View from the Foothills of France

Some personal views on living, working,
bringing up family and making the dream happen in the most beautiful region of France. View from the Foothills of France also includes some personal and professional thoughts and tips on finding and buying the perfect property in the Ariège and Haute Garonne regions.

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Finding the perfect house in France

All of us set out to find our dream house when we start our property search in France; the perfect French home, ‘the one’. We probably have a picture in our head of what this will look like and what features it will have; the gorgeous view, the blue shutters, the wooden floors, stone fireplaces, lots of original architecture, the French doors to the perfect terrace or garden.

The problem is that the perfect house doesn’t really exist except in our heads; every house has its compromises. So what should you compromise on and what should you absolutely not?

  1. The view. This is my number one client search request; nearly everyone wants a view whether it is of rolling hills, beautiful gardens, bucolic fields of flowers, a pretty market square or snow-capped mountains. And this is something that a house either has or not (unless it’s possible to cut down some trees to revel a hither-unseen view). This is, therefore, one area where I suggest you should not compromise if it is important to you.
  2. Walking distance to a café or boulangerie. Another favourite on the list of ‘must-haves’ but more difficult to find than you would probably imagine. I will find it if I can but it might involve many more compromises on other factors on your wish-list.
  3. A large garden/lots of land. This is a favourite criterion for British buyers (less so for Australians, South Africans and Americans who perhaps are more realistic about the work involved!) I understand the attraction of this and, if it is a permanent home, go for it. If it is a holiday home and everything else about the house ticks your boxes but the garden is smaller than you would have ideally liked, it is worth compromising.
  4. A swimming pool. Again, often top of the ‘wish-list’ but keep in mind that it is better to buy a house that fulfils most of your search brief but doesn’t have a pool than to buy a house with a pool that is not quite the right house. You can always put in a swimming pool but you cannot easily change the fundamentals of the house.
  5. A large kitchen/dining room/open plan living space. This is an ever more popular request thanks to the way we live nowadays. However, most clients are looking for a traditional, old French house and these were not designed to be open plan. Smaller, individual rooms and often a very small galley kitchen are the norm. I would, however, tell a client not dismiss a house because it does not tick this box – usually you can open up rooms or take down walls to create exactly the space that suits you.
  6. No renovation work. Horror stories abound about the trials and tribulations of undertaking a renovation in France but often this is thanks to the power of television; plenty of people renovate very happily and successfully in France. It is not a cheap process but, if you go into it with your eyes open, it is one of the best ways of creating your dream home so don’t rule out this option if the location, position, style, setting, size and price of the house are all right.
  7. Easy access and within an hour of a major airport (and preferably more than one airport). This is another condition that starts at the top of the ‘wish-list’ but often gets dropped in favour of other ‘must haves’. I would, however, suggest that this is one area in which you should not compromise if you are going to be commuting or travelling regularly to your home in France – an hour is do-able but anything more becomes a serious effort and you cannot change this longer term.

I could go on but, in summary, when deciding where and how to compromise to achieve your ‘perfect house’: If something can be changed such as décor, room layouts, finishes, heating or electric systems, then it is worth compromising. If it is an element which absolutely cannot be changed such as the view, the location, the proximity to services or accessibility, think long and hard about your priorities before compromising. You can’t pick up your perfect house and move it somewhere else but you can find the perfect location and gradually change a ‘compromise’ house into your perfect dream house.

Is the price right?

For anyone buying a property abroad, it is much more difficult to work out if the price you are paying is the right price. In France, it is particularly complicated to get an accurate picture.

Firstly, you are likely to see a property advertised at different prices by numerous different agencies (each will have a different commission that they add to the asking price.) Secondly, particularly in rural France, it is difficult to compare the price to similar properties sold locally as most properties are very different from each other and they also do not change hands very often. Thirdly, there is no set formula for valuing property in France; some agents value purely on the square meterage of the house or the number of bedrooms, others on the average price for property in the region (taking no account of age, character, condition, position etc.) Finally, many agents will put a house on the market at whatever price the seller asks in order to get the contract – hence prices sometimes bear no relation to actual value. This happens a lot when the seller has spent a lot on renovating a property and decides that it is worth what they paid for it plus what they spent on renovations – which may work in the UK, Australia, South Africa, the States but it does not work in France.

So how do you know that the price is right when viewing a property in France? Well firstly, make sure you look at lots of houses advertised on line in the same area and get a feel for prices and what you can get for your budget. Research is the key initially to making sure you are paying the right price. Find out as much as you can about the house; why the owners are selling, how long it has been on the market, how much interest there has been in it, how many viewings, what other potential buyers have thought about it, whether there are lots of properties available in the same area and whether there is some missing information as to why a house stands out to you against the others you have seen for the same price (for example an agent is not going to point out that a house is on a busy road or next to a factory but if the house looks too good for the price in the advertisement, then there is a probably a reason.)

Secondly view a house very thoroughly and preferably go back and view it a second time. Often a second viewing shows up details that you didn’t notice the first time, especially if you loved it as soon as you walked through the door on the first viewing. If a second viewing is not possible, make sure you take lots of photos and go through these again carefully the next day to make sure you haven’t missed something obvious.

