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!

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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?

Our first three months in France

As of today we’ve been here three whole months. Wow, the time has flown. I was so relieved just to be leaving at last after a really quite difficult three months leading up to the actual move (DS was only two months old when James started cracking the “we need to pack up the house!!!” whip) and was looking forward to a few weeks to chill out and recover, but that didn’t really happen either. I was hoping James would calm down a bit once we actually got here but actually it took him a good while to wind down and adjust to a slower and more functional pace. He’s getting there.

When we set off that day from the UK we had quite a to-do list so what have we been doing in that time? We still have a lot to do and a lot of what we thought we’d accomplish has fallen by the wayside while we try to get settled. Here’s a bit of a progress report on the five main tasks:

  • House buying
  • Settling into daily life
  • Sorting out the paperwork
  • Learning the French language
  • Earning some money

House Buying Progress = 1/10

Hmm, well, this one has morphed into potentially buy land and build and,since we are leaving this place at the end of March, looking for a new place to rent. Not having proper Internet connectivity really put a spanner in the works on this front, plus we were shown some proper s**t holes so our first foray into the world of property purchasing flattened our enthusiasm somewhat. I think we’ve seen about ten houses and about the same number of plots of land. As far as houses go we’ve seen a lot of hairline fractures, bad roofs, asbestos, and damp. Pretty shocking, actually, and all in and around properties that look pretty reasonable in the online pictures. The camera never lies my eye! I feel like we’re getting on top of this now though, with searches set up on the main sites, some good contacts in local estate agents who know what we want, and now we’re putting down some roots we’re more likely to get any hot of the press info from within the community, which is the best way to find anything out round here.

Settle Into Daily Life = 7/10

Okay, this is a biggy and how much we can really do without a permanent home is hard to say, but on many fronts, despite not being anything you could call “settled” we are settling into life around here. So why 6/10?

Well, we have French phone numbers – essential items for keeping in touch with agents and, thanks to free calls back to the UK, essential for keeping in touch with family and friends back on Blighty.

We also have the Internet and while it took the best part of the first three months to get it sorted out, it does still count as an achievement.

On the personal front, DD is now on her fourth week at the maternelle and is settling in nicely. We’ve already made friends and are, if anything, in a bit of a social whirl with lots of activities in our weekly timetable. We’ve discovered a fab place called Ludotheque, which offers play sessions throughout the week but is also a toy library. A toy library! Brilliant. Plus we’ve been to: the regular library; to movie night at a neighbours (where he shows the local kids a class French film, usually animation); to forest school; and to a wedding and a birthday party. When I get more time DD, DS, and I will have play dates coming out of my ears. We’ve also had “curry night”, which we all agree will be a regular features when our friends Matt and An come back in April, and I’ve encouraged Brigitte to start a regular sling meet type event as it was something both she and I wanted to do; she had the contacts and the language skills (being native) and I provided enthusiasm and encouragement that she needed to make it happen, which is great teamwork!

In fact, socially I could probably give us a 10/10. James did make a comment the other day (when we were on our way to meet someone I’ve recently befriended) about us not having time to socialise, but much of my time is spent with both littlies while he works on the computer and one thing the last few years have taught me is that life is better for mummies and their babies when they are with other mummies and other babies: it really does take a village and we – the women at least – are not meant to sit at home alone to stew in our own juice. So the socialising won’t be going away anytime soon. It’s all networking, right!?

Sort Out the Paperwork = 6/10

I’ve made some good progress on this front but I’ll admit to being a bit slack at picking up all the odds and ends. After cancelling all the major direct debits associated with our old address, which took the best part of a 8 weeks due to the Internet issues, I’ve not done much else and am relying on Royal Mail’s redirect service to deliver prompts in the mail from companies and accounts that I need to amend. That’s something to refocus on in the next few weeks, although with Christmas coming up it will more likely be a job for 2017.

