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Posts tagged ‘Immobilier’

Vendre dit vendredi: Part 1 – Sorry but I’m gonna have to pass!

Gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins isn’t it?  Maybe that’s why we are finding it so hard to find our perfect Maison Principale given that we are beautifully sated and fully occupied with our Square House.  Why do we need another house?  Well, we have a large family who we want to be able to comfortably accommodate when they visit and, in the end, we want our own land and quite a bit of it surrounding us because we are a teeny bit antisocial and to be able to grow and nurture and live a sort of half-baked gaelic good life.   La Maison Carrée was never intended to be our principal house though we will live there for part of each year.

I have spoken before of the idiosyncracies of the French property market and it does take a little getting used to.  I watch a programme on Channel 2 which pits two immobiliers against one another to find a home that ticks the boxes set by the couple of the day and what stands out to me is that prices don’t seem to vary from place to place at all.  So you can be easily commutable to Paris and the ask is pretty much the same as down here in Vache-ville.  I’ll try and put some meat on the bones of my theories about the property market in France along the way but for the moment, because it’s what I do, I will just tell the stories (and there are rather a lot) of the houses we have looked at.  One at a time to give time for full digestion – I don’t want to be accused of further gluttony!

So here is the story of the house we very almost bought:

We met the immobilier in a nearby town (remember, I observed they are generally extremely reluctant to give away the precise location of a property for fear of dirty dealing behind their backs).  He had been quite rude in our email exchange and we had been given no choice of day or time since he was coming down from Paris.  Which in fairness is a more than 5 hour drive on a good day with a following wind.  He stepped out of his rhinocerous of a  4×4 and the first thing HB² noted in a barely muted stage whisper was that he was wearing ‘European trousers’.  Two Brains has an untreated phobia of such garments.  He means corduroys in a variety of orange, pink or yellow hues (occasionally they even bleed into the emeralds and sapphires and I live in dread of an unplanned encounter with any shade of purple).  He blames the trousers for a particular type of personality.  Not, you will gather, a personality he is attracted to.  I noted the trousers and distracted him with the fact that the extraordinarily glossy woman with the man was dressed for some sort of mythical interpretation of outdoor pursuits.  She had clearly invested enough to prop up a small country in her attire.  The illusion was completed with a Dandy Dinmont Dog.  Which meant that The Bean would be trapped in the car because she can be a little, dare I say, fiesty with other four-leggers until they are fully accepted and even then can have random moments of vehement disapproval.

We set off for the first house (another time – you will have to wait for that one) and thence to the house that we had agreed would probably be a bit dark and oppressive.  European Trousers slowed to a snail slither as we reached sight of the place and pointed.  It was love at first sight.  A coup de foudre.  We drove down the long drive and parked up.  The drive went over, incidentally a bridge crossing a little river, which if you know me at all will tell you that I was pretty much sold, and as we got out of the car, a young man was propped against the front door with that air of nonchelance that the French effect better than any other nation.  The building is not an historic monument but it is historic.  The cellars (at ground floor level so probably more underneath) are 11th Century and the main building rebuilt in the 14th.  The young man who by now had charmingly introduced himself as the grandson of the deceased couple who had restored it to what it is today said that his grandfather had located the site of the original tower.  Had he lived he would have carried on restoring I am sure and my inner Rapunzel was already fast-forwarding to rebuilding the tower.  In fact in the village (about 5 km away) there is an identical building, but intact.  It is a storey and a half higher and has the most curious top to the tower which looks broken until you realise it is deliberate.  Who knows why.  The grounds were perfect … the stream, an orchard with apples, pears, cherries and quince a fine place for a beau potager and views over the valley several hundred metres below that are just breathtaking.  The house has 6 hectares.  We worked out that there was about 1 around the house including the swimming pool compound and driveway (the swimming pool incidentally had a pair of robust trees growing out of the cover so a little attention needed before necessary relaxing with an apero before an evening dip) and another 2 or so in the field below but we were intrigued to know what of the woods beyond was included to make up the other 3.   European Trousers who thus far had been frankly disconnected with the vital fact that we might be interested buyers deflected the question to young Monsieur Nonchelance who stepped up to the plate and explained that in his boyhood when visiting he was allowed to go as far as the waterfall.  This was a romantic notion but not particularly helpful.

