Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Twitter - 5 "must follow" property people for 2011

There are all kinds of people using Twitter to post their opinions about the property market - so many in fact that it's sometimes difficult to wade through the chaff and find links & opinions that are genuinely helpful.

Listed below are five people that can help with this.  All post reasonably regularly and, while I don't always agree with what they say, I do know that it will be well researched and based upon experience in the field.

So, in no particular order, here are five "must follow" property folk for 2011:

@HenryPryor - an ex Savills agent who, as he says, provides "Objective housing data and comment from BBC Breakfasts' “favourite property expert”.

@MelanieBien - sadly she's an Arsenal supporter but if you can forgive her that you'll be treated to some excellent research and comment. She describes herself as "Director of Communications for independent mortgage broker Private Finance and commentator on all things mortgage and property-related".

@DavidAdamsCH - frequent posts from David Adams, "head of residential at leading property consultancy Chesterton Humberts, discussing the property market in London and around the country."

@PropertyJourn - respected property journalist Graham Norwood, in this era of keen amateur bloggers he's a great example of how far removed they are from what "real" journalism is all about. Describes himself as "Property journalist and author. Devon-living, F1-obsessing, cinema-going, OU-studying, BTL-owning".

@property_whore - the always cheery Nigel Lewis. Nigel is "a property editor and writer who has worked for the Daily Mail, Channel 4 property magazines, propertfinder.com and The Digital Property Group".

Of course, there are plenty of others in the Twitterverse and all of the above are UK based - it's a start though and I'll leave you to start adding others from the USA, continental Europe and further afield.

Please do let me know if there are others you think should be added to the "must follow" list....


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

1 in 5 UK pensioners to emigrate in next thirty years

My early morning reading today was this article on http://www.findaproperty.com/.

Heavyweight bodies such as the Institute of Public Policy Research as well as Age Concern, Saga and the government know one thing - when people retire more and more of them are moving overseas.

But why this seemingly mass exodus of third-age Brits?

The author gives five reasons:

1. We're living longer and retiring earlier - moving abroad can give a new lease of life.
2. Property is often cheaper so we get more for our money.
3. Low cost airlines mean "the world is a smaller place".
4. The weather is usually warmer and life more active.
5. The cost of living is often cheaper.

I think that the first point is an interesting one.  You often hear that people who retire miss their jobs, feel at a loose end and lack challenges in life.

If you do your research properly I'd say that moving to a new country offers all kinds of opportunities, particularly if moving from a small island to somewhere as vast as continental Europe.

When people ask why we moved from the UK in 2003 I give different answers depending upon how I'm feeling. There wasn't one single reason but a whole collection of them.  One answer that does come out often though is that life isn't a dress rehearsal. 

We get one opportunity in life and I want to make the most of it. 

So I say "Best of British" to those pensioners that fancy a change - do your research, get your affairs in order then let your hair down and go for it!


Monday, December 20, 2010

Daily Mail - expats really do have the good life

I came across this article in the Daily Mail which runs the sub-heading "It's safer, cheaper and schools are better abroad".

What a generalisation....is it safer in Afghanistan, cheaper in Japan and are the schools really better in Kenya? 

The good news is that the article pointed me to this research by HSBC bank which does make interesting reading.  I would actually take issue with some of it (particularly the bits on integration) but I will leave it to you to read and make up your own mind as to what the results show.

The two top concerns for ex-pats were firstly "re-establishing a social life" and secondly "missing friends and family". 

Hand on heart I can say that these haven't been an issue for us in the Charente.  We're seven years in now and do feel part of the local community with plenty of friends and a full social diary.  With four airports within easy reach and the TGV on our doorstep we haven't lacked for visits from friends & family either!

The bit where I'd take issue is where only 57% of expats in France said it was easy to make "local" friends compared to, for example, 62% of expats in Russia.  Sorry but I simply don't believe this to be true.

Anyway, have a trawl through and let me know what you think.  I'll leave you with one excerpt that I do believe:

"In contrast, expats moving to countries that score well on the quality of life league table such as South Africa, Spain and France are much less appealing as destinations to those looking for increased career progression and financial gain.  Less than one in five (18%) expats moving to Spain did so for potential financial gain, alongside 26% in France and 40% in South Africa".

It's a great life here in rural SW France but if you're moving out to meet fellow entrepreneurs & make your millions then you'd be better off heading for Paris or the Cote d'Azur!

You're much more likely to meet the beast pictured above than a Ferrari in Jarnac high street and I can't remember the last time that house prices or school fees dominated the dinner party conversations.

Long may it continue....


Monday, December 13, 2010

Is French property a "safe haven"?

There's quite a startling article on This is Money today. It has the headline "Dream is crumbling for home owners in PIGS" and you can read the full story here.

It highlights the drop in house prices in Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain and says that there are "fears that some properties could become unsaleable in the short term".

I have little direct knowledge of these markets but a slight grin did come to my face when I read that buyers from the continent and Russia have kept the Portuguese market buoyant...I'd love to know the transaction numbers that back up that particular assertation!

I guess that the good news from the story comes at the start:

"About 425,000 Britons have homes abroad, according to market research company Mintel, with 6.5m more dreaming of owning a place in the sun".

I'm absolutely convinced that there is a huge wave of UK buyers waiting for "the right time" to buy a property in France and that once confidence is restored transaction numbers of international buyers over here are going to soar.  Of course, nobody can possibly say whether this will be in six months or six years.

What we can say though is that France has one of the most robust and stable property markets in the world.  It is not reliant on buyers from the UK, Russia or anywhere else and historically it simply hasn't been prone to rampant inflation or the subsequent deflation.

As the well named and always articulate Melanie Bien says in the article:

"Ownership should be for the long term, with decisions to buy and sell not based on knee-jerk reactions to what is happening day to day".

And I, for one, can't think of a better long term country to buy in than France.


