Sunday, 12 June 2011

So You Want to Buy a House in France?

We bought our own house in Brittany in 1999 with 3,000m2 of land, 2 barns, a ruin or two and a well for just £12,000... I know! Ridiculous isn't it?! But even today there are some extreme bargains like ours still to be had. And it's not unusual to find houses at half the price (like for like - if there is such a thing) that you might pay in the UK. And life over there is great...Property and local taxes are lower than the UK. Water is quite expensive and every domestic supply is metered (which is a good thing - especially for couples rather than large families). But if you buy a house with its own well you can install a pump and, by connecting the house to the pump, bypass the water service provider - so that your supply can be 'free'. (you certainly wouldn't want to water a larger garden from the mains). Electricity is on a par with UK - Gas similarly (but most rural properties must use bottled gas which at least you have to buy before you use it - so great for budgeting) and food costs are similar too provided you eat like the locals and don't spend all your time looking for 'English' specialities...But some of you I'm sure would insist on taking your own tea bags!

The first thing you need to know about buying in France’s different to the way things are done in the UK. I find it easier to advise clients to forget what they know about the UK system than to throw up any criticisms. The French Notarial system is what oversees the transfer of property from one to another. It is our opinion that (the additional) use of a UK solicitor (a question often asked) often slows and hampers a system which has served the French well over hundreds of years. In fact the existance of ‘estate agents’ is a relatively new thing in France - an existence which has been rapidly accelarated by an interest in French property from people moving from other countries. In the past notaires would act as the agent also - but this happens less often these days... Going way back, in small communities; where everyone knew everyone else, the Notaire was the top man in each community and was the conduit for all property transactions...They are still well respected and powerful figures.

The Notaire...

who prepares the documentation which you will be signing, works on behalf of both vendor and purchaser and is (unlike a UK solicitor) an employee of the state. You’ll find yourself a lot less likely to be ‘having to do half their job for them’ in order to put some speed into the transaction, which tends to take a similar period (exchange to completion) to that taken in the UK. It is possible for there to be two Notaire’s involved in any one transaction; one for each party. If that is the case then they share the fees which are dictated by the cost of the house - on a sliding scale (so the cost is not doubled). The Notaire also acts on behalf of the state in the collection of fees and taxes relating to the property transfer. This is probably the reason for some prospective purchasers, especially those from the UK., saying that they feel the Notaire’s fees are comparatively high. Not so... if you realise that the fees contain the Notaire’s costs but also the stamp duty and the intitial local authority and habitation taxes too. Here it’s also worth supporting agents, negotiators and immobiliers in France who, in our opinion, do far more for their money than their opposite numbers in the UK., often covering much more ground over a much larger catchment area too. Many are self employed and so have to pay their own unrecoverable expenses - fuel especially is their concern as they must cover the cost to escort or drive you around whilst viewing property... So let them down easy if they start sobbing after showing you a string of properties and you have just said to them... "Sorry but these just haven't rung any bells for us and we've got to be at our next appointment a hundred miles away in an hour. The agent you view with can be a very helpful ally who can bring you up to speed on all manner of procedures and customs.

Plan your trip carefully (UK based agents who work in the same way as we do should help do this) and make sure you see the houses that you want to see...(don't get 'railroaded') some agents over there don't understand the motives or taste of buyers from the UK. We can help you plan a comfortably paced viewing trip with fully registered agents, English speaking agents who, as well as showing you properties, will take you through all of the legal stages from Compromis to completion and beyond... They can, and may offer, to assist - if you haven't already - open a French Bank Account. They may also help as regards signing up with service providers... water, electricity telephone, internet etc., Although we found that doing these things for yourself and being responsible for your own mistakes (and successes) all part of a discovery process that gives you a great sense of achievement and gets you to know people in your community.

Many communes hold regular 'welcome' meetings for newcomers to the community. Good friends of ours have integrated well after these, taking part in many social activities.

Let me recommend straight away the work of AIKB (Association Intégration Kreiz Breizh) which was set up in 2003 with the idea of helping newcomers to integrate into their new lives in Brittany. A visit to their website is a very positive experience They have radio broadcasts and podcasts featuring ex-pats from all over the world who have one thing in common...having settled in Brittany... A visit really is a must!

We cover many of the points about Buying Brittany property touched on here in more detail on pages on our website...

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Where is everyone!

