Monday, December 10, 2012

Jarnac Cycling Club (Velo Club de Jarnac)

Following my post about integrating into the local community I thought it would be good to share my experience of joining the local cycling club.  If you're only interested in property related posts then turn away now.

Regular readers will know that I had a kind of epiphany before my 50th birthday last year and decided to get fitter and undertake a bit of a bike ride.  Getting up from the couch felt great and I have tried to stay active and keep cycling ever since.

I don't want to mislead you....I've never been particularly sporting and you don't shed thirty years of inactivity overnight.  I'm not going to be entering races but I do fancy riding regularly so I have joined Les Poissons Rouge which is the name of the Jarnac cycling club.

Bizarrely, there is no entry fee, nor annual subscription.  You do however need to pay €50 pa for your licence & insurances and you need a doctors certificate to say that you're in reasonable shape.  You're also encouraged to purchase some items of team kit so that the team looks good when out on a club ride.

It's a friendly club with an excellent local reputation.  There are around 60 members and the Patron is a professional cyclist called Lloyd Mondory who rides for AG2R.  He's from the area and his parents are members - each year he'll come back for a ride or two and I'm particularly looking forward to sharing the peloton with a guy who rides the Tour de France each year.

This week-end I went out for my first ever group ride which was quite a nerve racking experience.  I had no idea how fast they would go or what the etiquette is for riding in a bunch.  Would I be dropped after 500 metres and left to turn around and trudge home by myself?  Unlikely as my father-in-law (who devoted all of 2011 getting me up the Col du Tourmalet) was there too but he takes these rides seriously and you never know!

We met in Jarnac town centre, opposite the imposing Courvoisier chateau.  There were about twenty people there and they're a friendly bunch.  It was sunny & mild so I was bare-legged with no wind jacket.....this caused a mixture of hilarity & consternation as everyone else was wrapped up like polar explorers.  I was also the only person who didn't have a drop handlebar road bike (I ride a Boardman Hybrid Comp as I find it more comfortable and didn't need a second mortgage to buy it) but no-one seemed to give two hoots.

Off we went and it took me twenty minutes or so to get used to the hand gestures and general movement in a group.  Wind resistance is much reduced and you ride 20-30% faster than when on your own.

We cycled for around two and a half hours and the truth is that it was a breeze.  I struggled up the hills because I'm big & heavy but I didn't get dropped and I loved every minute.  I didn't time it but suspect we were averaging around 28-30 kmh and people were chatting throughout.

Whether you are contemplating expat life or are an established expat already I'd heartily recommend joining a club like this and I wish I'd done it sooner. You don't need to be ultra fit either, my friend Paddy joined Jarnac chess team as soon as he arrived here and was soon jetting all over Poitou Charentes for club matches.

As we were riding round, one of the regulars said he liked the fact that my father-in-law and I give the club an international flavour and that they have a Spanish chap join them from June each year.

Wonder if his name is Alberto something......

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Dismal failure of the Norman Tebbitt "cricket test"

I took my youngest through to Cognac last night for one of her bi-weekly gym practice sessions.

If there's a competition she's proud to wear the club colours but last night had a leotard with a sparkly union flag on the front.

It got me thinking back to 1990 and the infamous "cricket test" suggested by the Tory MP Norman Tebbitt.  He said that those immigrants who root for their native countries rather than the England cricket team lacked loyalty to their new country.

He'd have a fit at some of the things the Downie family get up to but I'd argue strongly that we have integrated well and are a positive force in both local and national life.

Let's start with the "well integrated" bit:
  • we all speak the language (albeit in my case with a horrible accent & plenty of mistakes in my conjugation). Indeed, both daughters are within the top 5% of their class in French.
  • we pay our taxes - 19.6% TVA on all our sales, income tax, professional tax, taxe d'habitation, taxe fonciere and, of course, the huge social charges to pay for the famously good healthcare, schooling et al.
  • we do our bit for the community. Whether it's being a member of the PTA, taking the local school children on field trips or simply frequenting the local bars and restaurants. My proudest moments in France have been when the girls have been chosen to read out the names of fallen soldiers at memorial services.
  • every year we help out with the grape picking at our mates vineyard. It's been in his family for generations and it's the highlight of the year.
  • we have oodles of other friends locally.  We go to them for dinner or they come to us.  We stopped being "La Famille Anglaise" years ago and are now simply "Les Downies".
Now for the bit that would make Mr Tebbitt choke on his fish & chips:
  • I read L'Equipe every day but it's the only French paper I like.  For news other than sport I'll go online to the Guardian, Telegraph or London Standard.
  • The only French TV we watch nowadays is the weather and the football on Canal Plus.
  • I'm joining the local Jarnac cycling club.  I'll happily wear the club kit on our Saturday club runs but the rest of the week I'll be in my Team Sky jerseys.  This July I'll be cheering on Wiggins & Froome not Thomas Voeckler & Pierre Rolland.
  • During the 6 nations I'll invite my French friends round as usual.  But they'll have to enter through a swathe of Union Flags and drink pints of English beer....strangely this never seems to be a problem for them.  They give it to me in spades if France win and they get it back if Les Rosbifs triumph.
I suspect you get my point.  France is my second favourite rugby team, Bordeaux are my second favourite football team and if a Brit doesn't win Le Tour then I hope a french cyclist does.

I don't think that makes me disloyal to France, I just think it makes me loyal to the country of my birth. 

That's as far as I'd got before the gym session ended and it was time to head home for supper.

French onion soup :-)

Monday, November 26, 2012

French property market 2012 and prospects for 2013

It's that time of year again - industry folk look back over the last 12 months and make predictions for 2013.

The former is relatively easy but the latter is simply a case of wetting your finger and sticking it in the wind....who knows what will happen to the European economy, the euro itself or the effects of the changes and austerity measures being introduced by our new President.

Let's start with 2012.

On a macro level it looks as though the overall number of French property sales will be around 650,000 which is quite a drop on the 790,000 we saw in 2011.  The market definitely slowed in 2012 and despite the many front page headlines talking about soaring prices in Paris and on the Cote d'Azur I'm dubious that any region is currently showing price growth. 

