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A Little Stone Cottage in the South of France

Are they still out there?
A little stone cottage of your own?It’s every chilly Northern European’s dream. A little cottage, full of character, metre-thick stone walls and a glorious view over the vineyards or sunflower fields. Of course they’re still out there, but they can no longer be bought for a song.

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, if a Frenchman was selling Gran’s tumbledown old farmhouse, he was happy to swap it for little more than a new Citroen and a cellar full of good wine. Not any more. Thousands of British, Dutch and Belgian holidaymakers took advantage of this naïve approach to business and acquired a second home for next to nothing. They would spend a few weeks every year doing a bit of DIY and sunning themselves, whilst relying on local tradesmen to do anything else required.

Estate agents prospered, the market boomed and the French realised they had two valuable assets on their hands, old stone and hot sun. Prices soared. In Britain as the property market of the nineties steadily climbed so did the equivalent French holiday home. The properties got larger as Brits decided they didn’t want to merely holiday in France, but live permanently in this little corner of paradise.

Now, in 2005, the market may have peaked. In England prices are dropping for the first time in ten years, and in southern France the abandoned old stone cottage is a becoming a rarity. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t be found, and for a reasonable price.

It’s all a question of what you’re willing to do yourself. There are several properties that have been bought and renovated with a view to making a good investment. In the Quercy prices for a renovated stone house in the country start at around €150,000 for a cottage or small farmhouse. If you want a good size property, several bedrooms and a lovely view, you need to charm your bank manager or roll your sleeves up. You can still buy a pile of wet stones in a charming setting for under €50,000. The house or barn will have little or no roof, you’ll be lucky if there’s planning permission and your dream home will have to be virtually re-built from scratch. But it can be done.

Photo: Lindsay NixonThe first thing to do is ensure you can afford both the time and the money. Get to know the local Maire. He’s an immensely influential person and can undoubtedly smooth your path, even if your path doesn’t yet lead anywhere. Then learn French. If the sums are right, the Maire’s a chum and you speak the language, you’re half way there. Just bear in mind one salient little point. If you found your little pile of stones whilst you were holidaying in mid-August, baking in white-hot sun. Remember that in this area, whilst the summers are gloriously hot and sunny, the winters are cold. You can go for over a week without seeing temperatures above freezing. A bucket-toilet and a stack of damp wood can lose their charms under such circumstances! If you’re prepared for that little eventuality then there should be no stopping you. All you have to do now is build it.

If all this may seems like a little bit much, take heart, you’re not alone. Many British couples are now buying modern houses. Before you throw your hands up in horror, think about it. They are cheap. For less than €100,000 you can have a basic two-bedroom house with a large garden and a splendid view. What’s more, everything works! They are also economical to run, not always the case in an old stone farmhouse. If you desperately want stone you can have them clad. No! Not the stuff they stick on suburban semis in Britain. This is real stone, bought by the truckload and laid by masons – or by you if you feel up to the challenge. Quite a few off-plan properties are commissioned with stone cladding. Some are so well done you can’t tell the difference between the new and the authentic. Naturally the more elaborate your plans and the more stone you want, the higher the price. It’s a compromise, but it’s worth thinking about. It would be a lot less work and such properties are not very difficult to find. Crucially, it doesn’t affect your sunshine ration!

Photo: Agence EstelumThe other alternative is to buy a village house. If you are just after a little holiday home this can be a shrewd move. You don’t really want a huge garden that you’ll have to have maintained in your absence. You want to be close to the local boulangerie for a warm breakfast croissant and you don’t really need bags of space, after all, you’ll be living outside!

A terraced village house in the Quercy can still be bought, in need of total restoration, for less than €50,000. You can also find them completely restored for under €100,000. They are rare, but they’re out there.

Happy hunting!

©Amanda Lawrence 2005
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