Act now to snap up remaining French bargains

AFTER a weekend of Mediterranean weather evaporated this week, sun-hungry holidaymakers could be forgiven for looking to France. And with sellers dusting down wine cellars for the high season, there is no better time to fly south for villa-viewing.

The Lehman collapse saw demand take flight even from prime locations, but top-end buyers returned during 2009 and Knight Frank France reports a 37 per cent increase in inquiries on this time last year. So if you want to take advantage of any remaining credit crunch discounts, the time to move is now.

In such a well-established market, finding a bargain isn’t easy, but Knight Frank negotiator John Stephenson says that many prices are still down 10 or 15 per cent from their 2007 peaks. Still, the best properties on the Côte d’Azur start at €4-5m and a luxury villa on the sunny cliffs over the Med will go for far more.

“Unless you have a big enough budget a lot of people will look at what we call the backhills of Cannes,” says Stephenson. He's referring to villages like Mougins and Valbonne, just 15 minutes’ drive from Cannes through thick forests of pine and olives. Mougins offers buyers a peaceful hilltop setting, a crumbling 11th century old town and proximity to the beach nightlife of the coast. And, of course, lower prices: “Some places are €2m now when you used to not be able to get what you wanted for €2-3m.”

Buyers looking for a less touristy location should go westwards towards Provence. Two main parts make up the area – le Luberon and Les Alpilles. Visitors to Luberon are greeted by rolling vistas of vineyards, olive trees and lavender, while Alpilles offers a more rugged landscape dotted with apple and pear orchards. Stuart Baldock, director of Property Vision magazine in France, says: “If you’re looking for a bucket-and-spade second home you don’t buy here, but if you’re looking for some land and a stone farmhouse and rolling countryside, it’s the place for you.” Prices in Luberon are also more reasonable, from €500,000 to €2m.

Even more rural houses are available further west in Gascony. Here, the farmland is patchworked with sunflowers and vineyards. Prices run from half a million to a million and the sleepy villages in the area host world-class restaurants and, in July, the Marciac jazz festival.

Buyers in these less popular areas, however, should not expect great jumps in value to justify an investment. Prices tend to rise gently and, if you sell at the wrong time, making a gain can be difficult. Neither is it wise to rely on renting to make back costs if you’re using the property yourself during the high season.

The UK’s tax treaty with France means there are no duplicate taxes to worry about but you should expect to pay up to 6.5 per cent extra for stamp duty and notary services. Legal advice is also a good idea to ensure you have the requisite planning permission for any improvements, particularly in more regulated areas on the Côte d’Azur.

Wherever you buy, the fast-recovering market means you can’t afford to hang around. Savills’ Jean-Claude Caputo says business at the top is already booming again: “Four or five months ago confidence came back and the wealthy people came back.”

Euro 8.5m
Buyers would never regret buying Edith Piaf’s former home. It’s situated in a quiet area on top of the hill in Plascassier with a 5,000sq m lawn, a mezzanine library, billiard room, gym, sauna, tennis and boules courts.

Contact Savills Riviera Estates, tel: +33 (0)4 93 87 41 15.

Euro 13m
On the Western side of Saint Jean Cap Ferrat, this 300sq m villa has large terraces with panoramic sea views on to the Baie des Anges and Cap de Nice. It has a beautiful pool, 100sq m basement and 1800 sq m of grounds.

Contact Savills Riviera Estates, tel: +33 (0)4 93 87 41 15.

Euro 1.84m
Just fifteen minutes from the TGV station, Avignon and the airport, this has views of the Ventoux mountain and is in 35 acres of land. There’s the main farmhouse, five lodges and three people bed and breakfasts.

Contact Prestige Property, tel:?01935 817 188.

Euro 1.1m
A stone-built Maison de Maitre dating from around 1860 in the northern Gers. Its wonderful black-and-white-tiled hall leads to views of the hillside. The house used to be the hub of a thriving vineyard and oozes character.

Contact Knight Frank, tel: 020 7629 8171.