Wednesday, December 08, 2010

French property portal Seloger to "develop abroad"

You may remember me writing this post saying that German publishing giant Axel Springer were looking to buy the leading French property portal http://www.seloger.com/ which boasts over one million listings across France.

Well, the securities regulator over here, the Autorite des Marches Financiers has just given them the OK to go ahead with the purchase, reported to be for €566 million.

Estate Agent Today is running this story which says:

However, even though the French regulator has said the Axel Springer bid is valid and can go ahead, it’s not a done deal.

Seloger, which has just reported a 12.6% rise in turnover this year, did not seem awfully impressed by its suitor.

However, Axel Springer already owns 12.4% of the portal and says that its offer still stands and it is up to the other shareholders.

And here comes the scary bit: could Seloger come over to the UK? Axel Springer says it wants to see it develop further, “both in France and abroad”.

One thing we all have to bear in mind is that the French do like to buy houses privately with around 50% of all transactions being done this way. 

Websites like http://www.pap.fr/ , http://www.entreparticuliers.com/ and even http://www.leboncoin.fr/ are all incredibly powerful.

I'm sceptical that "abroad" means the already well established UK market, there would be easier nuts to crack across continental Europe.

Still, this is going to be one to watch in 2011.


Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Charente estate agents - my wall of fame

Fortunately I have been pretty busy lately, scouring the countryside (weather permitting) on behalf of four different clients, all of whom want to visit, and buy, either in December or January.  I have racked up plenty of kilometres in the company of many local agents immobiliers.

There are literally hundreds of estate agents on my patch.  Even I don't know them all and I'm living and breathing property out here five days a week, 52 weeks of the year (well, maybe with the odd holiday thrown in, but you get the picture).

Some of these agents really are first class - helpful, professional and trustworthy and so I thought it worthwhile sharing some of my favourites with you.

Cognac - the first house I ever bought on behalf of a client was a small townhouse in the centre of Cognac and we bought it through a delightful chap called Jerome Desset. He has since started his own agency and I have yet to find a more thorough agent out here.

Jarnac - there are some terrific agents in Jarnac including Charente Immobilier and Ariane Immobilier. The one that I would like to highlight though is an agent immobilier called Hervé Pauillac who will be starting an office on behalf of Maison d'Immobilier in the town centre.  It will be a tough market to crack but Hervé is the most honest and mild mannered agent I have worked with and I wish him luck.

Ruffec - I have mentioned them before but I always look forward to viewings with Christophe Guay and his team at TIC Immo.  They are a truly friendly and professional bunch and heartily recommended.

Chateauneuf - there's only one winner here.  I have been working with Don Kingdom of Cabinet Pellet since I started out in 2003 and it's been a pleasure.  We must have shared thousands of cups of coffee while out on viewings and his agency always seems to have something different to offer.

Angouleme - what a crowded market place with nigh on 100 agencies to choose from.  My favourite for sure is John West of Leggett Immobilier.  He's a trained architect and a true professional. When I view houses with him I tend to stand back and listen as he can spot things in an instant that it would take me a week to come up with.

St Jean D'Angely - another town swimming with agents.  My favourites are the little known Immobiliere Saintongeaise and Caroline Knight.  They are a small, friendly agency and I know from experience that Caroline really looks after her clients well, guiding them through the process from start to finish.

Villebois Lavalette - this is a simply stunning town and my first port of call is Anne Montauban of Europ Immobilier.  She's enthusiastic and knows her local market like the back of her hand (or "like her pocket" as they say over here).

Barbezieux - I usually start any searches here by speaking to Georgia Taylor.  She has lived in the area for a while now and her "little black book" of local artisans is almost as full as mine!

La Rochebeaucourt - this is a bit of a cheat as it's Joanna Leggett of Leggett Immobilier.  They actually have agents all over France including Charente, Charente-Maritime and my other neighbouring departments. Their website is one of the best around and Joanna is always most helpful.

Of course these are only a few of the agents I deal with - there are dozens more that could have made this list and apologies to those who I have left out.

If you have the time & inclination to visit them then I'm sure you will be given a warm welcome.

Don't forget though that by appointing me you would automatically be given access to all of these agents plus hundreds more (as well as those notaires who sell houses too). 

The beauty of appointing a buying agent is that we have the time, contacts and local knowledge to help you view everything that is on the market.....and often properties that aren't even being formally marketed or are only for sale privately.

Anyway, hope you found this useful and if you're an estate agent covering departments 16 & 17 and think you have something different to offer my clients then please don't hesitate to get in touch.

Who knows you might even get a mention on my next wall of fame!


Monday, December 06, 2010

Frosty the charentaise snowman

Meet Frosty - he may seem like a pretty feeble snowman compared to UK efforts but I can tell you that getting even a sprinkling of snow in the Charente is a big deal.

Airports, roads and schools were closed for a couple of days and my property viewing schedule ground to a halt.  It's no joke trying to navigate some of these rural French roads when your car is trying to audition for a guest slot on Dancing on ice.

One of the reasons we chose to live in the area around Cognac is the fact that it's the second sunniest part of France, after the Cote d'Azur.  I can't remember the exact figures but think that it gets around 2,400 hours of sunshine a year on average.

Well monsieur le soleil has been pretty conspicuous by his absence these past couple of weeks. 

Mind you, the countryside has been even more impressive than usual.  Here are some pics of my friend Christian Martin and his vineyard in the heart of Grande Champagne. You can see he's not overly impressed with this bizarre "English" weather:

Sadly Frosty has gone off to help Santa prepare for Christmas and normal service has now been resumed with children back at school and a back-log of viewings to be done asap.

'Twas nice while it lasted.


Saturday, December 04, 2010

Is this the worlds best Christmas tree?

The Sofitel hotel in London St. James has gone all out to impress visitors this Christmas. Their festive tree is adorned with Baccarat crystal bottles holding Louis XIII, Grand-Champagne Cognac.

The estimated value of the sixteen-and-a-half-foot creation is more than €50,000.