We climbed the fantastic stone steps to the imposing castle door.  Inside everything seemed perfect.  The ‘monumental’ fireplace lived up to its name, the ground floor bedroom was delightful with a well thought out shower room and loo off and the possibility of making a balcony to the full length window (though it would need some monumental supports of its own given the size of the stone pointed to below as the ideal base), the kitchen was tiny (one of my criteria, as a incurable kitchen dweller has always been a kitchen big enough to live in) but as it opened onto the piece de vie which is absolutely humungous taking up, as it does, most of the ground floor, I felt myself compromise.  The restauration was superb … very sympathetic with lots of wood to include a built in Auvergne style clock, a lit clos (basically a bed built into the wall and very much of the region and which young man had happily passed many childhood nights when staying with his gramps) and a touch of magic in the form of a set of bookshelves which at the touch of a button will recess and allow the TV to make a grand entrance a la those wonderful moments in world of 1960’s James Bond.  It needed to be restored but Two Brains was confident it would be a doddle.  I leave these things to him.  Upstairs and one huge and another decent sized bedroom, the former used as a workspace possibly by a designer judging by the work-table both with shower rooms.  No bath.  A bit of a draw back for me as I am a wallower but entirely fixable.  The big room would divide comfortably into two good sized bedrooms if necessary as an asside.  It was fair to say that it appeared ET was correct when he said it was ready to move straight in.

Outside a liberated Bean was frollicking with a verve that would eclipse any Spring Lamb and clearly loved the place.  Her verdict was noted.

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We walked around squeezing hands like toddlers.  We knew we had found home.  A few days later we visited again, sans immobilier and the charming young nonchalance answered our questions as best he could.  It was clear that his grandparents had loved the place and we romantically imagined ourselves continuing their work and concluding it – making the house entirely what it once had been.   Captivated by the vaulted cellars build by men a thousand years ago we imagined these people smiling down at us.  We pointed to a tiny window almost under the eaves that we couldn’t understand – it didn’t correspond to anything inside.  Blithely he told us that his gramps ashes were interred up there so they would forever look over the valley.  I felt fine about that.  No, really I did ….

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Back home we discussed and digested and cojitated both together and after his Brainship had flown back to Boston and came up with a price we were both happy with.  Questions were asked to ascertain the exact location of the mystery woodland, to stick a stake in the ground that we understood that the chimney needed attention and that we understood the exact condition of the pool mechanisms.  Bear in mind that our local friends suck their teeth at asking prices and endlessly fill our heads with tuppence ha’penny deals done on the Q.T.  We offered 75% of the ticket price and waited for the knock back.  Quite amazingly ET came back to us with the news that our offer had been accepted.  That was just before Christmas and I went to bed happy that I would have my forever house by summer.

In January I visited in a blizzard with eldest daughter and her intended – so they could see it at least from the outside.  They did not tell me I was mad.

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March.  After a long period of flatline communication, we were suddenly summoned to a town nearby in 3 days time to sign the Comprimis de Vente (this is basically the moment of exchange of contracts and the comprimis should contain all the clauses we have asked to be included).  As it happened we were in Grenoble and so decided to run the document past the wonderfully effete and beautifully bi-lingual Philippe.  All our friends are called Philippe by the way.  The Brain has excellent French but is humble enough to reach out for a helping hand when needed.  I sat reading a magazine lost in the romantic notion of walking Grande Randonee numero 5 – 620 km through the Alps to the Med and Monaco.  3 or 4 weeks they suggest.  I could feel the grass, smell the air and ….. a problem.  A problem?  Two Brains was drained of colour and looked for all the world like a doctor breaking difficult news to a patient’s relative (compounded by the fact that I was sitting in the refreshment area of a modern Science institution).  Philippe, diplomatic as ever had balked at the price we were paying  and had then drawn attention to the value of the house 7 years ago (pre the 40% drop in overall valuations in France) …. around a third of the original asking price so way, way below what we had offered (remember the speed of the agent’s response).  But we are decent people of morals and we had already agreed that given the difficulty of guaging an accurate price we would just go with what we felt was right.  A rather lumpy swallow but swallow we would.  We loved the house.  The electrics have mulitple areas of non-conformity … sort of to be expected even though they look fine enough but the bit that presented an impasse was the Level 2 problem with the LPG Gas.  Expliques-moi s’il te plait?  Well, the thing is this ….  it could cause the house to explode at any minute.  Nothing lost (girder-made we are).  An email is sent tout de suite to ET and we set off on the 6 hours journey home falling into bed around midnight.  Up with the lark, wakened by the barking (and it is genuinely a barking) of the Brain Phone – an alert to a mail.  Possibly the rudest mail ever.  You WILL be at the notaires office tomorrow morning and tough titty, the problems are yours to solve.

