Swapping an Apartment in Amsterdam for a Farm in Dordogne: Real Life Stories
Real life stories
Rupert Springfield and husband Franck tell French Property News how they swapped a cramped city flat in the centre of Amsterdam for a stunning farm in the Dordogne set in sweeping acres
Turning 40 can often be the cue for many to take stock of their life – and the catalyst that prompts a major change in direction. More often than not, those on the cusp of entering their fifth decade feel the urge to spread their wings, a hankering for greater space, and a chance to begin afresh on their own terms.
Few, though, will have ticked these boxes quite as dramatically as Rupert Springfield who, while celebrating this particular milestone birthday during a holiday in France, managed to persuade his Dutch husband, Franck van der Hooft, that they should quit their life of the past 15 years in Amsterdam (where Franck enjoyed a successful career as a theatre producer) and move to rural southwest France and begin an entirely new business running luxury holiday rentals.
There’s probably no better testament to the bucolic charm of this part of the country, nor the quality of its wines, than its ability to lure visitors into long, sunny afternoon daydreams about moving there for good. However, on the rare occasions that those dreams become reality, the results can be truly stunning. A visit to Rupert and Franck’s new home in southern Dordogne, located in the countryside just 10km from the picture-postcard bastide village of Monpazier, proves as much.
The cluster of buildings dating from the 16th century are mostly constructed from the iconic, honey-coloured local sandstone and were featured in Channel 4’s Help! We bought a Village. This little hamlet can be found at the end of a lane, winding through fields and woodland that gently blends into the property’s grounds and gardens. Here, fresh herbs and fruit trees can be found in abundance, not to mention a majestic 10x5m saltwater swimming pool.
“We came to the Dordogne on holiday in 2013 and were surprised at how reasonably priced many of the local properties were,” recalls Rupert. “To the point where we sat down in the garden of our rental gîte, and I proceeded to add up our assets on the back of an envelope in order to persuade Franck that we could not only move here, but also afford to buy a property big enough to turn into a successful holiday rental business. We would both be sacrificing good salaries and successful careers, so I had to make it sound plausible to Franck, even though neither of us had the first idea about running holiday accommodation.”
Whatever he said, it did the trick and the couple convinced themselves they could make this succeed. Crucially, they were not so naïve as to leave their security behind for the first place in France they saw. Instead they spent the next two years travelling around the Dordogne, viewing over 70 different properties. Until, finally, they found Le Mas.
“Our hearts were already beating faster as we came up the drive,” Rupert remembers, “and saw that bundle of farm buildings perched on the hill, with countryside sweeping away all around.
“There were two lovely buildings here; Le Mas, the main farmhouse, which has become the gîte, and Le Mazet, a charming farm cottage next door that’s now the perfect bolt-hole for holidaying couples. But better yet was the old, wooden tobacco-drying barn a little way off, which, even though it was full of dumped farm machinery and junk, we knew we could transform into our own wonderful home.”
So convinced were the couple that they’d finally found ‘the one’, they got quotes from builders for the necessary renovation before purchasing it. They weren’t entirely certain whether their limited budget would be anywhere near sufficient to convert
and furnish it and create the high-end holiday business they envisaged though. Nevertheless, proving that fortune really does favour the bold, they soon met a locally based interior designer from Franck’s native Netherlands, Joris van Grinsven. “It felt
like fate,” says Rupert. “Joris was fantastic, perfectly on our wavelength and, better yet, already had an established and
trusted list of local builders and tradesmen in the Dordogne.
Having talked to them, we came up with a renovation plan that was just within budget, and having got building permission for our work two weeks after completion, we suddenly found ourselves in a van filled with our few belongings, heading out of Amsterdam for good.”
“You hear these horror stories of people undertaking similar projects, and having to go wildly over budget, or being abandoned halfway through the process by their builders,” Rupert continues. “The more we look back, the more grateful we are that we found the amazing people we did, because eight months later, the properties were ready – on time, and on budget.”
As huge a blessing as this undoubtedly was, another challenge the couple faced during this period was somewhat different, as Rupert explains. “We had moved out of a tiny city flat with a bed that folded up against the wall, into a place that now has eight bedrooms, eight bathrooms, three kitchens, four woodburners, and is set in more than two acres of grounds,” he laughs. “The moment we arrived, it was very obvious that we didn’t have anywhere near enough household items and furniture to properly furnish this place.”
So, while the builders forged ahead, the couple found themselves spending most of their time sourcing all the items necessary for equipping a set of luxury holiday homes, not to mention their own.
“By the time we’d listed everything we needed, from bed linen to cutlery, we’d drawn up an inventory of over 3,000 items,” says Rupert. “Joris was great for sourcing all the big-ticket furniture items; luxury hotel-style beds, sofas, sun loungers and so on, and for the rest we scoured the internet for the best deals across Europe – rather than just purchasing everything from suppliers in France. And in fact, taking the time to search that little bit further afield saved us thousands of euros.”
The other smart saving that Rupert and Franck made was on the property purchase. They placed a Facebook advert looking for available properties, which the vendors of Le Mas responded to. The eventual sale was therefore a direct one, which saved paying commission to an estate agent.
Just as prudently, the couple used this windfall to employ an expert advisor on emigrating to France and setting up businesses there as a non-national. “We had no experience of French law when buying a property, nor of the rules and fiscal consequences of setting up a business. Paying for professional advice on the contracts, planning and everything else before going ahead, was money well spent.”
As much as they paint themselves as wide-eyed novices moving here, it’s clear that the couple are a great deal more perceptive than modesty allows them to admit, and the ultimate proof can be found all around, in every corner of their stunning new home and luxury lettings. Since opening in 2016, the business has been going from strength to strength, thanks to glowing word-of-mouth endorsements and rave write-ups on holiday lettings websites. Their gîtes are already fully booked for 24 consecutive weeks in 2023.
They keep calling it luck, but they’ve earned it. Clearly Rupert and Franck have a natural flair for delivering five-star rustic chic, and a knack for knowing just what guests want on holiday, whether it’s a private chef to cook on-site using local produce, an exclusive wine-tasting tour to a local vineyard, or a massage by the pool.
In terms of guidance for others keen to follow in their footsteps, the couple’s advice is both succinct and invaluable. “Do as much research as you can beforehand, hire an expert advisor and take a good look at what other people with similar businesses are doing,” Rupert says. “We couldn’t have done this without the help of the people we met along the way, and the dearly held conviction that, with their assistance, we could make this work.”
In 2020, they were contacted by a couple who were setting up a similar type of gîte in the Dordogne, asking them to share Le Mas and Le Mazet’s recipe for success. This led to Rupert and Franck launching Gîte Guru, advising people who are either starting up gîtes or need help fine-tuning them. Having made a success of their gîte business, the challenge is to make a success of other peoples’ holiday lets.
“With our own gîtes, we were incredibly conscious, right from the day we opened, about giving our guests maximum privacy during their stay, even though we live on the property too. Probably the most rewarding thing about what we do, has been meeting all the fantastic people we’ve welcomed as guests. And with over half of our bookings being returning guests, a natural friendship often grows out of our mutual love for France, for the Dordogne and Le Mas.”
To find out more about setting up your own gîte or to book, visit lemasdordogne.com and giteguru.com
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