Finding Our House in France

Moon…and stars

Today is a very special one on La Lune. It’s 20 years ago to the day since we first saw our house. During our five days’ house-hunting in France, among the legion of properties we saw only two fitted the bill. Here’s the story of our adventures. It’s a rather longer post than usual, but that’s because I have edited and stitched together four posts that I wrote some years ago. I thought those of you who are new to the blog since then might like to read about it. 

Asking for the Moon: Part 1

‘Don’t let’s ask for the moon; we already have the stars.’ This is the final line in the film ‘Now, Voyager’ with Claude Rains (born in Camberwell but often played Frenchmen) and Bette Davis. I always think of it when recalling our journey to find our house.

Most property hunters have experienced the days driving from one house to the next in search of the dream. We’ve all seen houses described as habitable that couldn’t possibly have been for at least 50 years. For us, there was a happy ending and some interesting events en route.

Under starter’s orders…

We planned to buy a holiday home in France, having spent many enjoyable holidays here. The SF spent several years working in Limoges in the seventies and loved la vie française.

Pont Valentré in Cahors

Our plane landed at Toulouse in bright April sunshine. This felt like a different continent. We drove up to Cahors in our small hire car, delighting in the sunshine and the burgeoning green of the countryside. Of course, we were fooled into thinking the weather was always like this and no one disabused us of the notion.

…and we’re off

They weren’t quite like this, but some weren’t far off

We saw 21 properties in five days. Each time, our expectations rose, only to sink again each time a house failed to live up to them. Only two were ever possibilities. We have lived in one since August 1997. The other, an imposing but decrepit white stone Quercy farmhouse, would have been ruinous to our finances.

The estate agents taught us two key lessons. First, nearly all the people selling had had overstretched themselves. That lesson averted the potentially disastrous purchase of the imposing white stone house. Second, every house has its maximum value. Whatever you do to it, you will never exceed it, no matter how many gold taps you install in the bathroom.

The French estate agents had an idée fixe about what British people wanted, so they disregarded our specification and showed us whatever they happened to have on their books. We drove miles to places that we would never have considered purchasing.

Negotiating the first fence

A French estate agent in Cahors sent us off on a 50 km wild goose chase to a water mill. A harassed-looking woman with a clutch of small children showed us distractedly around the house, which was poorly restored and badly decorated. We got away as soon as we politely could.

Asking for the Moon: Part 2

Terracotta rooftops of Saint-Antonin by the Aveyron

At Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, we stayed for two nights in a gîte owned by a British estate agent. During the day, he ran us around in his car to view properties and we lunched at his house on pâtés, charcuterie and salads.

On the first night, we sat outside as dusk gathered and listened to the sliding song of the nightingales in the thicket by the River Aveyron. When night fell completely, we were entranced by the clear sky, spread with stars and unpolluted by artificial light. A comet that was only a faint smudge in the London night sky showed up clearly as it arched across the heavens.

Terraced château

One property looked idyllic – a small château in a village by a river. The reality was somewhat different. It turned out to be a terraced house with a tower. On one side was a restaurant; on the other was a dilapidated house, also for sale.

Château de Cas – the one we saw wasn’t like this, unfortunately

The ‘château’ had a nice courtyard with a fountain, a lovely garden and well-restored bedrooms in the tower. But the living room had all the charm of a doctor’s waiting room and two people would have constituted a crowd in the kitchen. Buying the next-door house was de rigueur if you wanted any privacy, but it needed restoring from top to bottom. This would have been beyond our budget. We crossed that one off our list.

Snakes included in the price

The next one, a mill house in Aveyron, sounded ideal but was miles from the nearest village and too far from an airport then. Two so-called ‘trout lakes’ were foetid ponds covered in green scum. An outbuilding with ‘gîte potential’ was a tumbledown shack by the front gate. The house was disappointingly small inside.

What we expected of a trout lake – but not what we saw

Worst of all, however, was the stream that actually ran through the back of one of the downstairs bedrooms. This room had French windows opening onto a small courtyard. A handwritten notice read, ‘Please keep the curtains closed to stop the snakes coming in.’

Opening the front door, I came eyeball to eyeball with a huge snake basking on the opposite bank. It was at least a metre long and as thick as my wrist. For a split second, we observed each other and then in a flash it was gone. Fortunately, it was a grass snake. Still, that settled it. No way was I going to cohabit with a snake.

It was with somewhat less optimism that we clambered into the agent’s car the next morning.

