Brexit and the long history of the British buying property in France

The British have been buying property in France for hundreds of years, writes researcher Diana Cooper-Richet in The Conversation and while Brexit might put a few off coming, it's unlikely to put an end to the age-old trend.

Brexit and the long history of the British buying property in France
Photo: Leggett Immobiliere/The Local

Since the first decades of the 19th century, many British citizens have bought properties or built houses in France. Approximately 150,000 UK citizens currently live in France, second only to Spain. With Brexit on the horizon, many are uneasy, for the draw of life in France remains strong, and its roots are deep.

Initially, those who acquired estates in France belonged to the privileged classes. They were seeking a milder climate as well as a lower cost of living. Starting in the 1800s, prominent British citizens began buying or building luxurious residences in the Channel ports of Boulogne and Calais. In Dieppe, on the Emerald Coast, the Villa Bric à Brac, was built in 1856 by the members of the Faber family. (It has recently been transformed into a luxurious hotel). Close by, another superb English villa is Solidor, owned by Williers Forbes, who in 1879 launched the first tennis club in France. In 2005 it was purchased by French billionaire François Pinault and renovated. Many distinguished guests, including French president Jacques Chirac, have been hosted there.

Enchanted by the place, the politician and staunch abolitionist built a beautiful villa, which he named Eleonore-Louise, after his daughter. He stayed there every winter until his death in 1868, and his statue stands in the nearby Allées de la Liberté.In the south of France, other British visitors started exploring what was to become the Côte d'Azur. In 1834, Lord Brougham discovered a small village named Cannes.


Seven myths about British nationals living in France

Artists’ time

During the inter-war period, British and Irish artists and intellectuals were attracted to France. Playwright George Bernard Shaw came every year to stay in the mythical Eden Roc Hotel in Cap d'Antibes; H.G. Wells, the father of modern science fiction, preferred the town of Grasse. In 1927, Wells had the Lou Pidou built, a house in which he lived with his companion Odette Keun, a Dutch journalist.

Nancy Cunard, the “scandalous” writer and rich heiress of the eponymous transatlantic shipping company, bought a farm house in Normandy, at the La Chapelle Réanville. She restored the house, known as Le Puits carré (“the square well”), with writer and poet Louis Aragon. There she launched the Hours Press, her publishing house, and there produced twenty or so books, including texts by Samuel Beckett. Badly damaged during World War II, the house is now completely abandoned. But the memory of the couple remains; Aragon’s name was given to a nearby secondary school.

With the war’s end, former residents such as Graham Green (Travels with my Aunt, 1969) and Somerset Maugham (The Razor’s Edge, 1944) began to return. They and other “old timers” were soon outnumbered by new arrivals. In the mid-1980s, the writer William Boyd (A Good man in Africa, 1981) bought an estate in Sadillac, near Bergerac in the Dordogne, where he produces his own wine. During the same time, in Provence, Peter Mayle lived and wrote his ode to the French lifestyle, A Year in Provence (1989). By the end of the 1990s, more and more Britons were crossing the Channel with the intention of settling somewhere deep in the French countryside, be it in Normandy, the interior of Brittany, or in Limousin, where rural houses are inexpensive by UK standards.

The romance endures

Unable to buy the cottage of their dreams in the UK, retirees and others from the less monied classes are now contributing to the revitalisation of rural France. Whether they are optimistic or pessimistic, whether or not their pensions are paid in sterling, most of those who live in France or who wish to do so have been considering Brexit with some apprehension. Has this prospect discouraged those who planned to purchase a property in France?

The majority of British (65%) who were intending to buy a house in France prior to Brexit do not seem to have changed their minds. According to the 9th edition of the Investing & Living Abroad report from BNP Paribas, 23% of the potential buyers are considering accelerating their efforts – the fear is that their plans could be hindered when the divorce between the UK and the EU is formalised.

UK citizens remain the first buyers of real estate in France, while in Paris itself, Americans and Italians come first. Indeed, there the resources needed by would-be property owners are necessarily greater than those available to the average Briton who hopes to settle in some remote farmhouse.

