Shayne Menzies recalls her property purchasing experience
The idea of buying a house in Provence was not new. On the contrary, I had been thinking – or dreaming – about it since the early 1990’s, when I spent three years living and working in the region.
It took 15 years of plotting and planning before the search seriously began – so it was no flash in the pan idea or whim purchase, no romantic gesture at the end of a perfect summer interlude. It was a well researched, if somewhat slow-moving project.
Numerous holidays exploring every corner of the region had shown me that Provence is not just one large homogenous mass – hundreds of square kilometres of lavender, cicadas and rustic charm. Instead the region has countless faces, each a little different from the next, each with its own individual character and scenery: the rugged limestone Alpilles, the dramatic cliffs and turquoise seas of the Calanques, and the classic Luberon hill-side villages. All have their own distinctive appeal. Within each department, neighbouring villages – sometimes only a couple of kilometres apart – can often surprise with a totally different ambiance.
If you are buying a home to live in for years to come, and not just picking a house to rent for two weeks in August, you really need to think carefully about what you want. The best research involves legwork and plenty of it. You can’t replace time spent visiting and re-visiting in different seasons to get the real picture behind the pretty postcards.
Can you still get a coffee and a meal in November, or does the village close up for winter? Is August the perfect time to sit in the square and sip Pastis, or is the whole place overrun with tourists from dawn ‘til dusk? Is the local countryside perfect for healthy outdoor walks or does the infamous Mistral blow you away five months a year? Is the charming little ‘chemin’ leading to the bleached wooden door still passable after a true Provencal storm?
Every area of Provence is a micro-climate not only of scenery and weather, but of accessibility and hidden charms, of shops and cafés, of tourists and locals.
Having eventually settled on where, then its time to add in the next layer – what. To choose between the different styles of house common in Provence today.
The archetypal village house or MDV (Maison De Village), is two, three or even four storeys of original tiled-floor rooms. The house will sit cheek by jowl with its neighbours and unfortunately there’s usually no parking or garden. An authentic old stone mas with it’s shuttered windows, thick walls and mellow warmth seems steeped in local history, whereas a newly built ‘style bastide’ combines traditional design and materials with up-to-date building methods. A little less soul perhaps – but a lot less problems. A practical brick villa, often built in the 70s and 80s when the region began its long-delayed post-war boom, may lack atmosphere but is usually the most cost effective option.
Drawing up your own list of criteria, from the must-haves to the nice-to-haves, is an important part of any house purchase.
Our list hadn’t ever really changed. We didn’t want anything out of the ordinary, not for Provence surely. An old house in the countryside, preferably stone. Big enough for close family to relax, but too small for hosting summer holidays for friends and acquaintances from around the world. Habitable, with at least a functioning roof, walls, electricity and preferably some plumbing. Enough land for a pool and the occasional game of petanque, but definitely no vines, crops or animals. Rural views – and the sunset – we had to be able to see the sunset.
So, in April 2007, we began two more years living in Provence to find our corner of paradise, negotiate the purchase and move in. How hard could it be?
Our first mistake was to rent the converted farm of our dreams for our arrival. It fitted all the criteria except one. It wasn’t for sale. So then the search began in earnest.
From our experience, hours spent driving around looking for the ideal property isn’t very productive in Provence, because it’s not the custom to hang out ‘for sale’ signs.
And, spotting the elusive prize in the distance can often be deceptive. From far away it’s a charming old house on a hill, possibly ripe for a little restoration. Closer up, it’s a complete wreck. Of course, many of the best homes can’t be seen from the road either.
Word of mouth is a reliable window on the property market for locals, but for most visitors buying a house means dealing with the professionals. Recognizing the potential pitfalls behind the adverts – internet postings, classifieds in the free glossy magazines, or sun-drenched photos in the window of the local immobilier – can help reveal the truth behind the romance.
Many older houses were built on the little lanes that existed two hundred years ago. Those lanes grew and became the roads today – so it’s not unusual to find a charming rustic getaway, with beautiful landscaped gardens on one side, and a major three-lane road on the other, just outside the photo frame.
Nestling into the hillside traditionally protected buildings from the harsh effects of the mistral, but unfortunately increased the likelihood of damp – rising damp, falling damp, seeping damp.
The necessity for solid ground and the use of appropriate footings, were also not considered a pre-requisite for construction purposes for many years in the area.
Not surprisingly, vines and cherry trees, as far as the eye can see, create a picture-book view, but regular crop spraying and acres of falling leaves can make outdoor living fairly unpleasant for a good part of the year.
Municipal rubbish dumps, noisy public camping sites, and a back-garden metal-work factory also featured on our own list of unexpected and unwanted neighbours, while a 3-hole golf course, a converted chapel and a large black Vietnamese pig were all rather quirky bonuses.
Inevitably, there are the industry euphemisms to be wary of too. These often relate to planning permission, or lack of it, for the house in question – or development potential for neighbouring fields. ‘Possibilitie d’extension’, ‘fermeture de verandah’ or ‘au vent’ and ‘zone inconstructible’ are all phrases that require official – and written – confirmation.
Eventually though, if you keep searching for long enough – as we did – you can find what you have been looking for. A perfect Provencal bolt-hole. Exactly what you had set your heart on at the outset. At last you can head off to meet the local ‘notaire’ and sign the ‘compromis’ or legal offer, which will clinch the deal and let you make the down-payment on your dream.
Just beware one more thing though. The propensity for incomprehensible law suits between families and neighbours in Provence, some lasting many years, require resolution before the ‘compromis’ can progress to a property settlement and the key to the front-door is finally in your hand.
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