Asking for the Moon: Part 3

Des res Adams Family style

We had specified a farmhouse, but the agent wanted to show us an ‘interesting’ maison bourgeoise in the style of a Basque chalet. We had already christened it the ‘Adams Family house’ since its brooding gables gave it a sinister appearance.

We rang the bell. Footsteps echoed down the hall. Hinges creaking, the dungeon-like front door swung open to reveal Uncle Fester himself. He was completely bald: the spitting image of the TV character. Avoiding each other’s eyes, we followed Uncle Fester around the house. The house was elegant and well-maintained but not what we were looking for.

Going outside, Uncle Fester announced proudly, ‘I’ve got 20 hectares’ and set off down the field at a spanking pace. We were spared a tour of the entire estate but had to climb over a gate and cross a field of cows to get to the derelict barns.

‘I’m 77, you know,’ Uncle Fester declared as he scaled the gate. We laboured after him, trying to avoid the cowpats strategically placed on the other side.

Having looked at the barns, we started back across the field. A hefty bull not far away was eyeing us balefully. He started bellowing and pawing the ground and the dust rose in clouds around him.

‘You’d better come quickly,’ Uncle Fester said. ‘It’s not a good sign when he does that.’

Itching to move on

That day we also saw a house that was infested with fleas. Set in a tiny hamlet on top of a hill, the place was a mess. A warren of rooms was connected by dark corridors or haphazard staircases and, in one case, a trap door. The owners were cat lovers and unemptied litter trays graced every room. The smell was indescribable.

We discovered the fleas only later from the bites around our ankles and a few hopping dots on our hands. The owners were desperate to sell and dragged me off down the garden to look at the view. It was lovely but could not compensate for the house, which needed to be remodelled internally from scratch.

Orchids were in bloom during our visit

Also that day: a pretty house with a separate gîte, swimming pool and a tiny chapel in the garden. Alas, there were two overriding drawbacks there:

  • The house was in a deep valley and probably got little sun except in summer.
  • The only access to one of the two upstairs bedrooms was from the other bedroom. Moreover, you had to squeeze through the loo, ingeniously installed between the two rooms.

That one got the thumbs down, too. Back to the drawing board.

Asking for the Moon: Part 4

Raging inferno

Another agent took us to view a house in a tiny Lotois hamlet. He drove off to pick up the key from a neighbour, leaving us on the veranda out of the drizzle. We drank in the rural atmosphere as the cuckoos called. After about 25 minutes, we began to get anxious. Had he had an accident? We hadn’t a clue where we were or how to get back; there wasn’t another soul around.

Just as panic was setting in, his car re-appeared and we greeted him like a long-lost cousin. The key-holding neighbour was moving house and the French removal men had lit a bonfire, which was blazing merrily. The woman had put the key in a cardboard box and the removal men assumed it was for the bonfire. There were lots of Gallic shrugs and a half-hearted attempt to retrieve the key from the inferno. The neighbour had hysterics, there were more Gallic shrugs and the estate agent left empty-handed.

Never mind; we didn’t like that property, either. We didn’t need to look inside.

A slap-up lunch at a knock-down price

That agent dropped us back at the small village where we had left our car. By this time, it was already 13h20 and well past lunchtime. Starving, but knowing the French attachment to lunch at midi on the dot, we were afraid that we had missed it.

Tentatively, we entered the small restaurant and asked if it might be possible to get something to eat. ‘Of course, no problem,’ the waitress said with a smile. Gratefully, we sat down. There was no menu; you ate what there was.

Soup was followed by fat local asparagus with ham and hard-boiled eggs. The main course was a veal stew with a mound of potatoes, followed by salad and a tray of cheeses. Dessert was a dish of the sweetest strawberries I had ever tasted: my introduction to locally-grown Gariguettes.

Gariguettes

Wine and bread were already on the table when we sat down. We drank all the wine. The total, including coffee, was 120FF (about £12 at the time). Not per head: for two.

As we weaved off through the village, we wondered why we felt a bit light-headed. Then it dawned on us: we had drunk a litre of wine, not 75 cl. Luckily, the Gendarmes were occupied elsewhere that day.

Home, sweet home

Our five-day visit was not in vain. As we drove up to our present house, a Quercy farmhouse with a covered balcony and an integral pigeonnier, we felt we were coming home. A cuckoo was calling in the woods and the house was bathed in spring sunshine.

