A chance conversation yesterday with someone who is contemplating moving to France has set off a train of thought; I had never before thought abut the essential differences between the house buying culture of the two nations. It is not just a language that divides us.
Until around 20 years ago, if you wanted to buy a house in France, you had no choice other than to do what they French do. Select your commune first – your brother lives there, in the house he inherited from your parents; you grew up there and have retired from work – there will be a historical family reason why you want to live there. If you are just moving there for a job, usually you will rent, why would you want to buy a house somewhere that has no roots in your life?
Therefore it made perfect sense that you approached the Notaire in the commune, informed him that you wished to purchase a suitable property and received in response a bald list of addresses which might be for sale.
Why would you need photographs? You probably played in that house as a child; hopefully it was next door to your parent’s house. Ditto, why would you need room sizes? The price? Well it would be the average for that department, give or take an adjustment for the basic condition, and besides, it goes against the French culture to announce how much they might be ‘worth’. So no price either.
Into this market stepped the English, used to being wooed by the latest kitchen, the length of the drive, the magnificent magnolia in the front garden. An enterprising early ex-pat approached his local Notaire and suggested that he split his sales commission in return for a stream of willing customers. He set about photographing the outside of each house, included some basic details, and put the result on the Internet – in English. Thus was born belatedly, the present ‘estate agency’ market in France.
The English flocked here in droves, some quarter of a million families permanently resident, many more with holiday homes. It is whispered that they leave their brains on the ferry over here.
In England, with a centralist State, you can be fairly sure that the law as it affects you on a daily basis, will be the same wherever you go. In France, with its system of powerful local Maires, each commune has a very different flavour. The law is what the Maire says it is. Decisions are based on what is good for the commune. Buy a house here with a beautiful waterfall in the garden, and if the local duck rearing community need more water for the ducks, the Maire will cheerfully divert the water that fed your garden feature. You will get no sympathy for your individual ‘uman right’ to what you may claim was the valuable ‘sales feature’ of your house.
In England, if you see a picture of a beautiful thatched cottage with a manicured verge in front priced at half a million, you can be reasonably sure that your neighbours will own similar houses, that you will be joining a community of like minded retired engineers and rear admirals. That, after all, is part of what you are paying for.
In England, if you want to retire, you pick a property that is simple to manage, in an area of like minded folk, with the full panoply of the NHS to hand, the winter heating allowance in your pension, and set about joining the local bridge club.
Would you truthfully buy a retirement home with two elderly Welsh speaking neighbours, a full days hard graft attached to owning the house, an unpaid and expensive to maintain job as hotelier, restaurateur and tour guide for three months of the year, a five mile hike to the local shop which only sells cheap sausages, chips, and the Daily Mirror, a twenty mile hike to a supermarket, and then select the friends in your social group on the basis that they are all 5’ 10” tall?
Every summer the Dordogne is full of English tourists, excitedly gazing in the windows of the estate agents that helpfully provide an English translation of difficult words like ‘toilette’ and comparing the prices with what they imagine would be ‘like for like’ in England.
Some of them buy a property that looks exactly like the Gîte they rented last summer. The double height living room converted from an old barn, so dramatic, so desirable in England. We have clear blue skies here in the winter folks, no cloud cover to keep us warm. The temperature can drop to minus 10 with ease, you will have a choice between spending your winter huddled in one small room with the wood burner on full blast, or taking out a second mortgage to raise the ambient temperature above freezing. Did you not wonder why the French wouldn’t touch such a property with a barge pole?
The picturesque and gnarled elderly neighbour that the estate agent pointed out to you as he trudged down the road? Not only will he not speak English, chances are he won’t speak any version of French that your schooldays exertions left you with. Parisian French only became the common language 100 years ago, the local tongue is still the communication of choice for those whose education ended when the first harvest needed to come in.