Latest research from the Notaires de France says that some areas buck the trend and they quote Limoges as seeing a 7% rise, Toulouse an increase of 4.5% and Lille rises of 2.9%.....don't forget though that these figures are already well out of date and I'd take them with a healthy pinch of salt.

Closer to home I'm certainly seeing plenty of local agents dropping prices from what were pretty optimistic levels.  I'm not saying that prices are in freefall or anything dramatic like that but it seems to me that a) only properties in the best locations are selling and b) they have to be priced realistically to do so.

Forecasting anything for 2013 is pretty much a lottery and my family & friends all know that my ability at tipping stocks, shares or the winner of the X Factor is dire.

However, I'd be surprised if transaction numbers for 2013 weren't between the 600-650,000 range, ie showing another slight decrease and another tough year for those of us who earn our money in this arena.

I'm not going to forecast anything to do with prices as the conflicting figures we are presented by the notaires, FNAIM, INSEE and others are meaningless.

What I will say though is that I don't think we'll see many areas being touted as having rises or falls of more than a few percent.  I sense a pretty flat market which, given what is going on in the rest of the world, may not be a bad thing.

As I have said before, international buyers come to France for a mixture of reasons - around 40,000 of them bought in France last year and I'd predict that this number won't change much either way this year.  The sunshine, great food, world class wine and welcoming culture are happily pretty much recession proof!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Ed Sheeran plays Little Things at Le Trianon, Paris

One of the great things about living just outside Cognac is the access to live music.

Many of the bars & restaurants have live acts at the week-end and, of course, there's the famous Blues Festival each summer - this year Tom Jones & Sting were the headline acts.

Sometimes you have to go further afield though and having seen Bruno Mars in Nantes we found ourselves in Paris last week-end.

More specifically we were at a terrific venue called Le Trianon in Montmartre. It's a sumptuous theatre and, best of all, it holds just 1,500 people.

The queues for Ed Sheeran began first thing in the morning and the doors didn't open until 7.30pm. We got there an hour early and joined the back of a snaking line.

The theatre was spectacular and intimate - the warm up act "Passenger" set the crowd alight and couldn't stop commenting on how good it was to be so close to the audience.

This theme continued when Ed Sheeran took to the stage. He was in a good mood as the song "Little things" which he had written when he was just 17 and recently given to One Direction had gone to number one in the UK that day. He was proud that it was his first number one and said that he was never going to sing it again as it now belonged to another act.

However.....he asked if he could sing it one last time. Better than that, he liked the intimate atmosphere so much he wanted to strip it back and use just his guitar and his microphones.

He asked the crowd for absolute silence and the next few minutes made the hairs stand up on the arms of all 1,500 people who were there to witness it. Spellbinding.

You can get a taster from the video above (not mine, pinched from You Tube) but I guess you really had to be there.

Who knows, maybe he'll headline the 2013 Cognac Blues Passions.....

Friday, October 19, 2012

A day in the life, or a life in the day....

When I meet new people the two questions that I'm most often asked are "What's it like living in France" and "What do you do for a living"?

I thought that I'd try and answer both questions in a single post by taking you through a typical day (if there is such a thing).

Morning - up early and in the office to answer emails that came in through the night (I'm trying to get a business off the ground with some brokers in Florida and they are six hours behind and tend to mail me in the wee small hours) and to plan my day.

Quick break at 8.10am as it's my turn for the school run and I pack assorted children - some mine - into the car and weave my way through the tractors and grape pickers.

Then it's off to Cognac and environs for some house viewings.  I'm mandated by some UK clients who are looking for a mill or waterside property and I have three properties to see this morning.  Two are hopeless but one could well make the shortlist.

Time for lunch and I stay in Cognac and make an unannounced visit to one of my favourite agents - he happens to be free so we grab a quick "plat de jour" on the main square.  Place Francois Premiere in the centre of Cognac is always full of tourists and today is no exception.  It's also good to see that the hotel on the square has opened again after the refurbishment.  You can get a feel of how good it looks now by seeing it here.

Afternoon - back to the office after lunch to call a notaire.  I have clients buying a house with three lakes - unfortunately the state only has knowledge of one of them so the red tape has become somewhat entangled.  The upshot is that my clients will rent the property for a few months while the paperwork is sorted - not ideal for either party and a potential minefield but probably the best solution.

Then it's on to a new experience for me.  I have clients in Dubai who have been looking to buy a house I found for them at auction.  It's proving difficult as the lawyer handling the sale wasn't too pleased to give us access to see it in the first place (and only did so because I kicked up a fuss) and now doesn't want to let a surveyor in to give his opinion until the official viewing programme starts.  As this is just a few days before the auction itself it doesn't leave much time for making decisions and arranging finance.

I speak to surveyor, avocat and huissier (who has the keys) and wonder why I ever came to this country with it's archaic property processes!

The end of the day is spent working with some of my colleagues in the FrenchEntrée Property Finders network.  This is a collection of buying agents spread across France and I'm a part owner in the business which follows my business model of acting exclusively for the buyer.

The guys at Brittany Gems have just tied up a really nice purchase for some clients and Stephen calls to update me.  He's thrilled - but not as delighted as his client who thanks him for "the most amazing support, you have achieved the practically impossible, given my dream list".

That's pretty much it for the day but I just have time to press "send" on my latest article to the editor of FrenchEntrée magazine.  Hope you like it Justin!

Monday, October 08, 2012

Vendange time in the Charente

It's that time of year again.

The school run takes five minutes longer, the roads on my Sunday cycle rides are covered in mud and squashed grapes and most of my French friends are working seven days a week from dusk until dawn.

The sleepy old Charente comes to life at this time of year and I love it.  I was going to make this post about the grape picking process but my friend and near neighbour Andy has done it a million times better than I could in this post. (I have taken the liberty....again....of pinching one of his pics as you will see if you visit his excellent blog "Prunings from the Vines").

Instead I'll give you a little insight into the Cognac Property business empire.

Successful corporates understand the need to make work fun and motivate employees.

Google has a "play" area in its offices to aid creativity among staff.  My lifelong buddy Tim is COO of a big ad agency and has a table football area for use by clients and staff which helps stimulate the creative juices.

I have my "chemin blanc".

