Category Archives: Getting Started

Chapter 7: The Renovations Commence: Deuxieme Etage

Although the official closing of the documents was on September 9th, of the year 2016, the actual start of construction was not until January 31st, 2017.  After the glow and excitement of the closing in September, with blueprints in hand, we naively thought all those with signed contracts and checks in hand would immediately pounce on the property – unlike the story, “A Year in Provence” by Peter Mayle, our contractors would show up and remain in place until the project was completed, or so we hoped.  October came and went, November came and went, as did December and January.  What I discovered when I returned on the 28th of January was all of the individual contractors wanted to meet with me once again and verify the drawings, scope of work, etc.  You see, we had hired contractors who were, as the French say, ‘very serious’ with regard to their work and wanted to ensure all ‘T’s’ were crossed and ‘I’s’ dotted.  No work could happen until they were absolutely certain – so we met.  The day I arrived, I had all I could do, bleary eyed from many hours of travel to meet with three of these contractors at the same time.  Thank goodness for our friend and ally Pascal who did his best to ensure they understood my terrible French as I explained the best I could, leaning heavily on my blueprints for clarification of our intent.  We went through the house with a fine toothed comb from bottom to top until every last question was answered to their satisfaction.  That was a Saturday.  I could now settle in at the Chateau where I was staying and relax a bit until Monday.  That arrival day was a blur with muddling through meetings, then joining my hosts in the kitchen to ready for a dinner party I was also invited.  It was a glorious evening of fabulous wine, food, laughter, and observation of the way of the French.  While my heritage is French and Scot-English, it is the French I resonate with the most, yet have so much more to learn.  By midnight, I fell into bed and slept until I could sleep no more.

Sunday was a day to organize my files, thoughts, spend time at the house and assemble two chandeliers I had brought from the US – and yes, they were 220 voltage wiring.  Since they had been less expensive to ship to me in the United States than to France, I reasoned I could ship them for less than the more than $400 requested. Packed and ready to go, we were astounded to learn it would cost more than a whopping $900 – to my dismay I sought other solutions.  First I contacted the airline who would gladly accept the box (within their size and weight standards) as an additional piece of luggage.  My concern then was the fact I was traveling alone and the box was rather unwieldy – my friend Pam asked if the items would fit in a rolling suitcase…well, disassembled they did!  So two chandeliers in partial assemblage were neatly packed into a rather large rolling suitcase for their journey to France.

Monday, the 31st, came quickly and by the time I arrived a little before 9:30, this is what I saw:

IMG_8258

Enter a caption

Demolition had begun!  For better or for worse, the chapter had begun.  This is what the evacuation chutes looked like from the inside:

For the purposes of this chapter, I’m going to focus on the second floor demolition – DeuxiemeEtage. To fully understand the potential of this floor, we needed to completely gut, ie: demolish the space to the structure…which we did.  What follows are photos of the before and demolition, new framing, then finished spaces.

As you will see with the before and demolition pictures, there was an enormous amount of square meters underutilized – roughly 30 meters square, which is just over 290 square feet of living space!  In addition, other than a new roof being done roughly 14-15 years prior, no other work had been done to this space.  The rooms were very rudimentary and basic, the finished floor was riddled with dry rot, there was no plumbing, and very little light.  Only the small window on the front of the house and the small round eave window provided the scant amount of light for the entire space.  By adding three skylights to the back side of the roofline, we were able to exponentially increase the light in this space – and as we discovered, it was the key ingredient to breathing life back into the rooms.  What began as dark, oppressive space has become light, warm and inviting.  You can also see the surprise of the hornets nest we found behind the walls!  Once fully exposed, we were able to see any areas needing attention or additional support, then fully insulated prior to closing in new walls.  The new subfloor was then covered with a beautiful, rustic laminated vinyl wide plank floor which compliments the stone features perfectly.

One thing we loved about this space were the beautiful beams and stone features which we left exposed where possible to render this floor of the house an entirely different ambiance.  The result was a much more rustic, cozy and eclectic feel in contrast to the very traditional and elegant main house.  In the end we ended up with a master suite separated from a large salon and office area where we can retreat when there is a houseful of guests.

New framing:

We added knee walls to the area now known as the salon which provided storage accessed through small ports on opposite sides.  We also added built-in shelves for books, games, dvd’s, and office storage.

During the framing of the new spaces, we discovered a few restrictions with the center roof framing.  Originally we intended to have separate doors leading to the Salle de Bain 2 and the Chambre 4 with the open Salon and office at the top of the stairs.  In order to execute the two separate doors, we would have needed to lose significant space in the Salle de Bain for the door clearances due to the ceiling slopes, so ended up with one door into both – resulting in a spectacular master suite.  What began as bonus space and what we had considered less desirable space has become the jewel of the house – a wonderful master suite.  Even with a house full of guests, we can retreat to the second floor and relax.

Finished Spaces:

Next up: Premiere Etage Chambres

 

Chapter 6: The Keys

Keys

These were just a few of the many keys.

On September 9th, 2016, our closing was scheduled at the office of the Notaire in Pujols, France at 10:00 AM.  Before 11:00 AM, we were homeowners of LaRoseraie @ 203 rue Charles de Gaulle, lieu dit Lavagnac, 33350 Sainte Terre.

Our new task would be one of the biggest we’d ever undertaken and that would be to renovate this beautiful stately manor and return it to its former glory.  LaRoseraie was a late 18th century art nouveau maison de maître.  Translated, we had just bought the ‘Rose Garden in the Holy Land’.  No pressure here.

