It has been a long journey, with more turbulence than a long-haul flight over the Urals, but, touch wood, we will soon own a house in France.
It’s no secret that I have long hankered after a little piece of France to call home. I also love looking at houses and admiring interior design, so what better distraction when in the south of France than to browse? And what greater inevitability, after two extended stays, hours of perusing real estate listings, dozens of house viewings and many more ‘drive-bys’, than that it would eventually lead to a purchase?
We’ve been talking about spending more time in France for as long as I can remember, and having our own place to call home is a big part of the dream. Everywhere we have ever been, we’ve fallen in love with each new region, quickly dreaming of how wonderful it would be to buy a place and picturing ourselves furnishing it from the village vide greniers (flea markets).
And so it was with Quillan – each day we explored more territory and found new places with which to fall in love. There was plenty to love. And somehow, the thought of buying a house in the Aude has always felt more achievable than it has felt most other places we have been.
Having lived in the Languedoc-Roussillon region (now the larger, appropriately renamed Occitanie) twice, in all weathers, and explored more of the departments within its boundaries, we’ve had the time to get more of a sense of the lie of the land and to understand what it is that we like about the area, summer or winter, eventful or shuttered. This is no passing fancy driven by a week’s sun-drenched, rose-tinted glasses summer holiday. It’s grounded in the reality of what it’s like to winter over.
The dilemma for us, being so much further afield, has always been how to make a long-term, long-distance property relationship work. It has to be somewhere we would be happy living on our own, together, or with family for short periods as well as semi-permanently as we get older. This means it has to be warm and livable all year round, affordable to heat and accessible to services. We don’t want or need something flash. We do want character, but not at the expense of basic comfort. To be able to claw back at least some of the cost of purchase, it needs to be rentable, which means we can’t take on something in a state of complete disrepair.
Early on in our stay in the Pyrenees in 2014, we saw a fabulous four-bedroom stone house entirely and tastefully renovated, with its own walled garden, a bubbling creek with old stone bridge, and a barn ripe for further renovation. It was in a small village, just a few kilometres from Quillan.
We fell in love with it, despite its relative isolation and the quietness of the hamlet, and we both wanted to buy it on the spot. But really, though it was entirely affordable, matched the requested ‘edge of village with garden’ and was perfectly charming, we were in no hurry.
Imagine our surprise, and the beating of our hearts when, on our return to Quillan in late 2016, we discovered the same house was (back) on the market, just as lovely as we remembered.
On a frosty winter day, with the sun low in the sky overhead, the boys kicked a ball in the garden, and we picnicked at the table on the other side of the creek, with a view of the village house of our dreams. It was just lovely. It seemed fated. We looked at each other and realised we may be at the end of our search. It was exciting and dangerous – if we wanted to get this house for a price we could afford, we had to be prepared to lose it, which meant we could not afford to be too emotionally attached.
It was close to the wire, just a week out from our return to New Zealand when we knew we wanted it. It was madness to put an offer in at this point, frankly, but we had nothing to lose, so we did it anyway. Over the course of the following week we negotiated furiously, but when we left Quillan in late January, it was without a house. We had not managed to agree terms.
Two weeks later, ensconced back in our Wellington lives, there were collective whoops of disbelief and anticipation as we awoke to a message from the agent that the vendors had had a change of heart. The sale was back on, and it was all go.
Over the next few weeks we made our way through the intricacies of the real estate process which, while slow, is actually quite straight forward, even from a distance. The main complication has been ensuring nothing is lost in the detail of contractual legalities in a foreign language and taking the time to do due diligence on the required assessments of the standard of everything from the presence of lead, to the state of the wiring and plumbing, and the risk of inundation.
At the same time the fluctuations of foreign currency have caused us no end of anxiety. On the eve of signing, we had to pull out of the initial sale when the exchange rate moved too far against us. Several weeks later, having monitored the rate by the day and almost the hour, we put the offer back on the table.
Now, after a roller-coaster few months and our share of sleepless nights it is almost ours. We are on the verge of owning our slice of French land and life. It may be crazy, but we could not be happier.
Chatting over the course of our time in Quillan to various real estate agents, many of whom are expats and have gone through the buying process themselves, all the wise counsel suggests that if we are looking for somewhere to holiday, it’s better for us to rent rather than buy. Certainly the numbers, when crunched, back this advice. Even if we holiday every year for the next ten years, live there for one of those years, and get rental income from it for 12 weeks a year, it would probably still be cheaper just to rent.
That’s what the head knows and says, but at the end of the day, this is not a head thing, it’s a heart thing. Having found the perfect house, one that makes our heart sing, we are happy to buy it no matter what the head says, and happily return every year. And we won’t regret it. Because this kind of investment is not about making money – it’s about making memories, over the course of a lifetime.
Let the fun begin.