You see, most lunch times I take Paxton the black lab out for a walk in the vines and we invariably end up on the same rough track which wends its way back to my garden.  Usually it's deserted and allows me to prioritise work, get my thoughts in order and plan my business.

This week we're sharing the vines with huge machines straight out of War of the Worlds and my attention is diverted.  It's a small price to pay though - Paxton and I take our time and watch as the workers pick the grapes, transfer them onto a trailer, hook them on the tractor then hurry back to the Chai before they get spoilt.

It's a process made all the sweeter in the knowledge that aforementioned friends will undoubtedly be inviting me to birthdays, christenings, weddings and simple dinner parties where I will get to sample the fruits of their labour.


Wednesday, October 03, 2012

French property market report - Summer 2012

Regular readers of this blog will know that there is a real shortgage of information about the French property market when compared to say the UK, USA or Australia.

However, the Notaires de France do their best and a few weeks ago released some figures on the year to date.

It's clear from their figures that transaction numbers are dropping across the country including the previously untouchable Paris market.  They are forecasting a fall of around 15% in the number of sales for 2012 which would bring the total down to a little over 700,000.

They say that Paris will be badly hit but that the areas around Bordeaux, Nice, Toulouse, Lyon and Montpellier will be slightly cushioned.

These figures are total sales and not to be confused with the statistics issued by BNP Paribas which are focused on sales to international buyers only.

This is the third major downturn of my property career - each one seems to last forever when you are in the middle of it but, thankfully, each one has been followed by a dramatic upturn.  The property market is a cyclical one and I'm used to the fact that we seem to have "seven lean years followed by seven years of plenty".

What never seems to change is the bullishness of estate agents despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.  Oh for a euro for every time I hear that "our market is different and thriving" or  "prices in Paris/London/wherever will never fall"....hmmm.

I remember well attending a property conference in the early 1990's in central London - I was on the panel and one of the speakers was an extremely high profile Chief Exec of a huge, listed, property developer.  He gave a morale boosting, upbeat and most enjoyable speech talking about the number of sales they had and how the market was back on its feet.

When he had finished he sat back down and whispered "If anyone believes all that **** they need their head seeing to".

I was still a naive 30 year old and remember being devastated that he didn't truly believe what he had been saying.  It was one of many lessons I learned and I now know that it is part of the industry DNA to talk the market up.

My point is that property sales across France are falling and prices naturally fall with them.  If both sellers and agents recognise this (and price accordingly) then transaction numbers will remain comparatively healthy.  Price sensibly and there are still 700,000 buyers out there!

For info you can get the Notaires de France research here.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Moving to France - do I take the plunge?

This is the third long-term recession of my property career and it's clear that most people are cautious about making any kind of major expenditure.  I wish that I had a euro for every time I have heard an estate agent say that they have had a sale lined up but that it's fallen through because the buyer couldn't get financing/didn't like the survey/has lost their job/simply changed their mind.

If you are looking upon your home in France merely as an investment then such caution is obviously justified.  I genuinely think that this country has one of the most stable and reliable property markets in Europe and that there are some cracking bargains to be had but they are increasingly difficult to find and you must do your due diligence before taking the plunge.

However, if you are looking to buy in France for reasons beyond mere financial gain then welcome to the club and get off the fence!

Like most ex-pats I know over here we didn't buy a house in France to make a killing.  We moved here for a mixture of positive reasons including education, healthcare, climate, scenery and the general quality of life.

We left the bright lights of London behind in 2003 and not for a single second have we regretted the decision.  We have watched our children growing up in a secure and spectacular environment, their education to date has been excellent and as a family we are happier and fitter than we have ever been.

Of course, it's not all sunshine and roses - people get ill, it rains, cars break down and roofs leak just as they would anywhere in the world.

My point is that life is not a dress rehearsal.  As the quote goes "It doesn't matter which side of the fence you get off on sometimes. What matters most is getting off. You cannot make progress without making decisions"

Or even better is the quote from Jean-Paul Sartre "It is only in our decisions that we are important".

The opportunities are here - now, do you really want to turn your dreams into reality?

ps: I pinched the picture from a very old friend called Paul Boross who I haven't seen for a while....if you're reading this Paul I hope you don't mind and I hope that your backhand is as lethal as ever! 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The international appetite for French houses

Earlier this summer BNP Paribas published their excellent research on the number of international buyers of French property in 2011.

Getting reliable statistics on the French housing market isn't easy and this report is worth it's weight in gold for anyone who earns their living in this sector.

The headline figure was that there were 39,160 transactions last year involving international buyers which was a fall of 7% on the previous year.  What wasn't quoted in the main report (but was in a smaller second report) is that of these international purchases 3,774 involved buyers from the UK which was a more dramatic 24% drop on the near 5,000 of 2010.

From the qualititive research that they undertook it's pretty clear to me that the underlying demand from the UK is still there but that buyers were reluctant to put their hands in their pockets at that particular time.  The fact that the recession was biting, the pound v the euro was not particularly attractive and we had a French election looming could all have played a significant part.

The domestic French market remained strong with a healthy number of transactions and my gut feeling is that the next couple of years will see the BNP Paribas surveys showing that France comes back into favour with British buyers.

The other headline was that while the number of international buyers had dropped this was offset by their increase in budgets. The overall average budget of UK buyers was €260,000 which was a whopping 14% increase over the €229,000 the previous year.  This increase was mirrored across the board by international buyers as a whole - is this a case of the "smart money" knowing that the French property market is a safe haven compared to many other European asset classes?

The overall conclusion of the BNP Paribas team was that:

"The French real estate market remains a sound investment and today's customers are choosing France more spontaneously than other European countries which have been more affected by the economic climate. This has led to a high level of satisfaction in terms of purchasing".

Comforting words indeed.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Tour de France puts France on the map

I'm not a great fan of the Daily Mail but they ran a terrific article about the Tour de France this week.

You can read it here and in it they say:

"The Tour is more than just a race. It is a showcase for what may – and feel free to disagree on this point – well be Europe's most beautiful country. Certainly, France is a place of endless geographical diversity – from the sun-bathed sands of its south shore to the snow-clad peaks of its two major mountain ranges, via a chorus line of cosmopolitan cities that all come armed with epic slabs of history and decadently tempting culinary options.

