Searching for your ideal French property is not easy, particularly in these days of the internet where you can come across websites offering up to 10,000 properties or more. Where on earth do you begin? Here are some guidelines:
First, you should choose your region. You may have have visited or lived in France already and have sone idea where you might like to settle or buy your second home. If you are looking at France for the first time, there is a huge range of choice - between town and country, city and village, mountains or the coast, north versus the south. Your preference may be dictated by concerns such as finding work - some jobs are scarce outside large centres of population; or alternatively you may be looking for an escape from city life and your ideal is an isolated country retreat. You may be drawn to the warm south or still hanker for the more traditional pattern of the seasons you will find in northern France.
Second, you have to consider the family. Children need to be near schools and may not take to a rural location which offers little by way of entertainment or sport (though most do if you are prepared to seek them out); elderly people may need the reassurance of nearby medical facilities, including hospitals and specialists; and everyone needs to be reasonably close to shops, a bank, a post office.
Third, are you settling or just visiting occasionally. Principal or second homes are generally cheaper in rural locations or in town centres, but vary in price from one region to another. Living in central Paris can be prohibitively expensive (but offers good rental potential if you are looking for investment) as can areas such as the Cote d'Azur, around Nice and Cannes on the Mediterranean coast, and further inland.
My own region of Languedoc-Roussillon has sometimes been called 'the poor man's Riviera' and I have no problem with that, as it still offers a wide variety of affordable properties and range of landscapes from the Mediterranean coast to the nearby Pyrenees. We are also well provided for in terms of schools and colleges, a university, excellent hospitals and specialists, and good road, rail and air connections.
Fourth, prepare for your visit. There are good times and bad times to be looking for French property. The times to avoid are generally the months of July and August, when many people are on holiday (including owners and some estate agencies), the weather can be extremely hot and roads can be congested. In holiday areas, properties may be occupied or let, and not available for viewing. Ideal times to visit are the autumn (September, October, early November) and the spring (February to May).
Fifth, don't try and visit too many properties in a single day. French estate agents tend to cover a wide area and there may be a half hour drive between properties you wish to view. Visits may take longer than planned, you may wish to go back and have another look, you need a break for lunch - when some owners, even those anxious to sell, do not welcome visits.
Sixth, on your own or do you need help? Not all agents speak English, and there is no reason why you should expect owners to speak any lanaguage other than their own. If your French is not up to scratch, you may have problems discussing the finer details of the property you are viewing, and certainly should not attempt to enter into negotiations regarding the purchase!
If you feel you need help, you can use the services of a locally based property adviser (which is what I do for a living) who can do some initial searching and suggest a short-list of properties for viewing, having already discussed with you the sort of ideal property and location you are looking for. Local knowledge is paramount which is why I confine my researches to a relatively small area of Roussillon - the southern half of Languedoc-Roussillon - more or less south of Perpignan to the Spanish border.
Because of my local contacts, built up over nearly a decade of living and working in the region, I know which agents have the best properties, who are the best negotiators, which notaires are the most helpful and efficient (and speak English), and later on, perhaps guide you on which local builder, decorator or plumber to use, based on the experiences of former clients and friends, whom I hope you will meet.
(A longer version of this article originally appeared in French Property News)