Kim and James Hoffmeister took a leap of faith when they moved their family to a pint sized town-house in rural Brittany. They tell FrenchEntrée why they’re now living the dream…
FRENCHENTRÉE MAGAZINE: What brought you to France?
KIM HOFFMEISTER: We had always dreamed of living in France. As newlyweds, 25 years ago, we would spend every holiday driving through France, imagining how we would transform the tumbledown properties we passed on our travels.
However, it wasn’t until our eldest child was ten that we finally decided to venture across the water. We knew that as the children got older it might prove more difficult for them to settle and make friends.
FE: Why did you choose Brittany?
KH: Despite travelling extensively around France, we actually knew very little about Brittany. Our holidays had usually taken us further south. But when it came to settling somewhere, we knew we wanted to be closer to the UK.
With family ties to the south of England, being close to the ferry ports was an important factor.
FE: Tell us about the property.
KH: The property is a small townhouse situated in the ‘Petite Cité de Caractère’ of Moncontour in the Côtes-d’Armor département in northern Brittany.
Although the original build date is unknown, it is thought to be from the 16th century and it certainly exudes charm and authenticity, both inside and out.
Colombages adorn the front facade and if you look carefully there is carved detailing in the wood, including, intriguingly, a face! Inside, we have been careful to restore the property sympathetically and so the original stone walls and heavy wooden beams are in evidence throughout. It is a very narrow property and squeezing in a family of four was a challenge, despite its four floors. Fortunately, a two-storey stone garage at the rear makes an excellent bedroom above and music room below.
FE: How did you find the buying process? Was the language barrier an issue?
KH: Our experience of buying in France was a good one. The notaire was patient, fair and made sure everything was understood before he continued.
I scraped a French O Level at school, but there was nothing like being immersed in the French language to drag your language skills up a notch or two.
Fortunately, James was already a fluent French speaker before we came to France and this helped enormously with our understanding of the buying process. I would sincerely recommend having a French speaker/translator on hand if you struggle to speak or understand French.
FE: Did you have to compromise on any of your initial search criteria?
KH: The biggest compromise for us was the lack of outdoor space. Town-houses are notorious for their lack of gardens, but this property has only a tiny courtyard.
It is just big enough to sit for a coffee, but nothing more. We are also dwarfed by the enormous church, l’église Saint-Mathurin, which our house is situated directly behind. It obscures the light for part of the day and provides a healthy dose of church bells every hour. I personally love the bells, but some might not!
FE: Did it require renovations?
KH: We entirely renovated the inside of the property. Everything inside was panelled, hiding the beautiful stone walls and oak floors and ceilings. It was also hiding some woodworm and rotten beams!
Our first job was to take the property back to its bare bones and to sandblast everything. This makes a huge amount of mess, but the results are worth it.
We had decided to create a salon de thé (tea room) on the ground floor which involved installing a new kitchen and toilet on this level along with the main ‘shop floor’.
Only two levels were habitable when we bought the property, but by installing two new staircases, we were able to create another floor and a mezzanine level to almost double our living space.
We did most of the work ourselves, only calling in a master carpenter to create the beautiful spiral staircases and a roofer to re-slate and put in Velux windows.
FE: Did you pay the full asking price?
KH: We offered 20% less than the asking price and this was accepted.
FE: Did you have to get financing?
KH: Fortunately, we had just sold a property and were cash buyers.
FE: Do you have any advice for potential buyers; particularly people with children like you?
KH: There are many beautiful properties and it’s easy to fall in love, but think carefully before you sign on the dotted line. If a property needs renovation, don’t underestimate the amount of time, effort and money it will take.
If property in one area is very cheap, ask yourself why. Is it because there is no work in the area? No services or commerce?
Think carefully about the needs of your family and whether the area and house you are buying can fulfil those needs. And if you have children, consider their needs too; not just now, but also as they get older.
FE: What has been the biggest challenge?
KH: The biggest challenge for us was the hard work required for the renovation. It was a steep learning curve in how much time, energy and money needs to be committed to restoring a property to its former glory.
FE: Would you do anything differently?
KH: Apart from keeping a tighter hand on the budget, absolutely not! The thrill of buying a house, being able to see its potential and letting your creative side take over is a wonderful experience.