House Hunting is Hell

Oh, it’s been a long week. Plan A was always to buy a small house with a large garden but when we arrived all the properties we saw were so terrible we decided to investigate building instead. Plan B. That all seemed straight forward – we’d buy land, live in a van onsite, etc. – until we had a close shave with a land purchase (constructible according to the agent but no CU, according to the local Mairie), which taught us just how naive we were and how easy it would be to make a colossal mistake so decided to rethink our plan. In the end we agreed that we don’t have the language skills to properly navigate the system and – given we’re also supposed to be parenting two small children – aren’t prepared to take on the risks associated with a build. We’ve found a kit house we would like to build, if we ever get to that stage, but we don’t have the time or the money for that now because we want time to focus on our family. Plan C then became that we would use roughly half our budget to buy a small village and a small plot of agricultural land closeby. That would allow us to get on with our lives and also keep an eye out for land to build on should something become available in the areas that we like. We learn French in the meantime, earn some money, the children go so school/creche – everyone’s happy.

Plan C felt like a huge weight off. It’s claustrophobic in this little house we’re renting; effectively one small room, since we battened down the hatches to survive this cold winter, and the idea of buying a house and just getting on with life made all of us happy. We whizzed through the various agents’ websites and found quite a good list, all in areas we liked, and saw six houses in the space of two weeks. No good, for reasons I’ll get to. Our French friends say wait, something will turn up, but we have to leave here at the end of April and then where do we go? A rental property we were told about won’t allow pets and that is the only house for rent that we’ve heard of that be in the catchment for DD’s school. Rents are high – as high as they were in Manchester – which is crazy considering no-one here seems to work, and the houses aren’t great (no insulation, etc.) and we didn’t come here to rent a crappy little house; what we all want is to feel settles somewhere.

Plan C then – which was more in line with the original plan when we came here. Spend more of our budget. Just get a house in this area so that DD can continue at the maternelle she’s so happy with; any house preferably with some outside space, that we can move into straight way without having to do any work on it and buy a small plot of agricultural land for vegetable growing; live our lives, get our feet under the table, start earning and saving some money. If this smacks of desperation it’s because we feel desperate right now.

Why the rush? Well, I guess it doesn’t feel like that to us. For us this has already been a 12-month journey, starting when I lost my job and we started decluttering and making plans to move. I had DS in March and then the packing began while the decluttering continued. We came here in September and all we’ve done since then is run around looking at houses, looking at land, having heated discussions about sun exposure, thermal efficiency, market value, etc., etc., etc. And yesterday DD started crying because Lion (a giant cuddly toy she’s fond of) is in a box upstairs, along with many of her other cuddly toys. When your three-year-old daughter sobs in your arms because she’s missing her cuddly lion, your heart just breaks and you’d do anything to put it right, including deciding to have bought a house by the end of next week. She’s right too. These two kids couldn’t care less where we live as long as it’s somewhere safe and warm that we can all be happy. Home is where the heart is, for sure, and no-one ever got happy spending all their days driving around endlessly looking at houses with imminent homelessness looming over their shoulders.

Every other day I’m in tears too. It’s emotionally exhausting – made worse by “advice” from French friends who tell us that whatever the price is is too much or the sun exposure isn’t good enough; how for that money we should expect x, y, z (insert: more land, more sun, more, more, more) and just wait, wait, and wait some more for the right thing to turn up. This is made worse again by French owners who are blatantly taking the piss, probably because we’re “Rich English” folk, which we’re really not. We’re assured that there isn’t one price for the English and another for the French but another agent said as much and I think he’s right. For example, we learned that a house we’d viewed earlier this morning day, on the market with an (English) agent for 99k euros, is being advertised locally (i.e., not through an agent) for 70k. And the owner had the nerve to say to the agent he’d consider an offer of 90k. How generous of him! We viewed four properties in total today – all overpriced. One seller had the audacity to say to James with an almost straight face that the “garden”, which is actually a parcel of agricultural land a good 10 or 15-minute walk from the property, could be sold with the property for 15k euros. Apparently she paid 8,000 euros for it 8 years ago and now she wants 15,000 for half of it. Half of it! I mean seriously. Since that conversation James has busy translating some new phrases into French, including: “You have to be kidding me” and “I’m insulted that you think I’m stupid enough to pay that much.”

The search continues. I just hope we find a house before we all have nervous breakdowns!

Measles and the Anti-Vac Mood in France

Something I hadn’t considered at all when moving was that there might be different attitudes to health outside of the UK. A different language and culture I expected, or course, but as far as health goes I’d generally heard that the French have an excellent (albeit not free) healthcare system and as such had no concerns. We’re all Europeans, right? A rude awakening came my way just last Saturday when one of the women I’ve become friends with took me aside after an event to let me know that her children had been in contact with some other local children (the cousins of several boys living in our hameau) who had rougeole (measles) and were contagious the last time they all played together. Whaaaaattt!!?!?

