Best of the south-west
It’s famous for jetsetting towns like Biarritz and La Rochelle, but how much do you know about this sought-after corner of France
BY SHANE MCGINLEY
Romantic, beautiful, charming and cultured – all the clichés are true. If there’s one European nation that has a certain “je ne sais quoi” over all others it’s France. Incredible food, magical wines, fairytale chateaux and a President married to a glamorous Italian former supermodel – the French certainly know how to enjoy the finer things in life.
With UN World Tourism Organisation figures showing that approximately one tenth of all tourists visit France – nearly 80 million people a year and more than live in the country itself – it’s no wonder so many foreigners want to move there or buy second homes. The most recent study conducted by the French government found that there are 2.9 million second homes in France, representing about a tenth of the national housing stock. Secondhome ownership is so popular with the French that they own about 90% of these themselves. Of those owned by foreigners, the British are the biggest group, making up 28% of overseas buyers, followed closely by the Italians.
While prices in France are on average about 30% cheaper than in the UK and Ireland, southwest France is certainly not cheap, and is one of the most expensive areas to buy in the country. So those looking to find a cheap stone cottage and do it up might have to search quite hard.
“South-west France is the most popular area for overseas buyers, and this has been the case for more than 30 years now,” says Trisha Mason, managing director of agency VEF Group.
The Pyrénées-Atlantiques is a French department situated in the Basque area bordering Spain. It enjoys a climate of long, hot summers, with quite mild winters. Property owners have the option to go skiing in the mountains, or sunbathing in Spain, which is just a daytrip away. Property in the resort town of Biarritz is expensive, as there is still a certain cachet to owning property in the grand old ville, according to John Crawley, chief executive of agency Oui Can Do. “Properties are often too expensive for the locals, indeed eight out of 10 buyers are French, but usually Parisians or people from the north,” he says.
Located on the Atlantic coast, Biarritz is the home of surfing in France, and the annual Biarritz Surf Festival draws big crowds. The once royal town was popular with Hemmingway, Napoleon III and Queen Victoria, while today famous visitors include surfing fan Cameron Diaz, Formula One legend Alain Prost and fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier. The latter two are both said to own homes in the region. According to Crawley, the best areas are around the “golden triangle” – which stretches between the lighthouse, the Hôtel du Palais and the beach – while St Jean de Luz, Bayonne and Biscarosse are also popular. Prices in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques peaked in 2006 when they rose 19%. In 2007, they grew 9.6%, and in the last 12 months prices are up nearly 5%, which is still above the national average of 3%.
Cherise Williams, head of sales at property company Venturus, reports that the Charente- Maritime area, further up the coast of the Bay of Biscay, is particularly popular with sailing fans, especially La Rochelle and theexclusive Île de Ré. La Rochelle is a pioneer in environmental issues, having begun using solar energy to power parking meters. And the town’s annual Francofolies festival is one of the biggest music events in France.
Most buyers here are Parisian, says Williams, and in the summer almost 500,000 visitors flock to the area, spending up to €900 a week on rental accommodation. Prices peaked in 2006, when they rose 20.6%. In 2007 they grew 12.8%, and in the last 12 months are still rising at 8.6%. The best places to buy are Île de Ré, Rochefort sur Mer, Fouras, Royan and Fort Boyard.
Further inland, Angoulême is popular for its Circuit des Remparts street car-racing track, while Bergerac is renowned as one of the country’s best wine-producing areas. Pau is a large student town and was a summer location for both Napoleon and Marie Antoinette. It’s also a setting for the Tour de France, and in 1856 became home to the first golf course on continental Europe. The three towns are all popular with tourists and short-term renters. VEF Group reports that, in general, rents in the south-west are rising, saying: “For the past 30 years the resale market has performed well in [this area], and continues to do so.”
While buying in France is not going to be too troubled anytime soon, the nation has not been completely immune to the global economic downturn – the overall figure for property sales has dropped by 17% this year. However, tourists and buyers are continuing to flock to south-west France, and because areas like Biarritz and La Rochelle are at the higher end of the market they are more likely to weather the downturn. So it’s well worth buying in this part of the country if you can.
Facts & Figures
AREA: 67,118 km² (Aquitaine & Poitou-Charentes)
POPULATION: 4.8 million (Aquitaine & Poitou-Charentes)
HOUSE PRICES: In the last 12 months, prices have risen by 4.9% in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques and by 8.6% in Charente-Maritime.
RENTAL YIELDS: Rental guarantees are on average about 4%–5%, and rents have risen by 1.5% in the south-west region in the first quarter of this year.
AGENTS: The best place to look for agents and advice is the Fédération Nationale de L’Immobilier (www.fnaim.fr). The website is all in French but if you want to make sure all goes to plan with your purchase check with these folk first.
BUYING TIPS: Purchase agreements have a seven-day cooling off period, in which a buyer is allowed to change their mind. If you require a mortgage to finance the property, mention this in the agreement, because if the financier does not clear the mortgage then the buyer does not lose their deposit. On average, the entire buying process takes about 193 days.
TAXES: France has a double taxation agreement with most countries. Rental income is taxed from 25%, capital gains tax is 16%, and there are two property taxes. Property tax in France is paid by the person living in the property, so if you rent it out then your tenant pays it. However, in most cases this is added to the lease and the landlord simply forwards it.
AVERAGE PRICES: In Biarritz, prices start from €3,160 per m² for a one-bedroom property, and from €3,380 per m² for a two-bedroom property. In La Rochelle, the average price starts at about €2,610 per m².