You know the story. Disillusioned ad exec flees rainy London for the sunshine and lavender fields of Provence. Hilarity ensues in the shape of a dilapidated stone house, a village populated by idiosyncratic Frenchmen and lots of good food and wine.
Indeed, Peter Mayle’s Provence seduced many dreamers to set off in search of their own little piece of France.
And as it turns out, I’m one of them.
But what happens when one tries to turn the fantasy into reality? On a tight budget and with two kids and a dog in tow? Plenty. Here are some high (and low) lights from our excursions in French house hunting.
We scoured online listings and poured over photos for weeks, zeroing in on the Yonne area of Burgundy. Some of the photos were so shockingly bad (dogs sprawled on unmade beds, laundry piled on the floor, rotten mattresses propped against walls), we had to strain to see the possibilities. Features like original tile floors, beamed ceilings and stone fireplaces could be found – but rarely under the same roof. These houses needed work. A lot of it. But that would be part of the fun! We’d find a place to restore and make it our very own. Finally, with two properties in our sights, we called a local agent and planned a visit.
Our top pick had been lovingly renovated with its original quirks intact. Located in a tiny hameau in the rustic Puisaye area, it had rough-hewn beams, a double height family room and stone floors. It was a bit remote (no commerces, no nearby train) but the wooded location was romantic and kid-friendly. We could move right in and start enjoying! We pictured ourselves playing board games in front of the fire, our loved ones comfortably ensconced in the sunny guest room. “Why are they selling?” my husband asked. “Un divorce,” the realtor shrugged. We exchanged nervous glances. Had the house played a role in the failing union? Was it a bad omen? The seller’s price was firm, the realtor added, about 30K more than we hoped to spend. They wouldn’t consider a centime less. Maybe the house was “too done” after all. Wasn’t fixing it up part of the fun? We began referring to it as “Divorce House” and, grudgingly, searched on.
The next home we saw was a “fixer-upper” in the extreme. It needed everything: new roof, electrical, plumbing, insulation, kitchen, baths – the works. But oh, did it have potential! There were generously proportioned rooms and pretty views plus a lovely weeping Willow gracing the front yard. A gentle stream babbled nearby, an organic farm was located next door. This was it! The price was too high but maybe we could get it for half? It had been sitting for months and the sellers were anxious. Once all was said and done, it could be perfect! We started calculating. A new roof? 30K. Electrical, insulation and plumbing, another 30K, at least. Oh, and then there was the septic tank: another 15k. We were quickly surpassing our budget and starting to stress, even before submitting an offer. Yes, the Willow was lovely and the young farmers next door, the perfect potential neighbors. But no, this was, perhaps, a bridge too far. After all, we didn’t want to end up with a “Divorce House” of our own…
Several weeks went by and our search continued. Soon, we were back in Burgundy’s Cote d’Or region for a week’s stay in a rented gite. This time, I was determined to find “the one.” Alas, another day of house visits, more disappointments. Rotten roofs, shoddy renovations, funky floor plans, and, oh, the damp, moldy smells. It was starting to get depressing.
Then, on our last day, a broker took us to see a little house he described as “dans son jus.” It wasn’t the area we’d been targeting but he said it was unspoiled and filled with possibilities. Plus, the price was right. We approached the house with low expectations. The village was like most in the countryside, seemingly abandoned with windows shuttered tight. But it was perched on a hill that overlooked a broad valley, its church spire peeking over the red clay rooftops. The stone houses were modest but nicely kept, a working farm with sheep and cows sat nearby.
From the road, however, the house was nothing special. I felt my heart sink. Then the realtor forced open the rusty iron gate. An overgrown garden lay before us, encircled by lovely stone walls and two old barns. There were two wells on the property, some aging fruit trees, and an enclosed pasture beyond where a pony grazed. The house itself had wooden shutters painted a faded turquoise and on the stone above the door, the year “1767” had been carved.
Intrigued, we entered the cool, dark space as the realtor unhinged the shutters. A wintry light poured across the stone floors made of original (mostly cracked) “dalles de Bourgogne.” The house had sat empty for a while but didn’t feel neglected. We began to visualize the possibilities. Walls could be knocked down to create a large family room around the fireplace. We could take out the old bathroom and build a functional kitchen near the picture window that overlooked the garden. Then, we’d finish the grenier to create three bedrooms and a bath. The roof was new(ish) and the house was on the town sewer. Sure, it needed a lot of work, but the potential was there. We spent two hours wandering around, snapping pictures, measuring and visualizing what could be.
As we piled back into the car and headed for Paris – the kids’ hands dirty from digging in the garden – we began talking numbers. Was it time to make an offer? Could this little stone house actually be “the one?” No, it wasn’t Peter Mayle’s idyllic Provence. But maybe it could be our very own piece of France…
- Be sure to read Part I of Paige’s search for her perfect country home.
- Peter Mayle may be best know for his writing about the Luberon region, but NY Times recently shared an interview about his ventures in Marseilles.
- Casey Hatfield-Chiotti shares a guide to Burgundy’s affordable (and still delicious) wines.