We immediately busied ourselves with sketches, measurements, photographs, and more measurements so after returning to the United States we could sort out the fullest potential of this place.  During our first visit to the area, we had the good fortune to stay at the Chateau de Courtebotte in Saint Jean de Blaignac where we met two people who played an enormous part in helping to make this a reality.  The support, wisdom and guidance of both Isabelle and Pascal Jehanno, owners of the Chateau have been instrumental in our being able to renovate this property.  With their assistance, we met with carpenters, plumbers, electricians, and painters who would, in turn, lead us to other contractors for additional work in smaller areas.  If you ever come to the Saint Emilion area and need a place to stay, look no further than Chateau de Courtebotte.

Contractors in France are not the same as they are in the United States.  You will wait a while – sometimes weeks, for a quote.  Once you’ve signed a quote and returned it with a deposit, it may be weeks or months before the work commences.  The process will be different, the responsibilities of each contractor may be different – but overall, I’ve met and worked with some of the most talented artisans who (when they show up) will likely be whistling or singing their way through their day.  I’ve come to respect their dedication, their work ethic, their talents, their pride in what they do, and in a few cases, their friendship.  It was, at times, a hard fought battle, but in the end I’d do it again to have walked away with the experience of a lifetime.  As owners of an architectural and interior design firm in the United States, we had the confidence and skills necessary to act as our own general contractor, but I’m not sure they were all prepared for us!  I’d like to think they learned a little bit too as we swapped information about the differing construction practices.

As many of you already know, in France, the levels of a house are named differently.  The ground or main floor is what we call the first floor, yet in France it is the rez-de-chaussee, the floor we call the second floor is called the first floor or ‘premiere etage’, and the second floor in America would be the ‘deux etage’ in France. Most people learn this when the rent a room or apartment for the first time and realize that third floor room or apartment is really  on the fourth floor.  I still have not figured out why.

The room names are:

Entry – Entrée;

Living Room – Salon;

Dining Room – Salle a manger;

Kitchen – Cuisine;

Powder Room – Toilette;

Bedroom – Chambre;

Bathroom – Salle de Bain

Basement or Cellar – Cave

LaRoseraie has a ground floor or ‘rez-de-chaussee’, a premiere etage, and a deuxieme etage.  The deuxieme etage (second floor France/third floor American) and technically was bonus space for us.  The ground floor is the typical maître de maison layout – a central entrée with four large rooms off of it.  Over the years, these four rooms became three so the layout was a main entrée with a salon on the left, salle a manger on the right front and cuisine on the right rear.  The premiere etage had an entrée with two large chambres (bedrooms) on the left and another chambre on the right with a large salle de bain (bathroom). Presumably, the room now designated salle de bain was once a fourth bedroom/chambre.  Second floor (deuxieme etage), the bonus space held two more bedrooms and a large storage area – this was to become a master suite with an office and second salon.

Next post – The Renovation Commences

La Roseraie Review 2.9.17

 

 

Chapter 5: Banks and Transferring Funds

Throughout this process of looking at properties and reading  about the process of purchasing a property abroad, it seemed complex, yet not terribly different than any other venture involving mortgages, insurance policies, etc.  What we came to discover is it is quite different.  And with regard to opening bank account’s, it can be a maddening process if you are not prepared, or informed properly.  What frustrated me the most was the conflicting information regarding the process – what you can and cannot do.  Firstly, you can open a bank account prior to moving to or purchasing property in France, but you’ll need to find a bank with international affiliations like HSBC and first open an account in the United States.  You may then with assistance from the US branch, initiate opening an account in France.  The problem here is these type of banks insist on very high minimum balances starting at $10,000, so this was a deal breaker for us since we needed every dollar possible in order to purchase and then renovate our house.  Bottom line, if you don’t have deep pockets and can’t afford to leave that much money on the table, then opening an account prior to closing on your house isn’t likely to happen.  In the process of coming to this final conclusion, we would be told, “of course you can open an account prior to closing on your house and while still in the US”, only to be lead around through several branches of their organization until landing at the conclusion it really isn’t possible – and then back around again.

As I stated in an earlier post, if you are looking for financing your new house and are over 55 years of age, only 60% of your income will be factored into the equation in calculating how much money you are eligible to borrow.  The assumption here is even if you are only looking for a short term loan, your major earning years are numbered, so lenders will not be so willing to risk a mortgage on you.  My recommendation is to purchase the property with cash or if you need additional capitol, to take a small loan here in the US rather than pursuing a loan in France.  Their rates are obscenely low, (2% +/-) but they aren’t very easy to get.

You will need to also find a way to transfer your money.  Pretty much any bank or credit union will be happy to do so…for a fee.  Not a huge deal if you’re purchasing euros for a vacation, but when you’re purchasing a house, it’s a big deal.  Some banks want upwards of 14% which is outrageous.  There are also brokers in the EU, with the bulk located in the UK, but very few are licensed to transfer money from the US to the EU and what I’ve been told is this is a direct result of the Patriot Act that was signed after 9/11.  The US government wants to make quite certain you aren’t funding terrorist activity with your money, and not many brokers want to deal with the extra paperwork for licensing.  I’d have a broker working to gain my business and then discover I was American and tell me ‘sorry’.

Before closing on your house, you will also need to gain homeowners insurance.  This is where your real estate agent will be helpful.  They can recommend a number of agencies who will supply quotes based on the information in the discovery documents.  My agent recommended a very good agency that works throughout the EU called Allianz and one of the advantages of this insurance agency is they have many English speaking agents, so if you have an issue or a claim it will be much easier to facilitate a claim.  Their quotes were within the same range as others and I am told by friends of mine who are French residents here they are very good.  Be sure to include something called “Protection Juridique” in your policy.  Protection Juridique covers the cost of an advocate to represent you in the event you are taken advantage of and need legal intervention.  Say, for example, you order a tank of oil and the delivery person delivers half a tank, telling you their truck didn’t have enough, but they will return later with the balance.  You are told this after you have already paid and signed the delivery slip.   Later you realize they never returned and now you’re left with half a tank of oil but the oil company produces the delivery slip you signed as their proof the delivery happened.  You contact your insurance agency and they will first give you the verbiage for a letter you will send that basically tells the oil company they are on notice and have a defined amount of time to rectify matters or action will be initiated.  In most cases, they don’t want a problem and will resolve the conflict right away, but if needed, they will step in and represent you.  This is only one small example, but you can see how important it is to have this protection.

