Friday, January 27, 2017

Barcelona trying to control tourist numbers

According to a report in today's Guardian* newspaper, my near neighbour Barcelona, just over the border from where I live, is suffering from a massive influx of tourists - 32 millions annually compared with a resident population of just 1.2 citizens.

Many are classed as day-trippers but for those staying longer (some 8 million estimated) the city offers 75,000 hotel beds, some 50,000 registered holiday apartments and an estimated 50,000 ones.

Action is needed according to a newly-formed group SOS Barcelona, a combination of some 40 resident and community associations, who are protesting about increasing property prices for (would-be) residents and poor wages paid for thouse working in the tourist sector.

They are opposed by the hoteliers association who argue that more temporary accommodation is in fact needed for longer stay visitors who contribute substantially more to the local economy than the day-trippers. Their views seem to coincide with popular public opinion which in a survey last year conclude that Barcelona's biggest problem was unemployment and not the effects of tourism.

* My acknowledgements to Stephen Burgen, The Guardian, Friday 27 January 2017.

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Paris 'chambres de bonne' to be converted into apartments

There are over a hundred thousand chambres de bonne - small attic rooms on the top floors of residential apartments, and traditionally used to house maids working for the owners below. As the employment of maids has decline over the years, owners tended to hold onto these tiny spaces, too small to legally rent (about 15% were let where they conformed to minimal size regulations) while the rest were left empty or used for storage. Their value however continue to rise with property price inflation, and was estimaed to have risen by over 80% since 1990. 

The city of Paris has recently inaugurated a policy of buying-up these attic spaces, and joining two or more together to create larger, saleable apartments.  Under this scheme an average of four chambres are linked together to create an apartment of 40 up to 130 sqare metres. When completed, they are sold in the smarter districts at between 11,500 and 12,500 euros per square metres. 

The first experiment has already resulted in a total sell-out - mainly to French buyers, who find these attic lofts attractive, particularly where the package includes improve access, such as widening the 'back stairs' or installing or extending a lift. 

These efforts alone wil not solve the capital's perenial housing problem but with over 100,000 empty chambres de bonne to working with, some thirty to forty thousand new homes could be created. 

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Monday, January 23, 2017

Video shows inner city regeneration can be achieved

Having written recently about the decline of city centres - including my home town - and how it affects people's income, jobs and lives, I am specially happy to recomment a vido by American film-maker Kirsten Dirksen, which you can watch via Youtube or on her blog.*

The 30 minutes-plus film traces the history of a citizens' revival plan of the main street in a small urban community in Water Valley, Mississippi, where over a couple of decades some 18 retail stores and businesses had closed, creating a lifeless, ugly Hight Street.

It was largely a private initiative to start with which gathered in numbers and strength to create a local business association, which succeeded in renovating 29 solid brick-built buildings and opening a variety of small businesses - among them a restaurant, drugstore, art galley, a boutqie hotel, apartments,  and a 10,000 squate feet 'alternative' supermarket selling fresh, locally produced foods and fighting off a challenge from Walmart.

Local jobs have been created and as one observer notes Saturday nights see the whole area crowded with people - many of them students at the local State University.

The video offers a tour of several of the buildings before, during and after renovation and is a heartening reminder of what can be done when determined local people get together to bring about change.

* Kirsten's blog is: Select under 'Categories' 'videos' - it is the latest currently posted on her site. Commentary is in English.

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Friday, January 20, 2017

Clean streets and empty rubbish bins....

Reading the British newspapers about the propsoals by some local councils to empty domestic rubbish bins every four weeks only, I am happy to describe the situation in France - where bins are emptied DAILY in most areas and streets in city centres washed down every morning - sometimes more than once per day!

Where I live is a bit of a tourist town with a historic centre and in the summer months when I sleep with the windows open, my morning 'alarm clock' is the sound the mechanical sweeper/washer passing along the alleyway where I live, usually at 6.00 o'clock in the morning. The many cafés and restaurants that line the streets and have tables and chairs outside on the pavement and know the drill: everything is stacked and moved indoors to allow the sweeper to do its job. The result is immaculate pavements and clean alleyways (mine is pedestrians only) all year round.

