When Carole and I came to live in France nearly 20 years ago we first rented an apartment in a village called Trevoux on the Saone North of Lyon.
I had spent a month traveling around France on a special roaming rail ticket, I don’t see them offered anymore, but it was a great way to discover France. I would often turn up at a local station and ask the time of the next train – where to – I would be asked – anywhere – I replied, they definitely thought I was crazy (perhaps I was).
It was the early 1990s, we decided to leave the UK for many reasons, gloom and despair were everywhere, we had very young children (two little girls) and the education system we saw in Britain was not good, property values were plummeting and the weather was atrocious (what’s new). Moving to a new place where at least one or two of those factors looked better seemed sensible to us – so we packed our home into a Volkswagen Beetle and drove to an apartment I had rented in Trevoux for the next four years.
It seemed that I had visited hundreds of properties all over France, but in reality I probably only saw a dozen or so. I did visit well over a hundred towns and villages though. My criteria included good access by public transport to a major town, access to an International airport and schools and shops in walking distance.
To find a place I only looked at properties offered by estate agents. Those were the days before the Internet, I don’t think the founders of Google had started college. Each French town had only a couple of agencies and these mostly concentrated on rentals, not sales. Things are very different now, a town with perhaps four agencies in the early ’90s may now have (last year anyway) over 30 estate agents all trying to claw a living from sales. If you are looking for a place to rent then I suggest the first step is searching Internet sources. An estate agency now is very unlikely to have the selection of properties although in larger towns there are usually agencies who still specialise in rentals, owners are preferring private listings.
The disadvantage renting through an agency is the agency usually takes one months rent, or more, as their commission each year, so the prices asked tend to reflect this. As the tenant has a lot of legal protection in France, a substantial deposit is required and proof of income is demanded. But once you have jumped through the hoops and got a tenancy agreement, you have security for a minimum of three years (unfurnished). Your obligation for giving notice is three months..
We were very happy in our rented apartment for four years. It was a magical time for us, our two little girls, Clio and Miranda, started schools locally and our third child, Jack, was a result of our happiness (he was born in Beziers a few weeks after we left Trevoux and had moved into our new home in Nizas).
We started our life in France by renting as we had very little money and we also wanted to be sure that making such a big change in our lives was the right thing to do. It was.
The next step was finding a home of our own. I had had a little business success and by the mid 1990s things were looking brighter, the Internet had stared with things like browsers (remember Alta Vista). Were were told many times we could never move back to England as buying property there was so expensive. But for the price of a small car we could buy an ancient pile of stones in a village in the South of France. In fact with a small inheritance of Carole’s we bought a factory which used to make whips in the 19th century ina village overlooking the Mediterranean South of Perpignan. This was planned as our family home.
I started working on this place (in Sorede), but then we found another pile of 10th century ruins in a little village in Herault, Languedoc called Nizas. A rambling labyrinth of rooms, chambers, halls and even an oubliette – we fell in love with it and in ten minutes signed a compromis to buy – we had to get a loan but as it was such a small price we managed to get it and now we had two renovation projects in the South of France.
Buying these properties taught us how central to the purchase the Notaire is and how little use the estate agents are in France. We also found how valuable the Mayor of a community is, in Nizas we were bringing two more children who would use the village school – as this immediately increased the infant population by 10 percent this meant the school would be able to stay open, the Mayor couldn’t do enough to help us fit into the community.
I remember when we had just signed the compromis to buy our home in Nizas, I went back and climbed on the roof of our car to look over the wall into the back garden to sort of wallow in our luck. An agent who had taken us around the day before to show us horrid places happened to be driving past, he lent out his car window and said “That can’t be bought” – I smiled back and said ” Yes, I know” – he must have known about the property, but decided to keep it for himself (I later found this often “happens”, although it is illegal) – although I later met him often, sometimes at friends homes, he never spoke to me again.
At one stage there seemed to be a delay in getting the compromis signed by the seller, we were scared that the time limit would run out and we would lose the sale so I bit the bullet and consulted a Notaire not involved with the sale. My experience with lawyers up until then was to count my fingers if I had shaken their hand, and sitting in the Notaires office for two hours while he phoned his colleague the other side of France to sort out our questions was like watching a taxi meter in rush-hour traffic. My joy was doubled when he not only assured us that everything was fine, we had bought the house, but then said there was no charge for this service as it is part of his official duties.
So we now had our own home in France, crumbing and leaking and 35 rooms, some of which had not been opened for a century or more, but our home. Two years of learning how to deal with medieval masonry and lift 13th century oak beams weighing over two tons and I was a lot fitter and a lot poorer.
In one of my any previous lives I had worked as a photographer and had also taught and lectured in photo techniques. So as our home was huge, we decided to offer courses in Zone System photography and to build accommodation for people to stay.
So in 1997 we opened for business, I only used the Internet for marketing and it seemed that half of Seattle wanted to rent our accommodation. I did run a couple of photo courses, but the accommodation rented so fast as apartments we looked around for other properties to rent and completely by accident I started one of the first vacation rental websites.
The lessons we learned about buying properties in France and the huge demand from overseas visitors to our home who were looking to buy properties encourages us to get more involved in real estate in France….. which is another story.