And the Tour does an able job of showcasing the whole package. I defy anyone to watch some of the astonishing footage that the French broadcasters conjure onto our television screens – the star contenders for the title snaking up a steep Alpine pass, the magnitude of their task underlined by helicopter shots that capture their progress from high above; the peloton powering through fields heavy and golden with corn as horses canter happily alongside – and not feel an urge to grab their passport and immediately leap the Channel".

Six of us spent a terrific day at the stage going into Brive.  The local mairie had set aside an area with do it yourself barbecues - the local butcher was on hand to supply the entrecote, the boulanger had baked fresh bread and the other market traders were there selling cheese, wine, fruit & veg.

We sat munching our food and breaking off chunks of bread while washing it down with a local red before diving around like lunatics at the goodies thrown out by the "caravan".

The cyclists flew up the hill we had carefully chosen and we just had time to get back to the town to huddle around a radio and cheer on Mark Cavendish in the sprint finish.

It's a truly unique experience and, as the Daily Mail says, the winner of the great race is France itself!

Pound at four year high against euro

When I turned my PC on this morning it told me that £1 buys around €1.28 which is a four year high seemingly.

This is still a far way from the heady days of €1.45 when I first arrived in France but it's also a significant shift that makes French property more attractive to UK buyers.

With the eurozone in such a mess I wouldn't bet against this trend continuing.

Having been in France for nine years this October I would, however, say that (in my humble opinion) you shouldn't let exchange rates be the driving factor behind your move. 

I genuinely still get a buzz from living in France.  Whether it's simple things like having the Courvoisier chateau next door to my local café or having access to simply sensational healthcare (as I experienced yesterday in my local hospital) it is the everyday positive experiences that should drive your decision making.

Of course, it's not all sunshine and roses here and I don't want to paint a false picture....I just think that the recent buying power given by the strengthening of the pound should be the icing on the cake not the filling!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

How to make the most of €1 in Jarnac

I'm lucky enough to have been pretty busy recently (and picked up another mandate from a lovely couple in Dubai last night) and popped down to Jarnac first thing to do some banking. 

Sadly I usually do this online but I had some cheques to pay in the old fashioned way.  I'm glad I did as the welcome I get from the staff at BNP Paribas is heart warming. As soon as I walked in the door I was greeted by name by Sylvie the counter clerk and the manager stopped what he was doing to come out, shake my hand and chew the cud for five minutes.  I remember it was like this when I first opened a bank account in 1978 in rural Surrey too.

Anyway, I popped into the market for some bread and fresh fruit & veg before deciding to play hookie and have a sneaky coffee in my favourite bar.  I wasn't being too naughty as my phone is now a mobile office and vibrates discreetly every couple of minutes as emails come in.  It's incredible how quickly this is changing the way we live & work but that's for another time.

The point is that it's a scorcher here today and I plonked myself down on the shady terrace watching the world go by.  Every now and then someone I know would pass by and we would chat about the weather, Euro 2012, the weather, a house that is shortly coming to market, our respective vegetable patches, the weather and the fate of the euro.

I stayed for about an hour and a half - read the Charente Libre, responded to emails from a couple of clients and put the world to rights with Maurice & Martine, the owners.  I could have stayed all morning but had to go into a local mairie to check up on a planning issue.

The bill for my truant euro.  Yup, my colleagues in other parts of France will now be going green with envy, the Café du Theatre in Jarnac charge one measly euro (and not a centime more) for the most perfect cup of coffee served on the terrace in one of the prettiest towns of SW France. Local networking comes free.

Now that's good value!

Monday, June 25, 2012

Discover Poitou Charentes

Here's a nice little video I came across on You Tube.  It gives a flavour of life here in SW France, from the chic boutiques and historic harbour in La Rochelle, to the thrills and spills of Futuroscope and the rolling vineyards of "Cognac Country".

I thought I'd also share the photos below.  I took them yesterday by the river in Bourg Charente.

Each year the locals take to the charente in hand made boats and have a mightily competitive race downstream.  This year entrants included bath tubs, a "Cool Runnings" bobsleigh, a campsite and a ladybird.  Not sure who won as I was busy avoiding the Jamaican bobsleigh team who suddenly came ashore looking for new recruits.

It really was fun to see how much time and effort young and old alike had put into the event. My favoutite was probably a simple "star wars" creation which Dad had obviously cobbled together in his garage and was proudly piloting as his wife and young son warded off imaginary attackers with their laser guns and Jedi swords.

It was one of those lazy Sunday afternoons, spent in the sunshine with friends, that will stay in the memory for a long time.....well at least until next years competition which we have vowed to enter as a home made "Tour de France" boat.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Ideal holiday home for sale privately in the Charente

Town house in sought after village with commerce, near Cognac
Private sale - €189,000

Four bedroom/two bathroom townhouse with home office & large garage
10 minutes from Cognac town centre

This 19th century house is in immaculate condition and faces onto the historic church of St Meme les Carrieres. The village has a co-op, two boulangeries, popular bar/restaurant, chemist and post office as well as water-skiing facilities, fishing lake, tennis courts and football pitch.

Ground floor:
The front door opens onto a tiled entrance hall which runs the length of the house and leads through to the courtyard garden at the rear of the house. To the left is a fully fitted kitchen with separate utility room. To the right is a large (36m2) reception room with tiled floor and exposed beams.

First floor:
The stairs rise to a large landing with fitted cupboards and three double bedrooms, all of which have beautiful wooden floorboards and two of which have exposed beam ceilings. At the far end of the landing is a slate tiled shower room and separate wc.

Second floor:
A second staircase leads to an enormous master bedroom with exposed beams and large ensuite bathroom with bath, washbasin and wc.

Courtyard garden & home office:
To the rear of the house is an attractive courtyard garden with barbecue and dining area. The home office has high speed broadband, heating and lighting.

To one side of the courtyard is a huge double height barn/garage which could easily be converted into extra accommodation.

The house has an orchard garden which is situated behind the church. The orchard is 634m2 with views over the Charente valley and contains cherry, apple, pear, walnut and hazelnut trees.

