Claire and Peter Jackson were over the moon to find their dream house in sunny Languedoc. They’ve lavished love and attention on it and have exciting plans for its – and their – future
FRENCHENTRÉE MAGAZINE: What brought you to France?
CLAIRE JACKSON: We spent several holidays here and we loved the weather, the blue skies, the food, the scenery and the people. I had been visiting France from the age of 12, had a French pen pal and then studied French at university, so I can speak French reasonably well. In addition, France is so easy to get to from the UK.
FE: What prompted you to take the plunge and move to France?
CJ: We had always wanted to renovate a property but prices in the UK were too high for this to be a reality. The lure of better weather and a potentially more peaceful way of life in the future, led us to consider France. After about ten years of talking about buying a house in France to renovate, once the children – Sam, Melika and Poppy – started leaving home and other circumstances were right, we felt it was time to realise our dream.
FE: Why did you choose Languedoc?
CJ: We first narrowed down our search by talking to friends who recommended the Languedoc as an affordable and beautiful area, and then by visiting on a family holiday. I trawled the internet extensively over several years looking at different locations and styles of property. We decided we wanted to be in the centre of a town with character, in an older property with features such as tiled floors, fireplaces, grand staircases, shutters and outside space.
FE: How did you find the house?
CJ: In October 2015, we planned a viewing trip and had short-listed about 12 properties to view with several estate agents. Some of the places either lacked the character we were looking for, were already renovated in a style that was not for us, required too much work, or were not in the right location.
We met with Charles from Real Estate Languedoc and he understood what we were looking for and persuaded us to visit a property I had previously discarded. As soon as we walked in the front door, which was impressive in itself, we both loved the property. There was a lot of oohing from me as I spotted features in the house that I was looking for – those encaustic tiles on the bedroom floors, the fireplaces, the windows. Then there were the stables and barns as well. Peter was suddenly on board and we were both excited by the potential it offered and the history of the buildings.
Some furniture was included in the sale of the house, as often happens in France. We acquired two beautiful beds, some traditional chests of drawers, wardrobes and even an original Singer sewing machine.
We actually heard that our offer had been accepted as we were boarding the plane to fly back home.
FE: What’s the local area like?
CJ: Our house is located in the small medieval village of Saint-Geniès-de-Fontedit. The village is a circulade, a traditional way of building a community in concentric circles. It is very picturesque with narrow winding streets and alleys and an old church. There is a beautiful chapel a short walk away and vineyards surrounding us. There are regular fêtes and activities that give it a community feel, with tennis courts, a boules area and other sports facilities. The river Orb is close by, the mountains just a 30-minute drive away and the coast about 25 minutes in the opposite direction. This all provides lots of opportunities for swimming, canoeing, walking and sunbathing. Béziers – one of the oldest towns in France – offers shopping, sightseeing and the famous écluses de Fonseranes [staircase locks] on the Canal du Midi.
FE: Tell us about the house…
CJ: There are two parts to the property. The main house is a maison de maître built in 1883. It originally had three bedrooms and four attic rooms, which we’ve remodelled into another three bedrooms and two bathrooms. There are two reception rooms and we are in the process of converting two attached stables and a barn (dating back several hundred years) into a kitchen, dining room, library and a large games room. In total there will be six bedrooms, four bathrooms, five reception rooms, two utility rooms and the kitchen. Some elements of the stables date back 800 years and form part of the original walls around the town. We have an enclosed courtyard with a terrace and, next year, we’ll have a pool. Plus there’s a large barn, currently being used for storage, which we’re hoping to turn into a restaurant – that’s the dream. There’s a lot of rooms; we are now officially exhausted!
FE: Did you have to sacrifice any of your search criteria or did it tick all the boxes?
CJ: We did have to make some compromises. I wanted balconies around the windows, a grand external staircase and the traditional vaulted wine cellar, which this house sadly didn’t have.
FE: Did you manage to negotiate the asking price down?
