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Château, pavillon, villa: France’s property lexicon explained

Are you confused by the myriad of names for French dwellings?

Can you identify the pavillon, villa, maison de maître and etxe in this picture? Pic: Ewelina W / JeanLucIchard / Cinematographer / Robert Elissondo / Shutterstock

If you are on the lookout to buy or rent a French property, you might have become quickly overwhelmed by the industry’s lexicon.

That is because the French language has a myriad of very specific words to describe various properties.

It means you have château, demeure, propriété, pavillon and villa, among others, an overwhelming list with very subtle differences between them. 

Here we attempt to provide some clarification.

1. Château 

Some Britons and Americans would associate a château with being a residence, while a castle would be more likely to be a tourist attraction. 

The French, however, do not make this distinction. 

They would consider a château being either a historical site to visit, something related to a winery or a property visit. 

A château includes many rooms that were in the past dedicated to one function; such as getting dressed, having your hair done or drinking tea. 

2. Demeure / propriété 

A demeure is a slightly old-fashioned word to mean a property. 

While it applies to any property since the word derives from the verb demeurer (to dwell), a demeure is often understood by French people as a secondary residence where family members reunite. 

3. Pavillon 

The term pavillon - sometimes referred to as a maison individuelle - is the English equivalent of a detached house or cookie-cutter houses in the United States. 

They can sometimes be part of a larger building - called a résidence - with private and secured grounds, which can host swimming pools and tennis courts.

However, some pavillons in France can be semi-detached.

This is often a one-to-two-storey house with a garage door and a shared garden, which is part of a larger housing complex. 

A pavillon is often associated with peripheral urban areas, as their construction mushroomed from the late 1950s to the 1980s as part of a nationwide policy that coincided with the emergence of cars and shopping centres. 

They are part of ‘zone pavillonnaire’ or ‘banlieue pavillonnaire’. Canteleu, a town west of Rouen (Seine-Maritime), is an example. 

4. Villa

A villa is understood to be a luxurious detached house, often with large rooms, high ceilings, a swimming pool and a garden. 

They are owned by some of the wealthiest people in the country. 

Read more: French Riviera villa where famous kiss took place goes up for sale

However, villas are not to be confused with areas of Paris that have taken the same term but characterise what Americans call gated communities. Villas of the French capital include Villa Saïd or Villa Montmorency. French singers Eddy Mitchell and Pascal Obispo are among the celebrities at Villa Saïd, while Montmorency has hosted the likes of ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy.

5. Mas / Etxe

Mas - also known as mas provençal - is a type of farmhouse typical of Provence, or southern France in general. It is often arranged to suit the farmland activities of a property. 

Mas are made from stones and their roofs are designed with crescent-shaped tiles. 

Etxe are typical houses from coastal and inland Basque territory.

Read more: Basque houses have timeless appeal – we look at their history

First, they are often oriented toward the east to give protection against the wind and heavy rainfall blowing in from the ocean.

Each features an eskatz, a bigger room providing passage between the house and the barn. Animals often rested below so that their body heat warmed the area. The eskatz opens to the house’s yard.

6. Maison de maître

Maison de maître are the equivalent of British and American mansions and are often found in rural areas. 

They are normally rectangular and the interiors are furnished and decorated to correspond with the social status of its owner, often members of the aristocracy or nobility.

Some maisons take the name from their owner, rebranding themselves in the process such as La Maison des Maîtres Bauhaus de Walter Gropius or La Maison Horta de Victor Horta.

7. Manoir

A manoir (manor) is the building between the castle and the farm. It is often described as a “small castle” and emerged during the Middle Ages, in Normandy and Brittany regions mainly. 

Funnily enough, the term derives from demeure.  

8. Maison à colombage / chaumière 

Maison à colombages are traditional Alsatian houses. They are known for being built with timber. 

Chaumière are traditional Normandy-style houses. The word derives from the roof made from thatch.

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