Maybe you're like me... The first time I drove through France I was amazed at how few people seemed to be around. It's something that, having had much more experience over there now, and in Brittany in particular - I have come to like and enjoy. It's almost like having your own 'private' road network. Often we have driven some fairly long journeys - as much as 70 miles and yet seen just a handful of cars. If you give it any thought... and you probably would if you were used to driving around over there... France has an almost identical population to UK and yet is two and a half times the size of the British Isles, therefore having at least two and a half times the road network... so quite understandable that you should bump into fewer cars... You'd think there was less chance of that happening too. Mmmmm... yes but I have seen quite a few 2CV's pointing up telegraph poles... (in fact I must have a look for that photo). More surprising, bearing all this in mind, is the fact that the French do not pay road tax! I know... quite amazing. France did have a road tax - imposed initially to pay for reparations to the roads damaged during WWII. And let's face it there must have been plenty of damage - a heck of a lot more than in dear old Blighty. Anyway, the story goes that around 6 or 7 years ago the French government announced that as they had repaired all of the roads damaged during the war (and built a good few new ones since)... they had decided that they would cease to tax road users. Can you imagine that announcement being made by Downing Street. Why there's more chance of a female Home Secretary's credit card being used to pay for porn films! What!?.... Really?... Surley not... ahh well...

Here's another thing... Those sleepy little bars that every village seems to have on it's main street or town square; how on earth do they manage to stay in business? One night, when we were having dinner at a friend's house, and having to drive back at a late hour... I asked the question about the chances of there being police presence on the road home given that we would probably see no more than three or four cars in 20 miles travelled ... The neck of the bottle was hovering over the rim of the glass. "Depends where you might be going" came the answer..."If you skirt all the towns and villages you'll be fine. If you go through the villages you will find plenty". My host went on to say that those tiny unassuming bars where one bloke might sit for most of the day with a Pastis in front of him... Well at night they heave with life from Friday through till Sunday and might not close till around 5am. Not that I disbelieved him at all but, on the way back to our place... Firstly - Micki and I had a bet about how many cars we would see travelling on the road - in either direction over our 18 mile journey. Neither of us took the prize because the total was just one! Secondly - on the final stretch, as we approached the nearest village to our house; a tiny place of less than 300 people... we diverted through the village square and were amazed to see that the 9 times out of 10 sleepy bar opposite the church was heaving and the square was jammed with parked cars. Heaven knows how the assembled crowd would be getting home because there on the edge of the mass of people and vehicles, unhidden were two police vehicles... gendarmes with side arms... just ready to pick off anyone (I mean they would 'feel their collar' - not shoot them) looking like they'd had skinful who dared to get into a car with the intention of driving.

The 'where is everyone' title wouldn't be justified without comment about the population density... It backs up the story about the wide open yet empty roads. In England there are 389 people per square kilometre. And in Brittany? Well the Bretons stay pretty well hidden by having just 111 head of population per square kilometre!

Incidentally, when talking about the 'no road tax' thing people often reply... "Ahh but they have a lot of toll roads though"! And it's true there are a fair few. And it's great that if you choose to use them you can zoom through the enormous land mass that the French enjoy. But, if you choose not to use pay roads then you'll still make good time too and be able to A. take advantage of many a roadside restaurant and B. keep an eye on that bloke in the café with his Pastis!

But... and for those thinking about buying a house in Brittany... There are no toll roads on the Brittany peninsula...The best of all worlds! There is such a small amount of traffic they are not necessary.

Happy Motoring!

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Bon Repos in August - Burning down the 'House'... It's a must!

We have been lucky to be in Brittany often enough at the right time of year to know that the Son et Lumiere at the Abbey of Bon Repos, in the Cotes d'Armor, during the first two weeks of August is habit forming. And, if we are over there and don't go to the event it definitely makes for an incomplete trip and some downtrodden, despairing looks when we know what we are missing. We'll do our best to see it again... When the weather is good this is one of the best experiences on the planet!

The townsfolk of Gouarec in the heart of the Cotes d'Armor hatched the plot around 25 years ago and now the 'show' (it's not a big enough word).... The French do it better... 'The Spectacle' has grown to be an important date in the local as well as national/international tourist calendar. Four hundred actors (it's several generations of those townsfolk who pull off heaven knows how many costume changes)... 50 horses, a pack of hounds; all, plus a host of unsung back-room heroes, put on a historic re-enactment of several snapshots of Brittany's past - from Stone age life, The Roman Invasion, The digging of the Nantes/Brest Canal, a Mediaeval Joust, The Dukes of Rohan at Play - engaging in a hunting party... as well as both the foundation and the destruction of the abbey itself... all of this played out in front of the abbey's laser projected facade... Not forgetting the mighty music score, voice over and sound effects... These days, whilst waiting for darkness to fall, there are also street entertainers, jugglers, buskers, bars, a mediaeval style market... It gets better every year...