My husband is a mild sort.  My mother always said they are the most dangerous.  The ensuing conversation with ET was lethal.  The man accused him of lying (he clearly thought the real reason was the discovery that the value was much lower than the offer – wrong M’sieur.  You were so very wrong.  Decency prevails on our side however bitter the pill).  And the deal was off.  End of.  A desparation call from the owner would not sway us.  We smelled a consipiracy but now is not the time to air that.  And numbed, we were back to square one.  HB² quietely commented that he should have trusted his instincts.  I mean to say – the man wears European Trousers!

Four months later we are still there.  We have opted to broaden our search outside of le Cantal.  As much as we adore it here we need to find the right place for us.  So the last few months have been about (and mostly remotely – remember Brains in Boston, Charm in Cantal) looking at other places. Our criteria are simple (for the location) snow in winter, sun in summer (if it pleases) and mountains preferably in sight but certainly no more than a half hour drive.  If you have ideas, please share them.  We are open to ideas.

I have just searched on the net for the house in question and it appears to be under offer … if that is the case, I sincerely hope it doesn’t blow up after money has changed hands

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PS:  I am inordinately proud of the title of this series because it marks a milestone in my absorption of French … I now find myself punning and playing with words even though the result may still be ‘Comme une Vache Espagnole’ and the words that inspired Part 1 … ‘Your lips are redder than her lips, they’re fuller, they’re redder but they’re not better’ altogether ‘ sorry but I’m gonna have to pass …. thank you The Coasters … you can hear the whole song here – it fits when you understand that the bar we are working to might seem modest (a 2 bedroomed rented appartment) but modest as it is, home is actually pretty much perfect.  A high bar indeed.

Of human bondage

The strapline to this blog is ‘a rootless writer takes root’.  I have moved house a lot in my adult life, it is true.  25 times in 28 years.  Not any sort of plan just circumstance conspiring.  Another day.  The story will reveal itself when it is ready.  That’s how it works – no planning just a perculation that results in a story being ready for the telling.

And this story is prêt à porter … instantly packaged and ready to take off the shelf.  In our search for our forever house, we have looked at many.  And there are almost as many stories.  But this one.  This one refuses to wait.

The house, a Manor built in the early 19th century with a bit over a half hectare of land (not really enough for us but the house looked so pretty that we were enticed) is not far from here and enjoys the most stunning views across to the Monts du Cantal and the Massif de Sancy.  It has a rudely large barn and a lovely orangery.  It also has a pigonniere.  Pigonniere (dove houses) are always described as ‘jolie’ here and I have no idea why.  The house belongs to an elderly man (now in his 90s) and his daughter who lives abroad.  This is normal under French law.  When his wife died he will have inherited 2/3 and his daughter 1/3.  If there were 2 children the house would be divided into 4, 3 into 5, 4 into 6 and so on – 2 parts for the surviving spouse and  the children get 1 part each.  It is a simple equation and in theory protects the living parent for the rest of their days ensuring they always have a home.  This particular old fellow is in nursing care (we know not, and it is irrelevant, where) and the daughter wants to sell.  All reasonable.  And the house is lovely.  Very, very tired but lovely.  A huge main room, a panelled dining room and the oddest kitchen with a vaulted, but quite low, ceiling and no windows giving the air of cooking in a submarine.   Despite finding various stuffed birds and animals stashed in a walk-in cupboard the size of a small bedroom, I was already planning the alterations to make it our home.  Upstairs many bedrooms – small, as is the norm in these kinds of houses, and a variety of particularly eccentric bathrooms.  This is France.  Taking the many littles and turning them into fewer biggers and a bit of judicious plumbing – hey presto bongo – a very acceptable upstairs.  Up again to a cavenous attic – big enough to accommodate a small commune.  There lay a dead Coal Tit, its small body swollen as a precursor to dessiccation, wings outstretched and its tiny head held proudly stiff as though stoically resisting the inevitable.  I have a life-long fear of dead birds – the result of Jane, our au pair telling me there was something magical waiting for me if I walked the length of a hosepipe which stretched from the drawing room windows round the entire house to the kitchen window, at the age of 4.  I was always inquisitive and gullible.  Still am.  Anyhow, the something magical was actually a dead blackbird, his startled eye shining accusingly at me and his beak so yellow that I found it difficult to eat an egg yolk for several weeks to come lest I find it crunchily lurking there.  But I did not let this poor departed bird put me off.  We were really rather warm to the house.

