Monday, August 31, 2009

End of the canicule?

"Phew...what a scorcher" as the Sun so memorably put it.

I can't remember the last time I woke up to anything other than clear blue sky and afternoon temperatures in the mid to high 30's. I know it sounds idyllic but to someone with Scottish roots and pale white skin this summer has cost me a fortune in factor 30 sun tan lotion.

Ironically, I'm still the same colour as I was when the year started on January 1st.

At last the weather is due to break and we have storms forecast for tomorrow with rain afterwards and temperatures down in the 20's.

I'm not moaning in the slightest as I do love sunshine and the last couple of months have been exceptional but when those first drops fall I'll be doing a highland jig.

After that I'd like to put an order in for an Indian summer lasting through to late October please. That's when I'm off to Biarritz for a few days R&R with the boys. It would be nice to dish out their annual thrashing on the golf course with the sun on our backs.

Meanwhile I have work to do with three active property searches on the go. Houses never look as good in the rain so this week should be a good time to view them!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Canal + listings a mystery

Great excitement in the Downie household this week-end. After six years of tense negotiations the senior partner finally caved in and allowed me a canal + subscription.

After wading through the 97 different packages and options, technical difficulties setting it up and two calls to the helpline it's now installed. Just in time for Man Utd v Arsenal today and Marseille v Bordeaux tomorrow.

I've been online trying to see what other sporting events are coming up. Their website ranks between hopeless and poor and when I try to find listings for the "football +" package that I have I can't find a thing.

So, for any readers who have a background in TV listings (!) there's a huge market opportunity for you.

Meanwhile I guess I'll just have to watch it 24/7 to make sure I don't miss anything.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Bordeaux await champions league draw

There's a buzz in the café this morning as our local team wait for the champions league draw later on today.

In theory les girondins could be pitted in a group with Manchester United, Real Madrid and Standard Liege which would certainly put pressure on their current run of fourteen straight wins.

What price a unique double of league winners and champions of Europe for Laurent Blanc and his men?

Actually I've just checked and it's 2/1 & 80/1 about a 10€ win patent chucking in Spurs for the premier league at 33/1. The accumulator alone would pay over 80,000€.
Now that would impress the locals!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

French estate agents still facing problems

A recent report from the Notaires de France states that the number of completed house sales this year could fall to an unprecedented 500,000....the lowest figure since 1992.

As discussed before it's the number of transactions, rather than actual house prices, that are important to estate agents and already 365 FNAIM agencies have closed this year along with some high profile UK specialists such as VEF.

Local towns such as Jarnac, Segonzac, Cognac, Chateauneuf and Angouleme have sadly also seen plenty of agencies go under with many others now for sale.

Private sales seem to be increasing with sites such as and proving popular but you'd have to be an incredibly brave, knowledgeable and adventurous individual to tackle a private sale in a foreign country without professional advice.

Of course there are still an abundance of good agencies around with some cracking properties on their books. Prices across France are reported to have fallen around 8% (although to be honest this figure is pretty meaningless as valuation is such an inexact art in France and the variety of regions & prices renders a country wide statistic pretty useless).

My own view is that the market is recovering slowly from a virtual halt, post Lehmans . I have been retained to find properties by four new clients over the last few months and have bought a couple of really nice properties so far with high hopes for viewing trips in September.
There is still a huge demand from UK buyers to move to France and enjoy the beautiful weather, countryside, pace of life and bargain prices. The tap is back on again and the trickle will turn into a stream for sure (this is the third real property slump of my illustrious career, it's a cyclical business as I'm sure you know).

It's certainly a buyers market and will be for a year or two longer so to maximise the return on your investment I would urge you to use a buyers agent to represent you if you're thinking of taking the plunge.

If you don't fancy the charente valley (in which case you'd appoint me of course) you can find a suitable representative by clicking here.
Meanwhile I'm off out to share a coffee with one of my favourite, surviving, agents and to look through his book to find that "perfect" plot of land I have been retained to find.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Olympic museum misses a trick

We went to the olympic museum in Lausanne when we were on holiday (thanks for the free tickets Fabrizio!).

