October 2018. Time to find our dream house in France! Except that’s exactly where the problem started. Everyone kept asking what our dream house looked like – how big, how many bedrooms, what sort of location, etc etc etc. The truth was, we didn’t know. Not because we hadn’t spent months dreaming of it but because the rather dramatic move to Southern France hadn’t come with a specific type of house in mind.
This realisation was more than a bit disconcerting. I love houses! I’ve worked in property since I was 20, every time I’ve moved house I’ve known exactly what I’ve wanted and where. I’ve never looked at more than a few houses each time (one move only involved one house and one twenty minute viewing) and it has never taken more than 5 weeks to buy a house, from offer to completion. The joke is that it can take me longer to choose what to eat in a restaurant (and as a vegetarian the options are already pretty limited!!)
Our lack of French meant we were relying on the house to provide an income – whether that be as chambre d'hôte, as gîtes, as camping, whether it be one big house or two smaller ones, and whether that be town or country, we didn’t mind. It’s fair to say our local immobiliers found our search baffling. Apart from our budget and the remit that the house had to provide us with an income, we weren’t able to be more specific. On this basis, some even refused to show us houses that we requested to view.
The first few weeks of house hunting were busy, but rather disheartening. Big houses full of potential lacked outside space, houses with pools and gardens lacked enough potential inside, houses with incredible views and balconies off every room lacked the ability to create en-suite guest rooms. There were a couple of houses that we could have lived in quite happily but that would have given us no income potential.
One or two houses came with surprises. The first was a village house, located in a postcard perfect hill village – winding cobbled streets, overhanging wisteria and stunning views. The house was on a corner, and promised multiple bedrooms, a sun terrace and lots of potential. The agent introduced us to the owner and we were led through an odd jumble of sparsely furnished rooms. There were mezzanine bedrooms with staircases suitable only for children, and there was a bathroom in the lounge. I say “in” because a few sheets of ply and some fabric simply does not count in my books as a wall! Then, the agent opened a cupboard and indicated “allez-y!” for me to go in. Mildly confused, I complied.
Inside the cupboard I found, not Narnia, but another house! It turned out the family owned both houses, but at some point had sold the ground floor of the second house to be used as a restaurant, and knocked though from one house to the next. The bizarre thing was they had knocked through an upper floor cupboard, so you went through an actual cupboard to get into the next house and then down to the rooms below. Aside from being a huge fire hazard, it was possibly the most complicated house ever to try and renovate into something useful for us. It has however gained itself a place in our memories as the Narnia house.
Other surprises included a house with a well in the living room, still full of water. Probably not that unusual in a village where mains water is still quite a recent thing. What entertained me was that the immobilier had no idea it was there and looked as surprised as I did! Another house had a gigantic replica fireplace straight out of Game of Thrones (including swords hanging on the wall). We quickly got used to the endless flock wallpaper – one house was papered on the walls, ceilings and the internal doors.
The endless wallpaper!
There was the house with a pool built right onto the edge of the main road, the house where the pool machinery had been recently stolen, the endless salmon pink bathrooms and the absolute obsession with mezzanine floors. Many times we were told houses just needed a “freshen up” when actually they needed completely gutting, new electrics, new plumbing, new roofs.
Gradually though, we started to gain a bit of clarity on our house hunt. Firstly, that we absolutely needed a house with our own private space. Also, house hunting in October gave us the insight that some of the most beautiful hill villages would be simply too quiet and isolated in the middle of winter. One of the most helpful agents we met suggested that we view a townhouse and although it wasn’t the right one for us it gave us a new avenue to explore. We started to look at the surrounding market towns and realised that despite being in town, these are big houses that often have courtyards and sun terraces, so we could get the outside space we needed. Prices per square meter weren’t as high as the countryside locations and there were houses with character and space, as well as cafes, restaurants and bakeries on the doorstep. We figured that properties with something around them, and central heating, might give us a longer “season”.
Finally, we found our townhouse. The one described as “seven bedrooms” that turned out to be three separate apartments, as well as a couple of extra rooms, with a glorious central staircase and a lovely internal courtyard. The one with a permanent income from the hair salon on the ground floor and the potential to create three separate spaces to rent to holiday makers. The one with central heating, a gigantic cave and our own private roof terrace.
In fact, the only house we viewed that made us think our little dream was possible.
We picked up the keys in January, and by June we were welcoming guests. The intervening months were long days of DIY, endless trips to the local builders merchants, to IKEA and to the tip.
But more on that next time!