was fed up with it. “I was sick of the traffic, the vandalism, everything,” he says. “One day, some local kids set fire to the school and I just thought, that’s enough.”
He spent 10 weeks looking all over France and chose Limousin because of the landscape, the fishing and the people. He bought a 200sq m barn for £32,000 that he intends to convert and live in. The problem is finding the time to do it. “I am a builder and now have enough work to keep me going for the next two years,” he says. “I can’t take on any more.”
Lee is living in a caravan next to the barn, but moves in with his French neighbours if it gets too cold. “They are amazing,” he says. “So hospitable and kind. In fact, everybody has been great. I miss my family, but I can’t see myself going back.” He is planning to convert the barn into a three-bedroom house with an open-plan downstairs using straw bales for walls. He will do all the work himself and estimates the materials will cost about £35,000. “It will take me about three years,” he says. “But at the end of it an agent has told me it will be worth £135,000.”
Mike and March Fawcett have been in the region for five years. They bought a B&B in Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne for £76,000 in September 2000. “It had been on the market for 18 months when we bought it,” says Mike, a retired army major. “I don’t think that would be the case now. Everything seems to get snapped up.” They chose the region because it is easy to get back to the UK, where they have children and grandchildren. “I can’t believe how undiscovered the region is,” says March. “Even the French don’t seem to know about it.”
But lots of Brits do, and more soon will. There are now 14 flights a week to Limoges from the UK. Ryanair predicts that by 2006, 300,000 Brits will be using the route and 10% of them will be looking to buy property. Even the French press has noticed. Le Monde dubbed Limousin “the new Provence” — not for its olive trees and warm climate, but because its empty houses are slowly being occupied by Brits.
The new airport at Brive in the Corrèze, due to be opened in 2007, is likely to attract one of the low-cost airlines. Brive is just the kind of city Brits dream about when they consider moving to France, with a beautiful old church, cobbled square, masses of shops and cafes with terraces. If you’re looking for a property likely to increase in value, you could buy there now and wait for Ryanair to do the rest of the work. You can still pick up a farmhouse 10 minutes outside town for about £135,000. “The Corrèze is an area few people know about, especially compared to the ever popular, and now quite pricey, Dordogne. Prices are still reasonable in many areas, but improvements to transport links may well push things up in the next few years,” says David Frere-Smith of French Property Links.
Local people are not unaware of the possibility of cashing in, according to Enrico da Silva Cosme, who runs Le Pays Vert estate agency. “The variations in price can be enormous,” he says. “The local people see foreigners buying, and so the prices go up. A barn that you could have bought very cheaply three years ago can suddenly cost you 40% more. But it’s worth looking around and comparing — some vendors may just be trying it on.”
Jill and Dennis Scorer bought their house in a hamlet above the idyllic village of Saint-Merd-de-Lapleau last year. They originally thought about retiring to Tenerife, but opted for France because the houses are cheaper and Dennis, a former long-distance lorry driver, speaks French. “We looked all around southwestern France, but fell in love with this region and the people here,” says Jill. “It is tranquil, beautiful and not overpopulated with Brits.”
The Scorers sold their three-bedroom house in Wiltshire for £235,000 and bought a three-bedroom stone farmhouse, built in 1799, for £77,000, fully furnished. “All we had to do was buy a table,” says Jill. “And put in double-glazing and central heating. But even after we’d done all that, we were still below our initial budget of £100,000.”
“Here, at 5pm, there are three cars that go by,” says Dennis. “That’s our rush hour.”
It is not only retirees who are moving to Limousin. In 2004, 37 Brits registered new businesses in the Haute-Vienne, to the west of the region. One of the start-ups belongs to Kevin Marr, who moved to the area from Liverpool a year and a half ago. “I was a plumber back home and didn’t see any reason why I couldn’t carry on with my trade in France,” he says. “I work mainly for other Brits at the moment but, as my French improves, I think I’ll get some French clients, too.”
Kevin moved with his wife and two children to a detached stone-and-brick cottage, close to Bellac, that they bought for £80,000. It has three bedrooms and 1.7 acres of land. They sold their terraced house in Liverpool for £215,000. “We have no mortgage, some money in the bank and a nice life here,” says Marr. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s a no-brainer.”
It seems he is not alone in thinking so. The local social security office says there are already 2,400 Brits registered in the Haute-Vienne. Property prices are starting to reflect the increased interest, says Anthony Jones of ABC Immobilier. “A small property to renovate in the Haute-Vienne or the Creuse that would have cost you between £10,000 and £15,000 four years ago will now cost between £30,000 and £45,000,” he says. “It’s simple supply and demand.”
- Le Pays Vert, 00 33 555 980 829, www.immoboule vard.com;
ABC Immobilier, 00 33 254 010 833, www.immoabc.co.uk; Vallée de la Dordogne, 00 33 555 911 136, www.immoboulevard.com; David Frere-Smith, 01243 539 119, www.frenchpropertylinks.comRural Hideaway
- In a hamlet, four miles from Corrèze village, this renovated five-bedroom farmhouse, in four acres, has two cellars, a large barn and a garage. It is £265,000 through Savills, 020 7824 9030, www.savills.co.uk
- Recently restored, this 19th- century three-bed cottage has a pool and central heating. It is about 20 miles from Ussel, in the Corrèze, and is £163,000 with Francophiles, 01622 688 165, www.francophiles.co.uk
- A 40-minute drive from Limoges, this two-bed stone cottage, near Saint-Yrieix-La- Perche, has exposed beams and about an acre of garden. It is £120,000 with VEF, 020 7515 8660, www.vefuk.com
- This cottage, near Coussac- Bonneval, about 16 miles from Limoges, requires renovation. It has about 40sq m of habitable space with about 0.2 acres of land. It is £18,000 with VEF, 020 7515 8660, www.vefuk.com
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