It's a fascinating place which stirs recent (and not so recent) memories as well as offering a real insight into how the games started.

I couldn't help thinking though that they're missing a huge opportunity. With technology as it is why just settle for physical exhibits such as Bob Beamon's shoes or Muhammad Ali's gloves.
If my kids can play tennis on a wii then why not make the museum truly interactive too.

How about a row of running machines where you can see how much longer than 9.58 seconds it takes you to run 100 metres?

Or why not hit against Steffi Graf, punch against Ali or score a penalty against Argentina. The list of ideas is endless.

All of this would be possible and (taking a leaf out of all modern theme parks) paid for by buying photographs for an extortionate price when you have finished.

The olympics have evolved over the years and I'm sure the museum will catch up....what an attraction it would prove for Lausanne too. It's an absolutely cracking city already and if you've never been then I'd heartily recommend it.

Friday, August 21, 2009

"Luge d'été" proves a hit

I had to interrupt the family holiday for a business meeting in Chamonix.

A huge bonus was the fact that it boasts a truly fabulous summer adventure playground for the kids. The star attraction is a kilometre long bobsleigh track. You take a ski-lift up the mountain and then bomb down on the luge.

The interesting part is that my eldest daughter is usually the less exuberant of the two. She'd rather have her nose in a book than be tackling the big boys at rugby (the youngest came home earlier this year with a cauliflower ear and a beaming smile after stopping Maxime "the truck" in his tracks).

She's obviously a speed freak though and hurtled down by herself at full throttle without a care in the world while her sister liked descending serenely with mum.

Good job you could take the ski-lift back up again as we had to do it again and again....and again.
Back in Annecy we discovered that there was another, steeper, track at the top of "Le Semnoz" and of course we had to compare the two.
Don't be surprised if GB win gold at the two-man bobsleigh event in the 2014 winter olympics.

Why do people in the Lozere not go on holiday?

Just back from a 15 day holiday where we drove right through France to Annecy, Chamonix and Evian les Bains.

Forget about quiet motorways, decent weather, pretty back routes and charming auberges....the very best thing about driving over here is the opportunity to play the "number plate" game.

As you may know, every number plate shows the department (or county) that the car owner comes from, and there are nearly 100 to collect en route. From 01 (Ain) to 95 (Val D'Oise) they stretch from the Northern wastelands on the Belgian border to the sunny Spanish and Italian borders and even Corsica.

Within a couple of hours we'd demolished half of them, not surprising as it was mid August and peak holiday season. By the time we reached Chamonix we had just four to collect and the girls went mad when they spotted another 16 (Charente) at the bottom of the ski lift.

By holidays end we had spotted every number bar 48. Try as we might we couldn't pass someone from the Lozere. This was incredible as we drove right by the department but there you go.

We can only summise that it's so nice in that particular part of South East France that they all stay at home and don't need to have the traditional fortnight in August. Probably more pertinent is the fact that it's the least populated department in the country with an average of just 14 inhabitants per square km and only 26 cars between them (OK, I made that last bit up but you know what I mean).

Fascinating stuff for us and a great way for the girls to become acquainted with the geography of our adopted country.

And, no, I wasn't a train spotter as a kid.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Botham smashes 22 from an over

Just seen the Aussies bowl us out for 102 and so I googled this to redress the balance somewhat.

It still brings a smile to my face.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Would you pay for online news?

News today that Rupert Murdoch is going to start charging for his online newspapers such as The Times, The Sun & the Wall Street Journal.

He's potty. He should ignore his middle aged management consultants and poll some youngsters.

I can see people paying for specialist news on a restricted market. In the UK the online service provided by the Estates Gazette group is first class and value for money.

However, I can't see people paying online for general news, celebrity gossip or even page 3 girls as it's all so freely available.

The newspaper industry is in serious decline but this isn't the answer Rupert. My father actually worked with Murdoch in Fleet Street for 10 years or so in the 1970's but I'm afraid those times (like the old printing presses) are long gone.

