06 October 2008

Buying a house in France, part I

We met some new people yesterday. They are an American couple who currently live in Scotland. They are thinking about re-locating to France for their retirement, and they are in the Saint-Aignan area looking at houses with real estate agents.

It will be interesting to see them later this week, after they have had a chance to inspect a few properties that are for sale. I haven't yet gotten a clear idea of what kind of house they are interested in. We spent only an hour together yesterday, having a glass of wine in a café on Saint-Aignan's main street.

Thinking about meeting these new house-seekers, who actually lived in the Paris area for a couple of years about 6 years ago, and giving them advice about looking for a house in the French countryside, made us think again about what we did in 2002-2003 and what we might have done differently. It also made us think about other American and English people we know who have settled in the Saint-Aignan area and what they might have done wrong or right in buying a house.

The church and château at Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher

Most of all, people's motivations, expectations, requirements, and plans or dreams are so different in each case. Some people fall in love with a house. Or a house and its setting. Practical issues — how close it is to a town for shopping and doing other day-to-day business, for example — are a secondary consideration.

Often the house is a charming French farmhouse. Sometimes it is nearly a ruin and will need years of work and thousands of euros in repairs and improvements. The British are said to be the people who most often buy such places. French people, in general, want a new house. I guess if you've grown up in a drafty old stone farmhouse, you are ready for something different, requiring fewer renovations and upgrades. But for foreigners coming to live in France, a dream is a dream.

One important issue to considere here in the country is availability of services. If your house is far from a town of any size, does the local municipal government provide things like garbage pickup? Sewer mains? Town water? Is the house in an area that has piped-in gas? How important is having a gas stove for cooking? Do you want to deal with bottled gas?

Is there a septic tank? More importantly, is the septic tank in good working order or does it need an upgrade to meet modern requirements now being widely enforced in France? Or instead of a real septic system, does the house have just a sealed holding tank that needs to be pumped out every two or three months?

What is the heating system like? Does it burn fuel oil? That's expensive now. Natural gas? In France, the price of natural gas is pegged to the price of oil, so it is expensive too.Wood-burning stoves or fireplaces? Finding firewood can be a chore, and chopping the logs to fit a stove is a lot of work. Demand for wood is high now. Delivery costs extra. And finding a chimney sweep is not easy either. Insurers require that the chimney(s) be swept annually. Is the heat electric? That's not a bad option these days, with France's nuclear power plants and relatively low prices. It can be an electric boiler that heats water for steam radiators, or it can be wall-mounted or roll-about radiators.

Also, is the house close enough to a telephone switching station so that you can have DSL (called ADSL here) service? Is there decent radio reception? Here in the Cher Valley, radio reception is spotty. Is there a television antenna? Or cable (not likely out the country). Satellite-provided TV, radio, and even DSL might be an option pretty much anywhere, but can be pricey. At least for me, the short, gray, cold days of winter feel a lot less lonely if you have a good Internet connection.

And you need to realize that you can't receive American TV broadcasts, with very few exceptions (CNN-Europe, CNBC), even by satellite. On our satellite system, we get American and British movies with an English soundtrack, but on French broadcast TV everything is dubbed into French. There are no English subtitles. The only way to get English-language radio is to listen over the Internet, so you really need DSL. Be prepared to understand and speak French, in other words.

By the way, there aren't any big video or DVD rental shops around Saint-Aignan, though there are some small ones in towns that are 10 miles away or so. That's a long way to drive to turn in a rented movie. So we don't rent movies. I'm sure the situation is the same in many French towns. And there's no French equivalent of Netflix, as far as I know. Many small towns, including Saint-Aignan and Montrichard, have a movie theater, but most of the films shown are French or dubbed into French.


  1. on netflix....u can rent the movies to watch over ur computer....would that be a possibility for y'all???

  2. Ken, I think there are Netflix-like systems here. I looked into one a number of years back -- I can't remember its name -- but some of my friends here were using it. I thought it was a little pricey at the time, but I would be surprised if there isn't more offer now. But maybe I'm wrong.

    I do agree with you on the downsides to living in very old houses. My (French) husband and I looked for "old stones" for years, but ended up always renting and/or buying fairly recent houses.

  3. My earlier post disappeared en route to your inbox, so I may be repeating myself. This is a fascinating topic for me, though a fantasy. Your practical points are well taken, and I wonder if they all are from foresight, or some are from hindsight?

    We recently spent some time in a part of France that looks like a rural paradise but learned a bit about the downside of living there.

  4. Thanks, Ken. All of us with pie in the sky ideas need a dose of reality now and then. You have probably saved at least a few people from a lot of heartache.


    p.s. Bye for about a week, off to see my Mom.

  5. Hi Carolyn, a lot of my points are pure hindsight. They come from our own experience and then watching how other Americans and Brits cope with the realities of living here.

    I guess my main point is that this is a radically different way of life in so many ways, especially for people used to city life in America, at least, or even life in most medium-sized American towns, where services and shopping are taken for granted.

    The other point is that unless you already have a head start on the French language, it can be quite challenge here. Maybe in Paris it is possible to function in English without a lot of trouble, but here not understanding and speaking French is a huge barrier. And it takes years — decades — to get to the point where you feel comfortable in the language.

  6. Nice new banner, btw. I have immediately forgotten what the old one looked like :-)

  7. Thanks for sharing those info about home buying in france. It really gives insight to the readers.
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