May 2005…………… Aftermath
When we first embarked on our adventures in French property renovation we were living a relatively “normal” life (well, as normal as I, who have always danced to a different drum , could sustain..) We did not expect it to turn into an epic saga that would give Beowolf a run for it’s money with plenty of “storm und drang” but there you go
You just never know
We had safe sensible jobs and several grown up children between us who had all flown the nest. I can’t really say we were suffering empty nest syndrome, and mine came back for a while anyway (therein lies another tale)
In 1994, I had met Trevor, who is also bordering on the English eccentric and I knew I had found a soul mate to share a dream with: so here is the true story of that dream- and a few of the nightmares we had along the way……
In 2005 I was working in a particularly unpopular branch of the civil service.When friends & colleagues asked me how our French property search/purchase/renovation was progressing, my usual response was to groan, roll my eyes in a dramatic fashion and proceed to relate our latest drama. This is more or less still happening now.
Some are fascinated, it’s amazing how many people nurture a dream of buying a wreck in some sunny corner of the world and changing the pace of their lives. Few actually do anything about it unless they are affluent or mad and I fall squarely into the second category.Most sensible, grown up people know that this is not the “safe” option
The most common question was “have you finished yet?” The most common response was, and still is……………………………. “NO!”
I could write a book……..
However, as I would have had to give up work to devote myself to such a mammoth task (writing a book, not buying a house in France- though in retrospect this was also a mammoth task) and as we do not have a healthy bank balance, we would all starve (although fat dog could do with losing a few pounds), I decided to back then to write a diary instead in the hope of making some sense of this mad scheme we are undertaking.
I would STRONGLY advise anyone considering house purchase and moving abroad to proceed with caution, unless you have:-
(a) A lucrative job lined up
(b) Plenty of money to burn or
(c) Enjoy the adrenalin rush of lurching from one crisis to the next. (Fortunately I do)
I used to wake up at 5am every morning worrying about the pound/euro exchange rate. This was indicative of my state of mind as barely an hour went by without me either mentally re arranging our incredibly tight French renovation budget or wondering where would be the best place to put the bath, which became a future project anyway as the luxury of a toilet in the shower room was a bigger priority.
My colleagues’ husband’s/partners would call them at the office to arrange to meet for lunch, chat about family & friends or ask them where they’ve hidden their blue shirt. MY partner used to ring me to announce sombrely that the euro had dropped to 1.40 ( oh, happy days!) , that the temperature in the South of France was 36 degrees and the builder appeared to be ignoring his emails.
Anyway, I digress, so-
Once upon a time there were two people having a mid life crisis.
To explain how we got from thinking about buying a place abroad to owning a house in France I must backtrack slightly to when the seeds of the idea took root in February 2004.
For the previous five years we had been letting out my tiny Black Country terraced cottage, complete with resident ghost.
When Trevor & I met it was instantly clear that we could not squeeze ourselves and assorted children into my house long term (my daughter’s “bedroom” was barely 6.5 meters square!) so, as there was no way I could get a joint mortgage with him, Trevor bought a “project” for us to live in & work on (handy hint-not necessarily a good idea to try to do both at the same time) – a large house with a huge garden just down the road.
Our tenants at the cottage, Hansel & Gretel, had decided in 2004 that it was time to move on from their 18th century lifestyle (the cottage was built in 1762) & buy a funky new house 20 yards away with mod cons, no draughts & a welcome absence of spectral presences that the cat could see but they couldn’t.
Obviously I have called them Hansel & Gretel to protect the innocent. This very sweet, very young couple had appeared to be hassle free tenants, only contacting me when the guttering overflowed, the boiler died or Hansel managed to make a hole in the bath with his stiletto heels (?!) Must have been a memorable party.
We considered letting the cottage again, but decided that as we aren’t wealthy, selling was going to be our only opportunity to get the cash together to buy a place in the sun. We looked at the possibility of buying in various places, Greece, Malta, and Bulgaria being serious front-runners, but after much thought we decided that our favourite hobbies of eating delicious food, drinking wine, taking scenic walks & watching the world go by meant we could slot frighteningly easily into the French lifestyle! That and the fact that when we, separately, first set foot on French soil, we immediately felt an affinity.
The idea of buying a house in France, initially for holidays but eventually to relocate, was the only the second thing we had ever instantly agreed on in all our years together so we HAD to do it . A second mortgage on the big house was out of the question &, as we needed to get moving whilst we still had most of our marbles & could hold a paintbrush without shaking, we decided to spruce up the cottage whilst it was empty, addressing all the usual period property problems, replace the kitchen and bathroom fittings & decorate throughout ( at my insistence) in historic paint shades-right, Farrow & Ball Citron
Perfect practice I thought for renovating our prospective French idyll.
Naively (who’s Hansel & Gretel now?!) we set a budget of £6,000 & a timescale of 3 months working evenings & weekends to get the cottage on the market before summer 2004 whilst UK prices were at an historical high. To cut a very long story short, it took 6 months of hard graft evenings and weekends, nearly twice the budget and a horrendous overdraft to get the place straight.