For one, this event was one where babies were present. There were one-month-old babies there and a heavily pregnant mum-to-be, due any day, all of whom have fragile immune systems. And, of course, my unvaccinated baby. How could anyone be so foolish? Once back home and having let the news sink in, James and I started on some internet research, trying to understand the situation in France so we could decide how best to protect our children. DD had been given the MMR vaccine in the UK at 12 months, as per the schedule there, and could have a second does at any time – recommended for more thorough protection. DS, only 9 months, would usually have three months to wait before being given his routine jabs but in cases where younger babies were known to have been in contact with infected children GPs in the UK offer the vaccine earlier to babies from 9-months-old onwards.

But where to start in France? We are here on our EHIC cards and haven’t signed up to the Carte Vitale or any private medical insurance yet since until we’ve bought somewhere this whole trip may turn out to be temporary. Luckily, I remembered a conversation I’d had with someone we considered renting a house from. We’d had a nice chat on the phone and I remembered her mentioning the English-speaking doctor in Esperaza. I found the lady’s e-mail so sent her a quick message. She replied quickly with the details we needed, then it was easy enough to find the doctor’s address. James and I would be there with bells on first thing on Monday morning.

Of course, this being France there was no way to find out what time the doctor was open so we just had to turn up and see. We were met by a receptionist who was very friendly and helpful, taking us into an office and quickly booking us an appointment with the doctor, who would be in tomorrow morning. Job done. The next day we went along and explained the situation, taking along DS’s red book so we could refer to the British schedule. The doctor was very sympathetic but explained it would be best to wait two weeks to give the virus chance to come out in case he had already caught it because, if that were the case, giving a vaccine would be pointless. Hmmmm, not ideal (what if he hadn’t caught it but picked it up from someone else in the hameau during the next two weeks?) but that timing would fit with the French schedule, as they usually give the MMR at 10 months. Okay, well that would have to be okay. We handed over our EHIC cards and were given a facture (invoice) for 26 euros – the cost of a consultation – and a prescription for us to take to the chemist (and pay for) along with some really helpful advice on how to treat the symptoms of measles (primarily, high fever) if either DS or DD became ill with it. It wasn’t quite the outcome we were hoping for but we respected the doctor’s advice and that was all we could do.

A week on, the children we were originally told about still haven’t shown any symptoms. That’s 17 days after contact with the symptomatic children but we’re still on lockdown here – at least until I return from the UK in a few weeks; if anything causes me to have to cancel that trip I fear the consequences! – so why all the fuss?

I’d say that for most Brits it’s just not something we come into contact with any more, depending on the circles you move amongst, and most of the people are know are on the side of modern medicine when it comes to vaccination. Measles has all but been wiped out in countries where vaccination is the norm and, from a quick read of the data, outbreaks tend to occur within closed communities or as a result of an unvaccinated person travelling to another country where vaccination is not the norm. So why is it here in France? Well, it would seem that there are certain areas of France where the residents are particularly sceptical of vaccination to the point that even those attending the public schools will often only give the mandatory list vaccines. Since MMR is on the optional list, parents often opt not to have it administered; consequently, there are areas of France (just as in other countries) where anti-vac attitudes prevail. And it turns out we’re in one of those areas. Oh joy.

What has had me hopping madly about over this though is that I genuinely had no idea that we were living amidst this kind of mindset. The friend in question (who I know is into homeopathy) seemed to be fairly pleased at the prospect of her two children contracting measles. It beggars belief really that anyone could justify such an attitude given all we know now about immunisation and the dangers of this particular illness. The big issue for me is herd immunity: it’s fine for someone to make a decision about their own child informed by their own beliefs, that’s parenting, right? Who am I to tell you your way is wrong and mine is right? But decisions about health are bigger than that, in my mind. What about people who can’t be immunised? One of the kids in this village has a health issue that doctors are currently trying to get to the bottom of. What if he caught measles and it didn’t turn out so well for him? I’ve had a good rant and rave about this offline and really could fly into one here, so I’ll rein myself in and keep a lid on it. By coincidence, at this exact time an article on this very subject was bumped on one of the parenting groups I belong to, so I’ll share it here along with a bunch of other interesting links.

http://www.iflscience.com/health-and-medicine/dear-parents-you-are-being-lied/

Other Links
International Measles Outbreaks – https://www.verywell.com/international-measles-outbreaks-2633844
ECDC Vaccination Schedule Comparison Table – http://vaccine-schedule.ecdc.europa.eu/Pages/Scheduler.aspx
Info Rougeole – Sante publique France – http://www.info-rougeole.fr/rougeole.html
The Guardian (UK Newspaper) – https://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/apr/15/homeopathy-measles-mp
Quackometer (results of articles for the search term “measles”) – http://www.quackometer.net/blog/?s=measles

What do you think about this? Is it something you thought about when relocating or travelling to another country? Share your stories!

