Thursday, April 30, 2015

French property prices - latest trends

One of the most accurate surveys of French property prices comes from Notaires de France, who together with INSEE (a government research organisation) base their figures on actual transactions completed over a 12 month period. They have just produced their report for 2014 and the main conclusions are as follows:

House prices have fallen dramatically only in some areas, particularly second homes located remote inland sectors. Examples include  La Creuse a 50% drop (since 2008), and Périgord, le Gers and Normandie (20 to 25% drop). Whereas overall prices are down from 1 to 3% overall in the rest of France.

Prices for apartments show similar wide variations, from extremes such as Reims (11.1% drop), Toulon (11.2% drop), Limoges (9.1% drop), St Etienne (10.1% drop), while overall in  the rest of the country price deductions have been in the order of 1 to 4 per cent.

Some cities showed significant rises in house prices (older properties) during 2014 compared with 2013, and include Marseille (4.2%), Grenoble (10.9%), and Dijon (7.3%), while several towns in the north of France showed significant falls - Le Havre (14.2%), Rouen (9.1%), Lille (6.6%) and Orléans (9.3%).

Overall there were an estimated 700 000 proerty transactions completed during 2014 - just 3% less than recorded in January 2014 for the previous year.

The overall outlook is seen as promising, with mortgage interest rates at a record low, but France's high unemployment and general uncertainty about the 'recovery' are discouraging many would-be buyers from purchasing.

Bear in mind always that average prices and overall trends are simply indicators, and no two properties are precisely alike, as are the individual circumstances in which sellers and buyers arrive at a common accord.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Fewer cars in French cities?

An interesting article in this morning's Guardian online* about various European cities which are making huge efforts to reduce inner-city traffic and make town cities more enjoyable for cyclists and pedestrians. Among them is the French city of Lyon, and there are several examples from the UK including London and Birmingham.

Many French cities are already experimenting with tramways, improved bus links and cycle routes, such as my home town of Perpignan, which also has a historic town centre which is largely pedestrian-only. At last concerns are being expressed about the growth of huge suburban shopping centres (we have two for a town of just over 100 000 population) and their effect on the closure of small independent shops and restaurants in the town centre.

The Guardian article has a number of useful references, including the forum '' and you might which to check my article below about choosing where to live in France.


Monday, April 27, 2015

Moving to France? How much 'stuff' to bring?

We are always being advised on the home decorating pages that the secret to a happy life is to 'de-clutter' our lives and with that, our house or apartment. Moving permanelty to France offers a golden opportunity perhaps to put this into practice - but with a few cautions.

French homes are generally smaller than their British or American counterparts and the first rule when you have found your dream property is to decide how much of it will fit in - or not. Doorways and openings may be narrower and awkward, and if your home is in fact an apartment, in older buildings there may be no lift; and even in some newer ones, it may not be large enough to transport furniture above the ground floor. Some buildings offer (basement) storage as part of the apartment but this is not universal, if you find yourself with a surplus of furniture.

I have noticed the increased use of mechanical hoists to transport furniture to the higher floors of apartment buildings, provided there is wide anough access through a window.

It used to be the case that some electrical non-French electrical appliances were unsuitable for use in France - fast-boiling kettles could bloswa sensitive French fuse, and there is the problem of compatibility, with fixed plugs that do not suit the French socket outlets. French electrical wiring is completely different, with no equivalent to the well know 'ring main' used in Britain, as well as individually fused plugs.

Weighing up the coast of transporting your furniture from Britain, you may find it is cheaper to leave somethings behind and buy new replacements when you get here. There are branches  of IKEA in many of the larger towns or across the border in Spain, and huge retail chains such as Fly, Maisons du Monde, Conforama and BUT: and specialist electrical goods retailers including Darty and Boulanger.

If you find you have more 'stuff' than you have space for, there are storage facilities available such as Home-Box that rent lock-up rental facilities short term - for example if you are between moves.