We remained warm as we descended to the cellar through a tiny door, down treachorous steps to find what appeared to be The Bismarck skulking there.  Closer examination revealed this rusted monster to be a boiler.  How on earth they got it down there I do not know. The cellars are large, I grant you but the access would challenge a Hobbit. I can only  deduce that it was a case of building the boat in the basement but it is clear that it will be far more difficult to remove.  As one surely must.  I should tell you that the cobwebs in this house are lustrous.  The Bismarck has not sailed for some time.

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Outside I wondered idly why the lawns had been ploughed to provide not one but 4 large potagers (vegetable plots) growing all manner of good things but when we walked into the palatial barn, the triple- decker hutches housing high rise bunnies began to give a clue.  And the three sheep in their little field eyeing us with a mixture of fascination and fear.  And the back yard with its pretty old stone dove-cot and its large population of hens, turkeys, ducks and guinea foul plus plentiful pretty, and no doubt, tasty pigeons.  The wall of freezers gave another clue.  A clue to a small-holding that seemed to be at odds with the lovely fountain, stone sculptures and other accoutrements of manorial life.  It was like walking into a French version of ‘The Good Life’*  – Tom and Barbara having annexed Margo and Jerry when their backs were turned.   As we walked back towards the orangery, I noticed a car draw in and park next to the gate house (part of the purchase).  A woman snuck out and dove deftly into the door of the cottage.  This acted as a cue for the agent to casually  tell us that the dependance was inhabited.  We looked in the orangery and I gleefully imagined not just working in there but also the fact that my sculling boat would rack easily in such a large space.  In passing, I asked the Two Brained one what the agent had said … I thought I had misheard.  My French improves but his is far better than me after nearly 35 years living here part and full time.  I hadn’t.  The gate house is inhabited.  And on further questioning, not by transient tennants.

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The (I must say at this point, very nice and very professional) immobiier asked if we wanted to see the gate house.  He couched his question with the clear intent of assuring us  that we didn’t.  We did.  It’s a whole house not a bike shed and represents a rather significant part of the deal.  We had naively imagined that we could produce a passive income from this little house as a periodic rental either for holidays or for locals, the rental market being quite buoyant in our area.  And certainly that when family and friends came to stay that it would provide independent living quarters which can be a blessing for all concerned.  We asked him who the people were.  And he told us (rather too quickly and smoothly) that they were the retainers for the old man.  Living free of charge in return for looking after the house and grounds.  For the past 40 years.  We entered their little home and everything changed.  This little huddle of humanity – an elderly couple, their daughter and her child were terrified.  They were silently pleading with us not just to like the house but mostly to like them.  I have seldom felt so helpless – all of a sudden I am faced with a family whose future could depend on my kindness because I have the wherewithal to buy this place.  They were clearly upset that their dogs were letting the side down by barking.   I made a fuss of the animals and told them not to worry.  That I love dogs.  The Bean was barking from the car which reassured them that I did not speak with a forked tongue but rather that I really do love canines.  Even if I utter with a curious foreign accent and knit my words together clumsily.  I dutifully looked around this humble, humble place – a poky main room, a tiny snug, a bathroom with a leaking roof and upstairs three squished bedrooms, each conjoined.  All tidied and polished for me to see.  The old man showed me a mirror he had stuck to the wall in the bathroom to improve it – one of those frameless affairs with double sided tape on their back.  It was oval.  The old lady took pains to tell me that they look after the house very well.  There is no heating in the house.  Just a wood stove.  It is simple to the point of being primitive and it is clear that they support themselves by selling a rabbit or a chicken here, some leeks and a pumpkin there.  All under the wire – we had noted that the sheep were not ear-tagged as is compulsary in all EU countries, not just in France.  But it was the fear in their eyes. The burning desire to make a good impression on us.  Us?  Who the hell are we?  Unwitting people who might take their destiny in our hands.  They have the knowledge that the house sale will almost certainly mean the end of their everything.  Tick tock goes the clock.  The agent was happy to tell us that we could get rid of them with six months notice.  I thanked them for being so kind as to let me see their home.  Their home.  I told them it was lovely, I made more fuss of the dogs and I walked away barely able to see let alone speak.  But speak we did.  Briefly to the agent.  And we left.  Neither of us spoke, though, much on the way home.  Neither of us spoke much over lunch, or supper.  Later we went to bed and it turned out neither of us slept much either, if at all.