A major leap on the paperwork front was sorting out the Assurance Scholaire, registering the car to obtain our Certificate d’Immatriculation, and getting the car insured. Oh, and let’s not also forget opening a French bank account. Despite the reputation for bureaucracy here, we found all of those things to be fairly straight forward and not too dissimilar to similar activities in the UK. The trick is to have all the paperwork handy in the first place and have enough French language under your belt to muddle you way through discussions with officials. All credit goes to James on that front. I think we’d have struggled if his French was as bad as mine. I’ll take the credit for gathering all the required documentation because if there’s one thing I’m not troubled by it’s paperwork!

Learn the French Language = 1/10

I feel like this is an epic fail on my part but I’m partly blaming lack of Internet connectivity, as well as DD’s new found inability to go to bed/sleep before 9pm. When we first arrived I did manage to get a few minutes every evening to work on my French, which meant I was learning little by little and had the confidence to try and speak every day. Since I fell out of that routine my brain seems to have dried up and I am finding it impossible to recall almost any French words or phrases in a timely manner, which is just embarrassing. If it weren’t for James we’d be struggling.

Perhaps I’m being hard on myself? When we arrived I had very basic “holiday French”, which just about extended to ordering a cup of coffee then asking for the bill. I know many more nouns than I did before and a good handful of verbs. I can listen to the radio and pick out words, sometimes even understand the adverts, and often help James by listening when he is talking to someone, catching things that he doesn’t, so my understanding of the language has definitely improved. So maybe 2/10. Either way, there’s plenty more to do in this area if I’m ever going to be properly at home here.

Earn some money = 0/10

Hahaha, as if, with everything else that’s going on, I’ve had chance to do anything on this front. But that’s okay because DS is still only 8 months old so technically I’m still on maternity leave (in my head I have 12 months off). Yes, there will come a point where I need to knuckle down and make some money again but I’m giving myself permission to do nothing for another few months at least. Having to make this happen at some point is always in the back of my mind so I am thinking along those lines but I rarely seem to have enough time to join those thoughts together, let alone enough time to put anything into action. That time will come. I suppose I have at least got the web domains ready to get and a blank blog set up on one of them – oh, and I have a special note book for my work-related ideas. Does that count?

Conclusion?

Three months in and I think we’ve done pretty well. We definitely all feel at home here but there is still much to do. Was it worth it? Hell, yes! I still come back to the view that we’re better off burning through our savings here than in the UK. Would I rather be renting somewhere here or there? Let’s just say it was t-shirt weather yesterday – in December! Yes way. We’re staying whether we find somewhere to buy or end up having to rent a place. And besides, this whole trip is educational for us all. DD is already speaking in broken French, the odd word here and there, and can understand much of what is said to her. DS won’t know any different so will probably end up with English as his second language, assuming we stay here into his school years. I know I’ll catch them up eventually because I just can’t stand being unable to have a proper chat with people and am reassured that, as James remarked the other day, that already it doesn’t feel foreign here, you know like when you go on holiday and you don’t understand enough about the place to feel properly at home there, reading billboards and the like? Well, all that is becoming familiar and I like it!

 

And we’re back in the game, sort of.

We have Internet connectivity, yay! It’s been a real trial and almost three months since we arrived but heck, who’s counting, right? Yes, today we returned to the 21st Century and found ourselves properly connected to the Internet. Okay, that’s overstating it slightly as the version of the Internet we have is via the mobile network using the Orange Airbox, which works really well but has the distinct disadvantages of a) being metred — we have 30 GB a month in real money or 30 Go en français  — and b) costing a bomb  — 54 euros a month, which is a bit of piss take when you consider that you can get fixed line fibre, unmetered, with TV, sport, and a bunch of other feature we’ve come to expect for roughly half that. But we’re online, so who cares. Well, yes, I suppose I am a little bit bitter because having a metred connection is a pain . For example, no more Netflix or Spotify, which means I am now tinged with regret over decluttering our DVD and CD collections. I know it’s the south of France but it is still winter which does mean some long, cold nights ahead. We’re short of time, admittedly, so we’re unlikely to launch into a full season binge of anything but I do miss a little bit of TV after a busy day. The one DVD we currently have to hand is Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a cracking film with a very rousing sound track (I cried alot when I watched this during my pregnancy) and DD loves it. We’re currently learning all the words to all the songs (Bryan Adams!) and having a thoroughly good time singing along but you know, just some times I fancy something a little grittier; 24, Breaking Bad, Orange is the New Black. Or Doctor Who. I’d really like to snuggle down with a hot chocolate after battling the three-year-old into bed (tonight it took only 2 hours) and watch something with lots of swearing in it. On the upside, by the time we do get properly back online there will be plenty to catch up on!