The 200 miniature bottles were handmade by Baccarat and finished with 24 carat gold. At least five expert craftsmen worked on each bottle, hotel officials say.

I'm thinking of trying to get some press coverage for Cognac Property Services by emulating this feat and filling some miniatures from my old friends at Chez Bacou (remember them from this post?) and hanging them from the €15 tree I plan on buying from Jarnac market.

Sadly though I'm pretty sure that they would all be empty by the time it came to put the angel on the top :-)


Friday, December 03, 2010

Come & say hello at The France Show 2011

As usual I will be making my way to Earls Court for the three days of The France Show, this year it's 14-16th January.  You can see the official website here.

It's always great fun meeting so many people who are interested in moving to France....everyone who comes to the stand has a different story to tell.  I will be on the FrenchEntrée Property Services stand along with colleagues from all over France and it's a great opportunity for us to chat about our different markets.

We will be the only "buying agents" present at the show....all of the other agencies are traditional immobiliers who are mandated by the seller.  If you are still unclear about the difference (shame on you as you're not a regular reader) then click here to see the Wikipedia definition.

Visitors to the show this year will be able to experience the largest French market outside of France as well as try their hand at Petanque, wine tasting or even a language lesson.

Most people will also come and take a look at the Property section and we will be delighted to share our experience of living, working and buying property in France.

You will find us on Stand 91 so please do drop by and say hello.


Friday, November 19, 2010

UK estate agents v French immobiliers...a licence to thrill

The National Association of Estate Agents (NAEA) has today launched it's licensing scheme for UK estate agents.

Housing minister, Grant Shapps has called it a "symbolic moment".

It's something that has been "bubbling under" for many years and it's sure to cause controversy....you can read more about it in this article from Estate Agent today.

For sure, the UK needs to do something to generate a greater feeling of trust in the industry. 

Here in France the industry has far tighter regulations and anyone interested in buying property can easily check out the agency they are dealing with.

The starting place should always be to see their carte professionnelle.  This is issued by the local Prefecture and if your agent doesn't have one then don't use them (you can see my dog eared copy above, it's in a sorry state but you are supposed to carry it at all times).  They're not particularly easy to get and you have to prove a complicated mixture of experience and qualifications.

To get this carte the agent also has to show that they have an up to date garantie financiere (financial guarantee) as well as assurance resposibilité civile professionnelle (PI indemnity).  Further details can be found here.

It may well be that your contact is not the owner or employee of the agency but a self employed "agent commerciale".  If this is the case they must still carry a "white card" attestation, completed by the owner of the original carte and signed off by the Prefecture.

They also need to have their own assurance responsibilité civile professionnelle.

All pretty straightforward really.  Most international buyers are aware of these regulations and the cowboys seem to be diminishing in number (although this could have something to do with the state of the market).

It's an area that the French are ahead of the UK in (along with the compulsory information on the state of the property that is made available to the purchaser) but maybe this NAEA initiative will help improve matters.

Who knows, estate agents may soon shrug off the mantle of being the most hated advisors in the UK....leaving an open playing field for the legal profession :-)


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

My property tips in "French" magazine - the Raymond Blanc special

Following my excellent run of press coverage in the UK nationals (Telegraph, Independent, Standard) and French Property News I have been lucky enough to receive a double page spread in the November/December issue of "French" magazine.

Best of all it's the special edition that has been edited by Raymond Blanc and the whole magazine looks really terrific.

My article is entitled "So many properties...." and it gives some tricks of the trade, as well as showing you how to work out which properties represent the best value for money.

You will find it on pages 78 & 79 and please don't be distracted by M Blanc's life story or four favourite recipes (mind you, "Maman Blanc's" floating island does look truly scrumptious).

You can pick up the magazine at any good newsagent for a most reasonable £3.99, or subscribe directly by visiting their website here.


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Chinese lessons in the charente

There's a big debate in the Downie household at the moment and my reading of this article has only stirred things up further.

The article has the headline "Relocate or wither & die on the corporate vine" and is written by a UK headhunter. It leads with:

Des Hurlby, Human Resources Director at international car maker Jaguar Land Rover, has had ”pointed” conversations with up to five of the company’s best employees urging them to consider moving “out of leafy Warwickshire” to China to help the company capitalise on emerging markets“.

This seems to be coming more commonplace and is a trend that I can only see continuing.
The debate we are having is whether to find someone to give the girls lessons in Mandarin.  There is a Lycee in Angouleme that offers this later on in their education but it's a complicated language and, at just 10 and 11, it would be better to start them early.
The good news is that there is someone advertising locally who offers lessons in the Cognac & Angouleme area.
The quandry is this:
For sure it would give them a huge advantage when they come to leave school.  No matter which career path they choose it's likely that fluency in English, French, Spanish & Mandarin would help them stand out from the crowd.
It's also far easier to learn a language when you are young (I know this from bitter experience).
On the flip-side they already have special English lessons on a Saturday morning and as I have posted before teachers in the French education system give out homework for fun.  Add in gymnastics, swimming, dance & singing and they don't have much free time as it is.
We left London for rural France to escape the rat race and watch the girls grow up in the country. We don't want them to lose the benefits by being continually stuck in a classroom. 
Of course, the ultimate choice will be theirs but it will be interesting to see how the debate evolves....watch this space.

Monday, November 15, 2010

"How the "super rich" go house hunting"

This was the headline in a recent copy of the good old Daily Telegraph.

Their lucky property correspondent had spent the day with a central London buying agency:

I’m the guest of a buying agent, a sleek blade who finds houses for the kind of people who love spending money. I’m feted as if I were a real-life success story, looking for a residence sufficiently grand to showcase this achievement.

It certainly makes a change not to hear: “Ah, I’m afraid you’ve come through to Rupert in the country house department. Would you mind awfully if I popped you over to Barry in our starter homes section? He looks after our valued clients in your bracket.”

