Valerie Marsden-Holmes tells Sylvia Edwards Davis how she and husband Richard fell head over heels for an 18th-century Gascon farmhouse with breathtaking views of the Pyrénées.
Meet the Movers
NAMES: Valerie and Richard Marsden- Holmes
BOUGHT IN: 2011
MOVED FROM: Lincolnshire
MOVED TO: Gers
FRENCHENTRÉE MAGAZINE: What prompted you to move to France?
VALERIE MARSDEN-HOLMES: Richard and I had been living in Lincolnshire for 27 years with our son – and our Staffie dog, Molly. I was a retail fashion manager and Richard is a company director. We had a lightbulb moment over coffee one Saturday morning. We realised we never wanted to ask ourselves ‘what if’ in our later years – the ‘what if’ was the dream of living in France. We decided there and then to sell up and invest our capital in a house in France. We have always loved France. It was where we first went on holiday together and so it has a special place in our hearts. On a practical basis, we considered that Italy, Portugal and Spain were too far, as Molly always travels with us.
FE: How many properties did you view before settling on Maison Saint-Pierre?
VMH: We looked extensively online and made appointments to view properties with various estate agents. We went out for a week of viewings with a definite top three in mind from our online search. On our first day we were told that two of the three were sold – rather annoying but typical. Our house was the third one. We remained open-minded, and of about 25 other properties we viewed none ‘spoke’ to us, and we found a huge variability in relation to the spec we had given the estate agents.
FE: What attracted you to Maison Saint-Pierre?
VMH: The house sits on a ridge in the Gers with fantastic views to the Pyrénées in the south and a hilltop bastide village to the north. It was built in 1797. We are told it is in the Grand Gascogne style, an old farmhouse with an attached building
that we now use as a summer kitchen, and small barns. The two floors are each 125m2, plus there is the 80m2 integrated barn. The ground floor has a large central hallway with two large rooms running off each side of it, with the fourth area divided between a kitchen and a bathroom. The upper-floor grenier (attic) had fallen into disrepair but is now being renovated. We have plans to extend into the integrated barn to create a large kitchen-dining-living space leading out onto a large terrace and potager. The house sits in 2.5 acres laid out to a small woodland, orchards, a wildflower meadow and a small vineyard with eight vines.
FE: How did you know this was ‘the one’?
VMH: It did meet most of our online search criteria in the first place, but when we
saw it we just knew – even before going inside to actually view it. We had found the property online so we knew the location was right, with magnificent views, ridges and undulating countryside. The house and grounds met our basic criteria as far as location, size, land… And, importantly, it had a new roof! I knew this was the one when I first walked up the drive. I stood in the garden looking at the house, waiting nervously as Richard went inside. Nervous because I knew this was it, but not knowing what he was going to find inside.
FE: Why did you choose the Gers? Did you consider any other département or region?
VMH: We had the UK house on the market and were on holiday in Italy overlooking a range of mountains when Richard said, “This is what I want – a view of the mountains”. So when we got home I changed my search to focus on the Midi-Pyrénées.
FE: Did you stick to your original budget or did you stretch it?
VMH: We had a set budget from the sale of the UK house. We viewed properties that were up to 15 per cent higher, knowing there was always a good chance that we could negotiate a 20 per cent reduction. We didn’t have any more money to stretch, so we would have walked away otherwise.
FE: Did the house need a lot of work? How did you handle the renovation process?
VMH: After the first two years we had renovated the ground floor: completely gutted it, put in new floors, refinished the walls, rewired and put in new plumbing and fittings. We had set a certain amount of money aside, but the money ran out and there were a couple of items that couldn’t be completed, so they had to wait.
We didn’t rush into the renovation. My plan was always to renovate slowly so we could get a feel for the house and what we wanted. The budget was capped, so we didn’t want to make any mistakes. We had limited our spend and, after a false start with an expat builder, we got a very amenable local French builder and worked to a very clear specification to maintain the spending plan and to maximise what we could achieve within the budget.
We are now renovating the upstairs and are fortunate to be a little less stretched and stressed about finances; particularly as we are now developing this as our future permanent home.
FE: What’s your favourite spot in the house?
VMH: Standing on the kitchen terrace very early in the morning, looking across the valley to the hilltop village in the distance.
FE: What advice would you give to prospective buyers/would-be expats?
VMH: Being open-minded is a must. Searching online first was essential for us to understand the options available – there is a very wide range of property styles – and to start to get a feel for the area we were looking at. You’re not always going to find what you are looking for straightaway, so be prepared for numerous visits. Also be prepared for the estate agents telling you that your choices have been sold when you arrive. Be very firm with them if they try to show you houses that are obviously not of interest to you. And, of course, be prepared to be let down: properties that look really promising or fabulous online can turn out to be something quite different when you see them in real life.
FE: What was the most nerve-racking moment of the whole process?
VMH: The purchase day. After five years of apparently no interest in the property, another couple viewed it and made an offer on the same day we did! And the most difficult day was when we realised we were being ripped off by our first builder (the first renovation project commenced in the first year that we got the house). We did everything absolutely by the book in terms of searching and contracting, and even selected a British builder to make the process easier with the language – but it still didn’t work out well and we parted company. The silver lining was that the local French community rallied round us and found us a local and highly reliable French builder.
FE: Considering what you know now, is there anything you would do differently?
VMH: With hindsight, the best advice is to look round your local villages for work that has recently been done. When you see something you like, knock on the door and ask the owner who did it, what they were like to work with, and if they would recommend them.
FE: Was the language barrier an issue when you first moved to the Gers?
VMH: Our French is poor, but if you are seen to be making an effort and add in self-deprecating humour, the French will be very helpful. We did make a big effort to learn all the building terms and instructions that we would need to work with the French builder, which does make a big difference.
FE: How did you cope with France’s infamous bureaucracy?
VMH: The paperwork is very formal and bureaucratic, but as long as you understand that you have to do everything by the book and exactly as requested, you will have no real problems. Don’t be tempted to take shortcuts. You might get away with it… and then again you might not. And it will end up taking you even longer.
FE: What has been the highlight of the whole experience so far?
VMH: The best day ever was when the previous French owner showed us around the property, pointing out its foibles, then handed over the keys and walked away down the drive. We then realised it had actually happened. We owned our home in France and we were on the road to new adventures.