If you decide you have items to give away, almost anything is welcome by charities such as Emmaus, who will repair and re-cycle most things, and help support the homeless.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Creative ways to buy your French homes

It is relatively straightforward in France to acquire and pay for a house or apartment, provided you have the cash available or are able to obtain a mortgage. The vast majority of transactions follow this route, but if you happen to be - say - single or poor (or both!) there are a number of more creative ways to buy your ideal property.

I wrote some time ago on this blog and in French Property News about a new trend whereby groups of family members or friends get together to jointly buy or build a single or group of properties, and thereby create their own large or small 'co-onwership' (copropiété). This is known in French as a 'habitat groupé participartif' and can range from two or three families or more who wish to select their future neighbours and work together from planning through to occupation to create their ideal environment. The motivation behind such schemes can be financial but some aim to bring together like-minded groups such as ecologists, vegetarians, retirees - and in one case I discovered while researching this subject, a group of women. This new approach is comprehensively described, with several case studies in a book by Yves Connan entitled 'Habitat groupé partifipatif' (Editions Ouest-France) and includes detailed cost breakdowns of various sized projects.

If you find this sort of approach too daunting you may be interested in joining a smaller group, including people you may not have met before, but may find through social contacts or even the internet (yes, there are sites and forums devoted to this).  I watched a documentary on French television last night which told the story of three such individuals - a young man approaching 30, a single woman about the same age, and another in her forties. They met via the internet and had got together to buy a three story house in a fashinable part of Brussels, which they planned to convert into three seaparate apartments on each level. They all admitted that - as they said - being single they would never have attempted this on their own.

The house had belonged to a single family but the three individuals, seen at the Notaire's office, basically each bought their own section, together with a share in the building itself. This is very much the same process as when you (individually) buy an apartment in an existing multi-occupancy building - you acquire your own freehold apartment, together with a number of shares (known as 'tantièmes') in the building itself. The only practical difference here is that the three people concerned were the first joint co-owners of what was to become a shared building.

I have just bought a top-floor apartment in a building occupied by just four people - my neighbour and myself each have separate apartments on the top (third floor), a third owner who owns the whole of the first and second floors (run as a guest house or 'chambres d'hotes'), while the ground floor consists of an indoor garden and the flat-cum-fitness studio of the fourth occupant. Our shares in the building itself are in proportion to the size of our apartments (I own a modest 160 out of a total 1000) and we contribute to joint costs - such as the building insurance (in addition to that of each individual flat) - in proportion to the number of shares we each own.We manage the building ourselves, without the need to pay for professional managers that may be needed in larger multi-occupancy buildings, and meet informally to discuss any issues arising. We have recently decided to upgrade the entryphone system and will split the cost four ways once we agree the electrician's estimate.

You might consider this approach if by chance you have descovered a likely building suitable for conversion and can find one or two others that may wish to join you as futur joint owners. 

Monday, April 20, 2015

French report claims 1.7 million jobs exist that no-one wants......

In a convoluted set of statistics, which many commentators have already challenged, France's public job finding service (the Pole-Emploi) have claimed that while official unemployment remains at record levels, there are still 1.7 million jobs on offer that no-one is prepared to take. They have arrived at this figure by interviewing employers, who in return have estimated their actual and potential  job requirements - and more interestingly, suggested why some vacancies do not get filled.

The emphasis placed ny employers is one two particularl problems - lack of appropriate qualifications and 'unwillingness to move to where the jobs are', the latter comment a harsh reminder of the 'get on your bike and look for work' advice offered by British politicians several decades ago. The two issues merit closer examination.

On the question of 'qualifications', it is widely acknowledged that while British education tends overall to be more practical and work oriented, the French still tend to provided a philosophical approach and see education as a process of producing a well-rounded individual able to think and argue for themselves and to draw on France's vast cultural and artistic heritage. That said, it should not be forgotten that at or before the level of the Baccalaureate, many students are helped towards more or less vocational/practical studies, and others streamed towards more intellectual courses - and potentially university.