Prior to the final paperwork signing, you’ll need to transfer money into the account of the notaire, which must be completed with the money cleared prior to the closing date.  I had visions of putting all these thousands of dollars into an suitcase and personally taking them – but then, that would be illegal.  Not a good first impression!  There had to be a way….Two weeks to go before our scheduled closing and we still had no means of moving the funds and had wasted weeks with brokers who ultimately told us they weren’t licensed to transfer US dollars.  As I was discussing this with my investment broker, he mentioned this should be something they could facilitate.  Had I known this sooner, I never would have wasted weeks on these UK brokers so highly recommend discussing international transfers with your investment broker if you have one because I’ve found this to be the most efficient and cost effective way to move money.  The transfer fee is extremely low @only $25 per transfer, so this is how we moved our money.

Once you have transferred the money into the account of the notaire, the closing and final documents signing is pretty simple.  You will meet one on one with your notaire briefly before everyone gathers to verify you understand the documents you are about to sign, then both you and the sellers will sign the documents together.  You will have a notaire and the sellers will have their notaire.  Your real estate agent will also be present. These will be the final documents and there will be fewer than what you’ve already signed and initialed, so the process will be fairly quick.  45 minutes to an hour later you will exit a homeowner in France.

This is the point – with attestation documents in hand that verify you own property – where you can now go to the bank of your choice and open an account.  It is likely you will need to make an appointment to ensure the proper amount of time is allotted and that an English speaking representative is available.  If your French is impeccable, then perhaps this will be a faster process, but if you’re still learning, then given you’re dealing with legal documents, you might want to have someone who also speaks English working with you.  In hindsight, I would have scheduled this appointment before the closing simply to speed up the whole process.

Once you have your French bank account, you can work with your broker to link it to your brokerage account so ongoing transfers of funds can be done very simply.  Smaller amounts can be facilitated online by yourself, with larger ones by your broker.

 

Chapter 4: Trains

I would be remiss if I didn’t speak of the train system in France.  It is one of the most efficient transportation systems I’ve seen, but it is also French – meaning, it doesn’t always make sense…to an American.  If your grasp of the French language is fluent and impeccable, then you will have nary a problem.  If, however, you are still learning, or know little to no French, then God help you.  Departure platforms change at a moments’ notice and if you’re a person who likes to know exactly where your train is leaving so you can be ready and waiting when the train arrives, sorry – you’re not going to like train stations.  You just aren’t.  And please remember, this has been MY experience.  You, perhaps have traveled with great success by train and I would love to hear your experience because I sincerely hope to have a more positive experience one day!

Your ticket will have the train number and departure time but you will need to check the screen listing departures to know which platform to be positioned at, and this will not post until 10-20 minutes prior to departure.  They will tell you it posts 20 minutes before, and perhaps they do most of the time, but every time I’ve traveled by train it has not.  Also be aware it may tell you to go to a terminal that is incorrect.  I pointed this out to an agent a couple weeks ago and he simply shook his head and said, “It’s French.  It doesn’t make sense.”  All the while I’m thinking, “Yes, but it SHOULD!”

October 2013 –

As I am traveling by TGV through the Vienne, Charente region from Paris to Bordeaux, the reminder to me this is the region my family originated is very present.  Travel by TGV is considered the premiere mode of ground transportation.  It is efficient, clean, relatively comfortable, and most importantly, FAST (often well over 300km/h).  You can now go from Paris to Bordeaux in just over 2 hours – a real boon for Parisians who wish to live in Bordeaux but work in Paris.  The TGV is fast and everything else I mentioned, but if you are not fluent in either speaking or understanding the French language – be prepared.  There are no signs in English or any language except French – and finding an English speaking agent at an information counter may also be a challenge.  Departing from the Paris area – either Saint Lazare or Charles DeGualle is relatively easy.  Trains are listed with their associated departure platforms a good hour or more ahead of departure.  If, however, you are departing from another station such as Bordeaux, Montparnasse, or a small intermediate station, not so much.  You may find yourself wondering where you will be leaving from up to ten minutes prior to departure.    They claim it will be twenty, but they lie.  So imagine this scenario:  two well-dressed Americans LOADED with luggage arrive a full hour and a half prior to their train.  No information is available except that the train platform will be posted twenty minutes’ prior and NO – they cannot tell you where that will be.  It could be platform #3… or platform #49.  Now, in my linear thinking American, Virgo rising way, I think, “trains departing this station to the Paris area are routinely from one of these three or four platforms; trains departing to Nice are routinely from one of these three or four platforms; trains departing to Strasbourg are departing from one of these three or four platforms, and so on.”  You get the picture, right?  Which leads to me thinking, that would be the loveliest of information to impart upon said traveler who clearly is not from this particular part of the planet.  But NO.  So, we wait…. and wait…. twenty minutes before scheduled departure – nothing.  Fifteen minutes before departure…. Nothing.  Ten minutes before departure… Platform 3!  Ok – quickly make our way to platform three.  We get to platform three – now, there are perhaps eight or ten cars, but which one?  D’aller a gauche, ou d’aller a droite?  Stop, ask a tagged TGV conductor – back six cars, load our behemoth luggage on (there is always a large gap between the platform and the train – so there’s no dragging or wheeling.  You hoist these bags from the platform to the train.)  You get on the train, load your behemoth luggage into the racks, take your seat… something does not feel right.  A man approaches and indicates he also is in seat 16… you check your tickets and notice he’s headed to Strasbourg.  You, are not.  You look at the train route number and it does not match your ticket and realize, with only moments to spare, you are on the wrong train.  Did I mention these trains depart with frightening accuracy?  If your train says it’s departing at 15:21, it’s departing at 15:21, not 15:22, not 15:21ish, it will depart at 15:21! Heart pounding, you wrestle your bags out of their compartments and off the train, searching for another agent.  They point you further down the train to the one you are supposed to be on.  As you race down the narrow platform, your partner trips on one of the pieces of luggage – airborne and flying over the luggage, and hurtles to the ground, tearing his jeans and skinning his knee; then, while struggling to right himself he yells, “Run!  Save yourself – don’t worry about me!!!  I’ll catch up!” Desperately searching for your train, another agent points for you to get the train beside you with the open doors and you pray this is, in fact, the correct train – but you have to travel through several cars as the train is beginning to move WITH all your luggage – up the stairs, then down the stairs, find your seat and realize someone with the same seat number is in this seat.   Dear lord!  Are we on the wrong train yet again?!?!?  You wait while your partner runs to find a conductor or agent with the tickets while you wait with the luggage…. he returns, we are, in fact, on the right train, just the wrong compartment.   Back through two cars, up another set of stairs, with…all…our…luggage in tow.  Find the seats, load the luggage, sit down, clean wounds (yes, mom’s always travel with wet wipes even if their kids are grown!), breathe a HUGE sigh of relief, then have a good laugh!

