It took us six years to find a house in Normandy. We started visiting the region when our older daughter was almost one. She was learning to speak, and we wanted French to feel as close to native as it could to a child living in London. When we bought Les Iris she was seven, and her sister three.
Why did it take us so long?
There are several reasons. The one I want to dwell on today is the technology of buying a house in France. If you don’t live in France, it’s hard to get excellent information about French property. Even if you speak French fluently as we do (full disclosure: by we, I mean my husband).
I do everything online. And have been, for the last 10 years. I buy food online. I buy clothes online. I buy Christmas online. I bought my kitchen sink online.
Really. When you have young children and a full-time job, shopping is one of the things that disappears. Fast. Walton Street, Marylebone High Street, Westfield: who has the time? Five minutes in the pharmacy at lunchtime is as close as I get to physical shopping these days. So I went online.
When you shop for a property in London there are wonderful websites like Zoopla and Globrix. You can look at property for sale on a specific street. You can see what properties have been bought recently nearby, and for how much. You can find out the crime rate, and which schools are best. For France it was even more important to have this information before driving up to five hours to see each property.
The information just wasn’t there, or I couldn’t find it. There is detailed historical population and employment data available from INSEE. But I wasn’t able to find information about crime rates, school rankings or property sales. Is this stuff really not out there? Does anyone know? If you do, please let me know.
More than anything, I wanted a website that would let me search by location. I wanted to look at the satellite imagery of the area around a house even before I talked to an agent let alone made the trip to France. I never found a site that did this, exactly. Often agents wouldn’t even share the coordinates of a property so that we could plug them into our satnav. Many rendevous were arranged in parking lots outside churches and town halls. Perhaps the agents were afraid we would try to cut a direct deal with the owner.
Floor plans were extremely hard to come by. At best, there was a hand-drawn approximation. Pictures on property websites were often partial, hiding the major road behind the hedge, or the electric pylon at the end of the garden, or the old mines under the property that were in danger of caving in at any moment.
Many homes we saw were listed as ‘habitable’. Some of these were in excellent condition. Others had holes in the roof, asbestos in the walls, no heating or no discoverable sewage system.
Things have improved recently. The site where we found our cottage, Green-Acre (formerly ImmoFrance), has gathered traction with estate agents, and today the site lists over 70,000 French properties in all of the major European languages. You can search for property by town or area and sign up for email updates about new properties. CapiFrance.co.uk, which has a network of estate agents working under its brand name, has a portal in both French and English, and has listings from over 300 estate agents.
British-run sites have also worked to fill the gap. Somewhere between 100,000 and 500,000 British live in France, depending on whose estimates you believe. Many more are looking for homes in France, and agencies catering to English-speaking buyers abound. We found Domus Abroad and A House in Normandy to be particularly helpful, offering high levels of personal service. Other useful sites were the Sextant French Property Network, Rightmove France, Leggett and La Résidence.
We also did a lot of offline research. We bought property magazines. The French like to own country homes, and Normandy is near enough to Paris that it attracts editorial attention. The magazines Maisons Normandes and Belles Demeures can be picked up in newsagents. There are also property specials in weekly news magazines like Le Point.
Late in the day, we discovered that notaires, as well as estate agents, can hold property listings. Often these will be advertised on a board outside of the notaire’s office, or in the regional trade publications available in the reception of the local notaire’s office.
We got to know local estate agents. We walked around the towns we liked and noted down the names of estate agents, then built up a relationship. In person they were friendly, full of local information, and professional. They’re also a pleasure to work with once you find a house and I’ll write more about that later.
Agents we spoke to included Patrice Besse, a Paris-based agency specialising in castles and manor houses with a significant portfolio in Normandy. This is property porn at its best: very little you can afford, and looking at it will suck hours from your life. There’s even an iphone app. More realistic in our bit of Normandy were Cany immobilier and Le Forestier.
In the end, we did find our property online. Technology caught up with us and one morning there it was, in my inbox. Les Iris.