You can read the rest of the article here...and jolly well written it is too.

Sadly though it gives the impression that the service we give is just for the very top end of the market.

Let me put that right straight away.  The most common price of houses that I have helped clients purchase over the last seven years has been around the €280,000 mark. 

Yes, earlier this year I was mandated by some international clients who have a budget of €20 million but I have also bought plots of land for clients with a budget of €30,000 and even helped one couple who had a budget of €100,000.

It's a service for everyone and it's growing more and more popular amongst international buyers.

We're not all called Rupert either (and coming from a journalist called Jasper I'd say he's on thin ice with that joke).


Friday, November 12, 2010

Is this the greatest Cognac XO in the world?

I have been inspired to write this post by reading this fascinating article, recently written by my good friend Andy.

When the Downie family escaped the rat race back in 2003 we absolutely fell on our feet by renting a gite in the middle of a vineyard called "Chez Bacou".

It is owned by Christian & Sylvie Martin and they are the eighth generation of Martin's to live there.

We could not have asked for better landlords and now, seven years on, we are lucky enough to call them close friends. 

They have watched our children grow up....indeed Christian is a councillor of the local school and helped get them into the classroom the day after we landed in France. Talk about cutting through red tape!

We too have been fortunate enough to watch their two grow from teenagers into young adults and it's a source of immense pride to them both to see their children become increasingly involved in the running of the vineyard.

As well as adding a new distillery they have recently blended and packaged the magnificent XO that I gave as a present to Andy.  They have only created a tiny quantity and it's something that you simply can't buy in the shops.

I'm lucky enough to have tasted some truly rare cognac's from all the famous houses....Courvoisier, Remy Martin, Hennessy and Martell included.

But, hand on heart, if you asked me to name my favourite I'd say that it's from this small and unknown viticulteur tucked away in the very heart of the grande champagne region.



Armistice day in the Charente

Yesterday was a miserable day in this particular corner of France.

The sky was slate grey, the wind howled and the rain was relentless. It seemed rather fitting that we should have to endure these unusual conditions as a small procession of villagers made our way from the the mairie in Gondeville to the local war memorial.

It's something we do "en famille" every year. At the end of the ceremony, after the minutes silence, the girls join the other school children in singing the rather blood-thirsty lyrics of La Marseillaise.

Last year my eldest was chosen as one of the pupils to have the honour of reading the names of local soldiers carved into the memorial. She did it without faultering and I have never felt so proud.

It was a bank holiday and we went out for lunch afterwards. Of course, the girls were curious about the role that my father had played in the second world war. I explained that, fortunately, he had been born in 1926 and was only a teenager when war broke out. When he was old enough he joined up and was lucky enough to be posted to the far north of his native Scotland where he was tasked with guarding Italian prisoners of war.

His brother wasn't as lucky and was sent to North Africa where he fought the desert fox Rommell and the Afrikakorps.

All war is a dreadful thing - we see a sanitised version on the TV, in the cinema and on our computer consoles. But as the rain and wind lashed around us,  somehow it just seemed right that we should all be soaked to the skin and made to suffer in this most insignificant of ways.

Lest we forget.


Monday, November 08, 2010

French property finders come together in La Rochelle

We had the annual conference of the FrenchEntrée property finder network in La Rochelle last week - and what a terrific venue it is with wonderful restaurants, shops and climate.

It was a gathering of buying agents from all over France and it was most enjoyable to break bread together and to swap best practice.

It's an eclectic collection of professional people and it highlighted the different market places that make up this vast country.

My colleague Janine Zdziebczok had come down from Bayeux on the northern coast of France and brought the house down with her tale of a most demanding search....with a budget of €55,000. Credit where it is due though and despite the ridiculously difficult brief Janine found and bought an absolute gem for her client.

Hop in the car and drive 900 km's south (a journey that would take you 10 hours without stopping) and you would be able to meet Nadia Jordan in Saint Girons. Nadia is just setting up her business and you can read about how she has gone about this in the current issue of French magazine. She's also started an excellent blog that's well worth bookmarking.

It was good to get together with two other new recruits to the network. David Walton is an ex professional footballer (he was goalkeeper for Chelsea while Peter Cech was still in nappies) who now looks after Brittany. Meanwhile, Val Walmsley is quite simply the friendliest and most professional person you could ever wish to meet. She is just putting together her website for the area around Parthenay and as soon as it's ready I will post the link.

There are too many more to mention but I would just like to give a special mention to John Starr who works in the Dordogne & Correze. John is wonderful company and anyone who appoints him would be assured of a warm Irish welcome and plenty of good company.

Finally, during the conference I highlighted one blog in particular as being worthy of following. Alison Morton put together the most comprehensive review & translation of the recent FNAIM figures that I have seen. I for one will be following her posts closely to see what other information she will be kind enough to share.

It truly was a most enjoyable couple of days and I'm already looking forward to doing it again next year.


Thursday, November 04, 2010

French Property News - winter in France

It's (mostly) always nice to be quoted in the press and it can do wonders for your business...just ask Simon Cowell.

I have been particularly lucky this year with comments in the Daily Telegraph, the Independent and Evening Standard among others.

To sit alongside these I now have a three page article in this months French Property News highlighting some of the great buys that are currently available in France and giving some tips on how to make the most of your winter viewing trip. It's the November edition and I'm on pages 50-52.

What was really flattering too is that the editorial team picked me out as one of the key contributors to promote on the contents page - despite me having a face for radio as you'll see if you buy the magazine (price £3.99, available in all good newsagents).

Anyway, I hope that you find time to sit down with a fresh croissant and a piping hot café au lait to read the article in full and that it gives you a small insight into this beautiful country I'm lucky enough to call home.


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

FNAIM say French property market is bouncing back

Sorry, I'm a few days late posting this but I have taken on a couple of new search mandates and have been busy.

I guess that (in a miniscule way) this flurry of activity reflects the October figures from the FNAIM. You can see them in detail here.