What did this experience teach me?  Well, first off, while it’s always advisable to arrive at the train station with more than adequate time, it is not always necessary.  If you are traveling with a full set of luggage, and you are not intimately familiar with the ins and outs of train travel in Europe, do yourself a big fat favor and FLY!  Traveling by TGV with a carry-on – no problem!  You are infinitely mobile.  If you have a full set of luggage, well, don’t say I didn’t warn you!  Bon Voyage!

Chapter 3: The Paperwork

IMG_7730

See any English in there?  The contracts will arrive in stages.  First, there’s the offer – an “Offre d’achat”, which must be accepted and signed by the Vendor (seller).  Once that has been done, it is unlikely the property will be shown to anyone else. After the acceptance, a “Compromis de Vente”, (pre-sale contract) will be prepared, which will require numerous documents to be provided such as birth certificates, marriage certificates, documents of financial status, proof of address from your US location, what the source of funding will be for the purchase.  In this, you will also state any conditions or contingencies of purchase such as sale of separate property, approval of adding a pool which will prevent you from forfeiting your deposit if things do not work out.  If you cannot travel to France to sign, these documents will be mailed to you and will include a standard ‘boiler plate’ version of the contract in your language.

Once you receive these documents, it is advisable if you are not fluent in French, that you find someone who is to assist with the more finite translation because once you’ve signed, initialed and agreed to the contract you’ve essentially agreed to whatever you’ve signed, so proceed with caution.  Original documents must be returned to the agency in France.  And yes – the stack of papers to be signed (five sets) is significant.  Every sheet will require either a full signature or initials and you will be required to hand write a full paragraph statement, in French, that you also sign and date x 5 copies that attests you are fully aware of what you are doing.

The Compromis de Vente will also include full details of both the buyer and seller – where they live, DOB, marital status; a description of the property; the agreed upon price and breakdown of agency fees, etc.; circumstances by which the deposit may be forfeited, obligations of the purchaser and vendor; results of the diagnostics.  This diagnostics section is quite comprehensive and covers professional exploration of any potential dangers or issues with regard to termites, lead paint, asbestos, house systems such as electrical, whether the house is located in a flood zone, whether the house is located near any known factories or places with toxic environments, and the likelihood of weather events based on where the house is located.   For example, if you will be renovating and the property has been deemed free of termites, yet you discover significant termite damage – this finding will become the responsibility of the agent conducting the diagnostics.  An attestation of valid insurance is also included in their report to validate they have an active insurance cover in the event something is discovered they have deemed not present.

Once this contract is reviewed and signed, you will mail the originals back to the agency.  The documents will also be signed by the sellers and returned to you with bank information of the Notaire.  Once you’ve had these documents for 7 days, you  will need to transfer 10% of the purchase price to the Notaires bank account.  Over the next 3-4 months, the notaire will be working to complete all of the documentation and discovery on the property before scheduling a closing.  You WILL need to be present for this.

Notaires – this is basically your lawyer.  There will be one assigned to you unless you select one, but for us, we selected based on advise by our real estate agent.  The seller will also have separate representation.  All will be at the closing.  In the United States, a notary is quite different, so don’t let the label deceive you!

I have attached the Leggett Buyers Guide here for more detail – and yes, this is exactly how this process went for us.

Leggett – Buyers Guide 2015 (1)

Money – the breakdown of cost will be as follows:

Price – this is the agreed upon amount that includes broker fees and taxes.  In addition to this, you will pay a fee to the Notaire which will be 7-8% of the purchase price.  Depending on the exchange rate at the time you transfer your money, you will also need to consider the final cost in US dollars.  If the exchange rate is $1.20 to one euro, than a house costing say 200,000 euros will cost you $240,000.  You will need to have all monies transferred and in place prior to the closing on the property.

