Perched on the cliffside village of Beynac-et-Cazenac, Aquitaine, “La Maisonnette” sits quietly elbow to elbow with the chateau commanding a view of the Dordogne river and the surrounding countryside. Ben and Stephanie Brubaker tells us about the road that took them from America to their holiday home in France.
Meet the Brubakers
We’ve always felt drawn to France. It is the perfect meld of good food, art, architecture, culture, beauty, style and history. France is a country that doesn’t appear to be lacking in anything, (okay, maybe a little in efficiency) and we always enjoy our time there immensely. In fact, it’s hard for us to get excited about travelling anywhere else. Ever since volunteering in France for a couple of years when I was 19 I’ve had a love for France and the French culture. When our first daughter Emma was about 18 months old I felt like my French was disappearing, to keep it up I started speaking to her in French. We bought books and I read with her every night. After a couple of months Emma was speaking as much baby French as baby English. Emma is now 10 and now we have Luke (8), Sophie (5) and Gray (2) who all speak fluent French although Gray is somewhat limited and sticks primarily with bateau, avion and plus!
Tell us about your property search.
We had no intention of buying a home in France. By pure chance we rented a home for a week holiday in Beynac from an American couple who lived near us in Utah. I have a background in commercial real estate and was curious about how this couple had bought the property and the cost. Without even informing Stephanie, I contacted a few real estate agents in the area out of pure curiosity a few months before our vacation. While we were in the village I set an appointment simply thinking it would be fun to peek inside the beautiful medieval cottages. When we came to this cottage the price was much lower than the others, but the property needed some ‘love’. The opportunity was too much to pass up. Oddly enough, it felt so right to be there and this little house called our name. We had been saving up for an investment property in the States but had never discussed trying to obtain a property in France, let alone a fixer-upper. That is, until we vacationed in Beynac and fell in love with it instantly! We submitted an offer and figured out the rest one step at a time.
Do you know anything about the history of the property?
We recently found out that our house was the four banal meaning something like “lord’s oven” the place where everyone baked their bread and were required to pay the lord of the castle for the service. Records show this service existed back in 1343 but a more probable scenario places this property in the 1500’s. Since the house is within the outer ramparts of the castle, we know it is at least four or five hundred years old. In a previous renovation they found remnants of the oven in our backyard and the older townsfolk still refer to our home as the “four banal”, which is kind of a cool way of describing one’s home.
What was your experience with financing?
We had a fantastic experience with BNP Paribas International Buyers division. Other banks we had contacted honestly didn’t seem to know what to do with us as Americans, but BNP provided a seamless experience and even furnished all documentation in both English & French. The closing process seemed to take a very long time and seemed dependent on the notary’s timeline even after we had everything set with the Bank for our mortgage. Our offer was accepted in August and we didn’t close on the property until December.
How did you manage the renovation process long-distance?
Honestly, it didn’t work very well. In March of 2009 I hired a few workers to begin work, but when we were back in the States, we felt like nothing got done. By the time we returned in May, little progress had been made, and I stayed there full time for a month with our daughter Emma in order to supervise and ensure that work was progressing. Stephanie and the other children joined us in June, and in order to meet our aggressive timeline I had to spend most of my time at the house working alongside the workers.
What was the low point?
We decided to sandblast all the interior stone walls and beams. We had chipped the plaster off and we sandblasted for days on end. We used over 75 bags of sand that weighed 33 kg each. We then had to get rid of almost 2.5 metric tons of sand. I convinced our gardener to help me and the two of us filled the back of a flat-bed truck twice. I honestly didn’t think that my back was going to survive the number of times we filled plastic trash cans with sand and then had to get them through the house and onto the truck.
How did you choose your artisans?
We were advised to use local French workers for our renovation. While we had to deal with the annoyances that seem to be universal whether in France or here in the USA, namely workers not showing up on days they promised to be there, we generally had good experiences. Fighting to get work done in August was an uphill battle but we successfully completed the renovation in September.
How did you find French bureaucracy?
Surprisingly easy. The local village was very understanding and seemed happy that we were investing in the community. The only time we ran into unexpected bureaucracy was when we thought we were going to have to replace the roof of the cottage. We had to apply to the office of the chief Architect of France because the work would affect the exterior of the house in a protected area of the village, and didn’t receive a reply for more than a month.
What about the language barrier?
I was amazed at how well my wife was able to pick up the language enough to communicate with local brocantes, at vide-greniers or with other merchants–Stephanie is quick to add that he gives her too much credit and the kids proved to be good little translators. She remembers a very random moment when Ben was working on the roof and one of his college French professors walked by with a small group of students (keep in mind this is a village of 200 in the remote French countryside). It was such a thrill for Ben to run down and catch up with him and show him his French skills. We have not once felt like an outsider in Beynac. We feel so at home there and have felt absolutely welcome in the village. We’ve spent late nights in the company of the owners of a restaurant just around the corner from La Maisonnette and made friends with other locals and neighbours.
Now that you’re done, is there anything you would have done differently?
Not that I can think of! It was all very impulsive and adventurous, but so much fun. Perhaps it would have been a good idea to measure the doorway before buying an antique armoire two inches too wide to fit through the front door. That left the second storey balcony as the only other possible entrance. So one afternoon we hired every available French worker and their buddies to hoist the armoire up and through the door of the second storey balcony. I suspect that particular item, as well as many others like it, will never leave the cottage.
What’s your favorite room in the cottage?
The area that underwent the biggest transformation is the upstairs master suite. It was just a storage attic with a 4-foot clearing. We like to relax there in the evenings, crack open the window and listen to the trees whispering in the breeze. It’s incredibly tranquil and quiet. Living in a city here in the States makes us appreciate the absolute privacy we have there.
What’s your favorite thing to do in the area?
We absolutely love everything, but the local markets are fantastic. Other favorites include visiting the Font de Gaume caves and taking the children to Le Bournat. Stephanie’s favorites pastimes are picnicking, cooking and exploring new towns. Beynac is listed as one of the Most Beautiful Villages in France. Other small, picturesque outings in the area are Marqueyssac Gardens, the Lascaux Caves and the outdoor market in nearby Sarlat, or taking a canoe down the river.
What was the best day of your life in France?
The day of completion. There is nothing that compares with the feeling of satisfaction from such a project. After extensive renovations and many 80-hour work weeks, we finally completed the project and affectionately deem it our fifth child.
If you hadn’t bought the cottage, what might you have done instead?
We might have more funds in our retirement account but I can’t think of an experience or project that would have been as worthwhile.
What would you say to someone who is considering buying a property in France?
Jump at the chance. If you intend to have unconventional experiences you have to make them happen or you might wake up one day disappointed. Renovating and owning a house in France has been an incredible adventure that allowed us to feel like we’re a small part of a village and opened up a whole new way to experience France.
To find out about the properties available in the Dordogne or other areas in France please call our consultant at +44 (0)1225 463 752 or email [email protected] or contact one of our local property finders with expert knowledge of the area.
If you’d like to plan a house-hunting trip to the Dordogne, La Maisonnette is available for self-catering holidays.
With thanks to the Brubaker family of Salt Lake City, Utah.
Family picture (Left to right): Luke, Emma, Gray , Sophie, Stephanie and Ben Brubaker