Our Dream Home Near Nice: Real Life Stories
Real life stories
Eager to start a new life in the south of France after falling in love with the first house they saw, Judy Cunliffe and husband Steven had a long wait before they could call it home
Finally, our ducks were all lined up in a row, allowing us to make our long-anticipated move to the south of France. The past two years had seen us untangle ourselves from business interests, sell our family home of more than 30 years and convert a commercial building we owned into flats. The latter had taken considerably longer than we expected, but on one Friday at the end of November in 2019, they were finally complete. My husband Steven, ever cautious, quite reasonably said we didn’t need to rush into househunting. But the following Monday, we were on a flight to Nice.
After many breaks and holidays in the Riviera’s capital and surrounding area, we decided this was the place for us. It offered wonderful scenery, delightful towns, art galleries and museums. Most importantly, it was a year-round place. We had been surprised at how some areas of France closed down in September-even the village shops shut until spring. Plus access to the UK from Nice was easy, with lots of flights.
I’m sure, like every house- hunter, our wish list was bigger than our budget. We wanted to be close to Nice airport, in a small town or village within walking distance of amenities, good public transport links, four bedrooms, a pool, a sea view and a small garden. Around Nice, this was an ambitious list and we had to accept that a sea view might be unachievable on our budget.
However, one house that we had earmarked fitted all our criteria. We particularly liked the town it was in, Vence, which is situated up in the hills. It has a lovely medieval centre but crucially was a proper working town with all the facilities you could want.
It didn’t have the glitz of some of the coastal resorts which, while lovely to visit, wouldn’t have suited us for living on a day-to-day basis.
My excitement was tempered by Steven, who said we needed to take our time and shouldn’t make an offer on the first house we saw, or indeed on this trip.
As soon as I walked into the house, I knew it was the right one for me; it ticked every box on our wish list and even if it hadn’t, the view from the balcony of Vence old town and a 180-degree sea vista – was stunning. I would happily have compromised on other things with a view like that. I looked apprehensively at Steven who said it was perfect and loved it as much as I did.
The house was built in 1960 and clearly the owners had been untroubled by the whims of changing taste as nothing had been done to update it since then. It was split into two apartments and a studio, but we figured we could easily convert it into one house. The kitchen was tiny and at the back of the house, the bathrooms were startling colours and there was no pool.
We made an offer on the spot to the delightful estate agent, a charming and glamorous young woman who suggested that we do it formally through a notaire. Little did we know that it would be nearly two years before we actually owned the house. We arranged to see the notaire to make the offer the next day. When we phoned our son, Mike, to give him the good tidings of our impulsive purchase, there was a silence followed by the sound of hissing like a punctured lilo. Clearly he was considering if we should be congratulated or put in an institution for buying, as he would say, “willy nilly”!
As he was coming out to Nice for a few days to join us, we asked if he would like to accompany us for a second viewing, which indeed he did. As we drove into the hills, the rain was of biblical proportions accompanied by low-lying cloud. He duly pronounced the house perfect, or at least perfect with a huge amount of money and time spent on it. He took our word for it that there was a view, as you couldn’t see anything beyond the driving rain and mist that day.
Two weeks later, to our delight our offer was accepted. We spent happy hours discussing all the changes we would make, which walls would come out, what sort of kitchen we would have and, most importantly, what size pool we would add. In fact, we redesigned it in our heads time after time.
The buying process takes about 14 weeks so we were looking forward to completing in early March 2020. This was ideal as we needed to make sure we were resident in France during the transition period to get our residency and health rights in place.
However, on Christmas Eve a hand grenade was hurled through the ether when an email arrived from our notaire to say that the house belonged to an elderly German who had inherited it from his sister and brother-in-law and it needed a genealogist to confirm no one else had a claim on the title.
A bit crestfallen but undeterred, we naively assumed this would mean a delay of a few weeks. Of course, we didn’t know what lay around the corner for the whole world in March 2020- and for our house purchase.
