Monday, August 26, 2013

Property prices in Pyrénées-Orientales

The weekly French magazine L'Express has just published one of its periodic surveys of the French property market and as usual it maks interesting reading. Among the highlights:

1. It seems that property sales in 2013 will be around 635 000 overall, a drop of 10.2% compared with 2012 (707 000), and well below the peak years of 2006 (820 000), 2007 (810 000) and 2011 (805 000).

2. Prices have not however dropped dramatically - averaging 3.6% in 2013. Commenting on the above figures the president of Century21 group said that, in his views, there would be no dramatic rises or falls in the future.

3. Interest rates are at their lowest ever, averaging 3.29 per cent in July 2013, after peaking at more than 5% in 2008.

These trends are borne out in Pyrénées-Orientales where I advise potential buyers and sellers, with slight rises recorded in St-Cyprien on the coast, and a surprising 12.7% drop in the cost of new-build apartments in Argelès-sur-mer. Curiously the market for individual houses built to the latest BBC norms appears to be flourishing, as buyers concerned about rising energy prices are prepared to invest in the future.

Full report in L'Express 21 August 2013.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Decline of the French seaside holiday?

As I write, we are past the half way point of the French high season, which lasts from the first week in July until the last week in August - the precise dates closely linked to the school holidays.

I currently live in a typical Mediterranean holiday resort and for those of us who have seen the seasons come and go, there are already signs that visitor numbers are down again in contrast to previous years. Before awaiting the official statistics (usually issued towards the end of the year) it is clear from simple observation that there are fewer people about. Cars that are normally full are half empty, street parking is possible where before it is difficult, restaurants already report lower numbers, and evenings seem to be getting shorter. The square in front of my window that used to be lively until midnight, when everything is obliged to close by law, is now nearly empty by 10.30 or 11.00 pm as groups make their way back to their hotels and camp sights.

A few days ago, the Daily Mail carried a piece, with depressing photographs, about the decline of many of Britain's coastal resort towns, which have become the last refuge of the elderly and those surviving on State benefits. The only surprise is that they are writing about it now, when the decline was already in progress thirty, even forty, years ago, as continental package holidays started to offer cheaper alternatives and guaranteed sun.

Here in the south of France, just a few miles north of Spain's Costa Brava, the sun can certainly be guaranteed (after a disastrous spring), but those mindful of the long heatwave that hit the area in 2003 are wary of temperatures rising above 30 degrees, accompanied by hot, sticky nights which make sleep difficult.

Like the British before them, the French have now discovered the foreign (outside France) package holiday, which can lead them to the cheaper and more exotic southern Mediterranean, Greece, Turkey and beyond, to say nothing of their Spanish neighbours over the boarder, where the crisis has hit hard. France has not so much emerged from the crisis (except in the mind of President Hollande) as pretended it is not there. True, taxes and social charges have risen, wages are frozen, unemployment is high - but pensions are still being paid, and the country's huge public sector (5 million employees) enjoys security and high pay with guaranteed special pension regimes. A lot of this money however is being spent outside France.

Can anything be done to reverse the decline? Looking at my own little resort town, the emphasis by the local Maire seems to be on providing ever more cheap attractions, whereas many people I have encountered say that the region needs to go up-market if it is to survive. Nearly all the coastal towns have a yach marina - of up to 2000 berths in some cases - and there is still a shortage of moorings. This is a sector that some argue could and should be developed, at the same time as the socialist government is talking about raising charges.

There is then the question of accommodation. My own town is booming, with several new estates of architect designed, individual houses (four bedrooms, garden, pool, double garage.......) costing 400 000 euros or more, and snapped up as soon as completed. There is considerable wealth alongside signs of real poverty. But of the total housing stock, 75% is made up of second homes which are used for only a few weeks a year, and rented out during the season (though numbers here are also in decline). They lie empty and the beach area bereft of services for 10 months of year. The contrast between summer and winter can be attractive but also unnerving.

An English friend of mind has teamed up with a younger partner experienced in the hotel industry and togeher they have taken over a rundown hotel in the centre of the village, and created a five bedroom guest house, offering full air conditioning, health food breakfasts and exceptional personal service - and they are fully booked for months to come. Demonstrating that with imagination and flair it is not necessary to cater only for the lowest common denominator.

Curiously, overall property prices have held up, as many second home owners do not want or are not obliged to sell. Those who have modernised and refreshed their apartments can still find buyers - owners of leisure boats are not without cash, and many appreciate having a pied-à-terre for themselves and their visitors. So it is an area of contrasts.

The area abounds with natural attractions, coastal paths, mountain walks, winter skiing, historic monuments, and profits from its closeness to Barcelona less than an hour away by high speed train. All the ingredients are there and it is only to be hoped that the planners and decision makers will think long and hard about preserving the best of what they have and which can be developed, and finally accept that the traditional bucket-and-spade holiday is finally out of fashion.