I will go into detail on our process for transferring money and opening bank accounts in another post –

 

Chapter 2: France Itinerary: October 4th – October 18th, 2013

Here we go!  The reservations have been set for October, plane tickets, hotels, car rentals, train passes, and all other necessary reservations are made.  If you are planning an aggressive itinerary in a country you’ve yet to explore, I highly recommend a good travel agent.  We used Hurley in Portland, Maine, but I find asking friends and colleagues who they recommend is a good tool.  When you contact them, be sure to let them know where you are going so you are paired with a person who has familiarity with the region you are visiting – otherwise, you’re better off researching it yourself online.  A good travel agent, though, will be able to guide you on reasonable distances between stops if you are traveling by car or train and will let you know where you might want to linger and where you might just want to spend a night passing through.  Some folks just want to get in the car and drive, stopping where the mood strikes and moving through where they have less interest – but if you have a plan, it is a much more efficient way to get the most out of your time on the ground. And if your travel takes you through rural areas, a plan is good so you aren’t left without a place to rest your road-weary bones.

We arrived in Paris on Saturday the 5th with plans to stay until the ninth.  I had a friend who had a friend with had an apartment she rents in Paris that sounded perfect for our needs.  We looked at pictures online and reviewed maps, so knew it was in a great location.  I found the 7th arrondisment a perfect fit for our first trip due to its central location and the types of shops and galleries I’m interested.  While there, we tried to soak up as much as possible, starting with a dinner cruise on one of the Bateaux Mouches, lunches and dinners at several cafe’s and restaurants, a trip to the Bon Marche, and visits to a couple of museums.  I had also become obsessed with books by John Baxter by this time and tried to locate a place or two he had frequently mentioned such as Le Deux Margots.  Very fun, albeit very touristy!

As a side note: While still in the air traveling to Paris, I had fallen asleep as it was a red-eye flight.  I woke with the song “I’m Coming Home” playing in my head, looked out the window and could see we had just approached landfall in France.  I never lost the feeling I was coming home.

On Wednesday, the ninth, we boarded a train to LeHavre.  One thing I knew from what I had been able to uncover through genealogy research on my husbands grandfather, Albert, was he was from LeHavre.  We figured this may be also be the place to uncover more info in the archives.  We actually managed to find the center for archives and though we did not find the documentation we had hoped to uncover, we did spend a good deal of time with an archivist named Sebastian who gave us plausible reasons for some of the mystery around why we might be having difficulty finding documents on him.   But then, that’s another whole story –

Historic Site, shipping port in France

LeHavre was and is a major shipping port off the west/Atlantic coast of France. This is where we are told my husband’s grandfather was born.

From LeHavre, now in our rental car, we headed to Normandy (once we got the hang of the ’round-a-bout’) where the sister of a good friend lives and operates a bed and breakfast called La Maison du Pain.  There we spent three enchanting days exploring the Normandy region, visiting the place where Camembert is made, drinking Calvados and had we just a bit more time, probably would have visited the equestrian center.  Perhaps another visit?

Normandy, Camembert, Historic Places

This is one of many picturesque landscapes in Normandy, France

Bed & Breakfast in Normandy

Here is the entrance to Maison du Pain in Fay, Normandy – the owners cottage is on the right with one of her many gardens in the foreground.

Fay, France, tiny hamlet, Normandy

This tiny hamlet boasts a population of between 60 and 70 people –

Saturday, the 12th we pointed the car south toward Loudun and checked in at the Hotel Renaudot where we had arranged a meeting with the current director of the Arcadian Museum, Madame Michele Touret.  Although this was considered off-season, she recognized the importance of our visit and not only met with us, but opened the museum for us and then escorted us around Martaize, LaChaussee, and other places near there significant to my ancestry.  While at the museum, she shared with us the most comprehensive and substantiated genealogy of the LeBlanc family known to exist and permitted me to photograph it since there was no photocopier at the museum.  She was also very excited to take us to visit a cemetery where an ancestor was buried, two churches, a chateau – also a horse farm, learned about pigeonarys, which were considered a real perk of the upper class. The last place she shared was the discovery of the original home of the Robichaud family, to which I am also related.

Chateau's, Martaize

Chateau de la Bonnetiere in the home region of my LeBlanc ancestors

It was a beautiful Spiritual journey to visit the places my ancestors had lived, and though I did not find any living relatives, I’m certain I will find a few over the coming years.

Sunday, October 13th we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, then pointed the car toward the Dordogne valley where we stayed at the Orangerie du Chateau in Chancelade.  Sadly, we only had one night planned here and would have loved at least two so we could spend time exploring local wineries and points of interest but did enjoy a wonderful meal at their restaurant where I had an interesting conversation with the sommelier – I asked about the wines and how I noticed they were served much cooler than I was accustomed to.  He replied, “Red wine is to be served at 12-18 degrees Celsius – anything above 20 degrees is considered disrespectful to the wine.  White should be served at 6-8 degrees Celsius.”  Ok – now I’ve been schooled! Personally, I now prefer the cooler temp which allows the layers to unfold more cleanly – not masked by too much of the alcohol blurring the palate.

Monday morning, we continued through the Dordogne, passing through Beynac, (which, incidentally is the area where the movie Chocolat was filmed), Domme, Sarlat de Caneda, all along the Dordogne river, exploring the valley, lush with wineries – then stopping in Martel at the Relais Saint-Anne.  This Relais could be a destination all on its own.  It is a little abbey with rooms for rent, a restaurant, patios, nature trails, gardens, and has its own little chapel – absolutely enchanting!  The little village it’s in has a town square with bistros, wine bars, shops, and is truly like stepping back in time.  The delicacies to discover here include liquors and syrups made from the local fruits – not to be missed is the black walnut syrup the locals use to flavor their white wine or champagne as an aperitif.  You’ll also find truffles and the local wine is Bergerac – an earthy, yet light red that perfectly suits the foods of the region.  I really needed to review my itinerary on this one because thought we had 24 hours here, it really felt like three days!

Magical places have the power to do this to you – transport you outside of space and time where the perfect amount of time exists to absorb the experience you’re intended to have.

