renovation, restoration, reservations
April 2005:……………. Backtracking
The map we bought at Perpignan airport seemed ideal. It just about included Perpignan to the east & the village where we had booked our B&B accommodation was marked to the north west, about an inch in from the edge of the map.
This was clearly a sign. I am fond of signs & portents, my partner Trevor favours logic & fact. In my defence, however , I should point out that I have worked so hard on this weak area of my psychological make-up that I have now gone way too far the other way & I need to balance out both ends of my personality see-saw.
“Shall we regard this random map purchase as fate & keep our search area to places we can find on this map then?” I suggested. Trevor did not comment. This is perfectly normal and indicative of the one sided dialogue that I am obliged to have with myself if anything relating to our lives requires discussion.
We drove out of the worst car park in Perpignan and easily found the D117, which we would follow to Quillan. As we drove further inland, signs showed we were entering Cathar country, the far landscape changing from rolling hills with vineyards & vegetable crops to reveal craggy grey peaks & ridges which suddenly rose up dramatically at each side with a smattering of eccentric red roofed villages & medieval chateaux perched on what seemed to be inaccessible outcrops of grey rock. Glimpses of snow-topped mountains could be seen in the distance.
We easily found our B & B in the little village of G****, following the directions of our extremely civil hosts, John and Judith S********. We were greeted with a delicious dinner with local wine and a fine example of how to host.
The in-house cabaret was great. Judith had recently been semi-adopted by a very pregnant cat & her attempts to keep this haughty French feline & her three great lolloping British dogs apart was most entertaining.
The mad mutts were banished to their picturesque stone walled courtyard garden in disgrace, and we settled down to listen and learn from their experience of moving lock, stock & three dog baskets to France to renovate their dream home. They had moved out initially with the same original intention as us, to let out their British home for an extra income, whilst building up a business plan, contacts & checking out the potential for the holiday letting market. They were making a great job of renovating their village “fermette” but it was very clear from their experiences so far that things do not always turn out as planned.
One of the best pieces of advice we have ever been given over the years was that, if we really intended to move to France permanently, we should narrow down our search to a specific place we really liked & felt comfortable in and then find a suitable property. Location is everything, and picking a place that isn’t right for you is one of the main reasons why some British buyers in France come to regret their purchase and end up having to sell what they genuinely thought would be their dream home abroad. We quickly realised that trawling the Internet & picking likely looking properties in roughly the right area, purely on appearance and price, is not the sensible route & we should really choose somewhere we felt completely at home and work out our priorities carefully, preferably before parting with any money.
* Handy hints- don’t buy it without SEEING IT & CHECK OUT THE LOCATION!!
It is certainly sensible to decide what exactly you expect from your particular French fantasy and whether this includes a hot and happening town centre with day & night café culture, integrating into village life, or a quiet rural idyll.
We knew that, on a practical level, we really needed somewhere we could lock up & leave in the early days, and somewhere economical to run and reasonably low maintenance (could we really afford to pay a gardener and/or caretaker to look after the house when we weren’t there?) Even when we were there , we did not want to spend our down time mowing lawns or hacking back shrubbery I had enough battles getting Trev to cut the lawn at home so a big garden was a bad idea, unless we could get away with astro-turf AND we know some people who have!
As occasionally sociable souls, we definitely didn’t want to be miles from the nearest neighbours/shop/bar/action ( Trevor requires regular feeding and supplies of liquid refreshment) At the same time, the whole idea behind this house hunting was about the search for a” better quality of life” so the first step had to be to decide exactly what that meant to us.
After keeping the poor guys awake half the night asking stupid questions & taking on board their advice, we finally got some sleep & set off the following morning all positive & pro-active with a list of local estate agents supplied by Judith. Numero uno (wrong language I think) was an agency in the centre of Limoux, where we were introduced to the only English speaker around on that particular day, a rather hunky young gentleman with rugby player thighs (difficult not to notice when the trousers are that tight!), wrap around sunglasses & designer stubble.
He whisked us at very high speed around several local villages where we viewed a very beautiful but very damp & neglected house which Trevor loved but would have been a money pit and a rambling village property which I really liked. Unfortunately, further enquiries established that not only had a rival estate agency sold it already, but the new owners had started renovations! Apparently, at least three other agents had a key and none of them had been asked to return them! (Note, if you buy a house in France, make sure you either change the locks or get the seller to advise ALL the other estate agents, or you may have further prospective purchasers trouping through at an inappropriate moment).