CJ: The house price was in line with our budget, but the sellers were listing a large barn for sale separately. So instead of negotiating the asking price, we struck a deal for the large barn to be included with the house. That was the approximate equivalent of a 20 per cent reduction on the total price of the two units together.
FE: How did you manage the renovation? Did you stick to your original budget?
CJ: Freddy Rueda, at Real Estate Languedoc, recommended a local builder to us. Sophie, the builder’s assistant, speaks excellent English, thank goodness. Alex, the project manager understood that we wanted to keep as many original features as possible.
We broke the project down into three phases: first, the house; second, the outbuildings with the barn conversion; and finally, a restaurant to follow in phase three. Our plans have evolved over the past two years. There was a two-bedroom apartment, which we planned to keep, but have since knocked down to form a large terrace. There was also a room-within-a room under the roof, which we demolished and turned into a games room.
We completely underestimated the budget for renovation and have needed to take out a mortgage to cover the cost of phase two. There are constant decisions to make, which at times can be overwhelming and exhausting: anything from how many sockets to have, the location of radiators, type of floor tiles, or style of windows. The most enjoyable part for Peter has been hacking off the rendering to reveal the original stonework. I have really enjoyed sourcing items for the interior such as chandeliers, chairs, wardrobes, mirrors and so on.
FE: What is your favourite part of the house?
CJ: When Peter removed the old lime render from the walls of one of the old stables, now the dining room, he uncovered an original archway and window dating back to the 12th century. This is his favourite corner. The dining room is also special because of the original stone troughs and hayrick.
FE: Your grasp of French must have been a boon through the purchase process and dealings with builders…
CJ: It was really useful but it helped having a notaire, an estate agent and a builder’s assistant who all spoke English well. Peter is learning vocabulary (mostly to do with building), but we would both benefit from French conversation classes. Everyone has been really understanding and patient with our efforts to speak Franglais. We have had some interesting conversations when ordering bathrooms, carpet, or buying a mobile phone, which have put our acting skills to the test! It was very easy to understand the process of buying, which seemed much more straightforward and fairer than in the UK. The worst part was the bureaucracy of the mortgage, which took six months to complete. Renovation mortgages are not very common in France, so this became quite complicated. Peter spent a lot of time scanning documents to send and then re-scanning them a few months later as they had become out of date. Luckily for us, we did not need a mortgage to buy the property initially.
FE: What was the most nerve-racking thing you had to deal with?
CJ: The exchange rate started to fall almost as soon as we put in our offer on the property and it was a race to convert our Sterling to Euros as quickly as we could. Another nerve-racking experience was having to bail out water for 24 hours straight when we had no roof and a months-worth of rain fell in just one night.
FE: What would you advise anyone considering buying in France?
CJ: Do it! Do your homework to narrow down the location, write out a checklist of desirable features and be prepared to compromise, but not too much. Use the internet but make sure you visit and take advice from your estate agent. We found using Freddy’s company very different from our experiences with English agents: he seemed more relaxed and honest about each property.
FE: Is there anything you would have done differently?
CJ: I’d have had a more realistic approach to budgeting for the cost of renovation. Also, I would have found out about the size of the water pipes before buying cast-iron radiators and valves from the UK. I would have also checked that the heating worked before we moved in in February. The house had not been lived in for three years and the stone walls were a foot thick… brrrrr!
FE: Are you planning to let out the property?
CJ: For now, the house is pretty much a building site and, as such, is for extended family use only. However, we are planning to rent it out once the pool is in and the decoration complete, hopefully by 2019.
FE: Would you consider moving to France permanently?
CJ: Our plans are to move to France by the end of 2020 to run the house as a holiday let in the high season and a B&B the rest of the year. We’re also hoping to set up a French restaurant in the big barn.
FE: What has been the highlight so far?
CJ: Having our extended family – all 19 of them – stay with us for a week, enjoying the atmosphere, eating meals in the courtyard, and knocking down walls with sledgehammers!
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