The Great French House Hunt – The perfect House!

We called the first estate agent that we ever had the fortune to do business with ‘Monsieur Moustache’ on account of his formidably waxed and curled whiskers. I will never remember his real name despite the fact that he very nearly succeeded to sell us our first French house. The most recent, last week’s agent presented himself in tight black leather trousers, a black shiny jacket and open shirt, before offering me a lift in his black open-roofed convertible! He was Mr ‘Smoooth’,  … Monsieur Lisse.

If you have never experienced French house buying, here’s the nub. French Estate agents charge astronomic commissions on house sales. Something in the region of 8% and so they never, never let you know the address of the property, but whisk you there under a cloak of mystery and ensure that you sign a slip of paper after the visit acknowledging that ‘They’ were the ones who made the introduction.

Monsieur Lisse had two houses to show me and he did a very convincing job of trying to sell at least one to me. “Which, in my opinion” he asked” was the forerunner? It was fairly hard to be enthusiastic about either. It couldn’t compete with one i’d seen a few weeks earlier and which wasn’t on his books. When I advised him that the first house had a pleasant interior, but it’s exterior left a lot, and I emphasise ‘a lot’ to be desired he said..

“Ahh, mais Madame, on ne vit pas à l’exterieur, on vit à l’interieur. L’exterieur est sans importance…”

otherwise said..

“Ahh, Madam, one doesn’t live outside, one lives inside. The exterior has no importance..”

There I couldn’t disagree more.

I’ve always been somewhat of the opinion that the facade of a building is its face. Some wide eyed and open, others closed and sleepy, some sharp and mean, others friendly and welcoming. Its windows as its eyes, its door as its mouth. How can one choose a house based on its interior alone. A house is a reflection of its owner, it has presence; it frowns or it smiles, it forbids or it welcomes, it cocoons or it energises.

Normandy has a rich architectural history. Beautiful buildings in stone;  in red and golden brick with silex infil (a kind of stone cobble and mortar) and in colombage. Each style can be found in town and in country and each have their own particular style and beauty.

silex to be broken to form wall infil 

Here are just a few examples of what can be found:

Houses in stone:

classic and imperious,

Stylish but moody,

Classic but austere,

open and friendly,

grand and imposing,

reclusive and protective,


and houses in colombage:

neighbourly and reticent,

charming and restful,

friendly and welcoming,

sleepy and protective.

or houses in brick and silex:

formal and quiet,

informal and friendly,

neighbourly and perky,

charming but secretive,


or perhaps a mix:

It’s not just a question of location and view but how a house will interpret and reflect one’s mood.

So what am I looking for in a house?

In the city I would like one with presence. I like to have a beautiful front door on which I can hang my holly wreath at Christmas, and ideally with a front garden to protect it from passing revellers, perhaps a balcony and a space for hanging baskets in the summer. I would prefer stone with beautiful large original windows to throw light into the deepest recesses. It must be welcoming yet classic, friendly but demure.

In the country I would like a grassy drive so that my kids can hang out of the sunroof as they do every summer holiday, and practice driving the last few metres home. The house must be friendly but a refuge, capable of being opened up on the hottest summer days and battened down on cold wet wintery nights with a large chimney promising a roaring fire within.

So here is my choice for my great French house hunt:

My town house – this..

or this…

and my summer retreat – this, with a mountain or sea view!

or this…

So when Monsieur Lisse presented me with this:

and despite the fact that it had exactly the same internal layout as it’s neighbour.. was clear that it had been very badly manhandled.

What Monsieur Lisse hadn’t understood is that buying a house isn’t just about finding a house in the right location, nor is it about finding a house with a functioning interior, it’s about that feeling of pleasure as one rounds the corner, sees a beautiful piece of architecture  and thinks to oneself,

“….at last,  i’m home!”

1. La Vie Profonde

I blame this episode in my life entirely on a proposed redundancy back in 2004 and a cheap Ryanair flight at  £1 a ticket, which coupled with a work colleague’s offer of his cottage near Pau, in the French Pyrenees, set us on a crazy quest for ‘La vie profonde’.

Having arrived at night, we awoke to that crisp cool mist of an early spring day, which clears to reveal an iridescent blue sky and the warmth of early summer. We set of towards the mountains, which lay an hour distant and lost ourselves in the small lanes of the foothills of the Pyrenees. And there we stumbled on it – a Bearnaise farmhouse, with mellow stone walls and faded blue shutters facing south across the valley with an outstanding panoramic view of the snow capped mountains. A potager lay ready for planting, and two rows of gnarled vines stood sprouting their early leaves, faithfully protected by a rose bush to forewarn of the threat of disease. Walnut and fruit trees showed the promise of a rich autumn , Arum lilies grew wild in the shady corners whilst a Magnolia shaded the paved courtyard.

 We were under it’s spell, and whilst we investigated its potential, our children ran wild in the garden and the baby sat in the sunshine patting his hand against the stone flags, himself being inspected by the owners cat. Whilst my husband haggled a price, I loaded the children into the car, and a few days later found ourselves back in the UK.

 Our English house went on the market, the Compromis de Vente was signed, the deposit paid and then we waited for our French dream to begin. The first seven years of child-raising 4 children had been challenging, and the daily commute to work tough. We were dreaming of escape, of children growing with skiing and surfing at their fingertips and being masters of our own destiny. But it wasn’t to be!

 Swiftly, we began to understand that the English housing market had suffered a serious decline, and that our house would not sell in time to meet the deadline set for the Acte de Vente. The vendor would not grant us  a stay of excecution. We either met the deadline or lost our deposit. We had to think fast and on our feet. The French agent had failed to send the 7-day cooling –off clause when he sent the original documents. To demand it now, as our legal right, meant that we recouped our deposit  – but lost the house. And so, as reality set in , the course of our lives took another swift change in direction, and the house sold to another buyer a week later.