Searching for Shangri-La

When we decided to move to France we realised that the days of buying a three-bedroom house with a couple of acres of land in a picturesque French village for about €30,000 were long gone. The influx of newly ‘wealthy’ Brits, with equity in their UK homes burning a hole in their pockets, that took place in the latter decades of the 20th century had made the French wise to the opportunities to offload the family ‘pile’ – often literally that, a pile of stones – and prices were definitely on the rise. The UK’s decision to leave the EU had muddied the waters a bit but the market was still strong.

Then came Covid… suddenly everyone in France wanted to get out of the cities and started snapping up rural properties, particularly those within an hour of smaller airports and high-speed rail stations. Meanwhile, second home owners from the UK who, because of Brexit, were thinking of selling up could no longer get to France to put their properties on the market. Viewings were temporarily put on hold until mask wearing and social distancing made them possible once again and some estate agents even started doing virtual viewings via mobile phone.

We’d been watching the French property market for some time and we’d both spent much of our spare time looking at what we dubbed “property porn”. There are several websites dedicated to marketing French property to British buyers with thousands of properties being offered for sale. Simply choose where you want to buy, set some basic parameters in terms of budget, number of rooms, amount of land, rural or town etc and these sites will provide a long list to peruse in the comfort of your own sitting room.

So, what did we want? We were clear from the outset that we didn’t want any neighbours. Not because we get up to anything anti-social but, having lived in a relatively quiet location, we wanted to continue enjoying peace and quiet and to get away from arguments over who was responsible for cutting down that overhanging tree! We also wanted enough land to have a sense of our own space but not too much that it became a chore to maintain. We also wanted enough rooms to accommodate our combined families and their children, as well as the potential to have paying guests to supplement my pension.

We narrowed down our search to the area between Limoges and Angouleme in the centre of France and Perigueux in the south, based on the trips we’d made in the past two years pet-sitting and on holiday. This area encompassed parts of the Charente, Charente-Maritime, Limousin and Dordogne regions so we needed to narrow this down further. As it happened this wasn’t too hard as, once we entered our search criteria, there wasn’t always a great deal available within our budget.

Annoyingly, because selling privately is much more widespread in France than in the UK, most online estate agents are cagey about revealing the precise whereabouts of much of the property they advertise, and houses are often up to ten kilometres from the location suggested online. This obviously makes a difference when you’re looking for that rural getaway and find that the ‘perfect’ house is actually between a supermarket and a new development of bungalows. The only answer was to take the plunge and book some viewings. So, when Covid restrictions allowed, we did.

The first property we looked at was a large, detached house in about three acres of land on the edge of a small village in the north of the Charente region. It wasn’t quite finished, as in one of the staircases was missing, and some parts were mid-conversion. The garden was ‘interesting’ and it had some outbuildings but overall it felt like we’d be taking over someone else’s project and trying to make sense of their vision. We quickly decided it wasn’t for us.

The second house was more exciting, with fantastic views over fields and a wooded valley. It had a massive barn that would make great extra accommodation and the house was arranged around a courtyard with the potential to create separate guest accommodation. It was quiet, with no near neighbours and had about three acres of land with trees, a pond, an old swimming pool to refurbish and plenty of space for a potager, the traditional French kitchen garden. The only problem was the house was badly arranged and it would take an architect to make sense of it and considerable expense to carry out the alterations. After much deliberation we decided it was too much to take on.

The next house turned out to be two properties that, together, made up a former mill and its dependences. One was the mill building itself which had a small house built into it but was mostly dilapidated and required a new roof and some of the floors didn’t look to sound either, gaping holes providing great views to the floor below. The other property comprised two houses that had been turned into bed & breakfast accommodation, providing about nine bedrooms in all. Set in a lovely shallow wooded valley with two streams creating an island it was idyllic and, for a few days, we were smitten.

Then, trying to talk ourselves out of taking on a money-pit, we came across a property on a website for private sales. France had briefly gone into a more stringent lockdown and property viewings were temporarily suspended but we got in touch with the owners and asked if we could go and have a look when things changed. So, on Tuesday 4th May we set off on the two-hour drive to the South Charente, more excited that two people in their mid-to-late fifties would normally expect to be. Our appointment was for 11am and we arrived on the dot to our first, in the flesh, viewing of Bassinaud.

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