It’s a sultry summer lunchtime in southwest France and I’m happily tucking into perfectly cooked (à point, since you ask!) lamb chops on the riverside terrace at Le Festin de Babette, a popular spot in St Antonin-Noble-Val. It’s the picture perfect small town in Tarn-et Garonne used for films such as Charlotte Gray and the pending Helen Mirren vehicle The Hundred-Foot Journey.
If I think my life is sweet at this precise moment, then I figure that it’s even sweeter for the man sitting opposite. Sipping a glass of red with me before our afternoon of viewings and meeting the local expats is FrenchEntrée Estate Agent Partner Charles Smallwood, who has lived in the area for 25 years. He runs a successful business, is happily, fully immersed in local life and today he is my guide to the area’s property scene – which he knows like the back of his hand after so long advising buyers. As we tuck into our lamb, he explains how it all started for him.
“Back in 1989, there weren’t estate agents here,” he says. “Just the open desks of notaires full of yellowing papers. In this area, Parisians just rented properties – they tended to buy a place in Normandy or Brittany. Many people didn’t know that you needed the carte professionelle. Luckily for Charles, his dual qualifications (he has both the carte professionelle and is a chartered surveyor) stood him in good stead. His agency now covers a huge area that includes buying hotspots as far and wide as Cahors, Villefranche, Albi and Montauban. And, of course, St-Antonin-Noble-Val is always a big draw for the British and Dutch.
Conversation moves into the current market. “I have 250-300 properties on my books now – I’ve added 35 in the last two weeks alone,” he says. As for clients, over 70% are British but he also works on behalf of a good number of Belgians and Aussies. But although he does concede that it’s tough at present, the signs are looking good. “5,000 agents went bust last year, but we actually had a good run. Prices have come down and stopped, while the euro is doing well against the pound. All this adds up to bigger budgets for buyers, so we are seeing more and more clients with €400,000-€600,000 to spend.”
Bearing in mind that over the years Charles has seen every imaginable French property upturn and downturn, he is certainly very positive about current market conditions. But one thing he wants to stress is the need for buyers to be realistic in their expectations.
“The style of property that many people want – a stone house with a pool, within walking distance of the boulangerie – is often unreasonable. And I always tell clients that I’m not selling them a house, but a lifestyle. The house will take care of itself – they will always fall in love with a property eventually, even if it doesn’t match their original wishlist. And it should be noted that the ladies usually make the final decision!” With that, he finishes his glass of wine and removes his napkin as I ask him for any useful tips for anyone eyeing a life-changing move to France.
“The only problem is the language. Everyone says they’re going to learn French, but some don’t. Why come here if you won’t speak the language? I also noticed that if one or other of a couple won’t speak French then they never improve.”
A viewing in the country
After Charles says his au revoirs to the restaurant owner and waitress, we hit the road for a specially planned property viewing. Charles had cannily, perhaps with a hint of fortune for me, found an English family looking to sell and a young English woman looking to buy in the region. As we approached the sleepy village of Feneyrols, Charles told me about the family who might be selling. He knows them well, as he does many local expats who bought though him. Melanie and her husband have lived here for 12 years, during which time their three children attended local schools. She is still weighing up her options but might be buying a house nearby
Melanie greets us at the door, accompanied by her rather lovely rescue dog Billy, and tells us about why she loves it here. “My six year old goes out with his fishing rod, the life here is like 200 years ago in England.”
We take a tour of her lovely home and say hello to the perspective buyer, Charlotte from London who is in her twenties. She lives in London and is seeking a buy-to-let. She wants to buy in France because of the excellent investment value (she works in investments, so knows that buy-to-let is a great route). “I did all of my research online before making some appointments,” she tells me. “I looked into mortgage applications and fees, as well as many legal aspects.” She seems very well prepared, displaying exactly the kind of attitude that Charles would encourage in all of his clients.
As she goes off for her own little tour of Melanie’s beautiful house, Charles and I say our goodbyes and make our way back to his office. Throughout our afternoon together he proves to be very charming and good-humoured company. He is clearly well known and liked around here, as evidenced by the number of people who stop to say hello as we wander through the town back to his office.
If I was buying my dream French property in these parts – and with the town’s delightful ambience and laid-back lifestyle, I certainly would love to – I’d call him first.
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