Thirdly, if you view a house that ticks most of your search criteria boxes, this property is most likely worth your budget, especially if a large part of your motivation in buying in France is a lifestyle choice. You will know if a house is going to offer the quality of life you are looking for and this is hard to put a price on.

Fourthly, how much work does it need to make it into the home you are looking for? Get an idea of how much you think you will need to spend on it and add it to the asking price and then decide if it matches your budget and the region’s prices.

Finally, it is a cliché but a true one that the location is the most important element in assessing the price. If the house is in a good location, one that is always in demand, if it has good views and good access, near mountains or coast and near a good size and nice town or city, then it will generally be worth what you pay for it because there will always be someone else who wants this same location.

Above all, if you love the house the minute you walk in – in other words if it has that something special, that wow factor (whatever that happens to be) and this wow factor is within your budget, then it is most likely worth the price.

The right price is the one that both seller and buyer feel happy with – in which case it will usually be an easy sale with extras thrown in by the seller and champagne drunk together on the day of completion.


The Emblem of Toulouse (and love)

The violet is the emblem of Toulouse and much loved in the region; it is a strain of the Parma violet and is especially sweet-smelling. Everywhere you go in South West France at this time of year you will not only see violets growing wild in woodland, meadows and gardens but also products made from the extracts of violet; syrups, liqueurs, candles, honey and the crystal violet sweets which are particularly popular. There are also numerous perfumes and soaps.

Its origin in the region is not well known although it is thought to have been introduced by Napoléon III in the middle of the 19th century and it was in the north of Toulouse that the local farmers began to cultivate and export the violet to cash in on its incredible popularity. People prized Toulouse violets highly and the city exported more than 600,000 bouquets every year during the 19th century. Violets are, however, very sensitive to disease and extremes of temperature plus cultivating them is very labour-intensive (they require propagation by hand) so they almost died out in the 1950s.

Then,1985, the violet gained official protected status in France and La Violette de Toulouse became a registered trademark. Its popularity has gradually increased ever since thanks to the efforts of the association Terre de Violettes; a group of manufacturers producing perfumes or liqueurs from violets in Toulouse and exporting worldwide.

The flower of a violet is made up of between thirty and forty petals with a white heart and is particularly perfumed. It is supposed to represent peace, sweetness, modesty and shyness. Offering someone a violet is a way to declare your love in a discreet way because the colour violet symbolizes deep feelings. In addition, la Violette de Toulouse is known for its medicinal properties; it can aid breathing and soothe headaches thanks to the aspirin that it contains.

On the first weekend in February, Toulouse holds the Fête de la Violette, a large fair and market that sees the main square of Toulouse, the Capitole, covered with a carpet of purple flowers. It is also possible to visit the greenhouses of the National Violet Conservatory which was founded in the city’s municipal greenhouses in 1994 and houses a collection of 80 different strains of violet from around the world:

Is a ‘buy-to-let’ property a good investment in France?


Buy-to-let property is no longer the gold mine it once was in many countries; increasing costs, decreasing profitability, difficulty in getting finance and removal of mortgage relief in the UK mean that investors looking for better returns and a safe investment are eyeing up alternative markets. The same is true for South African buyers looking to invest in a stable property market with lower interest rates and for Australians looking to capitalize on the strong Australian dollar. France with affordable property, very low mortgage rates, a strong rental market with excellent rental returns and a stable political environment is proving the most popular alternative and the buy-to-let market is beginning to take off here.

Historically France has always been considered a stable place to invest but, traditionally, foreign buyers have been more attracted to France’s countryside, letting out their property as a gîte in peak holiday seasons. Having a holiday let in France can be an easy and reliable way to make money if the property is in a good location and well marketed. However, as more and more French country gîtes come onto the market, getting bookings has become increasingly competitive. Holiday lets are also labour-intensive and the investor must find someone to clean and maintain the property.

Hence property buyers wanting to generate the maximum income with the least effort are looking to more traditional, longer term buy-to-let markets, more often in French towns and cities. Longer term lets can ensure a regular stable income, have fewer advertising costs, no changeover fees, lower agency costs and are likely to have less wear and tear.

The regular long term rental market is one that frightens many international owners, either because they do not speak French, or because of the laws on security of tenure which are heavily biased in favour of the tenant in France, especially if the property is unfurnished. In this case, the minimum rental contract is for three years with the tenant having first right of refusal to stay for a further three years. At that point, they can only be given notice if the landlord plans to live in the property himself or sell it.

Furnished properties are more flexible as they have a minimum term of one year contract and, if you let to students, it can be shorter; hence this is one of the most buoyant areas of the market right now as there is a great shortage of student accommodation in France. Toulouse, for example, is one of France’s fastest growing cities with a large student population and not enough rental accommodation. Here, a standard one bed apartment in the city will rent out for an average of €596 per month while average apartment prices are €2,624 per square metre. Just remember that, even though you may not be resident in France you are liable to French income tax on your rental earnings and unfurnished lettings also face social charges.

Nevertheless, a buy-to-let property is a one of the most fiscally attractive income streams in France, as the tax breaks are generous and small landlords are not liable to self-employed social security contributions. In terms of capital gain, in the long term, French property also looks like a very sure bet; prices increase slowly and surely here and, as long as you buy in a good location, you are likely to see a long-term capital gain.

As ever, it is always important to take professional advice before buying property in France. For any questions, please email me on