Last September, I was invited to write an article for French Property News, so I put pen to paper to share our personal experience of trying to buy a property in France from the UK.
Much has happened since, but you may be interested in reading about our journey up to that date, which we are now permitted to publish here:
Their plan to buy a property in south-west France suffered a disappointing setback but Julia Douglas and her husband Colin Usher are turning it to their advantage.
A freelance designer and a freelance artist walk into a bank in Scotland and ask for a mortgage for over a quarter of a million pounds to develop a business property that provides a residential programme for creative professionals.
“Is this some kind of joke?” the banker replies. Clearly it is, so it never actually happened, but…
In early 2014, my husband Colin and I were living a nice wee life in our rented cottage in the countryside in East Lothian, but were feeling a tad bored and eager for an adventure and a new challenge.
How could we combine and build our businesses into something bigger and better that would give us more long-term security? What had we learned already through our creative practices that we could share with other people? What do we value in this world and how can we contribute? How could we do this with no property to sell or considerable savings in the bank?
Playing to our strengths
Colin is a digital media professional, photographer and drummer, and I’m a web designer, textile and mixed media visual artist and exhibition coordinator for a large Scottish arts society. We work hard and play hard, with a very blurred seam in-between!
Colin spends much of his free time helping friends in bands or new businesses get off the ground by making promotional videos for them, or photographing their headshots, for example. He says it’s nice to be nice, but I know that he absolutely loves doing this. He has a real natural talent for getting people to relax in front of the camera and a brilliant eye for composition and style.
I, on the other hand, obsess over houses! Architecture, interior design, household objects… these are a constant inspiration for me, both in my artwork and in my spare time. I love to host, to make an interior welcoming, to clean and decorate. I also enjoy teaching other people traditional domestic skills.
We long to own a property where we can do all of this, a property that we can make a haven for creative folk, which offers them a change of pace and the space to create.
Even though Edinburgh’s house prices are dropping annually, the average price is currently still £231,242. (In 2007 they averaged £445,405 – no wonder we haven’t managed to get on the property ladder yet!).
We noticed with astonishment what you could buy for your money in France, and decided to start looking in earnest at the south-west as the destination for the next chapter of our lives.
The search begins
Why this part of France? Well, apart from the property prices, there are also the lush green rolling hills that lead your eyes all the way to the horizon via sunflower fields, orchards and vines; the long warm summers and short mild winters; the vibrant villages with bustling weekly markets; the relaxed and welcoming people; the old stone properties with their courtyards, shutters and turrets – plus it’s easy and affordable to get to for visitors. For example, you can fly from Edinburgh to Bordeaux for only about £100 return in peak season with Ryanair.
With all this in mind, we started our property hunt from Bordeaux, heading out in each direction for a maximum of 150km. We became regular visitors to the Leggett Immobilier website, and between browsing their site and reading French Property News and its sister title Living France, we became obsessed with the dream of relocating and setting up our new business venture in the south-west of France.
We soon found ourselves heading over with a long list of suitable properties to view. And then it happened. We fell in love. It was a complete renovation project, and I do mean a complete renovation project! It had old plumbing and electrics, no kitchen, three different mismatched wallpapers per room (no exaggeration), an overgrown garden and a disgusting bathroom. So what was so marvellous about this place? Well, the size of it for a start.
Stepping into the house from the narrow quaint lane, we entered a spacious hallway with a winding wooden stairway leading up to a further two floors. A small private flat for me, Colin and the dogs at the very top of the building, with the first floor given over in its entirety to the business and the ground floor for a shared kitchen, laundry and digital suite.
This house had a total of 11 rooms plus an attic, a basement and a small walled garden. Oh, and it also had a bespoke photography studio situated across the lane in the old garage. Wow!
It was a huge project but we couldn’t wait to get stuck in. As soon as we got back we had a long chat with a mortgage broker and had our mortgage approved in principle, but we were made aware of two things we hadn’t known about before that stopped us in our tracks.
Firstly, if the property you wish to purchase needs renovation work done to it to make it habitable, the bank insists that they also lend you the money for these renovation costs. So, before a mortgage can be agreed you need to take estimates to the bank from French registered builders for the renovation work. They will then approve the loan, but only release the money for the renovation costs after this work has been carried out and the builder has issued an invoice. As a result, this almost doubled the mortgage required for the property we fell in love with.
Secondly, the bank also insisted that we have a year’s worth of repayments in the bank before they would agree to our mortgage. We certainly hadn’t factored either of these things into our cash-flow forecast. This would not only affect our mortgage repayments (which wouldn’t have been a problem as they would still have been much less than the rent we pay in Scotland) but also, of course, the amount of deposit we needed to put forward initially and the back-up savings we needed to have in the bank. Unfortunately, these two new pieces of information combined meant that we did not have sufficient savings to buy the property.
We were not about to give up there though. It just meant we had to come up with a new way to achieve our dream, and we developed a three-pronged plan of attack:
1. Spend less and save
2. Make more and save
3. Ask for help and save
How could two frugal people spend less and save? Well, we could move to a cheaper rental property for a start. It seemed a bit daft to look for somewhere new in Scotland, so we found a place to rent in Lot-et-Garonne that is £172 cheaper per month. As this house is in a village and we can both work from home, we can also manage with one car and, being in France, our wine budget has automatically reduced by half!
We are so pleased now that this all happened, that we didn’t buy that house and that we were forced to slow down, rethink our journey, take the advice of experts and move here first to get to know the area better before buying. We really couldn’t have known if a location would have the right elements to offer our visitors without living with it first.
This is the first step for us, and it’s a big one. We said we’d get to France and we’ve done it! Now we’re on a mission to raise further finance through a crowd-funding campaign, while giving ourselves more time to find the perfect property to buy for our creative retreat, which we have already named Studio Faire. Watch this space.