The Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit have had an unexpected silver lining for many Britons who were stuck with homes in areas such as Normandy and Brittany that they could not sell without significant loss.
The dual effect of Britons seeking to buy to establish residency in France before Brexit and French residents wanting to escape crowded cities – especially Paris – to spend more time in medium-size towns has given the market a lift.
Estate agent Suzanne Jenkins-Pearce said: “In 2020, after the first lockdown and before the end of the Brexit transition period, there was a noticeable surge in British buyers, with many properties that had been languishing on the market, often for several years, suddenly selling.”
Ms Jenkins-Pearce, who runs Normandy-based agency Suzanne in France, said that after the financial crisis of 2008, property prices in the region fell by 30-40% in some areas from their peak in 2002-03.
That left many British and French property owners facing a major financial hit if they wanted to sell up and move on. In the last decade, a trend was also reported by notaires in the Channel and Atlantic areas that the French tradition of owning a holiday home in their own country was dropping. French people were increasingly choosing to holiday abroad in varied destinations, “resulting in an inevitable lowering in the number of sales” in coastal areas.
However, the property tide has now turned for a number of reasons, with Brexit and the pandemic the most significant.
New Notaires de France figures show major price rises over the last year in many Norman towns; 13.7% in Dieppe (Seine-Maritime), 15% in Pont-Audemer (Eure), 11.5% in Cabourg and 9.1% in Trouville-sur-Mer (both Calvados).
Last year saw a considerable rise in the number of Britons seeking to buy property in France before the December 31 cut-off, when UK nationals moving to the continent would no longer automatically qualify for residency.
The other factor, and one that is likely to affect the real estate market for Britons and French alike for many years to come, is the pandemic.
Joanna Leggett, marketing director of Leggett Immobilier French property specialists, said: “Since Covid, there has been a definite trend, from both domestic and international buyers, for rural property with more space, room for a home office and, most importantly, excellent internet access.”
This is often the type of property British sellers own, she said, noting that they had often sought excellent connectivity so they can access UK TV.
“Increased demand means that properties are more likely to sell quickly and at a higher price than pre-pandemic,” she said. She noted, however, that she had seen no trend of Britons rushing to sell up in France.
“In fact, we see more Brits moving within France than we do moving back to the UK. These buyers often have seen their families grow up in France and are looking to downsize.
“Typically, they may be moving out of old stone houses, that they have lovingly restored, and move to smaller properties that are more economical to run.”
Ms Jenkins-Pearce said her agency was now seeing British clients from Nouvelle-Aquitaine and further south looking to sell and swap for homes in the Normandy region.
“Often they downsize, which allows them to purchase a less expensive property and put the rest in the bank,” she said.
Another major boost to the sector is people from Paris or other big cities searching for a maison secondaire to escape to.
The trend started last summer, when Le Monde reported Bertrand Couturié, head of high-end real estate agency Barnes Belles Villes de France, saying: “The countryside was sometimes a little looked down on compared to holidays in faroff places, but everyone realises that lockdown was more bearable in the countryside compared to the city.”
'There is new enthusiasm for les villes moyennes'
There are also those who have decided they want to leave the city behind altogether and work from home in a smaller town.
There is new enthusiasm for les villes moyennes, towns with around 20,000 to 100,000 residents, where homes can be cheaper and quality of life higher.
An Ifop survey last autumn found that a quarter of working people in cities hoped to leave them, including 36% of under35s. It also found 84% of all those surveyed would rather live in a ville moyenne than a metropolis.
In December, sales trends reported the countryside “taking its revenge” on the cities, with previous price trends inverted.
Provincial houses in particular were going up in price, quarter by quarter, it said.
Fiona Robino, a notaire from Quimperlé on the Breton coast, told Connexion: “I can confirm this trend of city-dwellers seeking to move out since last year.
“Prices have been going up because more and more people are coming from cities, who work from home and are looking for an environment that is more ventilated and not so confined as in an apartment, so are often looking for a house in a medium-sized town.”
She added: “The market is becoming saturated.
“People are staying in the area, there is a lot of demand and not very many homes available.”