23 April 2011

How we got here

I've written about this before, but not in a long time. Now is a good moment, because tomorrow will be the 8th anniversary of our purchase of this house near Saint-Aignan. The closing — les signatures, it's called — happened on April 24, 2003.

We weren't even here for the meeting between the seller and the buyers. We had it all done by giving our French notaire, the contracts lawyer, a power of attorney. The French consulate in San Francisco arranged all that for us. At the time, we were waiting for our long-stay visas so that we could come and live in France. That's another whole story, but it all worked out.

Our house is the one with the brown roof —
the "modern" one in this recent photo.

How did we get here? In October 2002, I quit my job. At age 54, I had enough of commuting on crowded California freeways — not to mention office politics. I told Walt I was at the end of my rope and I needed a big change. What would I do? I didn't know. But I quit work, and I felt free again. Walt said he too was feeling restless, and also ready for a change. Later, he would call it "a new adventure."

My natural inclinations pulled me back toward France, where I had worked for 7 or 8 years in the 1970s and early 1980s, and where Walt and I had first met each other. We had been spending all our vacations in France for nearly 15 years, while living and working in California. We both spoke French.

So in 2002, there I was at home in San Francisco, with no work responsibilities and a high-speed internet connection. I started spending many hours a day looking at French real estate sites. What were the possibilities? I knew enough about Paris — the high cost of real estate, the high cost of living, the crowds, the noise, the temptation to spend, spend, spend — that I realized the idea of living there was a pipe dream. But we had been on vacation in 2000 and 2001 in the Loire Valley, at Vouvray, and had loved it.

Seeing the house for the first time in December 2002

That's where I started looking. Amboise seemed like the ideal location at that point. I sent e-mails to a couple of real estate agents there when I saw many interesting and affordable properties for sale on their web sites. One of them wrote back to me. He said he'd be glad to help us find the right house in the region.

Then I told Walt that we needed to go to France, to see if all the attractive houses I was seeing for sale on the internet really would turn out to be places we could envision buying. We decided to take a week-long trip in early December 2002 then. Walt was still working at the time. I got everything set up with the agent in Amboise, who also had an office in Montrichard (10 miles downriver from Saint-Aignan).

We reserved a gîte rural, a furnished vacation property, near Amboise for the week's stay. We bought our plane tickets. The agent set up an appointment for us at his Montrichard office on a Monday. We landed in Paris on a Saturday, picked up a rental car, and drove the three hours to the Loire Valley. On Sunday we went to the big open-air market in Amboise, bought some good food and wine, and settled in. The people who owned and operated the vacation rental were welcoming and accommodating, and it was a comfortable place.

It was the yard and the setting as much as
the house itself that we liked.

On Monday, we drove down to Montrichard (12 or 15 miles) for a late-morning meeting with the real estate agent. He talked to us for half an hour or so to figure out what we were looking for and what our budget was. Then he pulled out a binder in which he had descriptions and photos of some 400 houses for sale withing 20 miles of Montrichard. He started drawing up a list, and he showed us a couple of houses in Montrichard that very afternoon. Then he said that, considering our budget, we ought to look at some properties in the Saint-Aignan area. We'd get more for our money in Saint-Aignan than in Amboise.

We'd never even heard of Saint-Aignan. So on the Tuesday morning, we drove over here from Amboise to have a look around. It looked pretty good. It was the kind of town we had in mind — kind of like Amboise, but smaller and less touristy. We had lunch in a little hotel-restaurant near the bridge. It felt homey and it certainly wasn't expensive. Things were looking up.

Our next appointment with the real estate agent in Montrichard was set for 2:00 p.m. that day. We drove over there and then drove right back toward Saint-Aignan with the agent, in his car. The first house he showed us, in Thésée, seemed like a good possibility. The second one, in Seigy, did as well. But neither of those inspired love at first sight. The third house we saw that day, however, was the one we ended up buying. We saw one more house that day but, looking back, I realize that we had already made our decision.

The next day we saw two or three more houses — two in Montrichard, and three in Amboise itself. Our heart wasn't in it any more. In all, we inspected and considered 15 houses in just those three or four days. We asked the agent if we could come back to Saint-Aignan and spend a couple of hours looking at this house, the one we've lived in for nearly eight years now, in the afternoon. Could we take pictures? Of course, he said.

The real estate agent surveying the scene
from an upstairs window

While we were here getting a better feel for the place and convincing ourselves that buying it was a good idea, the agent told us he had asked his staff to draw up all the papers so that we could sign a contract that very day. My first reaction was shock. No, I protested, we didn't come here with the intention to buy a house so fast. We were just looking around.