Much the same with the bins. Emptied if you need to put them out every days or as I do, you can use the large public containers at the end of the alleyway which are emptied once or twice daily. There is even a special free service to arrange the collection of large objects (old furniture, mattresses etc) which are put out the night before and picked up early morning, by appointment. The homeless charity Emmaus will also pick up anything that can be salvaged or re-cycled.

My domestic rates are not exorbitant, in fact much lower than I was used to paying in central London.

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Saturday, January 14, 2017

Working in retirement - numbers up in Britain and France

The number of people electing to continue working after they have reached the 'official' rtirement age is on the increase in both France and Britain.

In France in 2016, some 450,000 retired people were recorded as working - twice the numbers ten years ago, but bearing in mind that the retirement age is lower than most other countries, at 60 or 62.

Latest reports in Britain also show a doubling of the figures for over 70s and still working - 485,000 today (compared with 271,000 five years ago) and a remarkable 42,000 still working after reaching the age of 80 (compared with 21,000 five years ago).

Looking ahead five years, France's active population has been predicted as reaching 1.2 million more people today, together with an increasingly elderly population living longer. There is also a discernible population shift to the south. Unskilled work will generally be harder to find, with increasing 'professionalism' required for most jobs. More jobs will be created in the 'care' sector looking after the elderly and more public money spent on education and training.

Compared with Britain, when continuing to work in retirement is a relatively simple process - you don't have to notify anyone and simply add your earnings to your pension and other sources of income - the French have managed to create another bureaucratic nightmare, involving declarations, investigations and restrictions too complicated to explain in this post! I may return to the subject later after more research.

Suffice it to say that France operates 37 different retirement 'régimes', largely depending on your jobs, and there are increasing reports from some areas of France where one year or more after giving up work and entering retirement, some people are still waiting for their first pension payment and/or at least what they are entitled to. If you have changes jobs during your working life, the first difficulty is assembling and verifying that contributions have been paid, iften going back decades. It is a nightmare for the bureaucrats let alone the pensioners concerned.

The organisation CIPAV has been singled out by the government - and is the appropriate régime for many self-employed - for providing no or incorrect information to its members and ordered to apologise and pay compensation.  

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Friday, January 13, 2017

The art of becoming self-employed - start a 'side hustle'

When I was 30 years old I had set up my first business - and promptly wrote a book about it. Scanning the internet many years later, I am pleased to see that a lot of the advice offered is very much like what I told myself (and wrote about) - the American even coining their own word for it - a 'side hustle' or 'side venture' which describes something which you can start with little or no capital and while continuring to work in your current job (if you have one).

I recall my golden rules from all those years ago and they are still valid today if I was starting out all over again - which is fact something you continue to do as I found that the nature of you business can change over time, due to the vagaries of the market or simply your own wish to try something new. Here are my personal golden rules:

- Ask yourself what you want or are qualified to do. If you are a skilled plumber or born fashion designer, then you already have something you can offere the market. In my own case, the only skill could offer was writing and passing on knowledge (I was good at school, passed my exams etc but totally hopeless at sports or manual skills).

- Research the market? Not always possible and you may have to work in a sector that is already crowded or is difficult to investigate.

- No capital? No problem. There is no logical reason why banks, let alone your family and friends should 'invest' in your business, particularly if you have no capital yourself. You are asking them to take a risk which you are not sharing - though they may pursue you should you fail. Your only option is to start something that needs no or minimal capital.

- Already working? Many jobs are more secure today (due to employment legislation and the protection of a trade union) but if you are hankering for a change, best think of a venture that can be started part-time. Or put the other way round, run your venture fulltime but continue to work in a part-time job or one offering shifts, weekends, evening or night work (call centres, night receptionist, restaurant or bar work etc).

- No office, premises etc? No problem. Start something you can run from home (disceetly if necessary). As a consultant/expert in whatever sphere you choose, you can workd from home and meet clients at their offices or over a coffee or lunch. If you need a meeting room, display area etc these can be hired by hour or day as required. If you are selling by mail order or via the internet, stock can be kept in your garage or storage space rented as and when necessary.