According to this august body (it stands for the "national association of French estate agents"), prices in France have stabilised during the third quarter of 2010, with small rises in some areas.

Most importantly though, the number of transactions for 2010 is anticipated to exceed 700,000 with overall price rises of between 2 - 3% predicted by the end of 2010.

As usual I would take the price rise comments with a bucket of salt but the transaction numbers (up from a low of around 570,000 in 2009) are good news.

Of course, for specialists like myself we don't know how many of these buyers are from overseas.... but judging by my ringing phone and pinging emails we may just be seeing the start of a revival here too.


Friday, October 22, 2010

This is why I love the Charente....

We all know that times are tough at the moment, wherever you live. Strikes, petrol shortages, £80 billion cuts in public expenditure, inflation....every time we watch the news on the BBC, CNN or TF1 there's something to be gloomy about.

Yet I drove back from Jarnac this morning with a big grin on my face, counting my blessings.

The sun was shining (again), I passed the school where my youngest is happily ensconced enjoying a terrific education and I was driving through some of the most glorious countryside in Europe. I had been to the bank where I was welcomed with "Hello Mr Downie, how are the girls?" as I walked through the door and has stopped for a sneaky coffee where I was welcomed with "Hello Graham, big game for Bordeaux tomorrow".

What really sums it up though is something we saw on the main 8pm TF1 news last night. My eldest suddenly shouted "That's Luc, he's in my class".

They were running a piece on our neighbouring village Segonzac which is the first in France to be awarded Cittaslow status and had visited her school.

I have blogged about this before but to re-cap, Cittaslow is an international movement of “slow cities”, its symbol being a snail. The movement was first launched in Italy in 1999 and, based on a charter of 70 obligations, pushes cities and municipalities to develop actions revolving around improving quality of life, encouraging local businesses and economies, and respecting the surrounding landscape.

Segonzac is currently undertaking a number of “slow city” worthy actions, such as opening up a new public park, bringing back local businesses, rehabilitating pedestrian and bicycle friendly streets, and creating community gardens.

In our 24/7 world of constant communication I can't tell you how satisfying it is to live somewhere where the art of stopping in the street and just having a good chat with your friends and neighbours is alive and kicking. Where smiles and politeness are real and not manufactured and where community is something found offline rather than just online.


Thursday, October 21, 2010

Looking for a property in Provence?

Just spent a most enjoyable lunch topped off with fresh strawberries from the garden which are still going strong.

It was doubly enjoyable as I was reading this excellent article from one of my colleagues in the FrenchEntrée Property Finders network.

Neil Ranadé hits the nail on the head when he says:

But, in a society that is, by and large, cash rich and time poor, it is interesting to know at what point using a property finder makes economic sense. After all a good property finder should be able to find you exactly the home you want and be able to save you enough money to cover their fees and a celebratory drink in the nearest bar once the deal is done.

Reading the full article it's clear that it's not just in the UK that the buyer is seeking professional representation in this most important of transactions. If you are an international purchaser buying in France then, as Neil says, it's a "no brainer".

So, if you're looking to find something special in Provence and want professional representation I heartily recommend you visit Neil's website here.


Tour de France 2011 - where can you watch it?

Had to share this excellent video showing the route of next years Tour de France.

If you have never seen it live I can't emphasise enough what an amazing spectacle it is for all the family.  If you're thinking of coming to France next year on holiday why not make it some time between the 2nd and 24th July and come join in the fun.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Tour de France 2011 - they've nicked our route

Regular readers will know that next year will see me celebrate (if that's the right word) my 50th birthday by tackling a ridiculously difficult cycle ride from Lourdes, over the infamous Col du Tourmalet and back to my home in Cognac.

I'm not alone in this rather bonkers venture and my prospective companions range from a veteran of many Tour de France stages to one of my best friends who doesn't yet own a bike.

So blow me down with a feather when earlier today the organisers of the tour announced the route for 2011.

Stage 12 sees Alberto Contador and friends tackle the Tourmalet and then Stage 13 sees them swoop down from Pau to, you guessed it, Lourdes.

Talk about stealing our thunder.

Seriously though it has made me realise that if I'm to make this epic journey of over 500 km's then I must (for the first time in my life) break out into a sweat and practice for it.

So, dear reader, come rain, hail or snow I'd like your support this coming winter. Even if it's just the odd email or comment asking me how the training is coming along.

The real Tour may well take the limelight and centre stage but the supporting act of Lourdes to Cognac will be a significant milestone for those taking part.


Kirstie Allsopp - my battleplan for buyers

I read this article in the Daily Telegraph from the ubiquitous Kirstie Allsopp and thought she was talking a lot of sense.

It's not rocket science but she tells us how to get the most out of estate agents (as she says, they're not the devil incarnate), how important it is to have your financing in place, how to do your "due diligence" and reminds us of the importance of checking out the neighbours.

I hadn't actually realised that Kirstie too used to be a buying agent.....it makes me like her a bit more now.

I particularly liked the bit where she says to beware of mod cons:

Remember, what’s state-of-the-art today won’t be in five years’ time. I wouldn’t touch a house that makes a big deal out of having the latest technology.

It's true that many buyers seem impressed by the fixtures and fittings rather than the one thing that truly matters.....the location.

If you're buying in France I'd say that you should also make sure that you have a full understanding of the process that you are about to undertake and, above all, make sure that you have a good knowledge of the local market and have spoken to a cross section of agents.

An efficient notaire will also help smooth the process immeasurably, some of them are still stuck in the dark ages and if you are buying from afar it can prove frustrating.


Monday, October 18, 2010

FT - fall in interest rates draws buyers to France

There's a lovely article in the Financial Times that you can see here. It starts with this statement:

Wealthy borrowers are buying second homes in France after mortgage rates fell to the lowest level since the postwar period last month.

Mortgage brokers have reported an increase in the number of large loan deals being arranged on French property purchases over the past few months, driven largely by the low mortgage rates available. France has traditionally been the most popular location for British buyers of top-end second homes.