The house has mains drainage, oil central heating, was rewired in 2005 and is easy to secure as all windows have wooden shutters. The pretty market town of Jarnac is less than five minutes by car while Cognac is around 10 minutes away.

Contact: or call +33 (0)5 45 32 46 41

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Cognac golf course - a review

Regular readers of a certain age will know that around this time of year I go off on a 4-5 day golfing trip wth some old school friends from the UK.

We travel all over Europe to find decent courses and, in France, we have played some crackers like Chantilly, Paris International and Royal Medoc.

This year we are popping across the border into Spain and will be sampling the delights of San Sebastian among others.

The point of the post though is to highlight what a superb course and practice facilities I have here in Cognac.  I haven't played since our last tournament and thought I'd better dust off the cobwebs (literally and figuratively) and get in some training.

Cognac golf club is a championship, 18 hole, course of 6,125 metres from the back tees.  It's always well kept and the holes meander through the vines giving some lovely views down into the river valley. The par five 9th is my favourite hole - 484 metres all downhill and eminently reachable in two.  The great thing is that the hole funnels down, getting narrower and narrower, with a huge lake protecting the green and out of bounds tight to the left.  It's a potential card killer for those (like me) who think golf is about the glory not protecting your score-card!

The attractive clubhouse has an excellent restaurant (same team that runs the Chateau de l'Yeuse restaurant) with terrace overlooking the par three 18th.  The pro-shop is well stocked with knowledgeable staff.

The practice facilities are first class with four holes, a large, bunkered, green and two driving ranges (one covered area with mats and one uncovered off the grass).

It's definitely worth visiting if you're in the area and if you'd like to buy a house on/close to the course then for the price of a 2 bed apartment on the Algarve you'd get a wonderful family home with pool!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

French Property News - spotlight on Jarnac

The latest edition of French Property News is running a double page spread entitled "Spotlight on Jarnac, Charente" written by yours truly.

You can see the full online version of the article here.

If you are interested in buying a house in the Charente then I'd suggest that Jarnac should play a central role in your search.  The town itself (home to Courvoisier and birthplace of Francois Mitterand) is exceptionally pretty with a lovely market and plenty of riverside walks.

It is also at the centre of some of the prettiest towns and villages of the Charente.  Segonzac, Bassac, Bourg Charente, Chateauneuf & Cognac are all within a few minutes.  There is championship golf close by as well as theatres, cinemas, tennis clubs, swimming pools, ice rinks, cycle routes and a huge amount of terrific bars and restaurants.

Take a minute to read the article and meanwhile here's a couple of photographs I have taken locally.

Guest blog: Jeff Lichtenstein of Jeff Realty

Regular readers will know that I sometimes invite guest bloggers to write about their specific areas of expertise.

My network of buying agents across France has seen a dramatic increase in enquiries from the USA over the last 12 months and I thought it would be good to get the views of an expert from "across the pond".

Jeff Lichtenstein specialises in the top end of the market including (close to my heart) golf properties. Here's his take on the market:

Housing Market in United States Improving, but Hold the Bubbly!

The United States housing markets is getting better, but hold the champagne if you think the market is going back to where it was.  It’s kind of like a student who always receives failing grades getting a D+ and being all excited.  However, it’s still a D+. Although that D+ does feel better than an F.  Some factors to take under consideration…

·       United States unemployment has decreased to 8.2% from a high of over 10% in 2009.  However, many have dropped out of the labor market and aren’t counted as unemployed in these statistics.

·       Interest Rates are at historic lows.  While it is not nearly as easy to get a loan, loans are taking place and FHA loans for example are work-arounds for home purchasers.  I just did a transaction where the buyer received a 96.5% loan utilizing FHA!

·       March retail sales were 2% higher than they were the period before.  A bit better economy and a hair better housing market helps spending and this trickles to all areas of the economy.

·       Permits for new construction were 8% higher than the previous quarter and 18 percent higher than 2011, first quarter.

·       HUD reported that total delinquencies for all mortgage loans were at 7.6% in the fourth quarter of 2011.  Subprime loans are at 20.8%

·       Total homeowner ownership in the United States is down 1.5% from a year ago at 65.4%.  Watch for this to go down further.  There is a giant backlog of foreclosures and short sales.  Bloomberg reports that distressed sales are made up 35% of the total market sales.  The homeowners who sell these distressed properties most likely have their credit destroyed and enter the rental market.
The United States is still a regional market.  My market in South Florida was hit the hardest by any in the country.  For example, Florida is at 9.4% unemployment and our backlog of foreclosures is by far the highest in the country at 3 years!  Below is a little more information on what is happening in Florida.

 Law of Supply And Demand changing South Florida Real Estate Market

 The Florida real estate market was hit the hardest from the housing bubble crash in 2006.  Finally, that market is starting to come back. Here's why:

1. Overall Market
The market is improving as of spring 2012 in Palm Beach County, Florida. We are seeing a slight increase in supply because of economic conditions, but a bigger jump in sales because of a 6-year slow drip of investment and must-sell inventory that has dried up.

2. Prices: This Year versus Last
In January of 2012 the average price was $296,000. The average sold price in February 2012 was $318,000. However, the average sold price in February of 2011 was $348,000, so prices are lower today than they were a year ago at this time.

3. Sales Volume
February 2012 home sales are up compared to last month. There were 797 sales in February 2012 versus 749 sales in January 2012. 752 sales took place in February 2011, so more sales are happening now than last year at this time as well.

4. Who is Purchasing?
Snowbirds, some first timers, and downsizers are purchasing. We are also seeing a trend of people selling their northern and small Florida home and then purchasing a medium-sized permanent Florida home. A few foreign buyers, but mostly from Canada. There are not as many Canadian purchasers as the last few years because many Canadians purchased from 2009-2011. Not much activity from Europe because their economy is weak.

5. Distressed properties:
163 short sales sold in February of 2012, which is more than the 128 that sold in February of 2011. There are currently 2621 short sales out of the 9593 homes available on the market. The Palm Beach County MLS has never kept exact track of foreclosures. Some lenders had their agents hide this for fear that agents would not show the property. However, that has changed in the past month, and going forward those properties must be marked in Palm Beach County MLS. Overall it has been reported that Florida, which takes a whopping 3-year time-span to foreclose on the average property, is starting to see that number go down. Banks are foreclosing faster as the overall inventory has diminished.