Gite mods: why you really need to think about winter if you’re buying a place to live here

When we agreed with the owners to take this place that we’d previously rented during holidays in June and September, both nice warm months, we were warned by our neighbour, Marie, who we know from those holidays, that it wasn’t very warm or well insulated and that winters here could be pretty hard. We shrugged off her concerns, naturally; we’re pretty resilient types, used to winter camping trips in the UK and also used to some pretty grim weather in our damp old house near Manchester. This is France, right, so how bad can it be? As it turns out, with a few creative modifications we’re perfectly comfortable and we’re also learning a heck of a lot that’s useful when we are looking a houses. So what have we done and why – and what does this teach us?

First up, the drafts. The building we’re in is a “renovated” barn along on old, narrow street. Luckily one side faces South, so on sunny days we benefit from the winter sun warming the wall and the roof, which means we don’t need to light the fire, even on cold days (as long as there’s sun, of course.) The downside is that whoever fixed the walls probably did it during warmer months and didn’t do a great job so when we light the fire in the evening and the air temperature inside rises inside, cold air comes pouring in through every available crack and crevice, of which there are many – some more severe than others. Our first hack involved stuffing cracks in the render with tissue paper, which is very rough and ready but works pretty well – and is great fun for DD too. Once it got colder, around mid November, we took down the thin summer curtains and replaced them with thicker, heavier ones, meaning that the room we sleep (which is the main room with the woodburner) keeps the heat better. Now, because some pretty cold weather is forecast in the next week or two, we’ve upped our game, so now the arch between the kitchen and our bed/main-room now looks like this:

Really, it’s not for everyone, is it!? That’s my 4.5 tog summer duvet right there on our wall and it’s doing a fine job of keeping the other room very cosy and snug indeed.

We’ve also had to hack the woodburner. This place only got a woodburner a few weeks into our extended stay. I think it was early October. The owners decided to put one in primarily to make winter rentals possible but, like all “good” landlords, they didn’t want to spend much money, so we have the pleasure of spending winter warmed by the Panadero Gothic 2, now out of stock but originally purchased from Mr. Bricolage for less than 200 euros. And what a billy bargain it has turned out to be. Not. I mean, seriously. The first or second fire we had caused the door to buckle, making it now impossible to fully choke down. Consequently the fire goes out usually some time between 4 and 5am every night because burns through the wood too quickly. As any wood stove aficionado knows, airflow management is the key to a successful burn. We figure we’re getting through about 25% more wood than we need to because it is burning so fast all the time. And of course there’s the waking up cold at 5am thing. James has managed to hack the stove, improving this slightly, by stuffing the gaps and cracks with foil. It’s not pretty but it works.

Then then are the handles. That’s the handle for the door and the knob that is used for the vent. You’d think it would be a good idea to equip a wood burning stove with handles made out of a heat resistant material but no, not the bottom of the range Panadero Gothic. This meant that they too suffered in the heat, breaking into pieces within the first week or two of usage. Brilliant. James fixed them with wood glue but now that’s given way too. Perhaps there was a label somewhere saying that this particular model is for decorative purposes only but it was in French so the owners missed it? That would make more sense of why anyone would buy this. It does look okay, I suppose. But at least with the hacks, which you can see in the picture over on my other post about the rainy day, it is functioning. Thank goodness for aluminium foil!

This whole experience is teaching us so much more than we thought we needed to know; we learn something new every day. So what are we learning from tin foil door handles and duvets for curtains and why am I writing about it here? Well, fundamentally, the big lesson for us or anyone moving to a hotter climate than they’re used and buying (or renting) a house to live in year round, is to think about winter and what that means in terms of heating and cost. That’s why James is being so meticulous about checking the sun exposure to every property we look at. Essentially it’s why we haven’t bought one yet, too! We are really glad we’re doing this now because we can see how it would be all too easy to turn up in France or elsewhere during the summer when the sun is high and the air is warm and to be swept off our feet by some land or a property only to find that we are saddled with somewhere cold and expensive to heat during the winter. As a pretty extreme example we were shown a gorgeous plot of land – on the side of a hill, lined with trees, totally private and secluded, away from the main village – that felt right. When James first saw it he was so excited because he loved it and he knew I would too. It ticked many of our boxes but, knowing how cold it can get, James went up there early one morning to check the time when the sun would hit the site – and it’s a good job he did, because it didn’t! He came home two hours later, freezing cold, relieved to be able to sit on our South facing balcony to warm up. It was exactly 10 degrees warmer here than there. Can you imagine!?He went back later to check with the fancy Sunseeker 3D app and that was the end of that because it turns out there’s no sun hitting that plot for more than 30-minutes each day in winter. Brrrrr. The sun is so important here in winter. As is having a warm, well-insulated house that is cheap to heat.