- No money to buy special equipment? My first ventures involved my trusty portable typewriter and my parents' telephone. Not a lot has changed today, as we moved to fax machine, telephone answering machine, voicemail, internet, computer, smart phone etc

- Portfolio working - a description invented by Professor Charles Handy, to describe working in a mix of roles - full or part-time exployment, short/long term contracts, changing roles or even your profession several times over a working lifetime.

- Be prepared to change - I have stayed more or less in the role of consultant, writer, university professor; but a friend and colleague gave up his role as a university lecturer in London and California to open a small organic BandB hotel in the south of France, and writing about wine, and advising on wine marketing for local producers.

- Working in retirement - entirely possible in many professions (consultants in almost any sector, writers, artists, photographers etc) that do not involve heavy manual skills that may become difficult with age.

- Contiue to expand your skills base through study (part time, online), attending seminars and conferences, part-time degree courses etc.

- Make your business portable - By offering your professional skills described above, in theory you can enjoy working from anywhere, from your home or country cottage, or any beach in in the world from Corfu to California.'Have laptop, can travel' should be your motto.

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Thursday, January 12, 2017

The 'sharing economy' can mean savings as well as making you feel good

According to research in France by finance group Confidis, average saving of 495 euros per year can be made - over 600 euros if you are in the age 20 group to 34 and use more services.

Over 90% of the population have used at least one service over a period of 12 months - such as travelling in a shared vehicle, selling something on-line or booking an apartment through AirBnB.

Some 87% of of those interviewed said their main motivation was saving money, 76% wanted to earn money and 41% admitted 'they felt good'.

There are now nearly 300 platforms offering shared services on the internet and a report by PriceWaterhouse predicts that the market will triple by 2018.

France is second only to America in the numbers already accessing the 'sharing economy' - l'économie collaborative. 

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Taking your home with you when you move

This post is inspired by an an Amercian TV series currently being shown on French television* about buying, transporting and renovating timber based affordable homes which can be sited wherever you want.

Much of the action shown takes place around Forth Worth (Texas) and features a series of entrepreneurs - a young couple husband and wife team, two sisters of a certain age, and a fearsome grandfather working solo - who buy up decrepit wooden homes sold at auction (sight unseen, buyers were not allowed inside until after purchase) and rarely costing $200 and often much less.

The secret is that the properties are large enough to include one or two bedrooms - but are transportable using a wide-load trailer and benefiting from the areas major highways. The journeys are generally around 50 miles, with an obligatory police escort, and in only one case it was found necessary to saw the building in two (it was T-shaped) and transport it in two loads. Average cost of transport including a police escort was around $5,000.

Back at base the entrepreneur(s) then proceed to convert and renovate the wooden structure, paying particularly attention to the floor and foundations, the ceilings and roof, plumbing and electrics etc - but rarely spending more than $10,000 to transform the property into a desirable small home.

On completion the wooden home is then sold agan at auction, for prices averaging around $20,000 and occasionally reaching $30,000 or more for a particularly large or attractive model. Buyers than were faced with the cost of further transporting the property to their own site and placing it onto the necessary concrete foundations, and connecting to the main services. As a result they ended up owning a desirable new property for a fraction of the normal costs of a bricks-and-mortar version on an estate.

A colleague who spoke to me about this type of housing solution said it was common in some parts of Australia for owners of this type of property to transport it by wide-loader to where they wished to move , enabling them to continue living in their existing home in which they had already invested.

It should go without saying that politicians and planners should be bold enough to permit alternatives such as those shown in the American programme. Note finally that the average $30,000 to $45,000 cost is about one-tenth of the prices being quoted for the British 'garden villages' recently announced by the Conservative government.

* French channel 6ter (22) Sundays from 11.00am 'Rénovation impossible'

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French national and local press in decline

Like many other countries France too is witnessing a decline in circulation of both its national and regional newspapers - for many of the same reasons and some that are special to France.