We also saw several depressingly small, narrow village houses that admitted virtually no daylight even with all the shutters wide open. All the bigger places within our price range had some terrible drawback e.g uncapped sewer pipe in cloakroom or an entire landing and stairs constructed in Formica! True! Fear of legal action prevents me from showing you the photos, but I COULD make these available for a negotiable fee…
It rapidly became clear that we could only afford three types of property on our bargain basement budget
a)“Modernised” (but suspend your concept of “ready to move into“ right here!) Also tiny and dark with no outside space & inexplicable party walls shared with numerous neighbours. I have also seen some criminally tasteless and unsympathetic renovation projects inflicted on potentially great properties
b)Requiring radical renovation (properties only mad Brits will buy and here they come in droves!) but maybe with a vegetable plot 10 km away and access only via a drive owned by an unknown relative of the vendor who isn’t selling.The French name for the most derelict of these little gems is“une ruine”(?!) I will let you translate.
c) Open roofed vine keeper’s huts or roofless barns with lovely views but no loos and dodgy access with zero chance of planning permission…………………………… don’t assume.
Flushing toilet & electricity connected were minimum criteria ( reads later posts and emits hollow laugh!) and I am just not a “spade in the woods” type of girl any more, maybe once long ago but that’s another story.. again available for a negotiable fee……………….
We decided to find a café and compare our impressions so far. I was actually ready to go home at this point because I was so disheartened, however, after coffee & lunch in the main square in Limoux (excellent café culture!) we noticed a small agency with a sign in the window promising English-speaking staff.
We went in & met a very pleasant lady who freely admitted she had nothing suitable in our price range, but her colleague in Couiza did have a couple of houses that might fit our criteria. So off we went to Couiza & met my new French friend B*********, one of those effortlessly stylish and skinny French ladies who seemed unjustly blessed with immaculate hair, skin and figure, despite their propensity for cigarettes, rich food & alcohol and who had the keys to a property in a village just off the main D117:
I had spotted this tatty looking gem myself on a very faded poster inside. Clearly it had been sitting on their books for a while (four years) but this is not at all unusual in France.
The house was in the medieval circular village of ******** sur Aude, accessible via a narrow bridge over the river that gave the village its name.
We pulled up in a beautiful, quiet square, right outside the Mairie (Mayor’s office), with it’s own shop, post office, hairdresser and……….. a bar! The latter amenity even managing to mildly animate Trevor who was a wee bit viewed out at this point.
The house was the most forlorn looking property in the narrow street. Completely off any through route to anywhere, apart from the river, there was no way we would have found this ourselves.
The sun had not yet banished the narrow gloom of the street & and the palpable air of neglect was quite depressing. We pushed open the front door (THAT’S why everyone else has “Pas de Pub”(no unsolicited advertising mail) notices by their letterboxes!) and clambered over the sundry publications to look.
To the right was a good-sized garage with smoke blackened ceiling (Ou est le cheminee?!) & one of the oldest and thickest cross beams I had ever seen, decorated attractively with hopefully defunct woodworm activity. A carburettor and a very dubious looking axe dangled from said beam. This naturally led to some fevered speculation on my part as to the personality of the vendors!
To the left was a metre wide corridor with a crazily angled toilet plonked in the middle (plumbing, yeah!) and if one clambered gingerly over this minor obstacle & through the door behind, a fabulous stone walled cave, with relatively modern gas boiler serving CENTRAL HEATING RADIATORS was revealed. Not only this, but same cave had a 16 inch wide (I do not exaggerate) door leading to a small internal courtyard. Toilet and outside space! Both my main boxes ticked already and the central heating was the icing on the cake.
As this was an improvement on just about everything else we had seen in our price bracket, I would have made an offer on the spot, without even seeing the other two floors, but Trevor (who worked as a surveyor many moons ago) was ominously quiet (not even monosyllabic which is rare) so I said nothing as we trotted up the twisty stairs to the good sized square sitting room with the most ugly fireplace I have ever seen, a potentially long light kitchen, bizarrely divided with a wooden wall and access to bedroom three(?)- but with windows to front and back, then up more stairs to two interestingly decorated bedrooms and a sort of shower room.
No toilet but hey, we were still relatively young and agile.
B*********, definitely my new best friend by now, flung open her arms in the direction of the bedroom window, “roof terrace!” she declared “beaucoup de possibilites!!” I was just thrilled; this woman understood exactly what I was thinking! We were really bonding now, despite her English being as dodgy as my French, but as I was trying to translate “subtle colour palette”, I noticed that Trevor had not joined our enthusefest & was still poking around in the shower room making odd noises about the wiring. At this point I looked up & spotted two lengths of heavy chain dangling over the beam on the bedroom ceiling.
I asked B**** ****what she thought these might have been for & she pondered briefly before announcing, hands on hips, in a droll, music hall French accent “Of course! for your ’usband! When he is naughty!” A moment to consider this image was enough, we both burst out laughing & were all but in an hysterical heap on the floor, imagining this dubious scenario, when the man himself peered around the doorway “I don’t know what you are finding so amusing” he said disapprovingly “with THESE electrics we’ll only be able to shower in daylight wearing insulated footwear”………..