Before my reccy, the original vision of what I wanted was a Maison de Maitre style house in a village, with amenities in very short walking distance. This all changed after viewing more than fifty properties across the South of France. Largely due to availability, budget and location. I've attached a few pics below - some that made the shortlist as well as some of Pincardel.
We were looking to buy somewhere as a longterm family bolt hole. We had always rented so wanted somewhere we could call our own. Somewhere we could improve year on year and create wonderful memories in. France isn't a place for property investment. We know we won't make any money on it. It is a lifestyle choice and a longterm one at that. Given this and through speaking to agents, locals, visiting different types of properties and staying overnight in many of the areas (to really get a feel for the location) we narrowed our wish list to:
- A pretty house with a big garden
- Ideally with a nice driveway approach.
- Privacy - Can run around in swimwear and not worry about being overlooked
- No close neighbours - not hearing their noise and not worrying about making our own.
There's nothing worse than feeling you can't be free in your own home.
- Close to amenities
- Views in all directions
- Swimming pool, ideally surrounded/overlooked by the house
- Multiple entertaining areas
- Spacious house so you don't get on top of each other.
- At least 4 bedrooms
- Big kitchen with room to entertain whilst cooking
- Quiet, not heaving with tourists passing your door or driving though the village all the time
- Not requiring major work
- Safe - not on busy road and gated.
- In cycling distance to a boulangerie
- Lots of things to do for children and adults in the area
- A place the kids will still come to when they are older
- Longterm family project we can improve year on year - Not requiring too much work (structural etc)
- IN BUDGET.
In terms of Maison de Maitres - I found that most villages/towns only had one of these big manor houses so there wasn't a lot of stock available. They were largely on or close to the primary busy village road and had smaller gardens. Those for sale tended to be complete renovation jobs which would have involved chucking a lot of money at the situation and being there, on the ground, to manage contractors.
Anyone that has watched 'Escape to the Chateau' will know how tricky renovation projects are. Granted, the properties featured on that show are far larger but the adage remains true - think of a renovation budget and then double it. These undertakings only really work if you are moving to France permanently, with sacks of cash, lots of time, little other commitments, lots of prior experience in ground up renovations, and are able to do lots of the work yourselves (electrician and builder by trade). Even then it is a hard graft. The costs to run and maintain a property are huge - which is why so many on the programme end up hosting weddings and other events to make ends meet.
I found two Maison de Maitres that I could have compromised our wish list for. However, putting my sensible hat on (or rather listening to the husbeast) we discounted both of those.
One was located near Amou and coincidentally owned by a couple living in Hong Kong. The lawn in front of the house was open to a busy village road which didn't scream privacy or tranquil but you could walk to the nearest village in about ten minutes. My husband didn't find the local area that pretty but further afield (50 mins) was Pau, which is a beautiful large town with lots of shops and restaurants. Champagne and oysters for Sunday brunch were definitely available there! Biarritz was 1.5 hours away and although a beautiful costal town it was absolutely dead when I visited in the off season and the absolute opposite the summer- overrun with tourists. The surf there was also more lively.....great for kite surfers but perhaps not so suitable for families with young children. Orthez was just 15 mins away but felt more industrial (from memory) and had a really gassy smell from a plant there. This carried. It may have changed now but at the time you could really feel it in the air when you drove into the town. This house was a complete waste of time since it turned out that it (and the barn) required a whole new roof (a hugely expensive issue that they failed to disclose and actively fibbed about).
The other house I fell in love with was in Eymet. A lovely village. We happened upon it whilst driving to another viewing and responded to the direct to owner advertisement plaque outside. We went in blind, not knowing their asking price. Stunning property complete with so many original features. After the viewing we went to one of the local bars/restaurants in the village to await their asking price. We were able to gather the local intel and found out that the house was actually located near a rather smelly farm and that a new waste disposal site was being built nearby which wouldn't help matters either. We also stayed the night at a B&B in the village and learnt that in peak season the village was inundated with tourists with festivals going on all night. This made it very noisy, lots of rubbish to clear and residents complained of people even urinating in the streets. Although we love lively places this wasn't going to be right for our family, who want to be able to dip in and out of the action. Oh yes, and the asking price came in at double our budget! Minor detail.
So it was very clear that if I wanted a Maison de Maitre I needed to be flexible with the smaller garden, more noise and less privacy..... and needed to win the lottery. Not only to buy the darn thing but to afford the taxes and upkeep. The search went on.....
Driving across the South of France it was very apparent that in the off season some villages are literally like ghost towns. Everything boarded up and nothing going on at all. Very eerie in the off season. Despite that every village was extremely well kept and often adorned with flower boxes. The French are so proud of their surroundings and it's so lovely to see (huge contrast to HK where the culture is very much 'someone else will clear it up').
I had this idea that every village would have a bakery, butcher etc and it would be quintessentially French and quaint. You'd be able to walk to everything. The reality is that in modern times lots of the smaller businesses have closed and it is the norm to jump in your car to seek the amenities you require. I also hadn't appreciated how large France was! Coming over from HK, which is so buzzing, where the furthest place away is only ever two hours. It's a different pace of life and proposition altogether. A balance needed to be struck. We needed a peaceful and quiet domaine with lovely views, yet not remote.
We saw so many stunning properties and villages on our travels but really wanted to find an area that had things going on all year round. This took us West, to the Occitanie region.
I found a brilliant agent who had recently made the move permanently to France, from the UK, with their children. They had also done the hard yards and looked at properties all over the South of France and come to the same conclusion - that the Aude provided the best of everything for families and holiday go-ers. We viewed numerous properties but fell in love with Pincardel. It ticked every box, although slightly more than we wanted to pay...but isn't that always the case?!?! It didn't require much work, or so we thought. Since buying it we have had to tackle some issues. We have ended up spending a fair amount on things we hadn't planned on - like fixing the electrics, floor issues, water, swimming pool, new boiler and heating system and barn roof....which has put back some of our plans. Never a truer phrase spoken than 'buyer beware'. But I believe in karma.....I'll leave that there.
So what is it about Pincardel?
Quiet and private:
The magical view of the Pyrenees makes us smile every time we make the journey.
Pincardel is located off a quiet village road which does not have much traffic or noise. We have a long driveway which leads to a secure and gated property with lots of parking.
Characterful yet modernised:
A former winery, the house has lots of character and retains some key features whilst benefiting from being modernised throughout. The pulley remains attached to the side of the house, a wine press as decoration in the garden (behind the pool) and the original wine vats embedded into the walls of the dining room.
Close to amenities:
Just 2.6km away is the village of Alaigne. A new art gallery, run by our house manager, has just opened up there and the village has a brilliant bakery and post office, which we cycle to almost every morning with the kids. I know it's not exemplary parenting to bribe your kids with treats to exercise but I'll do anything for a quiet life. They love it really. There are lots of recycling points available in Alaigne too. