I Bought a House in France — Two Actually
The last month has been life changing as I finalized the purchase of a second home in France. It’s the fulfillment of a life-long dream to live in Europe, if only part-time. The challenges of setting up a household from scratch in another country and navigating the language and bureaucratic hurdles to establish insurance, a bank account, utilities, internet and more has been frustrating and exhausting at times. Yet it’s filled me with a sense of accomplishment, and gratitude for all the patient and kind people who’ve helped me along the way. I can tell you already, moving to another country is not for the faint of heart, but the rewards are so worth it.
When I first visited Brittany, France in the fall of 2017, this city girl fell head over heels for the Breton countryside. Although I’d traveled to other provinces in France, Brittany kept calling me back. It’s the beauty of the rolling, green hills and pastoral scenes; the access to so many rivers and the Atlantic Coast; and perhaps most importantly, the friendliness of the people, especially to an older American struggling to learn the language. I felt a strong affinity to the land, the people and the Celtic culture.
This was the start of my crazy dream to live and own a home here. But I knew nothing about the French real estate process (which I later learned is drastically different from the American system). Was it even possible for an American to purchase property in France? I had to know. And so, my journey began.
In November 2019, after traveling to other parts of France, I returned to Brittany to spend a month in a Breton village. I loved it so much; I was anxious to return in a few months to look at houses. But when the pandemic hit, my dream was on hold, but not my enthusiasm. Over the next two and a half years my desire to own a home in Brittany only grew, and so did my knowledge. I read everything I could about the French buying process. I attended countless webinars through Leggett, French Entrée and the Adrian Leeds Group.
Yet, after all the reading and preparation — which I highly recommend if you are considering buying property overseas — there was still much to learn when I returned in May 2022 and started the house hunting process. While there are many online articles and videos describing the French house buying process, there’s almost no information on how to FIND a house to buy. There is no multiple listing service (MLS) like there is in the US where you can go to one website and see all the houses for sale in your search area, and you deal with one realtor. In France, every real estate office has a website, and the houses they represent are typically within a 10-kilometer (6.21-mile) radius. There are a few websites that contain listings from multiple realtors, but not all realtors and not all properties for sale are listed on those sites. Additionally, 40 percent of French properties for sale are not listed with an agent at all. Some are sold by a notaire (a government-appointed lawyer who handles property sales), and for-sale-by-owners are usually listed on Leboncoin, the Craigslist of France. At last count, I was checking over 30 websites for property listings.
Fortunately, and miraculously, I found my house through pure…
Synchronicity and serendipity
Those are the only words to describe what transpired. When I arrived in France at the end of April 2022, I gave myself time to settle into my Airbnb, catch up on work, and explore more of the area. I searched for properties online but didn’t find much I liked. It’s rare to see a French property listing where the house has been beautifully staged. Most listings feature underlit photos of rooms overstuffed with furniture and knickknacks, many with dark cabinetry and every room plastered in 70s wallpaper.
By late May I was ready to begin a serious search. I had met an English-speaking French realtor, Catherine, in 2019 who was a friend of a lovely British lady I’d become friends with named Sue. Catherine and I had planned to meet when she returned on the first of June. In the meantime, I sent out requests online to view a few houses. The first house I saw had a trampoline next to it in the backyard, but the backyard belonged to the neighbor, and the house's yard was down the street. Apparently, property lines in the country can be a bit scrambled. I wasn’t going to drive 20 minutes from the nearest village to live cheek by jowl with my neighbors.
Then I found a large stone house with an impressive cathedral-ceiling and mezzanine in the living room. Although quite grand, many of the rooms had been updated in the 70s (an avocado green bathtub and matching sink) and it was further east than I wanted to be. I also viewed a small house in a gorgeous country setting close to a charming village and only 30 minutes from the coast. But it had a claustrophobic interior, a teeny-tiny yard and neighbors who were only 15 feet away.
Just as I was thinking it may take a few months to find the right place, I saw a listing that intrigued me. I messaged the agent immediately via the website. When I showed the listing to Sue, she said, “That’s Catherine’s listing.” I hadn’t even looked at the agent's name. Catherine was just back in town, and when I called her, I found out the house was in the village where I’d first arrived into the area by train in 2019, and just a village over from Sue and close to others I’d met in the area. In fact, I already knew four people who lived in that village.
The location of the house met all my criteria. Having a train stop in the village meant good transportation links to Nantes, Rennes and Paris (30 minutes to Rennes and then an hour and a half to Paris by TVG-high-speed train.) It’s an hour to the coast. It’s at the edge of the village on a quiet lane and it’s not overlooked by neighbors. Three houses down and it’s open countryside for miles. In the other direction it’s a ten-minute walk to the boulangerie, post office and pharmacy. And it’s a five-minute bike ride to the river with a path that goes for miles. Now I was really anxious to see the place.
I instantly fell in love with the gardens spread over 16,000 square feet. It was the third of June and the roses, clematis and hydrangeas were in bloom as well as the wisteria trailing up and over the top of the house. The property has two small houses. An 872 square-foot main house with three bedrooms and two and a half baths, and a 450 square-foot second house with two bedrooms and one and a half baths. Both are open plan and have wood burners. There’s also a third house, a tiny stone cottage the previous owner used as an art studio. If you're a regular reader, you know my love of small houses!
I met the gracious owners several times, an older couple who were moving back to the UK. I could tell how much the house meant to them as they described the happy memories they shared with their children who’d come to visit and stay in the smaller house.
The synchronicity and serendipity continues
The house doesn't have a bathtub and the stairs are a bit steep, so a few remodeling projects are in my future. But Catherine connected me with a local British contractor and also with Jeames, my handyman and a godsend. Jeames whipped this place into shape, cleaned it from top to bottom, assembled IKEA pieces and helped me sort through the furniture and household items the sellers had generously left. This week, he'll paint the upstairs and I’ll be ready for the arrival of my first guest on the 20th, a dear friend who lives in Geneva, Switzerland.
Moving to a new country has it challenges, especially when I’m not fluent in French, but hope to be one day. There have been frustrating moments, but every time I need something, my earth angels appear. Like the one cold night I spent with no electricity because Comcast shut off my email, so I didn’t receive notice that the electric account had not been transferred to my name. But the next morning my contractor fixed the electric issue and gave me the English-speaking line for the electric company. And Jeames made a fire in the wood burner, and all was right with the world. Then there was the time I was sitting in a café right before my appointment with an internet provider feeling uncertain if they were the right one to go with, and I start talking to a Canadian couple at the next table who assured me they are the best. There have been so many moments like this.
I have been surrounded by generous and welcoming people. Sue invited me into her home for 10 days until my place was ready. Catherine has helped me in numerous ways. In the last four weeks, I’ve met a few of my neighbors, and as the word is out about the American in the village, folks have been dropping by, including a fellow American and his French wife.
I'm so glad I listened to that desire in my heart and I followed my dream, even though it seemed a little crazy at first. I always say, when it's meant to be, it will happen with ease. It may stretch your comfort zone, and you'll have to make a concerted effort, but if there is a dream in your heart and it's meant to be, even if you have no idea how it will manifest, if you move forward, the pieces of the puzzle will fall into place.
I hope you will join me on my journey as I redesign this lovely home into the quintessential French country cottage and continue to live life to the fullest in rural France. And if you have any questions, please comment below.