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 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, 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 -

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 

You may not have heard of (China) or (Holland) but they are both clear market leaders as are (Australia) and (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 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....

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Advance to Jarnac - do not pass go, do not collect £200

My youngest daughter is hooked on Monopoly and, aged nine, consistently bankrupts her sister, mother and (yes even with 25 years experience in the property industry and a tendency to purloin the odd £500 note when he's the banker) her father.

We were all playing last night and I had just been dealt the killer blow of picking up the "Advance to Park Lane" card - not good when the scruffy little urchin had a hotel on it and I had cash reserves of £36.

Having nothing better to do I then started discussing with the senior partner all of the towns & villages we have in the Charente and we agreed that Jarnac & Cognac should undoubtedly equate to the purple properties that denote the prime locations on the board.

(In fact, as you can see from the photo above, there is already a "Poitou Charente" version of Monopoly with Futuroscope in place of Mayfair).

We decided that Chez Downie we're going to make stickers of our own - if it ever gets to production stage I'll post a picture.

The tricky bit will be finding a couple of ropey locations to cover Whitechapel and the Old Kent Road and not letting any of the locals find out!

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Messing about on the Charente...

I took a hooky half day yesterday as I had been invited out on to the river by my good friend Andy.  We both have similar backgrounds in that we had reasonably successful careers back in the UK but moved to France to escape the rat race and enjoy life at a quieter pace.

We met up at the quayside in Bourg Charente, just outside the Michelin starred "La Ribaudiere" restaurant. I assumed that getting the boat from the trailer into the river and prepared for launching would be a complicated affair but before you could say Kenneth Grahame we were up & running and messing about on the river.

If you have never travelled along the Charente between Angouleme & Saintes I beg you to do's a truly beautiful stretch and the locks are a pretty & pleasurable diversion rather than a chore.

Some of the houses are also quite stunning with a mix of brave modern architecture and traditional Charentaise masterpieces. They even put to shame some of the wonderful riverside properties in Henley & Weybridge that we knew so well.

Riverside property here is such wonderful value for money but it's rare that the better houses hit the open market - it really is a case of "local knowledge" winning out if you want to buy the best.

My favourite stretch was along the quayside in Cognac, we sailed majestically by the tourists who were hopping onto the Hennessy boat for their guided tour and it's only really from the middle of the river that you can appreciate the scale and beauty of the Otard chateau.

All in all a cracking day out and a gentle reminder to Andy & myself of how lucky we are to have jumped off the wheel and escaped the cage.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Three tips to help you pay less for your property in France

I usually hate this type of post as I click on them in high anticipation and yet am nearly always disappointed with what I read.

Hopefully this won't be the case with you.

The obvious way to save money (6-7%) would be to try and find the house privately using one of the many online portals, adverts in local papers or the AV boards outside the house itself.

I'm not going to suggest this though as I feel you need to be fluent in French, living here full time and fully conversant with the laws and buying procedure before attempting it.  Over 50% of French purchasers buy privately but it's certainly not for the inexperienced. So:

Tip one: Make sure you collect as much "comparable evidence" as possible to help you negotiate on price.  Don't just look through one estate agent because they are "nice" or speak English.  You wouldn't do it at home and it means you can't possibly get a good handle on market values.  If you have done your homework and seen lots of houses that fit a similar brief (house size, location, condition and plot size) then you will be able to use this information to your advantage when discussing price with the owner.

Tip two: Find out how long the house has been on the market for, if the price has changed during this time and how house prices have changed in the area over the last year or two.  You can find answers to the first two by asking the owner/agent and you can find out answers to the third by looking online. The "Notaires de France" publish this information for houses, apartments and land and you can see the latest figures here.  Once armed with this info you should be able to shave a fair bit off the asking price in the window.

Tip three: Use a currency broker to transfer money across, not your bank.  I know it's easier to just ask your local bank to do it but you can save up to around 3% by using an FX broker.

It's easy to set up an account, you can forward purchase to avoid any nasty surprises and they will certainly save you money.  I have been using these guys since I moved to France as they have a "best rate" guarantee and are friendly & efficient.

That's it then...hope you found these three ideas useful. 

Of course, my number one tip would always be to instruct an experienced and regulated "buying agent" like myself.

But then I'm biased.....

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Negative equity spreads across the USA

There have been some shocking housing figures coming out of the US for a while but I have just read something that took my breath away.

23% (11 million) of all properties with mortgages are in negative equity at present and this rises to 28% if you include people with less than 5% equity in their houses.

Those numbers are staggering. 

I well remember being in negative equity during the early nineties and it was an incredibly gloomy period for my wife and I.

Fortunately we tightened our belts and managed to struggle through without losing our jobs and a few years later we came out of the other side unscathed.

The other thing to remember is that the subsequent years were good to us and we saw a substantial rise in value.

However, some of the regional US figures simply beggar belief and I fear for the homeowners. 

I have never been to Nevada or Arizona and beyond knowing that they're in the west I'd struggle to tell you much about them. 

What I do know however is that, according to this paper from Corelogic, 68% and 50% respectively of all the mortgaged properties in those states are "underwater".

Sixty eight's going to be a long old struggle for many of those people to hold on to their homes.

And when America sneezes....this report in the Daily Telegraph today about the UK housing market and the drop in mortgage lending doesn't make cheery reading either.

I certainly don't want to come across as being at all smug but at times like these it's very comforting to know that the French housing market has the reputation of being predictable and almost dull in its stability.