One of the peculiarities of the French press is that there is no single, dominant national newspaper - even the best known Le Figaro and Le Monde plus the daily sports paper L'Equipe above 300,000, and Libération trails behind with just over 100,000 copies daily.

Another anomaly is that some of the major regional dailies have large circulations - La Voix de Nord (Nord, Pas de Calais); Sud-Ouest (Charentes, Dordogne etc) - for example have circulations over 1 million. In my own region L'Indépendant (Aude, P;O.) has a typically average circulation of less than 250,000.

These regional dailies have managed to hang on thanks to an elderly, conservative readership, and/or by championing local causes such as the shutdown of an important factory or industry.

Competition of course has come from the usual sources - radio (40+ radio stations), television (100+ channels plus cable and satellite services. And more recently online internet versions - perfectly adequate for a rapid overview, followed by the new generation of smartphones which can be read on the way to or from work on the Metro or the London Underground, where any photo will show nine out of ten computers glued to their smartphones.......

The print media had lost much of their advertising revenue to TV and online services, where advertising can be created that is noisier, flashier and subject to rapid change. There may be a glimmer of rejection as the younger generations grow up and start to question the relevance of a consumerist society in favour of a gentler, more caring model.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Home-working and its contribution to the environment...

Two recent events have highlighted - and it is to be hoped changed the minds of governments and citizens - about the need to encourage more homeworking as a part- or full-time option. The two events are of course the serious air pollution in Paris and some other French cities, and disruption of the London Underground and commuter rail networks.

In Paris and other French cities, the levels of air pollution have led to bans on inner city driving (alternative days for odd and even numbered vehicles), speed restrictions and other controls such as banning older vehicles (already operated in Paris) and on diesel powered vehicles. Meanwhile there is a serious 'flu epidemic with hospitals reporting crisis conditions and the concelling of many scheduled operations.

The sight of literally millions of commuters trying to reach their jobs in Central London was sad to behold - mile long traffic jams, near riot conditions to get on to a bus or the occasional comuuter train or Underground service, and literally hours spent getting from into and from work.

Much of the pain could be alleviated and many lives improved if more people were allowed/prepared to work from home, fulfilling remotely the tasks performed on a comuter that could be done at home and do not require daily travel to the office. In an earlier post (see below) I looked at the rise in (temporary) office sharing and concluded from the evidence that daily physical contact with one co-workers was not necessary.

Nor is it the case that home-working necessarily means retiring to the countryside and 'dropping out' of society (as we said in the 1960s). I have worked at/from home all my life, long before the invention of the computer,  as a writer/consultant/visting lecturer in both Paris and Central London . My clients were generally local (walking distance from home) or involved a journey out of town - travelling in the opposite direction to the commuters pouring into the capital. I gave up my car in Central London due to high parking fees and the hours wasted trying to find a designated residents' parking space. My salvation was the opening of a national car rental company in the basement garage of where I lived and the luxury of a new, clean car whenever I needed one. Over a twelve month period the costs were much lower than owning.

Two other life-changers were the opening of Euruostar service to Bussels (from Waterloo, walking distance from my home), after years of uncertain ferries, hovercrraft and airline trips; and the arrival of the mobile phone which became my travelling office, together with any hotel lobby near to the Berlaymont Building, home of the European Commission.

Central Paris is a more manageable size, with most meetings within walking distance of my home or using the efficient Metro/RER services and French Rail for out-of-town visits using the TGV services which are much lower priced than in Britain - even in first class. Comparatively few Central Paris dwellers own a car, which tended to be use only at weekends to drive to the (usully inherited) country cottage/second home. Now there are organised car pools and journey-sharing websites and - suprisingly late compare with Britain - a growing networdk of long-distance bus services.

Finally, communication and the internet have revolutionised the way we work. Even in the seventies and eighties the only 'on-line' information service I used was Dialog, based in Palo-Alto  (California) which required a keyboard send/receive terminal connected to a special phone line, which put me in touch with a library of citations. Search results  had then to be ordered and sent in printed form by post from the USA!

Given the enormous advances in online commications, which are continuing, and the availability of sources such as Wikipedia, there is no reasonswhy many more of us should not be working from home!