6. Can Buyers still get loans?
The people who want loans are not having trouble getting them. There is much more verification. I haven’t had problems myself with buyers finding financing. The problem lies more within the appraisal process of homes not appraising. Many times it is because the appraisal is not done well. Some of the appraisers hired are from out of the area, traveling from Miami or Orlando and don’t know the property well.

Natural Laws of Supply & Demand at Work in the Housing Market

For the past six years, economists and politicians have argued about what to do with the housing market. We’ve heard all sorts of solutions, from bulldozing homes to giving huge reductions in principal to homeowners upside down on their mortgages. President Obama blamed President Bush, Republicans blamed Barney Frank, and everyone blamed Wall Street. Quietly, though, as we start 2012 in Palm Beach County, overall inventory is significantly down. There were 9,593 homes available in February of 2012 versus 10,883 in 2011, almost a 12% drop in inventory. I attribute the drop to a change in supply, not so much to a surge in demand. As evidenced by the amount of sales staying the same, there has been a slow drop in supply since 2006. In 2006 we had a perfect storm of excess inventory:

1) Investor purchases of new construction

2) Builder speculation homes

3) Over-confident Sellers who purchased first without selling

4) Sellers who were in a must-sell situation

While we still have many Sellers in the 4th category of ‘Must Sell’, due to a loss of income or loss of job, 80-90% of the first three categories that I outlined have sold since 2006.

Picture a slow dripping faucet as a sale. One drip doesn’t amount to much, but drips from 2006 to 2012 add up to an overflowing bathtub! That is what has happened in real estate over the last 6 years, and 2012 is the year the bathtub overflowed. The investor, builder, and over-confident Seller who got stuck with their good-looking homes have taken their 35% loss and moved on. These Sellers have gone though denial, trying to wait it out by renting their home, got angry at Wall Street, switched to 4 different real estate agents before they stopped blaming everyone and accepted reality. Finally, they have sold and moved on.

Now we are left with a just a bad economy and a lousy market. This market is stronger, though, because the one-time Investor/Builder Spec/Over-Confident inventory has dissipated. I’ve personally had 2 Buyers lose out on homes ranging from $500,000 to $4,000,000 in the past two weeks. Buyers are in disbelief thinking they can wait forever only to lose out. Pending sales for March and April are going to be way up and buyers need to recognize the bottom is here, not because the economy is strong, but because there are no more investors investing, spec buildings being built, and over-confident Sellers buying first without selling first.

The turnaround in housing has begun because of the natural laws of Supply & Demand. In 2007, I explained to my 7-year-old son Sam, to picture a town with 100 homes and 100 people. If one person moves to the town each year, then one new home needs to be built. What happened in housing is that builders constructed 7 homes in one year, giving the town an excess of 6 extra homes. After a 6-year-long wait with no homes being built we have hit equilibrium. We now have 107 homes and 107 homeowners. Supply and demand are smoothing out. Watch for the Republicans and Democrats to fight over who gets credit. Sam, now 13, can tell you that the credit really goes to the free market principals of supply and demand.

Jeff Lichtenstein specializes in luxury real estate in Juno Beach Condos  and  Egret Landing Jupiter Homes in South Florida. 

His website is at

Monday, May 14, 2012

Are the French "super rich" really going to up sticks?

There's a feeding frenzy amongst the UK media at the moment to see who can run the biggest headline about wealthy French bankers upping sticks and moving to London.

The Daily Telegraph seem to regurgitate the same story daily, this is today's effort entitled "High earners say au revoir to France".

Francois Hollande has come into power on the back of pledges to tax the wealthy and put an end to the austerity drive implemented by President Sarkozy.  It will be interesting to see how many of these pledges he will be able to keep.

For sure those French residents with earnings over €1m pa are worried.

However, whether there is really a "huge exodus" is not yet clear.  London agents looking for a bit of free PR are, of course, going to stoke the fire and make all kinds of claims. 

There are already around 400,000 French people living in London so it's hardly a new phenomenon and I remember ten years ago the Chesterton agents in South Kensington and Sloane Square talking about the high amount of interest from French buyers.

And why not?  London is a fabulous city with a huge variety of parks, restaurants, museums and some excellent schooling (if you can afford it).  If you want to earn big money there's no better place.

Time will tell of course but with the pound at around €1.25 now (and getting stronger) even the super rich had better make their mind up quick. 

Having lived and worked in London for 20 years before moving out to France I do have one piece of advice for anyone looking to move the other way though:

Don't forget to pack your umbrella :-)

Friday, May 04, 2012

Findaproperty app for ipad reviewed

The first thing I should say is that I'm being paid for this review - not much I grant you, but certainly enough Amazon vouchers to buy my youngest the Ed Sheeran album she wants. 

With that caveat in place it was actually a fun half hour running through the new Findaproperty app for ipads and comparing it with the French equivalent.

My comparison is with the SeLoger app that is used this side of the channel (download here).  The best word to describe the SeLoger pages is "ugly".  The site does all the basics (including GPS position to search by your current location), it's fast enough to load but it's pretty clunky to use and everything seems to be a struggle.

To be fair it is also drawing on much more basic information than you get in the UK.  Agents here take lousy photographs and the thought of putting a floor plan on their details is probably still 2-3 years away!

In contrast the Findaproperty app (download here) was pretty slick and a pleasure to use.  The "kid" in me liked the fruit machine effect when you put your price parameters in and the pinchable (is there such a word?) map feature worked quickly and smoothly. 

I didn't even try to use the GPS positioning (not sure how many houses they have for sale in Cognac) but I honed in on my old road in Walton on Thames within seconds of opening the app and it was simple to look at all the houses on the market, download photos and floor plans and save to favourites. Setting up my personalised search criteria was a breeze and the whole site was quick to load.

The size & quality of pictures was far, far better than on the French equivalent and whilst this probably has little to do with back end IT capabilities it is surely the most important issue when househunting and Findaproperty have got it right.

