Buying/ Living in France
Taking ownership of a resplendent French property can provide a place in the sun fit for a king. But the upkeep will demand a princely sum.
Buying a chateau in France sounds rather a grand thing to do, but is it really a folie de grandeur? Unless you have a truly giant family, what reason could you possibly have for wanting one? As far as we can see, no reason at all.
Not everyone agrees with us. French house prices may have risen 48% in the past three years, but hordes of Britons are still selling up and crossing the Channel, and a surprising number of them are hoping to buy a chateau, sales agent Bertrand Le Nail told the International Herald Tribune. Why? It all comes down to price. It is true that finding a bargain in rural France has become increasingly difficult for the British investor as the demand for cheap rustic retreats has overwhelmed the supply.
In the Dordogne, 75% of all residential purchases in the area are made by the British. The upshot is that medium-sized village houses, or small rural properties, don¹t look that cheap anymore. Big houses or chateaux, on the other hand, do: comparable properties are often less than half the price they would be in Britain.
There are an estimated 40,000 chateaux in France the term "chateau" encompasses everything from royal palaces and 14th-century castles through to historic, grand family homes. In some areas, smaller houses often count as chateaux too: in Provence they are referred to as 'mas', in Dordogne they are 'chartreuses' and in Brittany 'manoirs'. Most of these can be yours for under e750,000. Starting prices for habitable chateaux are around e600,000, but for about half that the price of a one-bedroom flat in London that you could fit in the turret you could be a proud owner of a shabby Auvergne chateau. Large historic residences in reasonable condition cost considerably less than their British or American equivalents ranging from e700,000 to e2m. Basically, the further away you go from Paris or from the warmer climes of the south of France, the less you pay. Secondary to that, access to mountains, the sea, good communications and proximity to airports or TGV train lines all push up the price.
However, there is bad news here too: the low purchase price is only the beginning of the story. The costs of making and keeping a stately pile in France in habitable condition are monumental, warns Jean Rafferty in the International Herald Tribune. Californian decorator Timothy Corrigan purchased his "neo-classical gem", the 18th-century Chateau de Grand-Lucé, south of Le Mans, for "one-quarter of the price of my landmark Los Angeles home", he told Rafferty. But he is paying a good deal more now it comes to renovating it. The whole thing is, he says, "a baptism of fire": it will cost up to e1.5m to modernise his 20-bedroomed property, despite the fact that he bought his listed landmark from the local government, which had already spent e940,000 on the roof alone. The interior has remained untouched since World War II and the electricity, heating and plumbing all need completely reworking. The lesson? If you must buy, make sure you have fully checked the building's architectural quality, location, orientation and potential problem areas on site.
So if you find a nice chateau and to renovate it, what next? The answer, it seems, is that you just keep on paying. The running costs are huge. Vaulted ceilings, vast bedrooms and stone floors cost a fortune to heat, and the French government will charge you a wealth tax every year. And don't think you can rely on the old British trick of letting the public pay to have a look round and then cover your bills with the proceeds. One French couple, the Gonneaus, wanted to open their 75-room Chateau de l'Hermitage to the public, says The Sunday Times. But French regulations would have forced them to make dramatic costly changes, such as installing protective screens around columns, fire detectors, fire-escapes, emergency exits and paid security guards. With these costs, the couple would have needed 40,000 visitors a year to pass through their chateau just to break even. Being the owner of a chateau may give you beauty, history and glorious architecture, but they're only really bargain if you are already rich.
I can't seem to pass a pile of rocks without wanting to own it; thus have I recently become the owner of a vast ruin of stone, slate and wood-munching fungus in the Norman countryside. A chateau. Worse, it isn't my first one. I bought my first chateau during the early years of the Clinton administration. "It never rains in the summertime", said one of the Pierres who sold us the place (most of the people I deal with in France seem to be called Pierre the word 'pierre' also means rock in French). "And, no, the roof doesn't leak". One day in July, we found that he had lied, twice. But this was the just the beginning of the adventure. Nothing is ever quite as straight in France as we Anglo-Saxons imagine neither the people, nor the laws, nor the chateaux walls. There is always a little "play" in them.
Before buying our first chateau, I looked at a dozen of them, many of which were owned by English people. They mostly suffered from the same problem the owners ran out of money before the chateaux ran out of defects. A few rooms were renovated, others were left undone. Roofs still leaked. Heating systems creaked. Plaster cracked.
Finally, the owners packed up and left, often in different directions. "When I arrived here," said one older Englishman who had not cut and run, "the chateau was broken down. But I was in good shape, financially as well as physically. Now, the chateau is in good shape and it is I who is broken down. You can make these things work. But it will cost you."
Chateaux are relatively cheap to buy, but expensive to repair and run. Our experience suggests that buyers should expect to spend twice as much on repairs as they did on the purchase. Compared to English prices, however, they will still get a lot for their money. A place already done up will sell for only a third to one-half as much as a roughly equivalent place in England.
A buyer must also consider the non-financial costs. Doing up a chateau is a consuming occupation. It breaks down not only pocketbooks, but nerves and marriages too. There are all the Pierres and pierres to deal with - and the language - and the government - and the community - and the travel back and forth - and the sense of alienation. Taken together, it breaks down buyers.
To readers who might still be tempted by this market, we offer the following advice:
1/ Don't do it.
2/ If you do anyway, the first thing to do is to lay in a good wine cellar. You'll need it.
3/ Don't lose sight of Paris. The city is central to life in France. You don't want to be too close to the city, but you want to be able to get there without too much trouble. Look at road and train access.
4/ Don't buy more house than you can use. Roofs are expensive. Chateaux roofs are especially expensive. If you don¹t fix the roof, it will ruin whatever is beneath it. You'll be depressed.
5/ If money is a concern, buy a cottage, not a chateau. Chateaux were never meant for people with good sense or tight budgets. You will run into expenses you hadn't counted on. You'll go broke.
6/ Don't expect the place to pay any of its own expenses. If it has a farm attached, the farm will lose money. You can set up a chambre d'hôte or gîte but it probably won't work either; there are too many of them already.
7/ Don't imagine that anything you are told by an owner, lawyer, notary, or a real estate agent is true. It may be; it may not be. Even if God himself speaks to you in a dream, assume he is being too optimistic.
8/ Meet the mayor. Be friendly. You might need him.
9/ Watch out for a fungus called "merule." It makes wood disappear faster than champagne foam.
If, despite our advice, you decide to go ahead we will send you a length of rope by return mail. If things get too bad, you can always hang yourself in the attic. You won't be the first.
by, Emma Thelwell