As the UK started lockdown, communities across Europe began to close and gradually everything ground to a halt. Finally, in September, we got the good news that the genealogist had finished work.
Again, foolishly, we thought we were close to completion. With that in mind I phoned up some good friends who lived in a village near the house. They said we were welcome to stay with them, so we packed, flung our cases in the car and set off. The journey was wonderful via the Route Napoleon and finally arriving in Gattières. We had a fabulous few weeks visiting places all along the coast and enjoying good lunches, warm weather and dips in the pool. We sunbathed in Théoule-sur-Mer, ate prawns in Menton and visited the wonderful market in Ventimiglia just over the border in Italy. We spent many evenings with our friends, Liz and Quentin, sitting at their pool bar with a glass of wine and the BBQ going.
Then lockdown loomed again and still we had no news on the house. In January, all the documents were sent through and we just needed the elderly German vendor to sign the compromis de vente. Whereupon disaster struck; sadly, he died the day before he was due to sign.
We really started to feel that everything was conspiring against us now, as we had to wait for months while probate in Germany was granted. Finally, in June, the probate came through and the sale could proceed. It still went remarkably slowly but finally the house was ours just under two years after we first saw it. In the meantime, we had decided to get an architect to draw up plans for us and were amazed at the things that he felt could be achieved that we would never have thought of ourselves.
The architect said it would be a charming house if we removed all the internal walls and reconfigured it completely. This would give us exactly what we wanted: four bedrooms (all ensuite), a large sitting room and a kitchen-diner opening on to a pool. It took the architect months to come up with a costing and he’d certainly spared no expense.
Steven and I decided that the best thing to do was to try and cut costs by setting to and knocking a lot of the stud walls down ourselves, as that was unskilled labour. We bought matching his and hers drills and got cracking.
It was hard work; we spent three weeks covered in dust, but we had a great ‘can do’ feeling. The architect kept delaying starting the job and eventually we realised we couldn’t use him. We were fortunate though as in the meantime we had used a builder to replace the roof and he was very keen to do the whole house. His quote came through and the structural work commenced.
It didn’t take long to discover a serious problem with damp though, due to the house being built into the side of a hill. This blew our budget out of the window as we needed to dig the whole of the ground floor out to the depth of a metre and add damp-proofing membranes.
For several weeks, we had a lorry and a digger in what would one day be our dream kitchen. It was quite daunting standing in the house on piles of rubble having taken out all the walls and the stairs – all we were left with was four outside walls. The house looked as though it was in a war zone, not the Côte d’Azur.
In reality, what we thought would be a large renovation project had turned into a complete internal rebuild, as nothing of the original house was being kept. It wasn’t really what we had intended to do, but it would give us everything we wanted in the house.
Downstairs where the kitchen would be, we wanted to change the outside doors and windows. In France, anything that alters the outside of the house has to have planning permission, ours being a bit more stringent because we are behind the artist Matisse’s former home. Finally, after six long months, we gained planning permission.
While the renovation went ahead, we thought it would be fun to rent an apartment in Nice so that friends and family could visit. Everyone booked flights and we looked forward to seeing people we hadn’t seen for nearly two years. One by one, every flight was cancelled.
Fortunately, it was easy to enjoy ourselves in Nice – it’s such a vibrant city. Every night during the months of July and August concerts are held in its parks and squares. We loved exploring Nice from the old town and the Promenade des Anglais and then up in the hills to Matisse’s museum.
We also spent a lot of time in Villefranche-sur-Mer, just outside Nice. It has to be one of the prettiest villages you can visit, with twisting narrow streets and restaurants lining the seafront, and we spent many an hour by the sea eating lunch and enjoying a glass of rosé.
Finally, in January 2022, we moved in – albeit with very limited facilities. IKEA, unfortunately, didn’t turn up with the bed we’d ordered so we ended up sleeping on a blow-up mattress. We had a one-ring hob and my kitchen island was a large box. Steven described it as marginally better than camping. It was, however, a great feeling to be in our own house at last.
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