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We turned over and over and over again with possibilities to make it work.  Could we let them stay and let them have a bit of the land to keep producing an income?  Not really – the land is not enough for us to do what we want (we being in the lofty position of being able to choose to do something we want to do) let alone sustaining a small family as well with no other income.  And they would  need all of it to provide a living.  That is clearly demonstrated now.  Could we find them somewhere else to live?  Well probably, but it would be a flat in the town and they would have no income and they have been used to the life of small-holders.  And where would we put our sheep – theirs are filling the little field – three is as many as that little patch would take.  Could we keep them on as our retainers?  Hardly – we are really not people who see ourselves as feudal lairds even assuming we could sustain them as well as  ourselves on retirement income which in the cold light of day, we can’t.  My brain became tireder and tireder as it tried to work a solution.   I felt about as useful as the little blown body of the Tit in the attic.  Simultaneously the might of the combined brains of my husband were doing the same and getting just as far.  Between us we managed the square root of nothing at all.  And all the while I kept seeing their frightened faces.  I can still see them.  Beyond anxiety.  Backs against the wall, desperate in their naivety to please the potential buyer because surely then the status quo will be retained.

We will not be buying the house but someone will.  Someone who will, in all likelyhood, exercise the right to kick them out.  And the old man who started this whole sad story with his good intentions will wither away none the wiser.  Forty years ago did he think of the possibiity that he would be an addled old man dependent on care that can’t be found in the idyll that he created as his maison secondaire?  Of course not.  It seemed like a really good idea to allow a young man and his wife to come and take care of everything in return for a house.  Forty years later, he exists somewhere, tended to by nurses, never imagining that the pair that kept things tickety-boo in his Cantal retreat are facing hell at the end of their lives.  Samuel Johnson is often misquoted as saying the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  Misquote or not, in this case it fits.  Horribly it fits.

On the whole I would rather have lived the life I have lived, as disrupted as it has been, than the life they lived in their innocent content, assuming it was forever whilst all the while the clock was tick, tick, ticking away to the inevitable moment when the bomb goes off and in their twilight, they are evicted because they have no human rights at all.  I may have been rootless but at least I have had some control over where I floated.  These people are about to have their roots ripped out of the ground and they have no more defence than a dandelion in a border of roses.

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PS:  The title is a shameless steal from Somerset Maugham and is chosen simply as a question of the words fitting my text rather than any similarity to the context of his great novel.

*For non-British readers, ‘The Good Life’ was called ‘Good Neighbors’ in the USA.

Somewhere That’s Green

The title is a song from Little Shop of Horrors, a stage musical, then a film about a girl in a florist in downtown New York who dreams of a simple life in a Tract House of her own … don’t we all?  In this world we mostly feel that having a place of our own (even if its mortgaged to the hilt) is in some way a security for us, for ours and for their futures.  We feel safer if we own the place than if we rent it.  At the moment H2B and I rent.  We couldn’t honestly ask for more.  Our appartment is in a house, built in the second half of the 19th Century with an important staircase, an even more important front door and high ceilings, the park is green space without the effort of gardening, we have a tiny balcony and our young neighbours are unobtrusive (mostly).  The fêtes and celebrations at the Salle de Fête are fun to watch.  A little noise is a small price to pay for an atmosphere of vibrancy and fun when a birthday, a wedding or a Saints day is celebrated.   We also, in honesty, have the best of both worlds – we have a house in the US which at some stage we will sell and actually we own a small property south of Aurillac of which more later since it has been an epic saga to get to the point we are at.  It is a story all of its own – in fact it has felt like the Odyssey.