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Driving in France - where to fill up?

Curiously, although the number of cars on the road in France has doubled, the number of filling stations to serve them has dropped from 14,700 in 1975 to 11,270 in 2016 - and reducing as more independant garages are forced to close due to low margins on petrol and diesel sales, and - I suspect - the rise in lease/purchase deals on new cars offered by the manufactueres which include service and maintenance.

Particularly hard hit are car owners searching for a filling station in town - try filling-up in central Paris or any other large/medium sized city? - and remote villages where the local garage has closed due to lack of business or retirement of its owner.

Some small communes have started offering a solution by establishing and operating a 'community filling station' including provision for hybrid/electric vehicles, which is owned by the mairie. Car owners in some cases have had to drive 20 kms or further just to fill-up and make sure they always had a full tank.

Filling stations are owned either by the petrol companies or retail chains, more or less in esual proportion. While charging points for hybrid/electric vehicles are owned by a range of opeators including EDF and other operators. Sme are attached to existing filling stations, others are independant, though total numbers are difficult to estimate but some put the figure as high as 10,000 (outlets? individual charging points?), but what is clear is that this market is growing - rapidly.

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Friday, January 6, 2017

Boom in temporary work-space rentals for small business start-ups

Start-up business from solo operators to small groups of partners are often faced with the dilemma of where they can work together during the all important  try-out period without eating into scarce funds needed to launch the new enterprise.

One solution may be to rent temporary offices or a workspace - from a single desk and chair through to meeting rooms, conference facilities, showroom, and catering services - now widely available through a network of operators and offered for a period of a single day upwards.

Among the largest operators in Europe are OfficeRiders (short term renters are known in France as 'riders') offering a wide selection of sites from Paris to Montpellier in the south. Another operator - Spaceshop London - is also expanding into Europe, along with (the largest?) American group Heywork USA.

Work-spaces can be hired from an average 15 to 20 euros per person per day and even solo operators may find they enjoy the opportunity of working and sharing ideas with other small business start-ups.

If you own a suitable property and have some spare space you might wish to consider contacting one of the operators who take care of marketing, taking bookings and collecting payments, and doubtless a commission.

An article about the Swedish model 'Hoffice' and links to a number of operators appears today on the website.

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Wednesday, January 4, 2017

French shopping centres still popular - but for how much longer?

I last wrote in March 2015 about shopping centres - known as centres commerciaux - which are still flourishing in France, against trends reported in America. The contrast is remarkable but they say that where America leads the rest of the world follows - eventually. At the moment the two countries present a diametrically opposed oicture as the following statistics show.

Taking the USA first, there are an esimated 1 500 'shopping malls' and of these some experts estimate that 15 to 20 per cent, perhaps even one-third, are threatened with closure within ten years or less. The reasons given include online shopping - now accounting for 6% of retail sales and growing at some 8% per year - while Amazon alone has surged ahead with a 28% spurt......

America's giant retailers - J C Penney (1000 stores), Macy's (700) and Sears (600) - have been the stalwart pioneers of the American mall but are among the first to feel the impact of new ways of shopping. And when they decide to pull out of a shopping mall, some 200+ retail outlets can be affected as visitor numbers decline.

American commentators recount how the early shopping malls of the 1950s and 60s fulfilled a social role where you got to together with family and friends, wanted to see and be seen, joined others for coffee or meal, and enjoyed some of the adjacent attractions such as a cinema. It was normal to spend a whole day out.

Not surpisingly France and other European countries caught up with the trend and today - after Russia !) - Franc has the largest number of out-of-town shopping centres, currently numbering 1 200 sites. Leading the Top Ten is the Les Quatre Temps centre near Paris, with 228 shops and 46 million visitors annually, down to number twenty O'Parinord (83) with 210 shops and 12 million visitors.

The development of shopping centres was initially controlled by the loi Roger of 1973 which originally included a number of conditions - environmental, aiding job losses in town centres - which were gradually watered down and currently a further 2 million square mettres are added each year.