Maybe it was the last time we were there... We had just packed up our picnic on a grassy bank at the side of the Nantes/Brest Canal which runs just around a hundred metres south of the abbey ruins. We joined the queue at the gate and a few hundred people waited for the signal to take their seats in the amphitheatre in front of the building and its greensward - where the action takes place. I heard an English voice just behind me. Glancing over my shoulder I saw a chap who was looking a little perplexed and asking his wife what she reckoned it was all about. "What brings you here?" I asked.
"I don't really know" he said... "We were just driving along the main road back there and there was a line of cars in front of us and crowds of people crossing the road...A bloke was waving cars off down here so we just followed them... parked up and here we are... What's it all about"? Being in the queue I thought he would have known. So I explained briefly what they were about to see and said he should stay in line so as not to miss the best experience of his holiday... "Your kids will love it".

The action starts as darkness falls at around 10:15pm. The lights go up, the music kicks in and a velvet voice, straight out of the Cointreau TV commercials, begins to let the story unfold... You don't need to have French as a first - second or even third language to pick up the thread. I get by on a smattering and logic does the rest.... Most of the action centres around a village specially built for these two weeks, around which is enacted birth and death, the seasons of the year (they even make it snow) and they grow a field of wheat so that they can harvest it... Houses burnt down during the sacking of the village by the Roman hordes, are re-thatched as action transfers to the mock castle at the other end of the 350 metre stage. A drag hunt takes place with the pack of hounds zig-zagging their way across the arena and one charmer of an animal gets lost on cue and then steals the show by finishing his solo run to tumultuous applause from a delighted audience. The finalé, as the Abbey burns down before the assembled company of 400 actors, is an ensemble of stilt walkers, tumblers, fire blowers and torch bearing townsfolk under the spell of three lead flag bearers who proudly wield the Breton (Gwenn-ha-Du) flag on ten metre poles above the heads of the patriot 'army'... There isn't a dry eye in the house!
See you there!...Look out for me. I'll be the one trying infuriatingly to get a decent photo of the action... not that it would do any good anyway, but without flash. Try that and you'll have the person next to you giving you lessons in colourful Gallic expletives and invective. Enjoy yourselves... I know we will! Oh... and by the way... that bloke and his family who didn't know what he was queueing for? We had eye contact as we were being carried out on a tide of the happy home-going Breton crowd and he gave me a beaming smile and a big thumbs up!

But don't take my word for it... Have a look at the trailer Son et Lumiere

You can book here too. BOOK TICKETS

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Moules as the sun goes down anyone?

This evening we had Moules with French Fries and a large beer just as the sun was setting across the Bay of St Brieuc. At the bottom of the slipway beneath the lone restaurant the beach, at low tide, reveals thousands of stakes driven into the sand. When the tide is at its lowest nimble tractors weave around with natty attachments that strip the harvest from the rope wound staves... The tractors dump the mussels into enormous trailer/bins which are then towed back to the head of the beach. Higher tides are dealt with by amphibeous landing craft which perform the same task but the fishermen keep their feet dry!
Between April and October (except on Tuesdays) La Moulerie de la Baie at Planguenoual, Jospinet, on Brittany's Cote de Penthievre opens its doors to present Moules served in many ways... restricted only by your imagination... For the feint hearted there is also steak and chips but that's the only 'non-moule' offering... and to drink? Well of course there is Wine, Beer and Champagne. The mussels go down a treat with beer. What is certain about your visit? Well, you will want to come again. And you will want to bring friends and you will want to tell everyone!
Remember - the restaurant is only open in the evening and, if you are lucky with the tide... you can enjoy a walk on the vast beach before or after and, although you can't take the mussels from the staves - for a start they are too far out - but, if you take a bucket... you can pick your own!

Update... Although I first wrote this post in 2011 we have now been back many times and it is still brilliant. If memory serves me well I gave it 5 stars on Trip Advisor!

La Moulerie de la Baie, Jospinet, 22400 Planguenoual • Tel: 0296 32 82 22

Bastille Day? It's Trotting Time Again!

