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