If you don't sign the contract today, the realtor said, when will you sign it? You'll be back in California in a day or two. Sign them today. Then, when you get back to California, you can either send me a letter saying you've changed your mind, or you'll send some money as a down payment. You have nothing to lose, he said. It made sense.

So we ended up buying a house on the fourth day. It was not expensive by California standards, though it was smaller than our house in San Francisco. We didn't know when the closing would take place, or whether we would actually come live in France any time soon.

The house from the north side in December 2002

On Saturday morning we drove to Paris to spend 24 hours in the city before flying back to San Francisco. We talked about the house, the plan, and the possibilities that day during the 11-hour plane ride. At home in California, we decided to go ahead and send the money. As for what came next, we'd have to figure that out.

Would I look for another job? Would we actually move to France? Walt was still employed, and he hadn't yet made the decision to move on. But then we decided to put our house in San Francisco on the market. It sold very quickly, and there we were. Or here we are.


  1. Lovely post... a very interesting read. It's the kind of huge decision that when you look back on it you say, "I can't believe we did that"! You were very brave.

  2. I, too, love this kind of post. I managed to work a little longer than you. I gave up on my 1 1/2 to 2 hour commute morning and night for just 30 km. just before turning 57. I thought I was going to look for another job, but in the end, I'm quite happy having decided not to.
    The weather is too beautiful these days. I keep thinking we're going to end up paying for it -- higher food costs, a drought tax like in '76, ...

  3. Really enjoyed reading your story!

  4. Really enjoyed reading your story of how you got here. It took us too just about 4 days to go from seeing to signing the compromis de vente. You just know when it feels 'right'.

  5. Je l'ai toujours dit, tu écris de façon très agréable. Bien que je connaisse par cœur cette histoire et tout ce qui précède, j'ai toujours plaisir à te lire. Tu devrais réunir et remanier tous tes "posts" et en faire un livre.

    Sorry, folks, I didn't feel like saying all that in english. LOL

  6. I agree with CHM...except about the book. Your story seems to me to be best told in small chunks (life is lived that way) and the blog format is perfect. We readers, I think, enjoy our morning coffee with Ken & Walt; and we can't peek ahead to see the next chapter.

  7. I can't read this story too
    often. Have you written about
    what the first few days were
    like in the new house? How
    you found a contractor to
    put in the fence, etc. Can't
    I think your salesman was
    very good at his job...
    knew you would be hooked
    once you signed.

  8. A lovely story, beautifully told....

    In an instant -or so it feels - you changed your lives completely! Of course it wasn't really so fast, and it wasn't without lots of thinking and planning and, but I know how that moment feels. that "alea jacta est" moment. You must have been a bit shocked at yourselves!

    I'm pretty sure you have no regrets and would do it again in a heartbeat. And what a good life you have now.

  9. "...And go to work each day
    And when the evening rolls around
    I'll go on home and lay my body down
    And when the morning light comes streaming in
    I'll get up and do it again

    I know thats the "why" of the story.. but its still my favorite part. I had the same song in my head when I left my Big Life for here.

    A well told tale, Ken. Thanks as always.

  10. Bonjour Cousin

    C'est ce que je lui ai dit une fois au sujet d'un livre.
    Ken writes beautifully and , even though we have read posts about the big decision, it is still like we are reading it for the first time, with all the anticipation of what's coming in the next sentence or paragraph.

    An idea to ponder for those long wintery days Ken.

  11. Good that you sold when you did. Per the Case Shiller Index, home prices in San Francisco are back to their April 2000 level. Down some 39% from the 2006 peak.

    And as they say, "Don't ket the good things in life rob you of the best things in life." I think you've found the latter in St. Aignan.

  12. Loved reading your story - I too got tired of the hassle in the Bay Area (San Jose) and left in 2003. I didn't get as far as France but landed in a small town in Nevada in a valley at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains. So peaceful! I'm going to France in September - a life long dream of mine - enjoy following your blog and visualizing all I have to look foward to.

  13. A great story. Can you imagine the outcome if you had waited until now to do that?

  14. Good for you! That is such a wonderful story, both cheery and inspiring.

  15. Bonjour, CHM. Monsieur est trop bon.

    Everybody, we all have our stories to tell, I'm sure. I will write more about our first weeks in Saint-Aignan, soon.

    Starman, we probably would not have made the same move a couple of years later. I would have gone back to work. Walt and I would not both have been ready at the same point in time.

  16. The only thing better than your stories, Ken are your stories plus reader's comments! It's my morning coffee klatch. You all are so articulate.

  17. What a great post Ken,it's lovely of you to share it with us.

  18. Great story! I hope to hear the continuation! Thank you for your blog. I am still actively in the rat race, but your blog and Walt's blog give me a sense of peace and calm, inspires me to seek a slower and more meaningful existence. Thank you. Tatiana.


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