Don't let the cheap French property dream fool you – it's a lot harder than it seems

In rural France a car is essential, original decor can be ghastly and you’re lucky if your estate agent even tells you where the house is

'Buying somewhere here is a bigger commitment than in many parts of the UK' Credit: Clara Molden

I wonder if you’re on holiday in France right now, or are planning to be at some point this summer? If you are, perhaps you do what I always used to do before I lived here, which is, spend a lot of time gazing in estate agents’ windows and wondering, “What if?” (My husband insists one of the best things about living here now is that I no longer contrive to make any walk go past every single estate agent in town, scooping up brochures.)

When I speak to many British visitors about their fantasy property shopping habit, the first thing many say is: “Isn’t it amazing what you can get for your money?” Well, yes and no.

Sometimes our English friends and acquaintances admire our house and suggest how lucky we must have been to land such a bargain. I smile slightly through gritted teeth, head non-committedly on one side, and silently remind myself it’s vulgar to talk about money with anyone who isn’t your bank manager or your accountant. 

Houses in busy villages, with views of the water, and possessing lots of character – even with travaux à prévoir, works required, come at a premium. Of course the prices aren’t the same as London or Paris, but they aren’t going to make the residents of Brighton or Biarritz faint away in shock at the cheapness either.

There’s always a reason why places are cheap. That rural idyll you’ve set your heart on may include septic tanks, no town gas, limited or no internet, not infrequent power cuts and having to sit on the roof to get a mobile phone signal. Ah, but all that land, right? If you’re used to living in a city where you’ve had to scratch your grow-your-own itch with a window box of lettuce, owning your view is certainly seductive. But the land won’t take care of itself and, especially as you get older, it can become a crushing physical and financial burden.

In the countryside and some small towns, public transport is patchy at best, non-existent at worst, so you need a car. Many picturesque French villages have suffered the same fate as their British counterparts. They’ve been hollowed out by out-of-town shopping centres, so for anything more exotic than a baguette – and sometimes even for that – you may need to get in the car, too. Some places go into a deep slumber at the end of the season and that restaurant you so loved for your Friday night moules-frites may not open again until Easter.

Writer Debora Robertson relocated to Marseillan, in Herault, South of France, from Stoke Newington, London in 2021 Credit: Clara Molden for The Telegraph

Have I put you off yet? I hope not – because French estate agent details are some of the best free entertainment you can get. Comfortingly, they have often been spared the glitz and polish that have transformed British property advertisements this millennium. Rural French interiors are seldom soothingly and stylishly filled with grey-painted furniture, so popular in #FrenchStyle Instagram posts (Farrow & Ball even do a shade called French Grey, the likes of which I have never seen in the wild).

You are more likely to find heavy red brick fireplaces installed at some point in the 1970s with Flintstone-esque wooden mantels, floral wallpaper not just covering the walls but creeping onto the ceilings too, perfunctory showers and grey corner baths. When we moved into this house, one of the first things we did was remove an avocado bathroom suite in what was a pantry, thus ensuring no doubt that avocado bathroom suites are about to become the next big thing.

Rooms are often crammed with a mish-mash of old furniture. Beds are lumpily made with heavy eiderdowns and look not only like someone may have died in them, but that that person may still be there. The sole picture in the details of one nearby house was an image of pants drying on a washing line.

And then there are the “modernised” houses. It’s true that many Brits keen to buy a place in France are looking for what we call “character”. We love, almost to the point of fetish, an old tiled floor, shutters, a quaint kitchen fireplace. Well, hold tight property fans, because what you’re likely to find is some delicious old fisherman’s cottage where the old floor is replaced with the cheapest 30cm square white tile from Castorama, the windows are uPVC and the shutters replaced with the dead-eye effect of electronic metal roller blinds. That quaint kitchen has been refreshed with some glossy red cabinets, and there’s no need for that scrubbed pine table you picked up at a brocante, because all of the floor space is taken up with a kitchen island and chrome bar stools from the land that comfort forgot, probably Ikea.

'If you do find the house of your dreams in an estate agent’s window or online, it’s likely that you can’t find where it actually is'

And just in case you do find the house of your dreams in an estate agent’s window or online, it’s likely that you can’t find where it actually is. “A village with all facilities”, “a pretty hamlet, a short distance from…”, replace not just street names, but the name of the actual place. This is because houses are often represented by multiple agencies and each one wants you to sign up with them before divulging where this house might be, so they don’t have to share the spoils with others. They also don’t want you making a private deal with the seller.

Buying somewhere here is a bigger commitment than in many parts of the UK. If you buy somewhere on a whim, do lots of work on it, and then think you can flip it at a profit because the area doesn’t quite suit or your circumstances change, you may come a cropper. Property prices are usually worked out per square metre and unless the house is exceptional, or in an exceptional location, the price won’t go up because you spent a fortune on pretty wallpaper or a new kitchen.

And bear in mind when we lose our hearts to a wreck, a fixer-upper, a bargain, few of us have the skills to “do it up on a shoestring”, however many episodes of Escape to the Château we’ve watched. Work costs money, and lots of it. Just as in the UK, Covid has increased the price of materials. Good artisans get booked up far in advance, and are worth waiting for. We’ve found the quality of the work on our house to be excellent. Don’t be tempted to cut corners. Works on gas and electrics, even having your chimneys swept each year, requires a certificate for your insurance, and you need to keep them for when you might want to sell.

But the heart wants what it wants, doesn’t it? I don’t regret for a single second embarking on this adventure, and if this summer you go from looking in estate agents’ windows to stepping inside their doors, I wish you the very best of luck.

Read last week's column: French children don't sit with screens at the table – and they don't throw tantrums either