On Tuesday, the 15th, we drove to Avignon for our longest stay since Paris – four days and three nights at the Hotel de L’Atelier in Villeneuve-les-Avignon.  I am convinced there is a place for pretty much everyone in France given the diversity throughout this country.  Avignon is a place unique to itself with its rustic medieval architecture and completely unfettered simplicity.  In Avignon, there were four experiences that truly stood out to us – 1. The quaintness of the streets and structures, 2. The kindness and generosity of the residents, 3. The farmers markets – which rivaled nothing I’d ever seen.  Here, you could buy foods either cooked or fresh, cheeses, meats, fish, nougats, clothing, mattresses – you name it!  The market was roughly the size of a football field, so not for the faint of heart.  and 4. The proximity to Chateneuf du Pape to the north and to the south – the Mediterranean coastline!

The first night we dined at a restaurant called Les Jardins de la Livree that we loved, in fact, we enjoyed it so much this is where we dined on our last night in Avignon as well.  Day two in Avignon, we drove to Chateneuf du Pape where we literally needed to stop ourselves because the wines were so ‘off the chart’ amazing we were buying wine at every place we stopped – and seriously, you can only bring so much back in your suitcase, so stop we did!

That night, after more wandering around and taking pictures, we ran into another American couple out walking and also taking pictures – legit pictures.  Turns out, they are professional photographers and camera operators for big events and functions in Vegas.  Interestingly enough, we ended up at the same restaurant and though we arrived separately, they seated us beside one another – polite conversation ensued, but by the end of the meal we felt we’d found new friends as well.  To this day, I am still in contact on a regular basis with Joan and one day, I’m sure we’ll meet up again.  The restaurant was incredibly charming, the food so-so, the company outstanding!

We really had toyed with the idea of having a retirement property in France, but it was our last day here that sealed the deal.  We woke, had a light breakfast, went to the farmers market and collected items for a luxurious picnic, packed a bottle from our amazing wine collection and headed to the Mediterranean Sea.  We ended up in the town of Cassis, parked, then walked out to the rocks along the water where we found the perfect spot to have our picnic.  That is the place where time stopped, everything re-organized in our universe, and came back together with us knowing this country would be the perfect place for both of us.  Temperate climate, fabulous architecture, wine, food, simplicity – one of us could enjoy skiing in either the alps or Pyrenees while the other could be on a warm, tropical beach.  We’d be close to the coastline and have easy access to stunning cities like Paris, Bordeaux & Lyon, and all the adjacent countries we also yearned to explore – Scotland, Ireland, Italy, Spain, and so on.  We still weren’t sure exactly where, but knew we’d figure that out soon enough. We loved Provence, but were not sure it was entirely ‘it’ for us.  What we would do is explore this vast country region by region – and what fun that would be!

The following day we drove to Lyon to drop off the rental car and board a plane home.

Still drunk from the experience, I immersed myself with online real estate websites, webinars on purchasing property in France, and reading everything I could that might help.  I figured the real estate sites would give us a better understanding of what types of houses would be available in each region so as we developed our ‘wish list’ it would be within reasonable expectations.  I recommend this exercise to anyone with similar aspirations.  One option we were also considering was renting a place to give a town or village time to settle.

It’s important to remain open to the experience because otherwise, I believe you can miss amazing opportunities you otherwise wouldn’t see.

Life goes on they say, or is it more like the John Lennon line that ‘life is what happens when you’re making other plans’?  Because my husband and I own a business and do not have the luxury of taking frequent vacations that would take us both away from work – and at this point are at lease 10-12 years away from retirement age, we loosely planned to visit a different region in France once a year.  That was the plan.  In July of 2014, as I was beginning to plan our next sojourn, I came home to my house flooded from a broken water pipe.  The unraveling of our daily lives commenced and eventually, though on the path to recovery, it seemed clear there would be no possible way for us to gather the resources needed to take our yearly trip.  That did not satiate my need to return to France, so we decided I would go with our daughter for a glorious mother/daughter trip to Paris.  My daughter had been obsessed with everything Paris since she was a very small child, so this would be her ‘end of college but not caught up in the working world yet’ trip.  Though there was no house hunting or new region exploration, just soaking up this amazing place – so in September 2014, the two of us were off, and I had my thirst quenched for a bit longer.

Over the next year, the business began growing by leaps and bounds, making it impossible to get time away.  My husband was not concerned because we really were on a 5-7 year plan, but I figured with 2015 having come and gone, and regretting I had not looked at any definitive plans to travel, I figured it just wasn’t going to happen.  So – I shrugged my shoulders, looked up to the sky and said to my spirit guides, “Look, if I’m supposed to travel to France anytime in the near future, you’ve got to step in and show me how because I have no worldly idea how it’s going to happen.”

Within 48 hours I received a message from my sister-in-law inviting me to join her and a few other women for a women’s trip to the south of France.  ‘Well, I can’t do that right now”, I thought, but decided to sleep on it before replying.  I woke up and looked at my husband and said, “I have to do this. I just know if I don’t I’m going to regret it.”  He looked me square in the eye and responded, “Then you need to do this.”

I thought about it and reasoned if he could join me after my sister-in-law flew home, then we could meet up and travel to Bordeaux, which is the first place we really wanted to explore.  I ended up with ten days with stops in Paris, Nice, & Eze, then back to Paris where I remained for 6 more days until he could join me.  So in April, 2016, we met at Charles de Gaulle airport and traveled to Bordeaux by train to spend a few days, look at a couple properties there, then drove to Saint Emilion for the next 5 days where we would meet with two more real estate agents to show us properties we had pre-selected online.