Set in glorious countryside, the house had everything we wanted, even central heating, which has been a boon. The house was not too big, but not too small either; just enough land, but not too much (although we have since bought a neighbouring barn, field and woodland). A bit like Goldilocks and the three bears: it was just right. We went to see it a second time before flying back to London.

As we sat talking it over in the café at Toulouse Airport, we felt convinced that this was the one and speculated about moving over full time. The SF was already self-employed and could work from anywhere with reasonable access to an airport. I was growing tired of a stressful and unrewarding job. Couldn’t I do the same? The rest, as they say, is history.

Before and after

I need to make clear that, unlike braver souls than us, we didn’t actually restore our house. That was done by someone else in about 1972, long before we bought it. Before that, it was abandoned and in a sorry state. Some photos taken around 1970 show how it looked then.

And this is how it is now…

Winter 2017

 

This post is taking part in the #AllAboutFrance blog linky in May 2017, where you can read posts about all aspects of French life by Anglophone bloggers.

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Copyright © 2017 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved

 

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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21 Responses to Finding Our House in France

  1. What a wonderful house you have now & well worth the hassles and let-downs of the initial hunt. We went through the process last year and through excellent detective work by my hubby, managed to find houses on Google Earth, which could immediately be excluded due to their location. As it was I still visited 20 good, bad and ugly before we found our little place. Have to say it was great fun though!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      We got there in the end but we did wonder at times if we would. However, we had some fun along the way, like you. Unfortunately, Internet tools like Google Earth didn’t exist back then in 1997, otherwise we might have been spared some of the less appealing locations.

      Like

  2. I’m glad it all worked out for you. The before and after pictures are very telling, but it is a very handsome place.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Lovely post, but wow! Your house is beautiful – I’m not surprised you fell in love with it. #AllAboutFrance

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      As soon as we saw it, we both knew it was the one we wanted. It has its inconveniences, of course, like all old French farmhouses – not enough bedrooms, difficult to heat, staircases in odd places – but it has character.

      Like

  4. Loved hearing about the horrendous and unsuitable places you were shown, why is that estate agents always know better? Your pigeonnier looks lovely now. Thanks for linking up to #AllAboutFrance

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      It was astonishing how far from our requirements some of the properties were. Our house had a second lease of life, for which we are eternally grateful.

      Like

  5. Pingback: Ma Vie Française #4: Janine Marsh and the Good Life | Life on La Lune

  6. Well done for persevering in your search – good things come to those who wait!! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I love other people’s house hunting stories and yours is a great one. Looks like you bought really well too, lovely house. Hope you’ll continue to be very happy there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Thank you! The house isn’t perfect, but that’s probably one of its charms. We knew it was the right one when we first saw it and, although we had a few surprises in store on moving in (!), it has remained the right one.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Rob Young says:

    My wife and I had a similar experience having been shown houses that had very little to do with the photos were we presented ahead of time. We had bought a house in a village that we really liked. It needed a lot of renovation so we decided to look for an already renovated house. The renovated houses that we were shown were beyond horrible with dark interiors on bright sunny days and shoddy workmanship. We would have had to reno the reno. We decided to stay in our village house and renoed it top to bottom and are very happy with our choice. Enjoy your blog. Congrats and keep up the good work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      The pictures rarely reflect the reality. Interestingly, the photo of the house we eventually bought was not particularly appealing! This was the one situation where the reality was much better than the photo. We found French agents especially prone to send us to properties that were totally unsuitable. You are obviously happy with the decision you made, so good for you. Thanks for the kind words about the blog – and for following.

      Like

  9. By the look of it, you chose well!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Amelie says:

    Loved this post! It’s been awhile since I read your blog, I kind of dropped off the blogosphere over the last year and a half. So glad you found your home sweet home. Also the fact you found it in just 5 days is amazing. I have stories I could tell about looking for an apartment in New York City to rent! It took more than 5 days, that much I can tell you! More like a month. At some point I will hopefully be a home owner to a house as charming looking as yours.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Nice to hear from you again. I hope you’re blogging again. We were lucky to find our home in 5 days; it could easily have taken longer. I’m not surprised to hear it takes a long time to find a place to rent in NYC – I imagine decent apartments in big cities will be like gold dust.

      Like

  11. Osyth says:

    Oh how I loved this post! Happy very special anniversary to you all… you, SF and home. Your journey to finding your Goldilocks dwelling rings bells as it will with many but my heart lifts at your happy ending and I feel the trendiest but hopeful that somewhere is our forever place too!

    Liked by 1 person

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