It then goes on to say:

The French mortgage market has remained stable during the credit crisis, with banks and lenders showing a strong appetite for lending to foreign investors.

The majority of lenders are happy to lend around 80 per cent loan-to-value – and some offer up to 100 per cent of the value of the property, though buyers must borrow at least €300,000 and have minimum earnings of €90,000.

Buyers can get rates as low as 2.20 per cent, available up to 80 per cent loan-to-value. Borrowers can choose between variable rates, capped variable rates and fixed-rate mortgages – which tend to be the most popular in France.

You can see a "best buy" table of French mortgages by clicking here.


Buying agents currently going the extra mile (or kilometre)...

I had a wry grin when I read this article on The Move Channel.

County Homesearch has a network of buying agents across the UK and they say that with the current market they are having to look a lot harder to find houses that fit their clients brief.

County Homesearch has reported a 100% annual increase in the number of properties visited by its agents before finding the right home for their clients, with some visiting up to three times as many properties now compared to a year ago.

This certainly reflects the changes in my own business over the last 18 months. I have just finished a search that took me from the northern Charente to southerly Charente Maritime.

There's 100 km's between them which I guess highlights one of the major differences between agents in the densely populated UK and those of us in rural France. My clients were very specific on the type of house & gardens that they wanted, as well as the kind of countryside they were looking for. However, when it came to exact location they were less fussed.

If you don't live and work over here you would have no chance of properly scouring the market over this kind of area.

Fortunately I'm aware that my clients have financing in place and are keen to move as soon as I have found the right house for them.

Don't feel too sorry for me though.....I have attached two pics showing the views at a couple of the stunning properties I have been lucky enough to visit.


Monday, October 11, 2010

French interest rates lowest since 1945

I saw an interesting article by Sextant Property over the week-end.

It points out that interest rates in France are the lowest they have been since 1945 with an average of 3.3% last month. They say:

The lowest previously recorded rate was 3.36% dating to the fourth quarter of 2005, the authors of the study remind us. “The financing conditions of the banks are still excellent, and their active commercial strategies are the root cause of this record”, explains Michel Mouillart, economics professor at the University Paris X-Nanterre.

If you read my previous post about comments made by the US investment guru John Paulson it adds credence to the arguments made by the "buy now for long term growth" supporters.

You can see an up to date "best buy" table of mortgages by clicking here.


Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Investment guru Paulson bullish on property

"If you don't own a home, buy one. If you own one home, buy another one, and if you own two homes buy a third and lend your relatives the money to buy a home."

These are the bullish words uttered earlier this week by John Paulson.

"Who is he" I hear you cry...well, he's the highly controversial multi-billionaire investment genius who became famous in the USA for going "short" on subprime mortgages a few years ago.

He told a standing room only crowd in NY's university club that they are on their way to double digit inflation which will kill the bond market and restore strength to equities, gold and property.

You can read more about his speech in this blog on the Forbes website.

With some great long term mortgage deals on offer I have to say that I think his timing may well prove to be impeccable even if his words may seem a tad provocative given the current market situation.

ps: it was thanks to a tweet from a Chicago based realtor @homepartner that I picked up on Mr Paulson's speech.


The 5 best things about living in France

I'm often asked about our life over here and how it differs from our experiences in the UK.

My stock reply is that it isn't necessarily better it's just different and that those differences happen to suit our personal circumstances. Listing five that I like is pretty arbitrary and a straw poll of one person should probably be taken with a pinch of salt.

Of course, this list is also based upon our life in rural Charente and our personal experiences out here since 2003. If you're an expat reading this in central Paris then you may well see things differently!

1. The education system - let's kick off with a controversial one as the French system has taken a bit of a kicking in the press recently. We have found the teachers to be experienced and caring and we like the fact that they are sometimes quite strict. Classrooms are disciplined with polite pupils. They are also well funded and even in our rural village the teachers use "state of the art" kit. We have regular meetings to discuss how the girls are progressing and can check their regular test results (and attendance record) on a secure online site. Oh and the lunches are excellent.

2. The role of the "family" - this plays a huge part in life over here and we love it. Family life is cherished and you can really sense how close knit the community is. Maybe the school hours have something to do with it as we see plenty of grand-parents looking after the youngsters while the parents are still at work and then everyone sitting down to eat together. I can't name a single one of our French friends who allow the kids to eat in front of the TV.

3. The lack of importance given to "stuff" - I know, it sounds weird doesn't it. When we were living & working in London we had a simply huge joint income. We didn't save we just bought "stuff". My friends come to visit from the UK and they come armed with Blackberries, i-pad's, i-pod's, laptops and all kind of apps and gadgets. Sure it means that they are in constant communication and can download the latest episode of X Factor, Big Brother or Strictly Come Dancing but come on.....the endless pursuit of "stuff" hasn't really caught on here yet and I hope it never does.

4. The climate - again, if you're up in Brittany you might beg to differ but it makes a big difference to our life here. On average we get around 2,400 hours of sunshine a year and it helps bring a smile to our face. Put simply I'd rather be on a bike ride with the girls in the sunshine than in the rain.

5. Property prices - they are affordable and relatively stable. Sure you are never going to get the potential for short term gains that you can get in the UK but if you look at what you actually get for your money it's hard to beat. The average price of an "old" house in and around Cognac is currently €136,700 and, in general, I think they are simply amazing value for money compared to other parts of Europe.

So there we go. Of course, it would also be easy to create a list of the worst things about living here (red tape, lots of strikes etc) but for the Downie family they really do pale into insignificance against the positives.


Monday, October 04, 2010

How to value French property...

Last month I was mandated by some international clients to find a chateau & vineyard close to Bordeaux.

The lead originally came from the team at FrenchEntrée and they have some excellent existing relationships with immobilers who specialise in this type of property.