In addition there are now many (university level) business and commerical schools turning out students with specialist qualifications, such as marketing, computing and management, including those up to MBA level. As a result it is difficult to accept the arguments of employers, though it is clear that many youngsters from deprived areas and backgrounds can miss out, and end up swelling the ranks of the unemployed.

The question of job mobility is more complex but research (including my own) shows that there are clear reasons why French people tend not to moved to where the jobs are. They include:

- The majority of the jobs offered are on short term contracts (CDD) and at low or minimum salary (the SMIC), which means that moving away from home can be extremely risky.

- The low wages offered make it difficult to find low-cost accommodation in areas where the jobs are.

- Unemployed people in middle-age may have family responsibilities and do not wish to interrupt their children's education.

- One or more other members of the family make be in work and contributing to the household, and clearly do not want to sacrifice their own job - imagine a middle-aged manager seeking work and his wife currently holding down a fulltime teaching job.

- Middle aged jobseekers ofter have wider responsibilities such as caring for elderly parents and moving out of area can become impossible.

- People are generally reluctant to sacrifice networks of family and friends, and have deep roots in their local community.

All these considerations explain why 'job mobility' is something of a myth - it sounds logical but there are many practical and emotion reasons why people are relucant to move.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Buying a second home in France

If you already live in France and decide you wish to move and buy another property, then you need to plan your sale and purchase carefully to ensure the optimim tax benefits.

If your present home in France is recognised by the tax authorities as your 'main and principle residence' and you submit French tax returns from this address, then on sale your home will not be subject to the property taxes (capital gains tax) and charges that apply to selling  second homes in France. If you acquire your 'second' home before selling the primary home (and move into it) then you normally have 12 months to sell the first home, without it attracting capital gains tax. In today's slower property market you may find it difficult to sell a property within this period of time, which can accordingly be risky if you wish to avoid the tax - and also repay a bridging loan (normally repayable within two years).

In order to reduce these risks, you could sell your first home before committing to purchase the second home - this requires perseverance and a cetain amount of juggling between buyers and sellers, if one transaction (buying your new home) depends on the other (selling your existing home) - but it can be done. I have found that using the same Notaire to handle both transactions can help ensure the process runs smoothly. In the worst circumstances you might have to move out of you first home and move into temporary accommodation until completion of your second (new) homes.

Alternatively, you can purchase your second home but continue to remain in the first home until you manage to sell it (free of capital gains tax), as the second home would not be liable for CGT unless you decided to sell it while you first home was still designated as your principal residence. 

With careful timing and good advice, selling one property and buying another in the above circumstances should be relatively straightforward.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Choosing your ideal French town

Those of us moving to France have a wide range of choices when it comes to deciding where you want to live. In addition to the basic north/south divide and the choice between town or country, coastal location or deeply rural, France is also blessed with a number of small size cities, each offering a variety of attractions.

Recent surveys in Britain and America have revealed a general preference for (in Britain) a 'market town' - one that is regarded as a manageable size and with all basic amenities within a convenient walking or cycling distance. While in America, as I reported in March on this blog (scroll down for more information) there is the start of a reaction against large out-of-town shopping malls, and a desire to live in small city centres that, like the British models, offer convenient shopping and entertainment choices that do not rely of using a car.

Interestingly, one of the major influences on town planning is a book written in the 1960s by a journalist, Jane Jacobs, called (The Death and Life of Great Cities) in which she analysed what makes a small city successful, under four main headings, which can serve as a useful guide when trying to identify you ideal location when moving to France.

1. A mix of 'primary users' who are drawn to the area either for work or because they livve there, plus sufficient attractions to bring in people from outside - such as convenient shopping, a library, a tourist attraction, a weekly market etc. The right mix is needed to generate sufficient 'foot traffic' all day and during the evening to sustain a sufficient number of cafés, bars, restaurants and other attractions. When reading this, I was reminded of the huge difference between London's City area and the West End, the former sustaining a tiny permanent population, and when th area is total deserted between Friday night and Monday morning.