The Kindness of Strangers

One of the things I’m enjoying most about being here is making new friends and having to be open to those around me – particularly given the language and, to some extent, the cultural differences – in order for that to happen so feel extremely lucky that we were welcomed unreservedly into this small community from the moment we arrived. Now, just two months later, our children are in and out of one anothers houses and we adults have shared food, our homes, exchanged ideas, recipes, parenting advice (naturally!). As incomers, we’ve been invited to parties, events, even a wedding! I can’t imagine having packed this much in to such a small time had we relocated within the UK but I think much of this comes down to the fact that we’re in a small hameau where everyone knows and helps everyone and their lives are already very intertwined. Plus, with so much of life taking place outdoors and so many children keen to play with an interact with other children, it naturally follows that out lives are more public and less isolated. It’s really lovely.

Even if we end up moving to another area or hameau, I have no doubt that we will remain in close contact with the people here and we will remain connected for a long time. Our children are happy together and that makes us happy together. As luck would have it we also have commonalities that go beyond our children. James is rediscovering his love of music and now goes to “guitar club” once a week as well as getting together with the other resident musicians for a jam night every now and again. For my part I’m supporting B in organising a regular sling meet style event, something she’s wanted to do for a while but hasn’t had the energy to do by herself and something I wanted to do but didn’t feel I could unless I had better French and knowledge of the people and the area. I’ve also taken DD to the local forest school (école de la forêt), which is organised by V, who lives in a hameau a bit further along the valley. DD loves it. I love all the cooperation and the sense of community and look forward to being able to give something back once we have more space and are more settled. Even with my limited French language skills I’m able to participate and getting involved in helps me to put down roots and create some stability for DD and DS – a foundation for our new life. I’m so pleased we came here, to this exact place, however temporary it turns out to be.

Living under a rock

Since we arrived in France we’ve been almost entirely without real, bonefide, always connected, not worrying about data limits 21st Century Internet (and hence, Wi-Fi) in the house. For a holiday, no big deal. For an adventure in a new country when you have a million things to sort out, friends and family to keep in touch with, bills and moving practicalities to put to bed, a zillion questions flying around in your head, and a whole new language to learn, it’s a real pain in the arse. Do you know how many times a day you reach for Google? No, because the odds are you just pick up your phone or lift the lid on your laptop and Google away. Not being able to Google anything is amounts to not getting things done on steroids. Do you want to know what days the markets are? Tough, you’ll have to wait until you pass a tourist office and ask there, if they’re open. Which estate agents have properties you want to look at it? No idea. You’ll just have to go into each town and wonder round aimlessly until you find one then go in and be at their mercy. Want to make a cheeky offer on an overpriced house? No-can-do because the agents will only show you houses within 10,000 euros of your stated budget so as not to do themselves out of oodles of commission. Ah, so you want to search LeBonCoin, to bypass the agents and buy direct? Hahaha, no chance. Oh, you also want to reassure the grandparents that their grandchildren will remember them? (Yes, we’d been gone barely two weeks and my mum actually said that to me.) Well, Skype is out of the question. Do you need to find a phone number, maybe a phone number for calling from outside the UK to notify a utility company that you’re not at your old address? Good luck with that one, buddy! You can dial 0800 numbers until you’re blue in the face. No-one can hear your screams. And don’t even get me started on YouTube. It’s impossible learn to do anything that an instructional video could teach you. Every now and again I’ve set my mobile to allow roaming data because I just can’t take any more but try learning a new fold for the cloth nappies (I know there’s a fold for a heavy wetter – boy – out there) based on some fairly shoddy step-by-step drawings and you will fail, trust me. So there you have it.