We sourced some spectacular places and so, last Saturday, I met my clients at their hotel and we spent a day viewing a couple of them.

We stopped off at a local restaurant for lunch (it's near Langon and is called Le Nord Sud, I heartily recommend it...you can see their website here) and over a terrific meal we had an interesting discussion about how you value a chateau & vineyard.

Clearly one needs to look at it as an existing business but then you also need to factor in:

  • the value of the chateau itself and any other buildings
  • the value of the vineyard and land (soil type, orientation)
  • the stock of wine currently held in the cellars
  • the machinery that comes with a working vineyard
  • the "x factor" that is given by the history of the property & grounds
Some of these are incredibly specialist areas.

I have a very good friend who is cellar master at Polignac which is one of the leading brands of Cognac. For ten years he was also the cellar master at one of the leading Bordeaux producers in the Medoc. He tells me that while he is perfectly capable of tasting and testing the existing wine stock he would not be able to give an accurate forecast as to its worth - that's a different job entirely.

Similarly, one of the chateau's that we visited is the former home of one of the world's most famous post impressionist painters. What kind of value does this add to the property?

So, at the end of our lunch we decided that any valuation has to include a combination of balance sheet analysis, collective expertise and comparable evidence...but it's also going to include plenty of shoulder shrugging and a dash of "je ne sais quoi".


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

It's "vendange" time in the charente

The weather is still pretty decent at the moment so we've been sleeping with the windows open.

For the last couple of days we've been woken at 6am by the local viticulteur driving past in one of these beasts on his way to work...they're quite a sight, almost like something out of War of the Worlds.

The local lanes are also buzzing with the smaller tractors scurrying along with trailer loads of grapes. They need to crush them as soon as they're picked and it's always fun watching our totally laid back Charentaise friends and neighbours suddenly rushing too and fro....it only lasts a few weeks mind before they revert back to norm.

This year it looks as though it's going to be a decent harvest so the 5,000 farmers in the Charente should be fairly happy.

For info, a hectare of vines in Grand Champagne costs roughly €35,000 (compared to an average agricultural value of €5,000 across France) and around 150 million bottles of cognac are sold each year.

My good friend Andy has some much better photos (and more interesting accompanying words) on his blog which you can access here.


Friday, September 24, 2010

Guest blog - The internet enabled agent

Jim Muttram - MD, Reed Business Information

I first became involved with the commercial property industry in 1995 when I was asked to move to Estates Gazette and launch EGi. At that time we weren't even sure that it should be an internet delivered product; the majority of the big services at that time were dial-up including giants like Compuserve and AOL.

The internet was only just making significant inroads into the US that year so it was very early days for an internet service in the UK - and the property industry was one of the first ones in.

The challenge in those first few years was to talk to as many surveyors and property professionals as possible as convince them that the internet was here to stay and that information on the desktop was going to be the way of the future.

We achieved that, and became the leading information service for the sector, but in the subsequent years other industries took up the baton in eclipsed internet usage in property. I moved off EG in 2004 and it wasn't until 2008 that I got another chance to work with the sector again.

And what I found was surprising - technology use in property was still a bit behind the times - property data was still being manually collected using incompatible spreadsheets and phone calls rather that the slick data collection I had seen in other industries.

And yet smart phone and Blackberry use was among the highest I had seen.

Desktop analytics was still in its infancy in the industry. And yet I noticed thousands of property people on LinkedIn.

I think I now know the answer to these conundrums; the property industry is a people industry and it is very mobile. While they have been happy to use desktop tools to do their work they've never been truly happy with the situation.

So I sense that we may be on the verge of a real tipping point here. Mobile, after so many years of promise, is finally here. And social media has finally arrived big time - LinkedIn, for example, has more than 70 million users. Putting the two together, and adding in location services, and enhanced reality capabilities such as Layar I can see very exciting things about to happen and the commercial property industry regaining the lead that it once enjoyed all those years ago.

Jim Muttram, Managing Director, Reed Business Information

RBI are Europe's biggest online and offline publisher.
Jim looks after the prestigious Estates Gazette Group and is also responsible for the ICIS and Flight groups.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

France tops "best place to live in Europe" poll

I could have been mean here and used the Daily Telegraph headline of "British Isles - worst place to live in Europe" but I simply don't believe that's true.

It's that time of year again when Uswitch announce the results of their quality of life index. You can see their full press release, including all the methodology and tables here.  They say:

France, which has topped the index for the second year running, enjoys the earliest retirement age, spends the most on healthcare (11% of GDP) and has the longest life expectancy in Europe. Its workers also benefit from 36 days holiday a year – compared with just 28 in the UK – and it comes only behind Spain and Italy for hours of sunshine.

As it stands, people in the UK can expect to work four years longer and die two years younger than their French counterparts.

I do love that last bit....now, what shall I do with those twenty four extra months?


French estate agents - the tricks of the trade

I'm just back from a trip to the UK where I met up with the team from FrenchEntrée and my colleague Rebecca Russell from Cote Abode who had flown in from Nice.

After a full on day of brainstorming and plotting our marketing strategy for 2011 we hit the pub and, over a chilled glass of wine, started telling war stories of the tricks that some local immobiliers get up to.

Rebecca kicked off with with the tale of a local agent on the Riviera who had added 10% to all of the room sizes in an apartment. This would be bad enough in the charente where prices are low but it's a dastardly trick in Nice.  Fortunately Rebecca is eagle eyed, diligent and a terrier when it comes to negotiating on behalf of her clients.

I then pitched in with a story I have previously posted - the one where an immobilier in Cognac put a picture of the next door house on his website and in his shop window because "it was prettier".

Guy had a similar tale.  He had been looking to buy in Aubeterre and had enquired about a particularly pretty house, only to be told it had just been sold. 

He bought something else but when he was next over he saw the same house in the agents window.  A few discrete enquiries with his neighbours revealed that it actually belonged to the cousin of the owner of the agency.  It's used to get people through the door where they can be shown other "legitimate" houses.