Peter Mayle, author of A Year in Provence. Patrick Gaudin/FlickrCC BY

Thus in two centuries, the profile of the British in France has completely changed. In the beginning of the 19th century it was the lovers of French culture and the admirers of the Revolution of 1789, enlightened amateurs, hedonists, and cosmopolitans. They were gradually joined and progressively replaced by the first “tourists” travelling in groups, chaperoned by Thomas Cook and Co, and later by writers and artists who came to seek inspiration in the Latin Quarter or around Montparnasse.

While these earlier residents would sometimes buy an apartment, their enthusiasm for owning property in France was nothing compared to that of the British citizens, who at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st are now helping revitalise rural France. And so even as it changes form, the longstanding passion of the British for real estate in France endures.

This article first appeared on the website The Conversation.

Diana Cooper-Richet is a researcher at the Center for Cultural History of Contemporary Societies, University of Versailles Saint-Quentin en Yvelines – Paris-Saclay University.




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MAP: Where in France can you buy property for less than €100k?

While French cities such as Paris are notoriously expensive, there are many areas outside the cities where it is still possible to buy spacious homes for less than €100,000 - particularly if you don't mind a bit of renovation.

MAP: Where in France can you buy property for less than €100k?

We decided to look at where in France you could afford a property on a budget of €100,000, and it turns out there are some bargains to be had.

There are a lot of caveats while searching for property, and many local variables in place, but our search does show some of the areas to concentrate on if you have a limited budget.

We used the Notaires de France immobilier website in August 2022, and we specified that the property should have at least five rooms (including kitchen and bathroom) and a floor space of at least 100 square metres.

We also discounted any property that was for sale under the viager system – a complicated purchase method which allows the resident to release equity on their property gradually, as the buyer puts down a lump sum in advance and then pays what is effectively a rent for the rest of the seller’s lifetime, while allowing them to remain in the property.

READ ALSO Viager: The French property system that can lead to a bargain

For a five-room, 100 square metre property at under €100,000, you won’t find anywhere in the Île-de-France region, where the proximity of Paris pushes up property prices. The city itself is famously expensive, but much of the greater Paris region is within commuting distance, which means pricier property. 

Equally the island of Corsica – where prices are pushed up by its popularity as a tourist destination – showed no properties for sale while the region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur – which includes the French Riviera – showed only 1 property under €100,000.

The very presence of Bordeaux, meanwhile, takes the entire département of Gironde out of this equation – but that doesn’t mean that the southwest is completely out of the running. A total of 25 properties came up in the Nouvelle Aquitaine region. One property was on the market for a mere €20,000 – but it was, as the Notaires’ brochure noted, in need of “complete renovation”.

Neighbouring Occitanie, meanwhile, showed 12 further properties in the bracket.

By far the most properties on the day of our search – 67 – were to be found in the Grand Est region of eastern France. The eastern part of France overall comes out best for property bargains, with the north-east region of Hauts-de-France showing 38 properties and and Bourgogne-Franche-Comté displaying 25.

Further south, however, the presence of the Alps – another popular tourist destination – pushed up prices in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region which showed just three results.

The below map shows our search results, with darker colours indicating more cheap properties.

Property buying tips 

In order to make a comparison, we focused our search on properties advertised online, but if you have a specific area in mind it's well worth making friends with a few local real estate agents and perhaps also the mayor, since it's common for properties not to be advertised online.

Most of the truly 'bargain' properties are described as being "in need of renovation" - which is real estate speak for a complete wreck.

If you don't mind doing a bit of work you can often pick up property for low prices, but you need to do a clear-eyed assessment of exactly how much work you are willing and able to do, and what the cost is likely to be - there's no point getting a "cheap" house and then spending three times the purchase price on renovations.

READ ALSO 'Double your budget and make friends with the mayor' - tips for French property renovation

That said, there were plenty of properties at or near the €100,000 mark that were perfectly liveable or needed only relatively minor renovations.

You also need to pay attention to the location, as the sub-€100,000 properties are often in remote areas or very small villages with limited access to amenities. While this lifestyle suits many people, bear in mind that owning a car is a requirement and you may end up paying extra for certain services.

Finally remember that government help, in the form of loans and grants, is available for environmentally friendly improvements, such as insulation or glazing.