If he really wants to turn around the £2bn annual loss then he really needs to hand the reins of News Corporation to some youngsters who can marry new media with the bottom line.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Land registry figures don't lie

Thanks to my old friend Peter Bill for this:

Sales volumes, not prices, are what matter to estate agents. Land Registry figures out this week show they remain awful. The number of new homes sold in London in April 2009 was 3888. This is almost precisely half the number sold in April last year.

Miserable sales figures have been overshadowed by the cheerful news that prices are stabilising. But that is cold comfort to those who make their living on sales commission.
The posh end of the market is where most of the overshadowing takes place. Forget the endless spin about how top end prices are moving up and that rich foreigners are buying again in Knightsbridge, Mayfair or, well, pick you spot.

The fact is that just 121 homes were sold for more than £1 million this April. In April 2008 the number was 246. The number sold over £2 million: two dozen — down from 62 last year.

It's clear that there is currently a certain amount of talking the market up in the media, mostly from agents.

Sadly "House prices crash" and "House prices soar" sell papers while "House prices don't move much" won't quite hit the front page.

Ultimately though, as Peter says, it's the transaction numbers that are the important ones if you earn your living from buying or selling houses.

Guide to markets in Poitou Charentes

Markets play such a huge part in life over here that it's worth looking at this handy guide to where & when you will find them in Poitou Charentes.

We were in Cognac last Saturday and strolling through the market place with friends they were astonished at the diversity of stalls....and then even more surprised when they found a "British" stall selling a range of stock including some incredibly expensive walnut whips (which we bought because we hadn't eaten them for 10 years or so - they're a lot smaller than I remember!).

I guess having a British stand over here is just the same as seeing a specialist French, Italian or Chinese deli in London but it does seem strange.

Now, if only they'd bring back bovril crisps and refreshers!

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

A guide to visiting friends in France

1. Turn up with champagne, wine and plenty of goodies.

2. Take my girls out to Futuroscope from 8am until 8pm leaving me to have a nice quiet day in front of the golf.

3. Insist we turn up a little side street in Bordeaux so that we discover the worlds greatest ice cream shop....and then pay for double scoops.

We've just said au revoir to some good friends from Switzerland who were with us for 10 days (breaking my golden rule of only allowing guests three days at most).

They were terrific. If they wanted to do something they said so straight out and if they didn't fancy doing it they said so too.

Instead of insisting we eat out all the time they came back laden with shopping bags and then cooked for us. As he's Swiss/Italian we even had a terrific "Italian" evening with authentic home cooking & chianti followed by a lethal digestif called limoncello which we sipped while sitting outside during an incredible thunder storm.

It's little things like this that make for special moments. So Fabrizio & Severine, if you want to come back for more next year you'll be welcomed with open arms.

Where to buy in France (1) - Mayenne

OK, I'm biased and think that the Charente (and specifically the river valley between cognac & jarnac) is the best area within France to buy.

However, I'm well aware that everyone is different and that peoples budgets vary from €20,000 to €20 million. So, I'm going to do a series of irregular articles on some of the other areas you should be looking at.

I thought I'd start with Mayenne (53) which is in the pays de la loire in NW France.

It's the kind of place you'd move to if you're looking for authentic France.
It doesn't have the glamour of the cote d'azur or the large expat community found in the dordogne. Instead you'll find a rural landscape with rolling hills, one of the lowest crime rates in France, friendly locals and incredibly cheap property. The average price in the North of the department is around €91,000 which would buy you a 2 or 3 bed holiday home with garden.

Take a look at Laval and the surrounding villages. Laval the capital of the dept & is a pretty market town, bordering the mayenne river, with a population of around 50,000.

The market is near the palais de justice and held every Tuesday & Saturday and whilst there you can enjoy a stroll around the botannical gardens too.

Make sure you also visit the old quarter with it's fine 16th & 18th century houses and two chateaus.
There are plenty of other places to explore in the area including the prehistoric caves at Saulges, the roman remains at Jublains and the renaissance castles of Bourgon and Mesangers. If you want help finding a house in or around Mayenne then I'd suggest you use a professional property finder called Caroline Lakey - she has lived in the area for donkeys years and also happens to offer translation services. You can find a list of her services here.
Next on my series of "where to buy in France" will be Nice.