Those magnificent vistas you admired as you sipped your cheap wine at sunset? You now own them, 10 acres; who’da thought that you would ever become master of all you could see? Assuming you master sufficient French to buy a second hand tractor to mow it all – grass grows twice as fast here as it does in the UK – are you up to the task of maintaining the tractor, how will you get it to the repair shop if you aren’t – or will you just throw money at the problem and pay someone to come and cut it for you? Every ten days or so.
And the sunflowers! The picture beloved of every estate agent, the Perigodine cottage surrounded by brilliant yellow sunflowers? Did you think that they only flower when you are here on holiday? That after that they cut the heads off, and leave the blackened stumps to die over the winter? Obviously not.
How about your social life? Well, in July and August you will be busy, the ex-wife of your bank manager’s assistant will be driving down to Italy and ‘would love’ to make a 200 mile detour to call in to see you, she hasn’t seen you since you left England. Truth be told, you’ll probably be quite glad initially, intelligent conversation you think as you make up the extra beds, and drive into Carrefour to stock up on barbeque meat and extra wine– the local shop’s fresh goat’s cheese, bread, and a copy of Sud-Oust having long since lost its allure – and stop off at the swimming pool suppliers and peer uncomprehendingly at the unfamiliar labels trying to figure out which product will return the swimming pool, for your guests expect it, to its advertised azure blue. After a few years you will be on nodding acquaintance with the crone who sits behind the cash desk at your nearest château, for all your guests will want to see inside that ‘wonderful building’ they passed on the way from the airport. On their last day, stocking the boot of their Range Rover with 500 quids worth of local wine, they might, if you are lucky, buy you lunch at the nearest Routiers, which was ‘such fun’.
Never mind, there’s still the rest of the year to look forward to, the agent told you ‘there were loads of English living in the area’, and indeed, there probably are. Did you pick your friends in England on the basis of their height? If so, you won’t mind picking your friends here on the basis that they speak English. You will need them, or at least the impoverished one who has lived here for years and speaks the lingo – You won’t learn, between the gnarled peasants and your English visitors admiring your new lifestyle, you won’t have had time. And life happens, you will fall and break your arm, you will need a dentist at some time, you will have to file a French tax return, and when you do, it is to your improbable new ‘best friend’ that you must turn. Sure, he doesn’t wash that often, he lives in a caravan, you’ve managed to stop him smoking in the house on his frequent visits to sup some of your wine, and share your dinner, but his French is brilliant, and he’s always willing to come with you as you step into unfamiliar terrain and grapple with the real France – so long as you stop at the café-tabac for a few glasses first.
Is that really the life you had planned for your retirement? Do you really want to buy that house from the nice English couple who are going back to England ‘for family reasons’?
The real France is nothing like that; it is a place of culture and values that ceased to exist in the UK many moons ago. It is a place where you must learn to crack the local code of behaviour. It is a place where the tiny battered Citroen belongs to the wealthiest man in the village, where you will not sit at a silent table eating shepherd’s pie with one other couple in a remake of Abigail’s Party, but at a garrulous table set for 15, between the local factory owner and the dustman, the dame de ménage and the daughter of the château. It is a place where no one will ever ask you what you do for a living or ‘where’ you live, the English code for gauging how much you make out of your chosen occupation; where your commitment to your commune counts for more than the Euro in your pocket. Your ability to grow flavoursome tomatoes is of more interest than your son’s progress through the ‘right’ university.
The real France is a constant procession of group meetings, invariably to break bread, our own weekly open-air dinner now attracts tourists. When you learn to intone Mssr/Dame, Bonjour as you join the queue in the post office, where you will gradually learn French as you struggle to respond to all your neighbours, eager to learn how you are. Eventually it will take you half an hour to walk the length of your local high street, for every neighbour will want to shake your hand, kiss you on both cheeks, and enquire after your health before letting you pass. Where even the smallest child will muster a polite bonjour Madame as they walk past you on their way to school. Where you will meet the Maire in the queue for your bread and discuss with him whether you could build an extension to your house, not send in an application to an anonymous ‘Housing Committee’.
You need to want that lifestyle first, and then pick a commune that will give it to you, long before you worry about pretty pictures of the house. If you get it right, you will never want to leave.