I think it's a peninsula wide thing... if not, country wide. Anyway trotting is certainly a big thing in Breton culture. We came across it in a naive and I suppose a typical foreigner, 'incomer' kind of way...
We had decided that we needed a break from renovating. A whole day off! Wow! We would take a picnic; a baguette plus a random selection from the fridge... garlic sausage, cheese, some salad stuff, a bottle of wine, sparkling water, some fruit... even a corkscrew and, this time, knives and forks... well a knife anyway. Usually when work on the house just got too much; too long without a break, we would head off at about four in the afternoon to round off the day with a bit of RandR... a walk around the nearest lake or something, or up and down the towpath of the canal. But today we were doing it properly.
Initially it was just ..."OK, where shall we go?" With a bit of initial... "Beach? Lake? What do you want to do?" passing between us as we drove. I think we had decided that we would just drive toward the coast on the medium 'B' type roads and see what happens. In Brittany this means they were more like Cornwall's lanes... also meaning that because it's Brittany the chances of meeting anything coming the other way would be remote. Anyway we had only travelled about 5 or 6 kilometres when we passed a poster flapping on a telegraph pole. "Hippo Courses" it said. Even now as I'm typing this and checking it on Google Translations it's still giving me 'Hippo Racing'... but even on that day... Bastille Day - one of the most important bank holidays on the calendar, I don't think I expected there would be any Hippos around... Even I knew that we got the word Hippodrome from its association with horses... So I guessed this is what was being advertised. A few more kilometres and there was a bigger poster and this time an arrow had been added at the bottom. So, turning down the next, even narrower lane, to the right, seemed sensible. A little further along I was cheered by the fact that there were actually some people walking toward 'something'. The landscape around was still desolate enough to make you expect the worst. Like it would be we were following an old trail. The Hippos were last weekend. Actually that had happened to us before. It was our usual kind of luck.

But things were looking up. Just around the next bend and over the next brow there was bunting stretched across an otherwise normal and deserted gateway. Around here that means something is going on. We drove through and along a bumpy and empty track. I was beginning to think we must be trespassing when I saw cars parked up in a field. There was even a man with a high-viz jacket organising the parking. So, we did as we were bid and we parked. On getting out of the car it was refreshing not to be accosted for money. And, following the trickle of what I now realised were latecomers I realised we were not being asked to pay for entry to the Hippo racing either. Note: In the UK parking and entry to what we were about to witness would have set a family of four back about twenty quid - but this is Brittany.

We approached the event through a paddock lined with liveried horse boxes and trailers where jockeys and grooms, wives, mums and girlfriends feverishly prepared their mounts. The horses were all magnificently turned out ready for what was to come and those that had already competed foamed around the saddle areas and steamed with achievement as they were cooled, combed and cosseted. At the top of the paddock and across a sand strewn bridleway was the track and, for a 'miles from anywhere' event this was an amazing sight. With a grass racetrack stretching left and right from this paddock bend the view was of a thousand or more people lining the rails, lounging on the grass, picnicking, barbecuing, imbibing at the tented bars and generally having the best time. On the track the joy and excitement amongst the crowd was obvious and the bookmakers were ratcheting up a constant trade as, between heats, were the ox-roast stall, crepe, gallette and pizza vendors. As each race began the noise level quadrupled and the whole crowd hit the rails to cheer on their favourites. But the best... the piéce de resistance was yet to come... Hippos with trailers... Le Trotteurs!

These guys know how to stare down death and danger... They rattled around a one mile track on a pair of pram wheels with their 'wedding tackle' dangerously close to a pair of thrashing, steel shod back legs and the speed blurred hooves of a thoroughbred 'hippo' thrusting the whole ensemble forward at around 50 miles an hour... Jostling for position over a four mile course each lap funnels them through the straight where a thousand enthusiasts urge them on with money on their minds before the sportsmen and their much loved horses hurtle off around the paddock curve and off around the track again.

Where is this gladiatorial chariot racing played out?... Well, no doubt it happens in many of the larger villages across Brittany, but our best Bastille days have been spent at Plouec sur Lié in the Cotes d'Armor just 20 minutes south of St Brieuc on the Emerald Coast. It's a normally unhurried, sleepy market village (a would-be town which comes alive weekly on Thursdays for its market) that rocks with, not just the 'Hippo Courses' on Bastille day but the town square gently hums (that'll be the generator) and 'lights up' all through the balmy evening with Le Dodgems... the Carousel and Candy Floss and Beer and Hot Dogs after dark!

Bastille Day is July 14th and commemorates an uprising against the famous fortress-prison which held many political prisoners who were deemed enemies of the king... The 'peoples' army' were also seeking to access gunnpowder and arms in order to continue the fight for the establishment of the French Republic.

Article 17 of the Constitution of France gives the President the authority to pardon criminals and, since 1991, the President has pardoned many petty offenders (mainly traffic offences) on 14 July. In 2007, President Sarkozy declined to continue the practice.

Watch out... There's a Banker About!!

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