Hallelujah! How French churches are converting house hunters who are prepared to see the light

Religious buildings in France are an increasingly common sight on the property market as the Catholic Church sells off properties that are no longer greatly used and are expensive to maintain.

22 February 2016
By Jane Hanks

About 20 come on to the market each year. They do not always sell quickly, so that annual number rapidly accummulates.

The Observatory for Religious Heritage in France estimates there are 100,000 édifices religieux in the country and said that between 5% and 10% will be sold, abandoned or destroyed by 2030.

But buildings classed as édifices religieux include churches, chapels, priories, abbeys and presbyteries give househunters with an eye for the unusual the chance to own a property bursting with exceptional features, as long as they are prepared to put in some work — and money.

Anthony and Janine Gladstone-Thompson bought a delapidated 18th-century presbytery attached to a church at Nèveges near Molières, Tarn-et-Garonne, in 2001 and set about restoring it as a home for part of the winter, spring and autumn and to rent out in the summer.

The last priest in the presbytery died in 1957 after living there for 50 years. The building was left to fall into disrepair for a generation before being taken over by the mairie and sold to the first of three private owners in 1980.

Effort

The property was still in a bad state when the Gladstone-Thompsons bought it for €220,000. The building did not have much land, so they bought some from a nearby farmer to make a garden which was expensive and time consuming.

The couple say it has been worth the effort and expense. Their summer guests obviously appreciate it as the property is fully booked for 2016 and 2017, with many guests coming back for a second or third time.

The church to which the presbytery is attached is still open for worship and Mr Gladstone-Thompson said it adds to the attractiveness of the property: “When you walk away from our house and get an overall view it makes a lovely complex. From our garden you can see the church steeple behind and it is a beautiful addition.

“We were also able to use the church for one of our daughters’ weddings which was special and we were surprised at how welcoming the Catholic Church was to the suggestion of an Anglican service.”

Though there are no longer any ecclesiastical features left in the presbytery, Mrs Gladstone-Thompson says there is a lovely atmosphere in the house and it is very peaceful.

Patrice Besse, head of the estate agent of the same name, sells properties deemed to have special character and has developed a section for religious buildings.

At time of writing, he has about 30 for sale, including a chapel in the Morbihan for €100,000, an Art Deco church in Picardy for €190,000, and an old Romanesque church and chapel on the Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle pilgrimage route on the border between Berry and Bourbonnais for €220,000.

Other properties are more costly – for instance a church magnificently restored by an architect in Nantes for €899,000, or a priory in the Quercy dating back to the 12th century, classed as a monument historique and complete with frescos, monastic living quarters and preserved architectural features on sale for €830,000.

For smaller properties the prices are not high – but there are potentially hefty renovation costs.

Mr Besse says he would prefer to find purchasers who do not just want to turn the buildings into a home: “I am interested in our country’s architectural heritage and I want to sell to people who will keep these buildings open to the public. They are ideal for cultural centres, art galleries, concert halls or workshops.

“Of course renovation costs can be high but if you are turning it into a gallery you will need less money than if you turn it into a home, which is more complicated. I recently sold one chapel to a couple from Texas and, as the husband is a very good pianist, they have turned it into a venue.”

The chapel Mr Besse is selling in the Morbihan was built at the beginning of the 20th century and the walled grounds include a vegetable garden. There are three main areas – the nave and altar, sacristy, and an adjoining extension.

In the property description Mr Besse urges buyers to use their imaginations.

He said: “The increase in sales of religious edifices is giving rise, among the individuals that buy them, to an abundance of inspired ideas.” His listing then suggests that potential owners ‘transform the chapel into a private home, professional premises, an exhibition hall, or even a place of recreation’.

Irish couple Frances and Phil Dalton bought a partially converted chapel in Coulaures, Dordogne, 15 years ago.

Mrs Dalton said: “When we bought it, I would say the price was no cheaper than other similar properties because it wasn’t just an empty chapel but had already had some internal work done on it.

“However, the building immediately appealed because it was unusual and quirky, bright and spacious, detached and in a village.”

They decided to throw out the partially completed renovation and changed it to transform the building into a two bedroom holiday home with a living/dining room featuring the church front door.

“It was a very special place, lovely and very comfortable,” Mrs Dalton said.

“I liked it because it was light and airy, unlike many French houses which are often dark and gloomy inside, and because of the thick stone walls it was a haven in the hot summers.”

The Daltons have put the chapel on the market as it is no longer large enough now they have made their move to France permanent.

Before it can be used for new purposes a religious building must be deconsecrated, a procedure carried out by the church. Religious properties will usually have been deconsecrated before they are put on the market, though if this has not happened it can be a lengthy process.

Grants

Some religious buildings may be classed as monument historiques and could therefore be eligible for government grants. There are two categ­ories: The higher, classés, roughly corresponds to Grade I in the English Heritage listing system. Fortunately for those interested in buying and converting a religious property, most of those that make it on to the market will not fall into this category. The lower category — the French equivalent of Grade II — is called inscrit. This covers properties where there is sufficient historic or artistic interest for all or part of a building’s preservation to be considered “desirable”.

The Ministry of Culture says the state will usually contribute between 10% and 20% of the renovation costs for buildings designated inscrit.

Work must be overseen by an architect from L’Architecte des Bâtiments de France who ensures, for example, that only authorised materials are used – to ensure stone matches as closely as possible – and the procedure is notoriously rigorous.

The good news is that there are both inheritance and income tax advantages to owning a monument historique — which both rose in 2015 – but these are most likely to apply to people who are already in a high-tax bracket.

If a religious building does not fall within the monument historique category all costs must be borne by the owner, and restoration and conversion must be carried out with planning permission from your mairie. However, you could still find a bargain purchase price.

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