2. The ideal city centre should have short blocks, with plenty of side streets that make access easier from one area to another. Long ininterrupted avenues are not inviting.

3. There needs to be a mix of businesses of different types, from specialist/luxury to those catering for everyday needs.

4. There should be the right density of population who can arrive on foot, which means efficient public transport (buses, trams, metro etc) and sufficient edge-of-town parking.

Many French cities conform to this ideal and, as in America (see earlier posts), there the beginnings of doubts about the efficacy of the out-of-town 'centre commercial' which eats up valuable land needed by hypermarkets and the adjacent parking. The result in many places has contributed to the death of the city centre. In my home town of Perpignan, many empty vacant shop have a sign in the window saying 'A city without commerce is a dead city'.

My local council are slowly understanding this and as part of their remedial efforts the  university, situated in the suburbs, is creating a new law degree campus in the heart of the old town which will cater for 500 students, on the site of the original university found in the Middle Ages!

The French prime minister Manuel Vals has recently spoken about the mistakes of the post-war years when huge estates of tower blocks were built, which have gradually become - in his words - ghettoes and no-go areas, with high unemployment and crime, and created a form of 'social and cultrual apartheid'.

One of the groups promoting the new thinking is New Urbanism (Gooogle will reveal all!) and it clearly distinguishes itself from the Urban Village Movement which promotes the idea of converting former industrial warehouses (think London Docklands) and creating the new ghetttoes, restricted this time to the affluent middle classes.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Average prices for long term rental

Many French people opt to live in rented accommodation, either through choice or necessity, and recent research by INSEE (a government think-tank) shows that in my local town Perpignan some 55% of households comprise renters. Perpignan in many ways is a typical medium size French town, with an urban population of 115 000 and surrounding suburbs and close-by villages adding a further 100 000 residents. It has its own university with ten per cent students from overseas, and as well as being the departmental capital the town survives on tourism and retailing, much of it on the edge of the centre. All these factors make it a useful example to study in terms of 'average' rental prices, bearing in mind the usual cautions about no two properties being precisely the same.

The INSEE findings can be broken down as follows and covers all of the 55% rented households. Of these
- 31% live in single bedrooms up to 15m², paying a monthly rental avraging 311 euros ( a reflection of the highish student population)
Or - a studio up to 24m² at 387 euros per month; or a type T1* apartment up to 30m² at 399 euros per month

- 65% live in a T2 (up to 45m²), or a T3 (up to 65m²) at 595 euros per month, of a T4 (up to 80m²) at 678 euros per month

- just 4% of renters live in houses of more than 100m², costing an average 1,021 euros per month.

The report also notes that some 340 rented properties changed hands during 2014, indicating that there is a wide choice of rented accommodation from which to choose and renters will quickly move to somewhere cheaper or more attactive.

If you own a property you are considering letting long-term unfurnished, and live in a similar sort of town, the INSEE figures provide a working basis by which to arrive at a market rent. Bearing in mind that potential renters have access to similar information and may use it as a guide when searching, you may have to offer something a bit special if you charge a higher-than-average rental.

* Type T1, T2, T2 etc (sometimes expressed as F1 etc) basically means 1 room plus kitchen and bath, 2 rooms plus kitchen and bath, and so on. Bear in mind that many 'kitchens' are now incorporated into the main living room (sometimes described as a 'cuisine américaine'). The additional room(s) are normally bedrooms, if of a sufficient size.

Monday, April 6, 2015

How much to spend on food in France?

