April 2006…………………S**t! What have we done?
As you may now know, we had flown out in April 2005 to look at property in the Aude region of Southern France. During our mad six-day viewing trip, we saw lots of properties, all of which had some major problem. e.g Lack of light, internal rainfall, too remote, too noisy, too expensive, badly renovated, already sold (!) etc. After a while, they all began to look the same, apart from one in a riverside village that I thought had lots of potential, but Trevor had made no comment apart from pointing out potential health and safety issues when we viewed, so I assumed that he wasn’t keen.
Trevor does not waste words on idle chitchat like “how do you think we should invest the only cash lump sum we are ever likely to have?” or “do you think that this one’s got potential?” Getting him to tell me what he thinks about anything is still like pulling teeth despite our years together. We HAD decided, after our experiences with our 18th century cottage in the UK, that either modern OR fully renovated would be best as we knew it would be tough to mastermind a restoration project from 1,000 miles away.
Then things took a bizarre turn (my life is full of these mad coincidences)
Our bed & breakfast hosts had arranged a dinner party to introduce us to some fellow house hunters looking to invest in the area with a similar budget to ours. They started discussing the places they had viewed that day, and were really stuck into criticising one particular house, when I noticed that Trevor had adopted a face that would have done justice to an Easter Island statue whilst slyly kicking me under the table. I suddenly realised they were talking about the place in the riverside village that we had seen and Eureka! we instantly and perversely decided that this must be the house for us because nobody else wanted it.
We went back for a second viewing. The house is close to the river in a lovely medieval fortified village with a 12th century church and strong historical links to the Knights Templar. It was also the most forlorn looking house on the street! and in common with other properties we had viewed within our budget, the outside was dull and neglected with peeling brown paint of a shade that offended all my artistic sensibilities and tatty rendering.
On three storeys, with an unusual L shaped footprint; there was a garage on the ground floor, a short corridor with a toilet in the middle, and if you clamber over that a further door opened into a 30 foot cave (wine cellar) leading to a little courtyard, only accessible via a 16 inch wide doorway! The first floor had a sitting room with a hideous and pointlessly located fireplace & a kitchen with further bedroom off! (?)
The property had been empty for 4 years and had house martin’s nesting in one of the two second floor bedrooms: which meant we had to view that room from the doorway with the shutters closed as I could not return home with dead fledglings on my conscience! There was also a shower room with the drainage pipes snaking down the OUTSIDE of the house ( more on that feature later).
The price was 55,000 euros (with at that time a 1.5 exchange rate!), the estate agent tactfully making it clear that if we offered less than 90% of the asking price, the owner would be insulted.
We finally discussed the house at length & persuaded our B&B host John, (as the only experienced and relocated Briton (actually-Scot) we knew at that point) to have a look. He poked his screwdriver in the woodworm activity playground/museum aged beam that was holding the house up and clearly thought we were mad too, although his dour Scottish expression hid this well. We hereby apologise, John, for using you as a sounding post for this mad decision.
We lodged an offer of 50,000 euros (£33,500 sterling at the excellent exchange rate) with our agent and went for a walk along the riverbank upstream of Quillan town to wait for a response. Trying to pretend I didn’t really care was hard but our offer was accepted within the hour (and probably celebrated with a mixture of champagne and relief by the owner!) and we arranged to sign the compromis de vent (sale agreement) within 24 hours. We were assured that the sale could reasonably be completed by the end of June 2005.
We returned to the UK and waited to hear from either the agent or the notaire , our French lady estate agent had been pleasant and helpful, even sounding out the mayor re planning permission for a roof terrace, but her English was limited, however, we were given to understand that there were other English speakers within the company & that our lack of legal French would not be a problem. I had assumed that the young man who was present when we discussed the purchase at the agency was an interpreter kindly provided to assist with our enquiries and I rambled on about planning permission, front and back elevations and roof terraces. He listened to my Franglaise rambling for some moments, and then drew a perfect plan of the back wall of the property. “Bloody hell” I thought, “my French must be improving if he can picture exactly what I’ve been talking about”
He turned out to be the vendor…………..If he was amused, he certainly hid it well.
We waited and waited for some news. We even tried a few emails to the agent, I’m not sure that these were taken terribly seriously by the recipients as no one replied. Nobody told us that the French did not “do” emails, at least not back then. In despair we decided to return to France as planned for the 30th June 2005 & hoped things were at least moving & that the fact that we had heard virtually nothing meant that there were no major problems.
I can still remember the expression on our agent’s face when we walked in! Apparently there was a BIG problem, but they had seen no point in worrying us yet as they were confident it could be sorted. Apparently, the tiny courtyard did NOT come with the house, and at that stage the agent had no idea who did own it!
B**** *****urged me to have “courage” and all would be well……..She turned out to be right-eventually- but not before I nearly had a nervous breakdown
To cut a long story short, it took 10 months and a high level of stress to complete the purchase, the courtyard turned out to belong to a neighbour, who had no access & no idea he owned this great prize! It had been “given” to the vendor’s father by the neighbour’s father, possibly under the influence of pastis or maybe as the result of a game of petanque, and a sort of transfer deed had been written up but this transaction was never officially authorised. An agency employee with perfect English was drafted in to help and things started to move. After a further slight hitch on completion day, when it came to light that our original deposit had disappeared (possibly somewhere in Paris(?!) we finally completed the purchase on the 23rd February 2006.
We made plans to renovate the main house & convert the cave into a small self-contained studio; both to be made available for holiday lets, to recoup the costs. We waited for permission from the mayor to start construction of a roof terrace (said application was made in April 2006 but not granted for a nail bitingly long time) We have made lots of lovely discoveries like fabric covered wiring flex and highly inflammable ceiling tiles sited over the boiler (which wasn’t connected to the flue anyway! a fact which DID amuse our builder!) We also uncovered huge ancient beams & stone walls hidden behind grotty ceiling tiles.
There was the distinct possibility of a well under a concrete slab in the cave & the builder & I decided to split any hidden treasure we unearthed 50/50 (remember, we have a Knights Templar connection here! and I have a fevered imagination).
Photos of our grotty looking prize have elicited either stunned silence or hysterical laughter from most of our friends, family and workmates
((Quote from my niece’s daughter when presented with a photograph of our house- “My god, Gill it’s minging! are you going to paint it?!”)) and I suspect our new French neighbours think we are insane.
Trevor’s eldest daughter has assumed that we are purchasing a lovely villa with a swimming pool and sun terrace & I haven’t got the heart to disillusion her yet.
We did plan to have the house completed by 2007, unfortunately, I had unplanned major abdominal surgery in June 2006 which meant I would certainly not be running up two flights of stairs with a hod of bricks any time soon & my inspired interior design ideas had to wait. Then came job changes, weddings, new commitments, the two year plan became a three year plan .. a four year plan .. a five………..