This is a good point to offer some advice on real estate vendors.  In the United States, we have what is known as a ‘multiple listing’ where any agent in the state or country has access to the database of what’s on the market.  Not so in France.  There are numerous agencies and those properties are only available to agents within that agency.  My advice is to begin with the biggest agency in France – and that is Leggett.  They will have listings and agents representing the greatest number of properties throughout the country, so it will save you an enormous amount of time!  That doesn’t mean you need to buy from them because you may just notice a property in an area with a different agency sign and there’s nothing stopping you from contacting them, but working through Leggett was one of the best decisions we made.   You can go to their website and set up an account where you set your preferences based on what you’re looking for, and depending on your preferences, you can request a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly listing update delivered right to your email box.  Once I week I would open my link and see what was new – I need to also say, the quality of the website and the thoroughness of details and pictures on the properties was also the best I found.

I had arranged to see six different properties which were being shown by four different agents – one of whom, ironically enough, was the same agent I had contacted a year earlier with questions about a property that looked interesting on the website.  We were not ready to buy at that point, but I remember she had been extremely responsive – something that surprised me at the time.  Upon request, the agency also recommended a place to stay that was central to these properties (also the recommendation of this agent).  We stayed at the Chateau de Courtebotte in St. Jean de Blaignac and the amazing host there – Isabelle, also arranged several dinners and wine tastings for us during our stay.

The day we were on our way to the Chateau, I was eagerly accessing the landscape, properties, for sale signs and amenities along the way as my husband drove.  We drove past one property that nearly caused my head to spin off my neck as I proclaimed, “That one’s for sale!!!” – to which my husband responds, “yeah, right – wonder what THAT one costs!”  We were, after all, on a pretty tight budget.

House for sale

This was the picture posted by Leggett

We are falling in love with this area and feel the need to focus our search here – not two hours away.  A meeting is arranged with the agent who ultimately sold us our property to discuss our needs in more detail and when we meet, she tells us she really doesn’t think the house she was scheduled to show us is the right one for us but we want to see it anyway.  She has, instead, another property she feels will be more to our liking.  Undeterred, we visit the property that’s about twenty minutes outside of any village.  The outside is lovely, and its possibilities are enormous – but the inside is somewhat disappointing, because despite the prospect of renovating every surface we conclude this house has all the space we need but in all the wrong places.  Renovating cannot fix that.  If the outside only matched the inside….

Next we visit the house she is insistent to show us in Lavagnac.  To our surprise, it is only five minutes from the Chateau and is the property I saw on the way into town.  Hold that thought for just a minute.  Let’s go back about a year now.  As I am reviewing properties online, I come across house we feel has potential and send an inquiry to the listing agent with a few questions, thinking, I probably won’t hear back for a while, if ever.  The next day I receive a very complete response and am taken aback because we really aren’t quite in a position to be purchasing. I had somewhat forgotten that correspondence when I realize Ironically, or should we say, synchronistically, this was the same agent and now, she is showing us a house – the very one that caught my eye coming into town.  And it is in our price range.

La Maison….

La Roseraie before renovation –

Let me first say – this visit to France was all about finding the location, the greater area of place that would resonate with both of us, feel like it could be a place we’d want to spend more time or live.  It would have the right places and spaces for us, would be near large transportation centers for ease of getting to, close to a large city – but not too close, and amenities, restaurants, shopping, wineries, etc. would be readily available.  This was most definitely not about finding ‘the’ house.  So when we found, ‘the’ house it was jolting, and a bit unsettling.  Were we ready for this?  How could we not be?

We enter the house, it is dark, very old, and though we open several windows and shutters, it is still dark, yet very beautiful.  Like a beautiful woman left unkempt.  No one has lived here for years, it is clear.  There is no active electricity, the water has been turned off, the kitchen has been removed, and there is no furniture.  We go through the house, room by room – ground floor with the grand entry opening on each side with double doors into the salon/living room on the left and dining on the right.  Each with its own fireplace.  There is a powder room off the entry and the kitchen at the rear of the house adjacent to the dining room.  The beautifully carved staircase winds to the first floor where we find another great hall with two bedrooms on one side and a bedroom and large bathroom on the other.  Each bedroom has a fireplace and beautiful mouldings.  Continuing up the staircase we find the second floor…. And there he is – I see the ghost of a man standing at the top with his arms crossed against his chest.  He is not smiling.  We walk past him and begin assessing the three rooms here, discussing the possibility of there being two more bedrooms and another bathroom.  I am also sensing much paranormal activity and excuse myself as quickly as I can.  Back outside, I share my experience and find both my husband and the agent also felt somewhat uneasy.  “No worries, I proclaim – I can take care of this!”  What am I saying?  Why did I say that?  I can ‘take care of’ this?!?  Sheesh!  I’ve got to really think before I speak.  This blurting out of things that are not my own words is becoming a habit and on some level, I’m not sure I even have control over it.

As a side note: I am a Shaman.  As part of this, I am able to journey, outside of time, in order to communicate with spirits.  I will use this gift often throughout the context of this renovation – 

As we drive back toward the Chateau we’re staying we are astounded it is only a few minutes away – just on the other side of the bridge crossing the Dordogne River, and since we drove here from the first property we visited today, we didn’t realize we had looped around and were this close to this area we’ve realized we had fallen in love with.    And now, we cannot stop talking about this house, planning what we would do, marveling at how close it is to everything we need it to be.  Back in our room, we’re sitting on the patio sharing a bottle of rose and dreaming of our life here one day and joking about this feeling like an episode of House Hunters International.  Later that night, as I’m ready to drift off to sleep, listening to the sleeping sounds of my husband, I journey to the house.

I connect with my power animals and teachers, then approach the house and walk immediately to the second floor where I sensed all the activity.  I acknowledge the spirit of the house, of the land and the place, then I immediately open a portal and ask all those who are ready to cross to do so, and to my amazement, there is a mad rush up the tractor beam of light leading to the portal and the place clears out!  Except, for the man.  Feeling the portal has served its purpose for the time being, I carefully make sure it is closed, then focus my attention toward the man.  I first respectfully introduce myself and explain my intentions.  His demeanor immediately softens, but he wants to see plans.  “What do you have planned?  I need to see the plans and I need to approve them.”

