In search of the Normandy gem...
by Peter G. Clayton
“Real gems will be snapped up well before they appear on the websites of any
French immobilier or in adverts featured in UK French property magazines.
You need to get out there to find the bargains.”
This was the advice given to me by a London-based property consultant - and, although it wasn’t what I wanted to hear, my own experiences have proved him right.
Perhaps naively, my dream - not unlike everyone else’s - was to find the perfect little house, in the perfect little Normandy village at a price that could be accommodated within my credit card limit. Although I had heard of other people buying idyllic chocolate-box cottages at a cost that still enabled them to buy a bag of frites on the way back to the ferry, I soon had to face reality. If such purchases really did ever exist, they are now long gone - thanks, I am reliably told by those in the know, to British television’s recent obsession with “buying abroad” programmes, and the realisation by Parisians that they can buy a rural weekend bolt-hole with a decent piece of land for a fraction of the cost of their grotty two bedroomed apartment in the centre of the metropolis.
And so our search began...
A weekend trip was booked to Cotentin - the top part of the Cherbourg peninsula - where we had holidayed on numerous occasions and had built up quite a social life with many Brits we had met who had already taken the property plunge. We were also known to several bar owners in and around Bricquebec, Ste. Mère Eglise and St Sauveur-Le-Vicomte, but that’s another story... Appointments were made with immobiliers in Valognes and La-Haye-Du-Puits. Although we had talked about buying in France for several years, this was the first time we had crossed the threshold of a French estate agent rather than just fantasising at his window display from the pavement. How many Brits have stood there and said the same thing... “Blimey, if we sold our three-bedroomed semi in England, we could afford a flaming big chateau here!”
It quickly became abundantly clear as we sat in the cosy (estate agent's term = cramped), homely (ditto = could urgently do with a lick of paint), office, that the mademoiselle who had picked the short straw that morning felt uncomfortable with us because of the language barrier. To break the ice she wound up her computer with the intention of showing us everything that her agency currently had to offer. Perhaps it was nerves, but her IT skills were probably not as sharply honed as others (estate agent's term = absolutely useless), and she resorted to a shelf full of tatty ring binders.
We had already been on their website from home and printed off several property descriptions that we would have liked to follow up. But no. Although we had only printed them off 72 hours before our expedition, they had all been sold many months previously.
Out of desperation and to help alleviate the feeling that we had completely wasted our time, we agreed to look at two properties if she could organise visits there and then. Both houses - unless they came with every stick of furniture and a full fridge - were well above our budget, but she assured us that the owners would be prepared to drop a little.
Our first excursion was to a rural homestead in the commune of Picauville. It was owned by two men, explained our hostess. “They have had big punch-up and are now divorced,” she told us. The house was along a series of narrow country lanes more suited to trundling tractors than a speeding mobile-phone-holding estate agent in a chic Renault (you know, one of those which “shakes its ass”) followed closely by a Brit in fear of getting totally lost.
“The house has had lots already done to it, but the punch-up then stopped work. It just needs a bit of finishing off,” we were told as we entered the abandoned building site. It was easy to see what the lads had in mind, but it would have been better for all concerned if they had kissed and made up. A quick mental calculation came up with a figure of around £50,000 to complete the works and to make the place habitable. Later in the day, we visited another estate agent who had the same property in their portfolio. This second agent was more honest though - to start with the property was more than 20,000 euros cheaper, but the printed details also explained that it was a total renovation project, even down to re-plumbing and re-wiring.
The second house to view was close to La-Haye-Du-Puits, but this time occupied. As we walked up the path, madame and monsieur were chasing chickens around a courtyard. The slowest would probably end up as the evening meal.
The agent was invited to take us round the house. Very pretty, but tiny and claustrophobic. The ceilings to most rooms were about an inch above my head. Had I been a basketball player, I would have a permanent stoop. There were young children everywhere - several in the lounge doing homework; a couple helping mama and papa with the chase for dinner; and, most surprisingly, two fast asleep in bed as we were shown the property’s first floor layout. None of them seemed to mind our intrusion and just got on with what they were doing. Conclusion: nice property for those in society who are vertically challenged, but not for us.
A similar and equally fruitless visit to a second estate agent in the afternoon and we resigned ourselves to returning home the following day no further on in our search for the Normandy gem. After a consoling early evening meal in Portbail - one of the prettiest little fishing villages on the peninsula’s west coast - we made our way back via the country lanes to our hotel to pack and prepare ourselves for the Blighty-bound early morning ferry.
A couple of miles before joining the main road to Bricquebec, we passed through St Maurice-Bocage, the archetype Normandy village - boulangerie, bar, and a handful of stone-build houses, all clustered around a gravelled square and a centuries old church. And there, opposite the church, was our house. Obviously unoccupied for a considerable time, judging from the over-grown gardens, this imposing residence had a faded “A Vendre” sign nailed to its front door, with the name and telephone number of the notaire who was in charge of its disposal. At seven o'clock on a Saturday evening, there was very little we could do about it, apart from peer through the dirty windows, take a few photographs and make a careful note of the notaire’s telephone number to contact on Monday.
With neighbours’ curtains twitching and hearts lifted, we rejoined the car and continued our short journey back to the hotel - convinced that we had found our Normandy Gem...