The spread continues and even in smallish towns such as my own (Perpignan) where there are centres commerciaux to the north, south and east of the town, with more planned, and dominated by huge retailers such as LeClerc and Auchan. A recent spectacular failure however has been the Centre dell mon built around the new TGV station with 15 shops (all closed) and two large hotels. There is talk of creating more offices or  using it to expand part of the local university. Reasons for the failure included lack of parking spaces, difficult access by a one-way street and the fact that rail passengers simply did not shop in the middle of their journey (many were going south to Barcelona or north to Paris!).

Figures for UK retailing show that Britain has some 46,000 shops lying empty (about 13% of the total), one third of them for longer than 3 years. Numbers of town centre shoppers (known as 'footfall') were 4% down according to recent figures, and out-of-town by 1.6% - both trends blamed on the rise of on-line shopping which now accounts for over 13% of all retail sales.

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Tuesday, January 3, 2017

'Garden villages' 2

Following my post below about the British government's decision to 'help the housing crisis' by creating a series of 'garden villages' and the various comments in the Guardian and other newspapers - mostly critical - and my story about moveable/transportable wooden houses in America.

A colleague contacted me about a similar situation in Australia where it was quite common for owners wanting to move to another area to buy a plot of land and take with them their existing wooden home, using a transporter. The whole idea is to keep down prices and continue to enjoy the home they have invested with a lot of time and effort, and money.

And going back to the American example shown on a French TV series, just to reiterate that the re-sale prices of refurbished homes are often less than $30 000: even with the cost of further transport to the owner's new site and preparation of the necessary foundations, connection to electricity, water, sewage etc, The price of the entire operation can still be under $45 000 - in marked contrast to the 'average prices' being quoted for the British 'garden villages' which have been estimated at between £250 000 to £450 000!

Among the many adverse comments on the British proposals by those fearing that England, particularly the south-east, could become a giant garden suburb, a contributor writing from Spain notes that his country have managed to get the balance about right. Inner cities are highly developed, with apartments occupied above ground floor shops etc, leaving the countryside free of urban sprawl. He notes that to reach a housing density equivalent to that of Britain, Spain would have to increase its population from 47 million to 200 million.

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Monday, January 2, 2017

'Garden villages' as a housing solution?

This post is prompted by an article in the Guardian about the government's plan to create 14 new 'garden villages' in different areas of England from Cornwall to the north-west (though excluding Scotland and Wales) and build a total of 48,000 new homes. Many of the proposed developments will be on green field sites and away from existing towns and villages.

Among the 800 readers' comments already registered - mostly not in favour of the proposals - many complain about the lack of infrastructure in the plans, and the need for new roads, railway lines, stations, shopping and other facilities, as would-be residents would need to commute to work, shop and enjoy their leisure in the nearest town. 

Writing from France, it is interesting to contrast this proposal with concerns about the decline of many French small towns and villages, as many younger people leave to find work in Paris, Lyon, Toulouse and the other major conurbations, and farmers are leaving the land. As a result many surviving villages are left without shops and other basic facilities and are populated by older people and owners of second homes during the high season. 

What many of the Guardian commentators also suggest is that more emphasis should be placed on protecting and preserving town centres, where many properties above offices and shops lie empty, former factories and warehouses could be re-develeoped for housing, and older properties renovated instead of being demolished - offering homes nearer to where the jobs are, and reducing the need for daily commuting from outside town and creating additional problems of traffic congestion (on roads and rail in London) and pollution (Paris).  

The neglect of town centres leads in turn to unoccupied shops and the shift of commerce to the huge out-of-town shopping centres that continue to appear in both Britain and France, even though their decline is well documented in America. 

And talking of the USA reminds me of a very interesting programme on French TV (Channel 22 'Renovation impossible') which documents how  it is possible to purchase for less than  $1000 a rundown wooden house, which is then transported by road for around a further $5000 to the desired site and renovated for an average $15,000 and is ready for re-occupation - a new home for under $30,000. Most of the properties shown are large enough to provide a living area with open-plan kitchen, one to two bedrooms, and a bathroom/WC. Sold at auction they attract mainly young married couples just starting out or elderly couples looking to downsize in retirement.

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