The only workaround we have is to piggyback on a neighbour’s setup. In theory this means we can take it in turns to wander up the road and sit on a step opposite said neighbours house to use their Wi-Fi. In practice this means James thinks of something he needs the internet for then trots off up the road leaving me pinned under the smalls. Since we got here at least one of them seems to be breastfeeding at all times. Lord knows what’s going on with DD but for a small child of almost three she spends more time on my boobs than the baby. The times that I’m pinned under both of them are when my new found inability to mindlessly surf the Internet – usually reading blogs of women the World over similarly pinned under at least two small children and trying despeartely to see the funny side – is most keenly felt. To make matters slightly worse, getting it sorted is almost entirely in the hands of the property manager, who seems to have trained at the chocolate teapot school of effectiveness. Let’s just say we’re not hopeful that any of this will be sorted any time soon. In the meantime, you can find me under a rock (disguised as a couple of small and hungry humans). Send a telegram or something.

Welcome to France! And now for a crash course in not getting things done.

One of the criticisms often bandied about the UK’s nearest neighbour is that it takes a long time to get anything done. By coincidence, one of DD’s favourite movies is the Muppets: Most Wanted, which parodies this stereotype brilliantly with a detective who downs tools for a long lunch and then goes on a 3-month holiday. Anyway, as if to welcome us in true French style and ensure we set our expectations low, we were treated to our first taste of this on our very first full day here.

Before we arrived we had arranged with the gite owner two prices: one for the place with and another for without Internet. Suspecting that we wouldn’t have fixed line Internet we’d done some research and found some fairly reliable and potentially inexpensive, at least comparable to £50 per month, mobile alternatives. However, a 4G LTE solution that would be temporary and fairly immediate to set up while also providing enough data for us to get our work done would have set us back of 100 euros a month, as a French bank account is usually needed for the more sensibly priced solutions, with month-by-month plans targeted more at tourists, so having a fixed line installed and running bog standard ADSL or, ideally, VDSL Internet was definitely preferrable. So we were pleased when the gite owner e-mailed me in the week we were moving out here to say that Internet was going in on the day we were arriving, which would mean fully operational Wi-Fi. Yay! Yes, it was going to cost us a little more but it was definitely the low-hassle option. So that was the Internet issues dealt with.

Next up was heating. We’d taken this particular gite over the winter on the basis of it having a wood burner installed, as we didn’t fancy spending the winter here without one. The owner assured us they were putting one in, so we were happy enough that at least we’d be warm; we’d manage without Netflix but heat was not something we were going to compromise on given the proximity to the mountains. So imagine our delight when we turned up to no Internet and – yes, you’ve guessed it – no woodburner!

But it was all fine and under control, apparently. Debbie, the property manager, explained that the telecoms engineer would be arriving at 2pm on the day we were expecting to collect our cats to finish the installing the phone line. At roughly 3.30pm the telecoms guy turned up. By 5pm the cable was installed but no Internet – actually the line wasn’t working at all; for that to happen Orange needed to do something and then someone else, maybe him again, would come in to finish the job. At some point int he future. Obviously he gave no indication of when either of those things could or will happen but gave a very definite shrug of the shoulders.

And the woodburner? Well, they ordered it over a month ago and it was due to arrive “on Friday”. The big question seemed to be, which Friday!? No-one seemed to know. It seemed that at some point, most likely on a Friday, the woodburner would arrive. In the mean time we should expect a guy to come round to cap off the chimney to prevent the forecast rain dripping into the living room. True to form, said guy never showed up, so we spent the first week, when it rained and then some, with buckets and a plastic sheet adorning the floor under the gaping hole that was the chimney for said missing stove. Then there was the question of whether the woodburner arriving at the shop would translate into the woodburner being installed. We suspected not but we were proved wrong and, yes, by virtue of having been here just over a month, we are lucky enough that the woodburner has now been installed and bar a few technical hitches (like the self-assemble handle just falling off) we have heat, which is nice on the cooler evenings.

The phone line on the other hand? Well, that is a tale that rumbles on with no end in sight. If you’re reading this (or any posts I’ve made since we arrived) the chances are I posted them while sitting on this step outside a neighbour’s house, thanks to the generous “loan” of his Wi-Fi password, but people are generous here, so it’s worth the wait and also gives us something to talk about every time they leave the house and find one of us sitting outside – and I can think of worse places to sit. Welcome to France!