Could living in France be a real possibility?
When I first realized it might be possible for me to live in France, it was because of pandemic-era articles online saying that real estate in France’s southwest was then a bargain. Montpellier and Toulouse were mentioned as good places to live that were not too expensive. I reviewed visa requirements and found I should actually be able to meet them, even on my tiny social security, if I have a place to live (no rent to come out of that soc sec amount).
I always like the idea of being near the coast and somewhere sunny and warm, so the southwest of France seemed very tempting. To get started searching, in 2022 I explored from Avignon to Narbonne, and most of those stops have been recounted here. I’ve also summarized my feelings about the towns I visited last year, in the post France: Summing up.
Not so fast … Reality strikes
But things change … I don’t know if it’s just a general market development or an influx of Parisiens due to Covid, but prices are not like they were quoted in the 2020 press. For example, in Montpellier, which has a lot to recommend it as a place to live, I find $100K will get you about 27 square meters in a good part of town. I’d like three to four times that space, but my budget is nowhere near that multiple. In fact, my budget is shrinking to a very modest level, after last year’s stock market retreat, and exaggerated moving and storage bills.
I read that 2021 was a record year for property sales in France, and 2022 was second on record though 6% less. Some forecast prices dropping 5-7% in 2023, but not everywhere. Still, in an international perspective, French property remains a good deal. No surprise, cheaper properties have poor energy efficiency ratings. As of this year, properties with an energy rating of G (the worst) cannot be rented. But I don’t see any new laws, yet, forcing homeowners to improve their HVAC.
Go to a village outside the city, French acquaintances say. I did explore such possibilities a bit, and concluded that being beyond the range of a single tram or bus to downtown cancels the attractiveness of living in that metro area. Yes, I’ll get a car, but needing to drive into the center of town and deal with parking seems all wrong. I still aim to live where I can walk to a bakery, and walk or need only one bus/tram to the major food market, be it indoor halles or a scheduled market in a central plaza.
Expectations, meet reality! A tough introduction to make.
Time for a rethink. And that’s what I’ve been doing over the last five months. I started doing country-wide searches on the real estate sites I’ve been checking: leboncoin.com, seloger.com, bienici.com, lefigaro. I put in a target size of a minimum of 90 square meters (would love 110-120) and a price under $130K (at this point, I’m thinking $100K or less, but the wider range gives some perspective). I identified cities or areas that have a cluster of properties to look at, and then started looking up the areas to see what to rule out, what to investigate further. I decided against the northeast, close to Belgium, though I like the idea of reaching Brussels and beyond with ease. I also rule out any place very remote, any houses in tiny hamlets or off alone, any place in the mountains. I’m actually left with rather a lot of exploring to do. Now when I return to searching property ads, I specify a good many départements, but I’m getting some focus. Foci, I should say.
That idea of a warm sunny south was an illusion, too; the warm, sunny south of France is really the Côte d’Azur, the coast of the Var and perhaps Bouches-du-Rhône (if not in mistral range): the most expensive areas outside of Paris, I think, and way out of my reach for anything. So there is no reason to exclude parts of the country outside the southwest – although it’s true that it’s usually sunny in the southwest even when that fierce wind is blowing. Perhaps being within easy reach of Paris would be a good plus. Also, I see exploring from somewhere like Narbonne or Nîmes to be mostly busy highway driving point-to-point (not my idea of fun driving; I like to wander easy country roads), or else winding up into the hills and mountains (again, mountains not my love). I’m surely over-generalizing and should take a more considered look. But I know I’ve most enjoyed driving around the Touraine, so perhaps I’ll take to Deux-Sèvres and the Charente / Charente-Maritime / Poitou. Next most, Normandy – but I think it’s really too quiet where affordable. And I have loved all my roaming in Burgundy, numerous times, alone, with the Riveras, with Kristian, with Laura – though I think Côte d’Or would not be my target; perhaps the Yonne or Saône-et-Loire, or one those Nièvre towns on the Loire.
Envisioning a future, realistically
Along with this search goes a task of mentally re-imagining a future here. I have put aside my hopes of returning to urban life and am adjusting to the idea of just being able to enjoy living in France, in a place that is attractive enough: preferably a town where a river or canal is a central feature. The Yonne is lovely, as is the Loire … And if I’m not going to be immersing myself in city life, I think I should be looking for a place that’s a good base to explore from, easily, say on the smaller highways and with regional trains and bus lines. France is so fascinating to roam around!
I had intended to start 2023 by re-visiting Montpellier, Narbonne and Carcassonne during the winter, because the southwest can have severe winter winds, and I want to experience what winter might be like. I’m skipping Montpellier because I’m convinced it’s out of my reach – although I will be back in spring for an opera. i did spend a few nights in Narbonne now, and am just leaving Carcassonne today: my last stop in France before returning in March. But before this, I started my wider explorations by visiting the Yonne (Auxerre) and Nièvre (Nevers). There are possibilities!
And … there is my friend Francisca in Malaga province in my ear … commenting on the beauty of southern Spain’s climate compared to France’s anywhere, and on the fun of Spanish life, and the cheap living there … so in May, I’ll dip my toe in those waters, with a visit to Sevilla, Malaga, and perhaps another stop or two in Andalusia.
Getting a second opinion along the way
I hope to be traveling with Kristian in March, to some areas yet unexplored. We’ll make some joint decisions about where to go. I will also have a bit of time for exploring in late April. I’ll see Toulouse, but think it’s out of reach too – though I hope to enjoy the opera house. I’m not sure where I’ll spend my open week, but am thinking of trying to get down to Toulon on the coast.
Apartment or house? Such a tough call.
I struggle as well with the house-or-apartment decision. When I sold my house, I felt very ready to find a nice big apartment on one floor, with a decent balcony, or better yet a terrace, and no building responsibilites for me. No more concerns about the roof, the foundation, the heating and A/C and ducting, My happiest place to live was NYC, and I was content with my Manhattan apartment for over twenty years.
But – that was a long time ago. Meantime I’ve enjoyed collecting herbs and blueberries just outside my door, picking fresh asparagus in the spring, pears in the fall, and having gorgeously-scented flowers in abundance. Maybe I don’t want to live where there’s no outdoor space. I do – in my excessive stored household – have some outdoor furniture and decor, “just in case.”
It could be good to be in an apartment building, always have neighbors, not be isolated, have someone to call upon when repairs are needed. And if I want to live in a good-sized city, an apartment it will be.
On the other hand, I eventually want to have a dog again. Maybe two. And I’d like a garden patch for them to use so I don’t always have to take scheduled walks. I do hope never to mow grass again, so I’m not looking for a lot of land. I realize an apartment is a more sensible choice, but I don’t find apartment living very appealing when not in a pretty exciting city. I’m really just looking at houses now, which means looking at smaller towns and perhaps even villages. I admit a bit of anxiety about future responsibilities is hovering like a dark cloud over my thoughts.
Today, I’m off to Brussels, for opera tomorrow night, and then a month in Morocco. I’ll see how various options sort themselves in my mind as I step away for a short while and reflect – and continue online searching.
Comments and opinions welcome!