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But we do want to own a family house here.  Two Brains will retire and we will live out our lives here.  We want a little land so that we can raise sheep that we milk and make cheese from.  Ideally we would like a south facing slope for vines and certainly I will make compotes and other fruity delights from whatever any trees care to give us.  And clafoutis (I love that word and can’t resist a tenuous opportunity to include it just because I can) and other delights too.  And a potager.  I would like a couple of horses but that will depend on how much land we have – a wish list is just that for the wishing.

For our own reasons we are now in the throws of searching.  And it is an interesting experience.  Remember in a previous blog a lovely elderly fellow in Montboudif (birthplace of Pompidouwappydoo-ooooo) told me not to use Immobiiers because they are all crooks?  He has a point.  Actually I was in the business in the UK and was always at pains to let people know that I was NOT an Estate Agent.  Sadly the reputation of real estate agents the world over is pretty much akin to being a blood relation of Atilla the Hun.  However, we were not prepared for the bizarre fact that if you find a property on the internet here (and it is the way the vast majority of  people search for houses in the modern world), that you will not be able to locate it because the agent will disguise its location for fear that you will strike a deal privately behind his back.  We were equally not prepared for the fact that agents will claim rights to a property that they have simply plagiarised on the net without ever having seen it let alone been through its door.  So we could go to a notaire (the advice of a random Dutch fellow and his wife in our village one Sunday outside the bakery) but to be frank the three D’s (death, debt and divorce) which throw the properties the way of a notaire equally throw up other problems – in France  inheritance laws are complex and a town can sit with a decaying house for years in its centre whilst a notaire goes the legal route of tracking down its heirs.  Even when done, often you find that having fallen in love with a place the notaire must go through a rich and complex dance to ensure that all interested parties are satisfied that you can indeed buy the place.  And once sold to you – all your money transferred you can still wait for months whilst the previous owners (who didn’t actually know they owned the house) empty it of its contents.  Or not.  The strongest of hearts can fail when years of wrangling to even pass go are involved.

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My own advice is to make friends with Maires and Mairies.  They will pretty much always know what is for sale in their commune and will also know who you should talk to, who has a place nearby that might be for sale.  And further than that remember you are in a different country and just because things are done in a different way, it does not make it wrong.  ‘Go with it’ as a wonderful Irish friend long ago advised me (in the context of rearing children) – ‘it’ll be the ride of your life’.  Overall it is about people – people know stuff and people who have lived their lives and whose forebears lived theirs over generations in the same place can be your greatest allies or your worst nightmares.  We met a fellow, English, this time last year.  He had stepped into the hotel we were staying in to take breakfast.  He clearly wanted company because he lept on my English voice and then sounded off for seemingly hours.  He and his partner had bought:  ‘… a big house.  You must know the one – it’s the the biggest in …’  He told us he was struggling with French workmen (but his French was tenuous) and that their new big house would be a triumph.  Not least because it was so cheap to buy.   He also told us that his partner speaks no French and has no intention of learning – she prefers not to understand what people are saying.  We have thought about them on and off since.  Have talked about the idiocy of approaching a new life with no intention of adapting and respecting.  We walked on the plateau above their village at the weekend.  The house is un-touched.  Shutters shut, it looks as though it hasn’t been visited in months.  Presumably work has ceased.  Learn the language, make friends, ask for help.  If you don’t, you will surely fail.

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PS:  In my own chosen area it is true that whole hamlets are dying.  I walk (with The Bean mostly, sometimes with a friend, a relly or my husband) and I see beautiful places simply shut up and left in the hope that someone will happen by.  I hope to begin to educate the owners that without effort they won’t sell, without encouraging a new generation of buyers the places will simply decay and die.  Wish me luck – I am armed only with fervour and enthusiasm and a real belief that this is an area that people would love to raise there own families in …. given that we looked at a house recently in a commune that has fallen to 180 headcount of which 70% are over 70 years old and were told they would greet us (aged 61 and 53 repectively) with open arms as perceived youngsters, I have a little work to do.