When we bought our house in Southern France four years ago, we planned to spend half the year there, and the other half in the UK or elsewhere. We knew the area, having for 10 years owned a tiny apartment in a perfect position overlooking a private beach, where you could hear the sea lapping on the rocks on hot nights with the windows open, and watch the truly stunning sunsets. It is not called the Cote Vermeille for nothing – the vermillion- coloured sunsets did and still do lure many an artist to that coast, and we lived in the middle of it. When our daughter left school and we were still working, we came less frequently, so rented the flat out and later used it for home exchanges.
After my mother died in 2014, we used some money she left to buy the house, which is not hard on the sea front and is further up the hill, but still with views to die for. Another perfect position, where you can see for miles up the Languedoc coast from the front, to the left are snow topped Pyrenees mountains in the distance, and out the back are hills where you can walk for hours, or just stand and stare. The town with shops, fresh fish stalls and plentiful cafes and restaurants is a 15-minute walk down the hill. There is a small railway station and regular bus services. Bus journeys cost a mere 1 euro each, and if you book three weeks in advance, so do train journeys in the region. Perfect in so many ways.
The house was unfinished as the owner was a builder who had run out of money and the banks were foreclosing on him. We arrived with a van full of furniture on the day we were meant to move in, to find the owner had not connected the mains water or electricity as promised. The estate agents found us somewhere to stay for a week, while the owner organized the electricity and water supply. We were the first to live in the house, and there was no meter or water supply IN the house for us to use, not just having our names on an account, so we needed these urgently.
We did move in, and Brian drove back to the UK with the emptied hire van, while I stayed on for a week or so. The water was connected but installing the electricity meter took longer. It was June, so the days were the longest at 15-16 hours, and I was able to get quite a lot done. In a similar way to when we moved into our current house in Milton Keynes, we bought and fitted sinks, showers, cupboards, wardrobes and the kitchen. We varnished the staircase and created two decked gardens. One in front with a grapevine, bougainvillea and bed of lavender; the other with oleander and garden herbs. We made the house into a true second home, comfortable, warm and inviting all the year round.
The high points of our visits over the years have been when we can eat on the terraces for days on end and keep the doors open. We loved to walk on the hills, to cycle (for Brian- I have written elsewhere about my brief attempts to cycle in the hills, which did not last), and I eased myself back into running whilst there in 2016, as the climate was inviting. I will always remember the second-hand clothes stalls at the Saturday market, where designer clothes can be had for one or two euros if you are prepared to forage deeply into the piles. The sun, the sunsets, the solitude and the simplicity of life there have been truly satisfying.
However, we came to realise that we enjoy change and have an urge to travel. Being lucky enough to own two homes is also a responsibility. We had used the apartment for home exchanges, and this house was easier to exchange as it was more spacious and equivalent to homes we were exchanging with. We loved the planning and there are so many places to see. We felt we already ‘had’ France, so travelled further afield in Eastern Europe, the USA, Australia and Canada. We found we were spending time in France in between other travels, instead of making it a base for travel. We’d visit in between exchangers or family, and spend a disproportionate time cleaning the house instead of relaxing.
The only downside to living in the house is its location on top of a hill when the weather is windy. During the first winter, the winds were so strong that the patio door catches could not stand the pressure and luckily Brian was able to shore them up with strong metal plates before they broke completely. He came in from a visit to the town to find me leaning on one set of doors, terrified that they would blow in, as the catch had broken. They didn’t blow in and Brian fixed stronger catches. Gusts of wind then and subsequently regularly reach 160 kilometres an hour, with a peak of 180 just after the time I mention. This is scary, and it is not like that down in the town, but it is possible to feel trapped inside the house at times. However, when there is no wind, it’s perfect.
This, and us not making full use of the house made us think about selling up. The decision was precipitated by us finding a house on the South Coast of England that we wanted to buy, which would need a lot of attention and keep us busy for a while. In order to buy it we would need to sell both France and Milton Keynes, so we decided to go for France first, as the market seemed slower, and we expected it to take at least 6 months.
In October 2017 we got the house ready to be photographed and had it valued. We had researched prices in the street and in the town and had seen homes on the market for prices we would be happy with.
In France, the estate agent fees are 5 and 6 per cent of the sale price compared to 1 or 1.5 per cent in England, but these costs are added to the sale price, and the property is advertised at the higher price. In addition, it is normal to negotiate, so we expected to have to reduce the price. We were not expecting to sell quickly but were pleasantly surprised to have quite a few viewings. We went back to England for two months and hoped for the best. In mid-December we received an offer that was 45,000 euros below our asking price, which we turned down. We were annoyed that the agents would even pass on an offer so low and waste everyone’s time. After three months and just one offer we put it with another agent as well. Just a few days after, the original agent found us another buyer, who increased the offer by 15,000 euros, which we accepted. By then we had put our home in England on the market and were keen to sell France and focus on that. We had not made money on the sale, but had covered our costs, which was enough.
We came to France and met the new owners who seem to love the house as much as we do and have plans to put in an outside jacuzzi. They come from the same region but inland, where there are also winds, so they shouldn’t be too surprised.
Ironically, getting the house ready to sell made us finish those outstanding jobs such as painting the garage door and walls and mending the fence. It’s also a great motivator for keeping the house spotless in case there are viewings. For so long, we had used the time when living there to clean and maintain the place in between guests and create two gardens and fit out a garage and a cellar. Now it is finished, and we can spend time sitting and enjoying it, we are selling up. Crazy or what?
The moving out date is set for 4 April. In February we drove back to England with a car load of goods and drove back again in March to collect more. We used both drives (2400 kilometres return) to visit some of the places we drove to in the 1980s. In England, we have been sorting through our old photographs and slides and reminded ourselves of places we had visited in the days before internet hotel booking and mobile phones. Currently our favourite stopovers are French bed and breakfasts (chambres d’hote), located slightly off the main roads, and which offer a last-minute deal. In our search for the perfect croissant, we have found quite a few this way. Recently, we stayed in the home of a chef and a pastry chef and had a truly memorable four course evening meal and breakfast. We travelled along the French and the Spanish Pyrenees on empty roads with stunning views and were extra rewarded by several groups of vultures – both Griffon and Black vultures, soaring across the mountains.
We are leaving most of the furniture, and we have friends whose son is moving into an unfurnished flat, so are taking back our surplus houseware for him. We are keeping items with the maximum memories or usefulness– a set of bamboo patio bowl chairs and tables, and a large woven linen basket we bought in Solomon Islands; and my mother’s collection of tea towels for example. We have a lovely collection of original local artwork which will provide a record of our life here.
The money from the sale of the house is needed for the house we hope to buy on the South Coast, but we calculate that the money we spend on yearly taxes and bills can fund several years of travel, including returning to France. We think a train journey around the French and Spanish Pyrenees would be lovely – so we’ll be back!