It's going to be interesting to see how the mobile revolution continues to shape the way that househunters look for property.  What's clear from this exercise is that this isn't going to be a "French Revolution" and that it's going to be the UK portals and agents leading the way.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Pound reaches 2 year high against the euro

I have a little icon on the top right of my computer screen which shows the real time changes between the pound and the euro. It's important to my business for pretty obvious reasons.

It's currently showing that a shiny one pound coin will buy 1.23 euros which is the highest it's been for a couple of years.

The euro is under huge pressure - concern for the Spanish economy is getting worse and the continued woes of other continental european countries (with doubts over the depth or viability of their austerity measures) means that the euro is in real trouble.

According to research from Morgan Stanley, of the €1.5 trillion lent to commercial real estate developers in Europe, Spain alone accounts for more than 20% .  It's also been reported that between 1992 -2010 Spanish housebuilders were building at a rate of one new house per head of population....incredible eh!

If Hollande wins the election next Sunday, as is looking likely, his "anti austerity" policies will go down like a lead balloon in Germany. Who knows what will happen if these two powerhouses fall out.

When we moved out to France in 2003 we got 1.43 euros for our pounds.

Goodness knows, I'm not an Economist (struggled badly at A level, should have opted for something less taxing on my little grey cells) and am no FX specialist but I do have a hunch that my little icon may well continue clicking upwards for a while.

This does, of course, make a big difference to the demand for houses here from international buyers.

This time last year the rate was 1.10 which meant that my typical client (£300,000 budget) was looking at houses around €330,000.

Today my same client would be looking at houses around €370,000.

Oh for a crystal ball :-)

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Can we stop hyping French property prices please

Just read this very positive article about people moving to France in the Daily Telegraph.

Entitled "Vintage investments: buy a house in France" it's the kind of feature that brings clients to my door and I echo many of the sentiments expressed in the article.

You might then say that it's a bit churlish to complain about it....but I'm going to anyway.

"France remains the foreign property dream: sunshine, scenery and, mais oui, the food. What’s more, the beating that the euro has taken of late means that now is a great time to buy. On the one hand, France isn’t about to go bankrupt, but on the other, the situation in Greece, Spain and Italy is dragging down French property prices.  

All of which explains why British interest in French real estate is on the up. “Between June and September last year, we saw an increase of 192 per cent in requests for our guide to France,” says Richard Way from the Overseas Guides Company".

Hmmm - we know British interest is on the up because Mr Way has sold more guides.  Is this really the best indicator that The Telegraph can come up with?  His guide may be truly brilliant but if he sold 23 this year and 12 last year then that's a 192% increase.

"Overall prices in France rose by 4.3 per cent in 2011, and look set to rise this year".

Hmmm again - that's a pretty broad brush statement (and didn't they say in the first para that French property prices had been dragged down).  If overall prices in France rose last year it was only on the back of a red hot Paris market which saw double digit growth.

Believe me, prices in most parts of France didn't rise anything like 4.3% last year and I'd love to know on what grounds The Telegraph are confident enough to say that they will rise even further this year.  We have an election coming up, no-one knows who will get in or what changes they will bring about.

Don't get me wrong.

I firmly believe that the French property market is more stable than just about any other in Europe.  I believe that there are some great deals to be had whether buying as a home or an investment.  I believe that there is a rock solid underlying demand from international purchasers who love France and want to buy here. 50 million tourists come here every year (it's the most visited country on the planet) and they do so because it's a great place to holiday, live and work.

But hyping the prices here is a bad long term thing to do - the market is trundling along pretty well on the back of sensible pricing and realistic expectations (from vendors and agents alike), let's not stall it.

If a publication as well known and well respected as The Daily Telegraph is going to write an article like this then it should be on the back of some proper research (BNP Paribas do a great bi-annual study on this subject or try the FNAIM or Notaires de France) and not because Mr Way has increased his sales and is brilliant at PR.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Tom Jones and Sting headline the Cognac Blues festival 2012

Following on from my last post about the town of Cognac punching above its weight how's this for a musical line up?

Sir Tom Jones (younger readers will know him as a judge from The Voice on BBC1), Sting (older readers will know him as the Ace Face from Quadrophenia), Hugh Laurie and The Cranberries.

These, and many more, acts will be gracing the annual Cognac Blues Passions festival which takes place between 3-8th July.  You can see full details, or buy tickets, here.

All of that is really exciting of course but not quite as exciting as the headline act for the annual Fete du Cognac which runs for three days later that month (26-28th July).  For just €5 (yes that's five euros) you can get admission to the quayside and see......The Stranglers.  Full details here.

Now, Sir Tom may well have sung with Elvis and The Beatles but he didn't supply the soundtrack to my youth (unless you count track 67A in The Grotto, Weybridge circa 1980 - "what's new pussycat" is a jukebox classic).

I'm pretty excited about all the concerts but suspect that it will be my €5 tickets that offer greatest pleasure for money.

You have to admit though that for a town of under 20,000 inhabitants Cognac really does pack a wallop. To paraphrase a certain lager ad:

 "If Carling made towns to live in...."

Harlem Globetrotters roar into Cognac

 I know that it's only a small town in unfashionable, rural, Charente but Cognac really does punch above its weight.

Last night the world famous Harlem Globetrotters swept into town and beguiled a capacity audience of 2,000 in our local gym.

I have been a fan of the Globetrotters since I was a little boy, mesmerised by the tricks of Meadowlark Lemon, Curly Neal and gang.  We had ringside seats for the show and our youngest was rewarded by being dragged onto court and becoming part of the evenings entertainment.  The fact that all the players were American and needed someone to translate probably did no harm.

A big part of the evening is in the hyperbolic announcements provided by the American courtside commentator - all excitement was lost though by the French guy who was paid (although goodness knows why) to translate. 

"PERLEEEEEASE WELCOME THE WORLD FAMOUS HAAAAAARRRRRLEEEEM GLOOOOBETROTTERS" was followed by a two minute translation in a dull monotone, by which time all excitement had dissipated and we were flicking through the programme.

It was a great evening though.  Terrific entertainment, some great basketball skills and the team went out of their way to interact with the audience.  They stayed behind for photos and autographs and weren't at all in a hurry to get away.

I guess this was probably the smallest and cosiest venue they play on their tour and it's a testament to Cognac that they can attract entertainers/sportsmen of this calibre.