The money side is critically important unless you have money to burn, literally. As another example, we were put off renting a large villa-style house only a few miles from here after being told by the owners told to expect a 2,000 euro bill for heating during winter. Two thousand! The owners typically live there all year round and, get this, said they only heat the main room and one of the bedrooms – and still it costs two grand to heat during winter. And we’ve read stories online where that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Heating bills of 6- even 7-thousand euros are not unimaginable. In contrast, one stere of wood (equivalent to a cubic meter measured as a single scoop of the JCB), is costing us about 75 euros and we’ve had five and a half so far (one lasts just less a month) and we expect that will see us through to March now we’ve erected the duvet mod. We’d have spent less if this dumb stove could take 50cm pieces of wood (65 euros per stere instead of 75) but it can’t. That’s not bad though, is it. Plus we know how much we’re spending because we buy it then we burn it. The idea of being on mains gas or oil central heating, where you can just pop it on or turn it up if you feel cold to get hit by a bill later, is terrifying. If you just want to spend summers here, fine, you don’t need to be so discerning. But we do so we must; as much as it works, I’d rather not spend all my future winters huddled in one room with duvets for doors but I also don’t intend to spend what’s likely to be two-month’s wages on heating!

And buy a decent stove. Period.

Rainy day

It’s raining here today. Back home in Manchester this would in no way be news but here a day of more or rain is a big deal: no-one has the faintest idea how to manage the piles of washing or, more accurately, drying that builds up and people go little bit stir crazy with being stuck in the house for more than a couple of hours. After Manchester though, I like a day or two of rain. It settles everything and everyone down, cools and soothes, not to mention washing away the copious amounts of dog crap that litter the pavements around here (free range dogs are something I may never come to terms with.)

So what to do on a rainy old day? Well, it was a rough night when I was kept awake by a combination of a teething baby and a full moon lighting up the room via the skylight so my day, so far, looks like this. I apologise for the state of the slippers. They’ll be washed when the sun comes out again!

Land Buying Checklist

We left the UK intending to buy a livable house that needed some cosmetic work but decided, after seeing a few very terrible houses and being inspired by some local self-builders, that we should keep our options open, so now we’re also on the lookout for land.

There’s quite a lot of land for sale here but the prices vary as widly as the spaces themselves. We’ve seen small rocky plots, steeply terraced plots, flat plots, shady plots, and north, south, east and west facing plots! There are so many variations when it comes to land it’s quite mind boggling. It helps that we already have an idea of the kind of build we want and that James has put a lot of time and effort into understanding orientation, downloading some really useful iPad apps that enable us to check the sun’s rotation.

Each time we view a plot we learn something new. To try and keep it all together I’ve put together this checklist. It’s work in progress so I’ll update it as new things are added. I’ve been using it is the basis for a log, so we can rank each plot as we find it and also keep track of any open issues or questions. The log file spreadsheet along with this list can be downloaded from Google Drive.

Services – onsite or nearby?

  • Water
  • Elecriticity
  • Drainage
  • Telephone
Views
Aspect (flat, slope facing away, etc.)
Orientation (important for undertanding sun exposure during summer vs. winter)
Light/shade (how exposed during the build, are you adding or removing trees to the plot?)
Access
Suitability for:

  • Building within budget (e.g. simple, flat plot vs. rock face)
  • Achieving aims (growing food, landscaping, pool, etc.)
Achieving aims (growing food, landscaping, pool, etc.)
Noise pollution (road noise, dogs, etc.)
Friends (do you already know people locally?)
Schools & Colleges (quality, available space, etc.)
Location (countryside vs. town, etc.)
Access to town/supermarket, etc. (an easy drive, icy in winter, etc.)
Climate (check average temperatures, will climate impact choice of materials?)
Road (quality, condition in winter)
Paperwork:

  • Is the land designated as constructible in the local plan (PLU)?
  • Does the land already have a CU? If so, which type and are there any restrictions in place?)*
Soil quality (type – clay, etc., are pesticide/herbicide residues likely?)
Proximity to agriculture/industry
Privacy

Have I missed anything?

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