By Sylvia Edwards Davis, Property & Living Editor
Chris, an Isle of Man Advocate in General Practice, and Vanessa, formerly Head of PE at Island Secondary School, met on the hockey pitch, fell in love, and honeymooned on French canas in Anjou. The love of winter sports, came later in life, introduced by friends when the kids were young. Well and truly addicted to the snow, they came back every year to France to the point that they would forego summer holidays to take time off in winter. Their first foray into French property was a studio in Les Carroz, then a larger apartment when the family outgrew the first one. Friends followed and eventually the “golf four” friends all bought in the same village. For Vanessa and Chris, though, it was only a step towards a full-time life in France.
A change of pace
Looking for something to do having quit law after 20 years with kids already at University a large chalet came up for rent and they decided to try a catered operation to see if it suited. They both did training courses, Chris in the Edinburgh School of Food & Wine, and Vanessa in Natives in Chamonix. Year one was a steep learning curve but still hugely enjoyable.
The big deal
Initially they were spending winters running the ski chalet and going back to the Isle of Man in the summer but they felt as if they didn’t truly belong in either place so they began to look for permanent property to buy. The search took four years. Properties in the village center of Les Carroz were very expensive and in high demand. Buying a plot to build a new home was pricey and it would mean losing at least one season. One of the criteria was to have a swimming pool so they could remain open in the summer months. Then a beautiful, large property, in a stunning location came up for sale, but it would probably be out of reach. They went to see it just to rule it out and cross it off the list. They fell in love and now they own it.
It has many plus points: huge rooms, stunning views, picture windows, light & space. Chris and Vanessa put in en-suite bathrooms and a new kitchen – the hub of the property as the kitchen is open to lounge for the all important communication with guests. The dining area was also key. Unlike some operations, Chris and Vanessa share their meals with guests. They place such important on these convivial moments that they commissioned from a local firm in the Jura a purpose-built table that seats fourteen, in a format that invites informal conversation. We asked Chris and Vanessa to share their experience:
What’s your favorite room in the house?
Our most popular bedroom two. It has high ceilings, with a mezzanine and bathroom on the upper floor. It’s really adaptable either for two couples, or parents (or single parents) with the children in the upper level.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re in the house?
Chris: cooking. I love experimenting. Vanessa got me a smoker last Christmas, I’m struggling with fish but getting great results with duck.
Vanessa: I love watching the birds, which I feed! I see over 18 different varieties, plus a black squirrel and a pine marten.
What’s there to do in the area?
So much! We are central to Chamonix, Annecy, Geneva all in 45 minutes. There’s the whole gamut of winter sports and also trekking, mountain biking, paragliding, and rafting in the summer months.
As far as financing, do you have any helpful tips for future borrowers?
Shop around. Our own bank dragged their heels and the offer they eventually came up with was not competitive. Our Notaire suggested half a dozen contacts and we tried them all – it takes time, and annoyingly several insisted on their own medical screening for the insurance.
What was your experience with paperwork/bureaucracy?
A good accountant makes a huge difference but they don’t come cheap. We are very pleased with the service we get but suspect we could get it done cheaper if we shopped around. Professionals seem less prepared to be flexible on fees than in the UK.
What would you say to someone who is considering buying a property in France?
Rent first if you can – it gives you a chance to try the area and see if the life is for you.
What was the worst thing that ever happened to you related to the purchase or renovation?
Renovation was completed just in time for the 2011/12 winter season which turned out to be a very cold one. Temperature went down to minus 18C. In the worst cold snap the pipes on both sides of the property froze solid and our guests woke up to no water. The plumber came to our rescue and repaired the damaged pipes while the guests were out skiing. I remember it was so cold that the diesel froze in both our vehicles.
With what you know now, is there anything you would have done differently?
Budgeted more carefully, it is far too easy to get carried away with a project.
Tell me about your property search. What was the factor that most influenced your choice?
Location is crucial for a catered chalet. 8km from the village is a gamble – makes us less likely to be considered as first choice – but once they’ve been here they keep coming back. Also the short ski season means you must find another income stream, hence the need for the pool to attract summer trade. We also do residential courses spring & autumn to bring people in. We’ve done two years of successful cookery courses and this autumn we have two weeks of photography courses.
What was the best day ever in France?
Ah! Waking up at 6am on a Monday morning, quick check through the blinds and find that the promised overnight dump materialised bang on schedule. Six inches of fresh snow on the car roof and the sky hints at clearing. While the guests snooze on, we swing into action. The bread, mixed last evening and proved in the fridge overnight goes into the oven while the tea brews. Then into winter trousers, hat, gloves and head torch and we are away onto the powder.
How did you manage with the language?
We were fairly competent in French and it gets better when you have to use it. We find talking over the telephone most difficult, we prefer face to face.
Is now France full-time then?
We tried part time but it didn’t work – you end up not belonging in either place – so it was right to live here full time and makes business sense. The winter season alone is too short to pay the bills. But that’s not to say we’re here forever – family circumstances can change. Running the chalet is great fun, met some wonderful people, made some great friends, but it is very hard work for limited financial gain. When it stops being fun it’ll be time for another change.
•by Sylvia Davis, Property & Living Editor, with thanks to Chris and Vanessa Callow