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Britons' French dream is alive

As sterling rides high on a wave of optimism, UK citizens are once again the biggest foreign buyers in the market

WHILE the "French dream" of a relaxed lifestyle in rural France still appeals to some Britons, there are new tastes emerging, including a search for more modern properties and city living, property experts say. Home sales to Britons are picking up this year as we emerge from the financial crisis.

Last year, Britons bought a third as many homes in France as they did in 2007, according to notaires' figures, and, while Britons remained the biggest foreign buyers, notaires say they bought just 17% of non-new-build homes sold to foreigners, compared to 40% in 2004.

Though 2010 figures are not yet available, there are encouraging signs that the British are on the way back. However, they are not always looking for the same as before.

Notaire Patrick Lotthé, from Bailleul, Nord, who specialises in work in the British market, said: "Though the pick-up is still a bit timid, things are better than they were last year, as the exchange rate is now far better for the British than it was."

Traditional areas such as the south-west, Normandy and Brittany, the south-east and the Alps (for skiing holiday homes) remain popular. Britons usually look for detached homes, though flats are common in ski resorts.

As before, many buyers are hoping to retire to France or are buying holiday homes and are attracted by the climate and lifestyle. "They are still often interested in homes in the countryside and seaside; however, we have noticed, for instance, British people buying flats in Lille because it is no longer that far from London and the south-east of the UK, and it's an interesting cultural city with plenty of events and exhibitions. The same goes for Paris. Thanks to the TGV and Eurostar, it's very easy to get to these areas. As prices are starting to go up again, these cities also make interesting investments."

An adviser from Paris-based international property consultants Eden Way, Nicolas Verastegui, said sourcing apartments in Paris was their top request from British buyers, who are about 40% of their customers and are their biggest client group after Italians.

This was followed in rough order by requests for properties in the Luberon, the Riviera, the south-west and on the north-west coast.

"The culture, Eurostar and the lower euro, these are all an incentive in Paris," he said.

Britons buying in Paris prefer apartments in typically Parisian old buildings in cut stone, he said, such as those from the period of Baron Haussmann. Areas such as the Marais or Saint-Germain-des-Près are much sought-after.

"There are two main things that interest them: a primary residence for those who will be working in the city, and a pied-à-terre to be occupied a few times during the year by the buyer and rented out temporarily the remaining of the time."

Estate agent Charles Gillooley of Immobilier Causses et Vézère in Montignac, Dordogne, said traditionally there have been certain French areas where Britons rushed to buy because of cheap prices, though this was now not the case.

The last hotspot was the Creuse, said Mr Gillooley, who is vice-president of the estate agents' federation FNAIM in Aquitaine.

"Everybody has less money and they are all trying to find something cheaper, but there are not that many new cheap areas. The Creuse was a disaster, though not for the locals, who managed to offload unwanted farmhouses and ruined barns and to fleece the British. It is a pleasant enough but nondescript rural area which was unheard of and therefore very cheap.

"People expected to buy properties for next to nothing, spend a fortune doing them up and then sell them for a fortune. But the reason the Creuse was unheard of was that no one else wanted to go there, and no one wanted to buy the expensive done-up properties.

"I am sure there still are some areas in rural France that are very cheap, but they will be so far off the radar no one knows where they are."

Mr Gillooley said that, on the whole, Britons still wanted the same kind of properties as before and were "back in the market now". However they are still hoping to pay less than before, especially as UK property prices have gone down and they have less to spend if they have sold up at home. Fortunately, French prices are mainly also lower than they were a few years ago, he said.

"Things are busier now than this time last year. It is looking up a little, but buyers are very realistic, and are pickier and choosier. There are still not enough buyers, so vendors must still make sure their properties are realistically priced to sell."

Mr Gillooley said that, in the popular areas of the Dordogne, the old trend of Britons buying to renovate no longer applied, because there were no old properties to renovate left. "Some fringe areas in the north have a few, but in the heart of the Dordogne Valley there has been nothing left for about 15 years," he said.

"Also, the cost of renovation has gone up and up, while the value of properties has gone down, so it is no longer good value to do it. Renovating is an escalating cost: when you start you never know how much it will endup costing, so it is much better to buy one that is already done up.

"Once upon a time, when people said they wanted to renovate, we were talking about roofs, windows, floors, electricity, extensions. Now it means putting in a new sink unit, a new kitchen maybe a new bathroom. To some extent, that is a good thing."

Mr Gillooley said holiday home sales were slower than in the past in the south-west because people had less money and it was a luxury, but those who wanted to make a permanent move were still doing so.

"Priorities include access to transport, such as low-cost airports and all the other things they wanted 30 years ago – old stone, independent but close to the shops etc. However, they have to put up with what they can get. "There are houses half an hour from an airport or in villages with shops, but most of our villages are an hour from an airport and haven't got shops. But it is still an area where many Britons buy."

International unit manager for mortgage brokers Cafpi, Kathleen MacKinnon, said those buying in France today were "quality buyers, people who know what they are doing rather than dreamers".

In the past, she said, there were a lot of inquiries and few people completing. Now a higher percentage complete compared to last year. They are still buying in such areas as the Riviera and south-west, she said.

A manager for RHF International, which specialises in Riviera properties, Jeroen Zaat, said that they had seen a revival, especially for
luxury properties.

"On the whole, especially in the higher budgets, there are quite a few sales being done. In the lower budgets, there is more hesitancy," he said. "People in times of uncertainty flock back to well-known areas. The more obscure areas are now less interesting.

"It's the well-known coastal towns, such as Antibes or Cannes, or some well-known villages such as Mougins and Valbonne that attract a lot of British buyers now."

In their business, about 70% of homes sold as holiday properties, he said, which was comparable to the past. However, he has noticed some change: "There has been a shift towards more modern properties. In the past, it was the old Provençal bastides with exposed beams. There are still some hardcore aficionados of that style, but now clients often either want ultra-modern design or new-build with a touch of the old.

"It should be light and airy with lots of space. Typical styles that sell are characterised by wooden floors and glass and chrome or stainless steel contrasts in combination with, for example, black slate or white stone."

He said clients wanted the perfect location: quiet, close to the sea and the airport, but it was not always easy to find all their requirements in one home and in budget.

A director of currency transfer specialists HiFX, Mark Bodega, said their data showed interest remained high in established areas such as Normandy and Brittany.

"For many people, ease of getting to their property is an important consideration, especially if they want to let it as a holiday home or expect to use it regularly at weekends, not to mention the impact this has on its future sale value.

"Mid-French regions such as the Poitou-Charentes and Limousin remain popular. Located in easy reach of airports served by low-cost airlines, they are ideal for visitors or for seeing family and friends back home."

HiFX says the value of sterling hit a 19-month high after the British general election and appears to have stabilised: a plus for Britons buying in France compared to last year.

None the less, Mr Bodega said sudden changes remain possible (eg. the amount you can get for your pounds changed 13.5% between March and June this year).

This is one reason why some clients negotiating to buy French homes fix a rate for a future completion date.

"You would never agree to buy a property in the UK if you did not know what it would cost you," he said.

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