Our little friends had had a “slight leak” under the sink, beneath which had been set a very small receptacle to catch said drip & this had quietly overflowed under the cupboard, beneath the floor covering & wended its merry way across to the ground floor bathroom & in an easterly direction as far as the dining room, which just happened to be the oldest and most fragile part of the cottage.
This did instigate a very steep learning curve and was a crash course (literally!) in how a building can be taken apart and put back together.
I now know how to tell the difference between wet & dry rot (& treat it myself!) I can hack off plaster & dig up floors and strip two centuries of gunk off clay floor tiles ( and Parana pine floorboards ) at the drop of a hat. We can now lay a level floor ( we had to start from scratch in the modern extension) sand, strip and finsih floorboards, lay hand made irregular floor tiles and fiddly tiny mosaic wall tiles, construct ledge and brace doors and traditional porches, duplicate authentic looking Georgian wall panelling & fit a solid wood kitchen. Trevor also built a pine fireplace surround and is pretty good at hanging wallpaper( in appropriate vintage designs)
I am now convinced that I was a builder in a previous life and LOVE doing all this stuff, whereas my partner, who is inherently allergic to unnecessary DIY, clearly spent his past lives lying around on one elbow whilst servants peeled his grapes (and made them into wine) However he had no choice but get over some initial reluctance to spend every waking hour either at work or working on the cottage.
Trevor still stubbornly refuses to grout tiles, brick or stone work, do “decorative” paintwork or indeed anything fiddly, but I have learned to live with this as what he does do, he does properly and I am good at the detail. Complementary skills are a must if your projects are going to work, you can waste a lot of time arguing about what to do when you could actually be doing it.
The mad co-incidences on which my life seems to hinge kicked in again.
My father had just relocated from Lancashire to the Midlands to be closer to the family. His new apartment was literally two minutes from the cottage (handy) This choice was not deliberate, honestly, but why look a gift horse in the mouth, especially one who numbered painting woodwork as a primary skill? We gave him a key and he set about filling, sanding & painting with a will! He also left a gas tap on but that’s another story………….
Eventually, we completed the work (no free evenings or weekends for five months, and no fingernails either, plus lots of heated arguments because we were utterly knackered) & the cottage looked ten times better than it ever did when WE lived there.
To be frank, I wanted to keep it.
The hard work proved worthwhile though and my belief that if we made it the best looking cottage of it’s kind in the area we would achieve in excess of the supposed ceiling price proved to be the case. It was valued at 25% over anything similar nearby.
The cottage sold to the second prospective purchaser (the ghost didn’t like the first one) completing in the nick of time on Christmas Eve 2004, and just before the bank finally lost patience with our overdrawn overdraft! Wow, I was carried away with the heady rush of having proper money in my bank account for the first time ever! The choices! The possibilities! The chance to make a real change in our lifestyles!
I decided we would take the sensible approach. It was at this time, I think that I first announced that we were NEVER buying an old property again & with this in mind we went along to a French property exhibition at Edgbaston, Birmingham, to get an idea of prices & areas with lots of sunshine & plenty of attractive, modern apartments with no maintenance issues. Trevor, as a serious sun worshipper, was thinking modern beach front with balcony & a sea view. I (who find sun bathing hot, sweaty, boring & headache inducing) still kept finding myself drawn inexorably towards “character” properties (told you we never agree on anything!) and I was beginning to think that we wouldn’t find our dream property on such a small budget.
We had already decided that as France is a big country, we needed to narrow our search down to a couple of specific areas & had identified Poitou- Charente and the coastal bit of the Languedoc region as our favourites.
At the exhibition we spoke to lots of very knowledgeable folk & picked up details for a few properties we liked the look of, then we fell into conversation with Avril,a very nice lady estate agent living & working in the Aude region of the Languedoc. This is down towards the far corner of France, with the Spanish border and the Pyrenees to the south & an hour or so from the Mediterranean coast. She said that prices there were still reasonable (I liked the sound of that) and that we could expect 300 days of sunshine per year.
Trevor speculated that this could be a very economical move as the only clothing he would require, if any, between March and October would be shorts, not to mention the savings on heating bills. I could see he was mentally stripped off, oiled up and catching some rays already.
We managed for once to persuade our respective bosses to let us have four days off at the same time and whilst Trevor slaved over a hot computer booking car hire, flights & accommodation for a viewing trip to the Quillan area, I daydreamed about this wonderful new adventure we were embarking on, as a series of somewhat clichéd scenes of sunny skies, enviably chic apartments & charming fully restored stone cottages with orchards & grapevines rolled around in my head like an animated wallpaper border. I even dreamt about French properties.
We avidly devoured French property magazines (our spend on these would probably have paid for an en-suite) and, of course, watched all the “new life in the sun” television programmes, laughing scornfully at other peoples’ disasters whilst smugly declaring that we wouldn’t be so naive as to make what seemed to be such silly mistakes.
We landed at Perpignan airport at 1700 hours on Sunday 24th April 2005 and bought a map….