I recently came across an informal survey on an American forum* which invited members to describe how much they normally spent per month on buying food. The results were so interesting that I launched a similar thread on an English website** addressed to those living or thinking of living in France and surprisingly the results were remarkably similar. The US website drew over 250 comments, most of them extremely detailed (location, size of family, food preferences etc) and the English site around 40. Taking the salient points from each site, the main conclusions were:

- it depends whether you buy organic or not, there is a considerable price difference
- it depends if you are vegetarian or not (ditto)
- it depends where you live - shopping in a large city/suburban supermarket can be cheaper, as can urban (open air) markets; as can living in the country or small village where you can shop direct from producers or through a buying cooperative, otherwise the country may offer reduced choices
- it depends on how often you (have to) eat out, for example at work
- it depends on how much entertaining you do
- it depends whether you enjoy cooking at home and buy fewer packaged/prepared products

In terms of the amount spent each week or month, the main variation in price depended on the number of people in the household, and the lowest weekly/monthly expenditures were generally those of single people - though some pointed out that 'bying for one' means that you cannot always benefit from econolise of scale.

Finally, in terms of the actual amounts spend in either US dollars or Euros (the two currencies were virtually at pariety at the time, $1 being equivalent to 0.9 euro), the lowest was about 200 per month (an American graduate student) and the highest 1000 per month - a largish family who also entertained and/or ate out a lot. Both American and French spending levels were remarkably similar.

*    **

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Spain's recovery ahead of France

Regarded - along with Greece, Italy, Portugal and Ireland - as one of the 'sick men' of Europe, Spain has now emerged from the crisis of the last five years, following a period of schock treatment, according to a report in the French business journal Capital (April 2015), compared with France. According to four main indicators highlighted in the report, Spain now beats France in terms of reduced labour coasts, which in turn has led to an increase in exports (while those from France are down); increased (foreign) investment - up by 4.7% compared with France's meagre 0.6%; and increased consumption - up 2.7% compared with just 1% in France.

The reasons for the Spanish success compared with France include the insistence of the government on a series of measures to cut spending - including raising the retirement age from 65 to 67 (while for most it remains at age 60 in France with many occupations alowing even earlier retirement from work); cutting public sector salaries; reducing public sector jobs by 400 000 by not replacing those retiring (talked about in France but not really implemented), and reducing expenditure in several areas including education, with a huge rise in university fees (as in Britain), and trimming hospital budgets.

Along with Ireland, Spain has taken drastic action which is now beginning to pay off and it will be interesting to see that happens to Greece in particular under the recently elected populist government, while France contues to tinker around the edges with measures such as the loi Macron, which recent polls confirm that the vast majority of French do not understand, other than the law allowing slightly increased Sunday opening of retail outlets.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

'Wasted square metres' when considering a French property

I have recently been apartment hunting before settling into a third floor mini-loft in a town-centre building parts of which date back to the 17th century. What ever ceases to surprise me when judging apartments (and houses when visiting with clients) is the amount of wasted space resulting from poor internal layout, particularly bearing in mind that every extra square metre costs money in rent or purchase price, taxes, building charges, maintenance and upkeep, and heating or cooling. Among examples most commonly found are:

- Too large entrance halls and corridors often too narrow to accommodate any kind of storage. The worst example I have seen amounted to 20% of the total space - one-fifth was virtually unusable.

- Disproportionate sizing of rooms - bedrooms too large compared with the expected number of occupants, and/or in relation to the main living areas which were often too small.

- Kitchen too large (and often over-equipped) in relation to the expected number of occupants. Quite often in a studio designed for a single person or couple, the kitchen seems to have been designed for a family of four. My own, which I decided to accept, comprises a 3.5 metre (approx. 12 ft) run of worktops and cupboards, and includes a family-sized fridge/freezer, a full size oven (never used in 10 years by the previous owner), extra fan and filter unit for the oven, a washing machine, and microwave oven. But there is no dining area to match!

It is amazing how planners and designers get it wrong and I have seen an American example* where a developer has taken over a former shopping mall and turned the two upper floors into mini-studios,  with the tinly kitchens including a dish-washer! All the occupants admitted they never used it for a single plate or cup and would appreciate more storage space instead.

* See video on