What more can one ask of a town - vineyards, sunflowers, sunshine, great food, wonderful houses and best seats in the house for "the greatest show on earth"!

Monday, April 02, 2012

The wealth report 2012 - Knight Frank

 Leading international agent Knight Frank has just published its 2012 edition of "The Wealth Report" and it's more than worthwhile grabbing a coffee and reading through it when you have time.

You can download the report from here.

The report highlights locations that are important to the "super rich" as well as talking about prime residential and commercial hotspots.  My favourite section is where experts predict the world's leading city in 2050 (although rather predictably most go for Shanghai).

It comes on the back of a BBC story with the headline "Chinese buy their favourite Bordeaux by the vineyard", a story about Chinese investors buying the Chateau Latour-Laguens vineyard in 2009: 

"Chateau Latour-Laguens was the first estate in Bordeaux to be bought by Chinese investors three years ago, but at least five others are now also Chinese-owned" says the author.

Last year I too was mandated to find a chateau and vineyard around Bordeaux and a couple of years ago I helped a local agent find a buyer for a big chateau on the edge of Cognac.

Such transactions are definitely not "the norm" in the Charente but we have our fair share of luxury chateaux, vineyards and glorious estates and it seems that despite the global recession the super rich are still ready and eager to buy premium estates in prime locations.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Sarkozy offers 50% subsidy on all French property

In a controversial move to attract international investment into France President Sarkozy today announced a subsidy for all international buyers of French property.

Find your dream home in France and if, for example, the cost is €300,000 in the estate agents window then you will receive a €150,000 grant towards it from the French government.

The scheme runs from today, April 1st 2012, for exactly one year.

Spokeswoman, Mme Avril Poisson (pictured above with President Sarkozy), says:

"We are fed up seeing Boris Johnson (Mayor of London) boasting about the number of international buyers that are attracted to the UK.  We aim to redress the balance by offering this subsidy which will be granted in vouchers that can be redeemed in any E Leclerc, Auchan or Intermarché".

It will be interesting to see what effect this has on the French property market and whether Mme Poisson can indeed make a fool out of Mr Johnson.

Monday, March 26, 2012

France still number one when buying a place in the sun

Just read this story in The Independent.

It appears that France remains in the number one spot for holiday-home owners who wish to buy their dream home in the sun:

"Unsurprisingly, France is the most popular destination for UK buyers who relish being able to pop across the Channel while still being close to home. France hasn't seen the dramatic house price decline of neighbouring Spain and finance is still available up to 85 per cent loan to value".

Whilst hardly earth shattering news this survey from Caxton FX does give one a little faith that the French property market will continue to prosper. Particularly in prime areas such as Jarnac (pictured above).

Of course, dreaming of a holiday home and actually buying one are two completely different things.  UK buyers are still a pretty rare species over here and are likely to remain so until they get confidence in the whole European economy, less penal lending restrictions and more security in the job market.

The good news is that although rare they are certainly not exctinct.  I have some cash buyers out next week and will be showing them some houses that are excellent value for money, all of them under €300,000.

If you feel as though your job is secure and you have some spare cash then French property looks as good an investment as any other I can think of - and surveys like this one in The Independent can only give credence to that opinion.

Want to buy a house in Charente? Now here's an offer....

Spring is definitely sprung here in the Charente and the temperatures are in the high twenties.

Last week we went with some friends (& ex clients) to La Tonnellerie riverside restaurant in Chateauneuf sur Charente for a long and lazy lunch.  It's a charming place in an idyllic spot with a small terrace and views out over the weir.

We slowly cooked in the sunshine whilst enjoying an excellent meal and David showed us a painting he had done to give as a gift to the owners of his favourite bar in Jarnac (pictured above).

I was blown away - it captures the essence and character of this typically French bar brilliantly.  David told me that he'd been commissioned to paint a house in Montpellier too.

This got me thinking that having a painting such as this of your dream home in France would be a superb gift.

Therefore, dear readers, my offer is that any of you who mandate me to find them a property this year (2012) will receive a unique and original oil painting of their new house (subject to David's availability) paid for by yours truly.

All you have to do is quote "David Hughes fine art" before signing my standard T&C's and, of course, my search has to prove successful!

Now there's an offer you won't find from any other buying agent or estate agent in France.

To see a gallery of David's work visit  Even if you already own a house in France you may want something to gaze at longingly while you're away from the place!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Charente Monopoly - which are the dream home locations?

Regular readers will know that my youngest daughter is a keen Monopoly player.  A career following in her father's illustrious footsteps beckons perhaps!

Recently we borrowed the "Charente" version and it was fascinating to see which towns & villages were deemed as the Whitechapel & Old Kent Road clones and which were deemed to be Mayfair & Park Lane.  I have no idea who took the final decisions but I'm guessing that a few local mayors got involved in the politics.

I have no problem with the two prime areas - Cognac as the highest value (€400) and Angouleme second (€350).  I love Cognac - the town not the digestif - and think that it's the perfect size with a real "buzz" all year round.  It has beautiful & ancient pedestrian streets, a lovely stretch of river, world class restaurants and a championship golf course.

Jarnac is unlucky not to share the slot next to Cognac but does take the place of Bond Street so you don't want to land there if it has houses or a hotel on it. In real life Jarnac is probably my favourite town in Charente with a simply gorgeous park and pretty riverside walks.

Where I would take issue is the ranking given to the villages of St Simon & Bassac which are in the light blue section just before the dreaded jail cell.  In reality these two small jewels sit beside the prettiest stretch of the Charente.

They are both no more than hamlets yet St Simon boasts its own popular bar/restaurant and Bassac hosts two of the best restaurants around - the Auberge de Condé and L'Essille.  I have had plenty of splendid meals with clients & friends in both.

That's a great word and so I'm going to use it again as the river between Chateaneuf and Cognac is simply splendid too.

With this in mind, why no place at all for Chateauneuf sur Charente?

Of course it's all good fun and fairly subjective - and the truth is that I get slaughtered by Downie Junior whether we play the traditional version or any of the newer derivatives.

Perhaps I should consider offering her a salaried partner position when she turns 12 next year.....