Gaelle, who is from Dijon, laughed out loud at this and said it's so common that the French even have a name for this:

"Le produit d'appel".

It made me chuckle too.... but I suspect that if you have spent time and money coming over to specifically view one of these non existent properties then you wouldn't be joining in quite so heartily.


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Huge rise in interest for French property say Conti Financial Services

Research out this week from Conti, a financial services group, shows that France is extending its lead as the most popular place for UK property purchasers.

You can see their full press release here.

They say that France remains the top place for Britons buying properties overseas, accounting for twice as much interest as any other country.

The research also shows that 43% of the inquiries Conti had received so far this year had been about France, up from 31% in 2009.

Interest from potential British buyers has tripled during the past two years as people took advantage of reduced property prices and low interest rates.

It added that the French mortgage market was also very stable, due to the conservative approach adopted by the country's financial institutions in the past. Banks in the country are in a strong position to lend and many will still advance 100% of a property's value.

Of course there is a huge difference between making an enquiry and signing the Compromis de Vente but this research does make me a tad more optimistic about things for 2011.

Hopefully I will experience this demand first hand when I meet some of you at The France Show in a few months time.


Friday, September 17, 2010

Autumn in the Charente

As usual I took the dog out for a walk this morning before settling down into my days work (have just been mandated to source a chateau & vineyard for some international clients so there's plenty to do).

It's been so nice lately that I keep meaning to take my camera - but old age is obviously setting in and each morning I let out a little curse as I enter the vines and realise that I have forgotten it again.

Until this morning.

I'll try and remember to take some more snaps when the viticulteurs begin picking the grapes but meanwhile I hope that this gives you a little taster as to the extraordinary and unspoilt beauty of this particular part of France.


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

French house prices over the last 5 years

Regular readers will know that I'm of the firm opinion that there is no such thing as a useful "general" house price indices.

I believe that all data is made up of "micro" markets and to say that UK house prices fell by 25% or that French house prices rose by 7% is useful only for stimulating discussion around the dinner table or for generating headlines in the popular press.

So with that caveat in place I'd like to share with you some figures from the Notaires de France who calculate that for an old house (as opposed to say a new build apartment) countrywide prices have done the following:

2005/6   +14.2%
2006/7   +9.7%
2007/8   +5.4%
2008/9   -2%
2009/10  -6.3%

Vaguely interesting but where it gets (a little) useful is if you drill down into each department (I live in Charente within Poitou Charente) and you can see how local prices have fared.

You can do all this by clicking here.

The RICS seem to generate huge volumes of press coverage each month with their regular bulletins (lead story on the BBC yesterday, mass coverage in all the nationals) yet in France the Immoprix figures pass with only a fraction of the media frenzy across the channel.

Perhaps they should think about headhunting the RICS press officer to get things rolling.


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

French property - so what exactly is a "buying agent"?

I set up my business in France in 2003 when you could literally count the number of buying agents on one hand.  As regular readers have probably guessed, I love my job and many of my clients have become friends.

Since then, thanks largely to tv shows on TF1 and M6, our number has increased and we even have our own national federation - http://www.fnci.fr/

I have delved into Wikipedia to help me explain what we do and you can see their definition here.  They are talking about the UK market but the principle remains the same.

They are people acting as agents on behalf of a buyer and not the seller, as do traditional estate agents whose job is to obtain the maximum price for a property for the seller. Buying agents represent the buyer's interests and normally undertake negotiations on their behalf to acquire a property for the best possible price and terms.

The main advantages of using a buying agent are the savings in time and money and access to properties not available on the open market. Whilst nearly all charge a registration fee (anything between £500 and £2500) and a percentage of the purchase price of the property (usually between 1.5% and 2% of the sale price) the agent’s negotiating skills and access to properties before they reach the open market often mean that clients purchase properties for substantially less than they would if they went to estate agents or vendors directly.

Couldn't have put it better myself. 

For info my fees are €500 then 2.75% and you are tapping in to over 25 years experience of the international property market.

Feel free to get in touch.

That's it...shameless plug over!


French property portal hits the jackpot

If you are reading this in the UK you are sure to know of Rightmove & Primelocation.  In the USA you will be familiar with Realtor, Trulia and Move.com. 

You may not have heard of Soufun.com (China) or Funda.nl (Holland) but they are both clear market leaders as are Realestate.com.au (Australia) and Gdeetotdom.ru (Russia).

Property portals are big business, yet they have only really been around for the last ten years.

This week in France, Axel Springer offered the best part of €500m for SeLoger.com which is the leading portal here in France.  I know they sound like the lead singer of a rock band but Axel Springer are actually Europe's largest newspaper publisher.

SeLoger shares rose 32% at one stage and the company is valued at around €630m.

It's a bold move in what is a ridiculously fast moving market. No one in the world could accurately predict how the whole house buying process is going to change over the next 5, 20 & 50 years.

The market hangs on every word that the Google PR machine puts out (or doesn't put out which is often more effective) but don't forget that Google reached market dominance in a relative micro-second.

As each day goes by estate agents are being squeezed and their business models are being scrutinised.  A power shift is taking place away from the seller towards the buyer.

Who knows where it will all end but as "Deep throat" says in All the Presidents Men:

"Follow the money".


Friday, September 10, 2010

Angouleme - Circuit des Remparts 2010

There's only one week to go until the annual Circuit des Remparts in Angouleme.

Classic cars aren't really my cup of tea but having been in Le Mans by accident during the "classic" (not to be confused with the 24 hour race) earlier this summer I'm sure that it will be similar fun.

Angouleme is quite a lively place anyway and when you fill it with hordes of Terry Thomas look-a-likes and their WAG's it becomes even livelier.

The event takes place on September 17th, 18th and 19th but if you haven't booked your hotel yet I'd say that you'll probably need to stay outside the city centre as it gets pretty busy. 

Enjoy the show....