How to Buy a Property in France: Holidays in a French village; Finding a Longère; Renovating; Socialising
My love affair with France started when I shared summer holidays with my cousins from the age of 10. I learnt some French with interest and delight during those holidays, then learnt more when I moved up to secondary school. I was motivated, had excellent teachers and succeeded in my studies. It seems such a long time ago now.
For all sorts of reasons I didn't return to France until 25 years later. Renewing my links with this lovely country (and trying to remember the language!) I and my partner visited many times, enjoying the company of numerous friends and acquaintances made over the years. The countryside and the lifestyle are so appealing, the wines and cheeses are delicious and the people welcoming and friendly.
So we decided to look for a holiday home, at first somewhere close to the Mediterranean or on the Atlantic coast in the Vendée region. Then, through long-established friends, we found a property in the region of 'Le Cher', about as far from the sea as one could be! It was in a village we knew and we were aware of the house's family history. It had been empty over four years and needed some TLC.
The French house-buying process is slightly different from ours. The 'notaire', a position combining solicitor and estate agent, deals with the process. It is the seller who pays the fees, which are set by law. Both buyer and seller have 7 days after signing the initial agreement in which to change their minds; the contract is then binding and involves penalties should either pull out. It is important to understand the technical vocabulary of the transaction and make sure all legalities are understood.
With a little negotiation we bought our house in Le Cher for a song and took possession one very wet, cold October day - we toasted the transaction with our seller, over champagne in a camper van!
What's it like?
The house is of a type known as 'longère' (pronounced 'lonjair'). A longère is an old stone-built single storey house, with a loft above its total length, usually built with the back wall against the cold winds and with a south-facing frontage. They are usually at a right angle to the road or lane so that any garden is often of a good size. To the front, our 200 year-old property has a large garden with a magnificent lime tree at its centre; we have the added bonus of a chicken run and then a huge area of grass and fruit trees above the end of the house.
A garage is attached to the main body of the house, a covered barn space is next to the garage, then a building which looks like a small house, two storeys, currently used as a workshop and ideal for turning into a separate annexe for visitors. There are two internal sheds, one being part of the barn and the other part of the workshop.
The loft, or 'grenier' above the house is divided in two, separated by a thick stone wall. There is also a space above the garage. Altogether, the greniers would make 4 large double bedrooms. They are boarded, battened and tiled, are extremely dusty and inhabitated by bats, protected in France as they are in the UK. The bats appear at dusk and perform their fast aerial acrobatics, visible for a few minutes before the darkness envelops them.
Alterations and Repairs
Being over 200 years old, the stone walls are (in ‘old money’) about 2 feet thick and therefore not easy to renovate or alter. We’ve left the main rooms as they were but have done work on the garage area and the roof. I say ‘we’ loosely; I act as builder’s mate from time to time but it’s my partner who does all the hard graft. He’s the one with the practical knowledge, the engineering and the expertise to be builder, carpenter, plumber, electrician, roofer, hole-digger, concrete-maker, demolisher, sewage sifter....! You name it, he’ll do it, clever old soul (if occasionally a smelly one!).
So now, due to leisurely projects (well, it is our holiday time!) over the last 5 or so years, instead of having to climb up a ladder through a hole we have stairs into the loft above the garage, instead of a wavy roof which looked decidedly precarious we have a straight re-battened one still with the original tiles and instead of wonky waste pipes and smelly sewerage in the house, we have sensible pipes underground outside. Doors have been moved to provide better space, a shower has been up-dated and an en-suite installed so that we don’t have to tramp through our guests’ bedroom (alias the sitting room!) during the night, and the barn walls and beams have been renovated so that they no longer threaten to collapse on our heads nor spew rainwater from the gutters over next door’s garden.
Relaxing and Socialising
Now for the best bit. This is an outdoor place. The house is for sleeping in and maybe entertaining in, if it’s raining too much or blowing a gale (it happens!). The sunshine has you smiling, warms your bones, helps you relax, makes you realise what it’s all about and the warmth keeps you outside well into the night.
We have set up two gazebos under the huge canopy of our majestic lime tree. The tree protects us from most things but the gazebos mean that we can stay out there if it rains a little, that the insects from the tree don’t fall into our soup and that we can eat, drink and be merry with our friends and neighbours - 10 of us easily if we wish, more if no-one minds being a little cosy.
So we have breakfast and do a little work, have aperitifs and a little lunch with wine, have a siesta, do a little more work or go for a walk, have more aperitifs before dinner with more wine; or we may have guests or be invited elsewhere for dinner so the evening becomes a much longer - and often more alcoholic! - affair.
It has been said that the English eat to live but the French live to eat. No points for guessing who's got the right attitude! We sit and talk and eat and drink and talk some more and eat and drink....... and the night goes on until someone realises that it's 2 am and maybe time for sleep. You may have heard the expression 'sabré le champagne' (sabre the champagne); we've seen that done. The champagne bottle is 'opened' by slicing the top off the bottle from below the edge of glass at the base of the cork; it was originally done with a ceremonial sword or sabre, hence the expression. No glass falls into the bottle as the action is swift and the pressure from inside ensures that any bits go up and away!
Our neighbour delights in teaching us little gems about wines - the goods, the bads and how to serve them - each time we're there. We try to learn but don't pretend to remember it all. It is, after all, in their upbringing, in their culture, in their psyche. A close second come the French cheeses, of which there are over 700; we're still making our way through the tasting process! Most are delicious but I confess I don't much like Blue cheese. Each to his own; give me a good Camembert any day, preferably quite strong and runny!
We have been accepted as part of the village, even if regarded as the eccentric English. They invite us to celebrations such as the firework display to herald 14th July (Bastille Day), the repast the following day when the mayor and his committee serve us the tax-payers, and our local area of the village holds an annual summer picnic on the green by the 'lavoir' (a running pool fed by an underground stream and covered by a charming tiled and beamed structure where the women would go to wash the linen, bash it clean and dry on the stones and exchange gossip). Even now, everyone knows what everyone else in the village is doing. They all know we've arrived before we even get in the gate!
They are lovely people, in a delightful part of France which is quiet and laid-back. We open our gate, step into our other lifestyle, adopt a slower pace and enjoy!
'C'est la vie!'
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© 2012 Ann Carr