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Our French dream nearly collapsed

The best laid plans can fall into ruin. Four families tell their story of reinventing their French dreams

Gillian Harvey speaks to four couples whose great expectations of life in France did not measure up at first, but just look at them now...

PICTURE life in rural France and most of us envision a tumble-down stone house, a romantically (but not insurmountably) overgrown garden, wandering down quaint streets to the local boulangerie and – more than anything – peace and quiet.

With property prices in the UK still the third highest in Europe, it is easy to see why the rural idyll of a converted barn set in its own acreage would appeal to cash-strapped Brits. However, is there a danger of biting off more than we can chew in the desire to ‘live the dream’ and escape the rat-race?

It’s easy to see why so many of us are drawn to the sprawling properties, set in romantic locations. Stone properties in large grounds tantalize us from internet pages; prices contrast wildly with those in the UK. As many of the couples advise – it’s important to be realistic and not take on too much, be it land, location or the scope of works required. However, it seems clear from these experiences that, whatever you may encounter with your property purchase, as long as you apply a little flexibility and optimism, you can turn a property nightmare into a dream home.

Case Study 1: Lisa and Tony Jones

Lisa and Tony Jones live in Voulons, Haute-Vienne, and run The Ancient Presbytere Chambre D’Hôtes. For the couple, France offered the opportunity to create their own ‘River Cottage,’ in which they could be completely self-sufficient, as well as provide guests with winter hunting holidays. However, things have been far from plain sailing since they bought their tumble-down house, together with a hectare of land, in 2006.

“We knew the house would need complete renovation,” says Lisa (39), “but we had no idea that we wouldn’t be able to insure it.” Not only was the house uninsurable, disaster struck three months after their purchase when the rear wall of the property collapsed, causing the roof to cave in.

“We were worried our neighbours’ property would be damaged too,” explains Tony (40), “so we desperately searched for builders to start work. Unfortunately, because of the time pressure, we chose badly and we are still putting right some of the shoddy workmanship.”

When the renovations eventually started in earnest, the project was three months behind schedule and thousands over budget. However, despite the many problems experienced with their self-confessed “money-pit”, Mr and Mrs Jones, together with sons Soren (3) and Austin (10 months) now run a successful chambre d’hôtes, as well as courses in butchery, falconry and self-sufficiency.

So what advice would Lisa and Tony offer to those contemplating the purchase of an isolated French retreat?

“Be prepared to adapt,” advises Tony, “living in France is a life-long project. Our original plan to run hunting holidays was a complete non-starter, so we had to rethink things.”

“We love our life now,” adds Lisa. “Although life can be both physically and financially hard, we are so happy that we’re still here.”

Case Study 2: Carlin and James Brunt

Carlin and James Brunt moved to Bussière-Dunoise, Creuse, in 2011.Carlin (33) and artist husband James (35), who produces unique “paper-cut” art, looked forward to the opportunity of living a “simpler and better lifestyle”. Providing for their expanding family was one of their main priorities.

“We moved over here with Indigo (now 3) and Oscar (now 2), and we knew we wanted another, so the idea of having a detached, four-bedroom house with a playroom appealed,” says Carlin.

To the horror of their friends and family, the couple bought their property without having viewed it. “We were worried someone else would buy it,” admits Carlin. “People were shocked.” The couple knew that the semi-detached house would need work, but even they were taken-aback when they arrived. “The house was in a dreadful state. We had to sleep in the lounge in front of the log fire for the first couple of weeks,” says James.

Despite more than a year of renovations – a particular struggle for Carlin who gave birth to the couple’s third child just four months ago – the house is yet to be finished. “The downstairs bathroom has been pulled down, but not replaced,” says Carlin, “I’m desperate for a bath!”

However, despite leaking ceilings, the odd broken window and the unfinished bathroom, the family remains optimistic and, surprisingly, rather than advise against buying unseen, the couple say they would do it again. “Looking back on it all, it was a bit of a risk,” says Carlin, “but, if going through all this has meant a dream home for our family, then it’s all been worth it.”

Case Study 3: Cathy Wills and Julian Hutchings

Cathy Wills and Julian Hutchings moved to France in 2008 and now run Chez Yurt, situated near to the Gartempe Valley.Cathy (45) and Julian (46) had “a classic list of requirements” when looking for a property. “We wanted an older property with land in a rural setting that we could convert in an eco-friendly way,” says Cathy.

However, although their rural retreat offers idyllic living in the summer, the winters are a different story. “It’s definitely our least-favourite time,” admits Cathy. “When friends visit in the summer they say how wonderful it is, but I think, ‘come in February when it’s minus 20 and our pipes are frozen!’” Although the property – which lacks central heating – is admittedly “bleak” in the winter, Cathy and Julian, together with son Dylan (5), love their life in France.

The couple now let out a luxury Mongolian yurt and, in terms of business, the location has been a real plus point: “Everything that appealed to us, also appeals to our yurt customers,” smiles Cathy, “and, of course, they get the best of all worlds – lovely sunny weather, peace and quiet, and no harsh winters!”

As for advice for buyers, Cathy has a few choice pearls of wisdom. “Take your renovation budget and triple it,” she says, “and be prepared to adapt. Our plan for an eco-conversion was too expensive, but we’re happy with our property now. Also, be careful when taking on land – we have a field we no longer use, but we still have to maintain it to stop it becoming a jungle.”

It seems, for Cathy and Julian, the key to enjoying your rural retreat is to take the rough with the smooth: “Nowhere’s perfect – you just have to decide which compromises you’re happy to make.”

Case Study 4: Brenda and Chris Ford

Brenda and Chris Ford moved to Creuse in 2009 to experience a rural lifestyle. Brenda (38) and her husband Chris (41) had always wanted to live in a quiet, rural area. However, when they and their family Ben (14), Libby (7) and Essie (4) upped sticks for the continent in December 2009, there had to be some compromises. “We decided to make the move with Chris’s parents,” says Brenda, “and they didn’t like the idea of being too remote.”

The couple spent their first three years in France living next door to Chris’s mother and father. But, after a while, they felt that being neighbours was a little “too close for comfort”.

“No matter how well you get on, it can put a massive strain on your family life and relationship,” admits Brenda. Eventually the family decided to pursue their original dream, while creating a healthy bit of distance. “We moved to a little hamlet in Creuse,” says Brenda. “The children still see their grandparents all the time. And we love our new location – it’s so peaceful and great for family life.”

As for advice, Brenda says: “Buy with your head, not with your heart. There are so many properties for sale for a ‘bargain price’ with lots of land or lots of room, but most need lots of work or the land is unmanageable. Don’t be taken in by the fantasy – the reality is very different.”

Moving house within France gave Chris and Brenda the time and space to consider what they wanted in terms of land and the commitment to renovation, as well as location. For them, the hamlet they chose is “ideal”. Their beautiful four-bedroomed property has three small gardens – great for accommodating children and animals.

“Our children love France so much that they never want to move back to the UK,” adds Chris. “We feel very lucky.”

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