What the heck?  Did I just run into the local building inspector in Spirit form?!?  No worries – I lay out our plans, explaining we want to make this house beautiful again.  We have no interest in changing it and only want to bring it back to its original splendor and are thrilled no one has done anything to ruin it.  He will wait for me to bring him the plans and we will discuss them.

I go to sleep that night confident I can meet his requirements.  The next morning, I wake refreshed and share my experience with my husband – who believes me, but is always a bit cautious in his judgement.  The next day, we return to the house, determined to take measurements so we have them should we decide to move forward with this property, and when we do – despite the day being drizzly and overcast, the house is surprisingly brighter inside – and the second floor, much more inviting.  The shift in energy was noticeable to all of us.  I have continued to visit the house, visit with the man I now know as Padre, who I have shared our plans as they unfold.  He not only approved, but has proclaimed he will watch over this work to ensure it is done properly.  When I visit now, it is much more casual, he offers wine, we muse and look at details to be worked out and the last time I visited there were more helping spirits there – the body of maternal ancestors who worked from the other side to bring me here have moved in to help.

Yet the process continues to unfold as we wait to hear from the bank about securing the monies we need to pay cash for the property.  My head causes me to fill with fear because I want this so badly, my heart tries to comfort me because it ‘knows’ it is part of my destiny.  Yes, like waiting for the first heartbeat….

So – this has taken us somewhat by surprise.  We were only here to begin this process.  We have no worldly idea whether we can get a mortgage for what we need beyond what we have available.  This wasn’t supposed to happen yet – or was it?  Yet another synchronistic series of events unfolded to bring us to this place in time.  This place, this house, has everything we wished for – and it’s for sale now.  Not two years from now, not two years ago – now.  We have not pre-qualified for anything – we are simply here on a wing and a prayer, as they say.  We know what we can afford but that’s not always enough.

Get a French mortgage they said.  Rates are low and the process is easy.  Uh huh.  So, we’ve filled out all the preliminary information, made an offer on the house and are feeling somewhat optimistic.  The owners counter our offer so we counter theirs, and our second offer is accepted.  Ok – let’s get excited…. for a little while.  Then comes the news our mortgage will not be simple, or easy.  It seems, these ‘easy to get’ French mortgages are not so easy if you are over 55 – in which case, they will only consider 60% of your income, or if you are self-employed, or American.  Politics, you know.  We submit more information, tax returns both personal and corporate and a nicely bullet pointed list of why we will be a good credit risk.  And we wait. I distract myself with work, with dance, with writing and think this feels like childbirth.  One minute you are euphoric, then queasy, then will likely have some labor pains, but hopefully in the end will have a reward to look forward to.  This feels so incredibly destined; it’s frightening to imagine it will not happen.  Right now, I’m just waiting for the heartbeat assuring me this is viable.  For now, I must sit in limbo with the worrier on my right shoulder and the optimist on my left.

I can be a very calm person and am the one to have beside you in a crisis.  I am clear headed and steady.

I am also impatient.

All  of this waiting, dreading, wishing, dreaming.  So, what does a level headed optimist with a very practical nature do?  She doesn’t leave all her eggs in one basket, that’s what she does!  Time to apply for a mortgage in the good ol’ U S of A!  Having prepared paperwork, tax returns, etc. for the French banks, this process was no longer daunting.  Paperwork in, I decide to contact the French mortgage broker – surely after more than three weeks there’s some word and we now have more updated information.  Then the response basically stating we cannot possibly help you.  Oh, but wait, we CAN help you with a life insurance policy or transferring money.  Seriously?!? Here we sit in the best financial state we’ve ever been and easily able to afford this house, and they can’t possibly help us?  And exactly when was he going to share this news?  Would he have waited even longer if I had not contacted him?  You know what?  Time to put another one in the rear view mirror because we may be down, but we’re not out!  I can’t tell you if it was sheer desperation, our wanting it so badly, or what it was, but we actually felt more optimistic than before.  This was our house and no one was going to change that!  We have traveled by car, bus, plane, train, and covered more miles in this country that is both new and old to me at the same time and through it all every connection, every interaction has led us to this point in our journey – and to this house.

That said, if you are not a resident of the European Union and are over 55, you might want to consider having cash in hand or an American loan set up before making an offer on a property.

 

 

Chapter 1: It started with a dream…

We’ve all thought about it, many have dreamed of it, and a few actually think, “What if…”.  With the proliferation of travel and International house hunter type shows, even more are thinking, “Maybe I/we can do this too!”  Some are looking for adventure, a different way of life, or a retirement dream realized, but whatever your inclination, this blog will hopefully have some insights that will make this dream less daunting.

In 2013, my husband and I (who are within 10-12 years of retirement) came to the realization the south of France might just be the perfect retirement haven for us.  I don’t need to convince you or anyone why since the idea of living in a country with a less stressful pace, filled with history and beauty, amazing food and wine might be it, but why this blog?  Well, while being Americans trying to navigate the purchase and renovation of a property in another country seemed very doable – each step of the way I thought, “If only someone had been able to advise me on this”.  Seemingly simple details like moving money and opening a bank account were far more complex than they should have been because of the conflicting information readily available.  Renovating issues, leasing a car, getting a cell phone, learning a foreign language – all that and more.  I will share my story, month by month with photo’s chronicling our renovation and hopefully shine light on more of what you need to know.

Let me say, the one thing that rings consistent among those who have taken the leap before us, is it’s been one of the best things they’ve done – at least, that’s what I’m holding on to for the moment because I’m still not quite there…..