Com­mu­nity spirit

Why a cot­tage in Nor­mandy was more than just bricks and mor­tar

French Property News - - Contents -

In June last year I un­locked my French prop­erty for the first time, pushed the front door through a mass of cob­webs and slumped down in a worn out chair that was cov­ered in mouse drop­pings. Look­ing around a liv­ing room that had been unloved for years, I asked my­self at what point, along with thou­sands of oth­ers who do the same thing each year, did I think buy­ing a gîte in ru­ral France was a good idea.

It was dark and silent when I ar­rived in the vil­lage with a cou­ple of friends from Paris who de­cided to travel with me. We mud­dled our way through fog to our new neigh­bours’ home to col­lect the spare set of keys. They wel­comed us with cups of cof­fee and an un­ex­pected brief­ing. I quickly learned that I was buy­ing more than just a house; I was buy­ing a place in the lo­cal com­mu­nity too. Not only had the hus­band re­fur­bished the house him­self, his wife had lov­ingly cleaned and looked af­ter it for many years pre­vi­ously, so she ex­plained her own house rules and her de­sire to see the place re­turned to its for­mer glory. I soon found out that there were very strict or­ders for where to store ev­ery­thing from bed­ding and tow­els to kitchen knives.

Next, out came the ad­dress book. I sud­denly had the name of some­one to cut the grass, an­other per­son to re­pair the sit-on lawn­mower, an­other to sweep the chim­ney and sep­a­rate sup­pli­ers to re­fill the oil sup­ply and empty the sep­tic tank. We were step­ping into an intricate do­mes­tic ecosys­tem and within sec­onds I re­alised that, if I were to buy the house I would not be en­ter­ing a sim­ple fi­nan­cial trans­ac­tion rather a more com­pli­cated task of be­ing ac­cepted by a closely-knit com­mu­nity with es­tab­lished roots. Up­set one of the play­ers and I could find my­self quickly out of favour!

Break­fast over, we vis­ited the house and con­cluded there was much to do. Ca­bles to fix, damp patches to ad­dress and a scat­ter­ing of mouse drop­pings to clear up for starters. Not to men­tion some sus­pi­cious cracks and rot­ten beams which I will save for an­other day. I would need to look be­yond our new lo­cal net­work for some of the heav­ier work that needed do­ing.

The house was up for a pri­vate sale so the no­taire was of course the first port of call. Af­ter wad­ing through the nec­es­sary pa­per­work in­volved with buy­ing a house in France, I reeled off a list of ques­tions. How ex­pen­sive would the taxes and util­ity bills be? Would the house hold its value and in fact what is its value to­day? Per­haps most press­ingly, what can go wrong with an 18th cen­tury build­ing that has been sit­ting empty for so long?

The bank had kindly agreed to lend me the money but had ab­so­lutely no in­ter­est in car­ry­ing out a sur­vey. “Who could help me find out if the house is likely to fall down?” I asked in my best French.

Sow­ing seeds The no­taire gave me the name of a lo­cal ar­chi­tect and in­te­rior de­signer in the town. Be­fore I knew it, we were back at the house siz­ing it up with a builder. I was shar­ing my dreams of an ex­tended liv­ing area and kitchen to the side, a new bath­room and a ter­race, with­out for­get­ting to men­tion the dreaded crack on the front of the house, gut­ters hang­ing off and damp patches by the front door.

A week later, we were re­lieved to learn that the house was un­likely to fall down and we pro­ceeded to pri­ori­tise the most im­por­tant tasks that needed do­ing, work­ing through the list in steps as money be­came avail­able.

Be­fore even get­ting my hands on the keys to our coun­try home, we had al­ready sown the seeds to in­te­grate our­selves in the com­mu­nity and made some con­nec­tions that were worth their weight in gold. The com­fort­able de­ci­sion would have been to ask our friends and rel­a­tives for their con­tacts in the UK or in Paris to help with the works, but I felt a sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity to in­te­grate as best as I could into the vil­lage and make a pos­i­tive con­tri­bu­tion to the lo­cal econ­omy. Each and ev­ery per­son that I met be­fore buy­ing the house – the neigh­bours, no­taire, my builder friend and many oth­ers – have been so im­por­tant in mak­ing sure that the ex­pe­ri­ence has run as smoothly as pos­si­ble.

Back to sit­ting in the mouse-in­fested chair on that very first day of own­ing my French home, the amount of work re­quired around me seemed rather daunt­ing, but not im­pos­si­ble, know­ing that I had al­ready started to build a strong net­work of lo­cal al­lies. I have no idea how I would have felt had I not had these peo­ple on my side. I have con­cluded, since shar­ing my ex­pe­ri­ence with other French home­own­ers, that in its most sim­ple terms, find­ing a home in a ru­ral French set­ting is a good les­son for life. Even if you are only present for a few weeks each year, make ev­ery pos­si­ble ef­fort to live as a lo­cal and con­trib­ute to the lo­cal econ­omy and com­mu­nity, and you will cre­ate many happy mem­o­ries.

Next month: Find out how David gets on in his quest to per­fect his Nor­mandy bolt­hole

We were re­lieved to learn that the house was un­likely to fall down

PART ONE

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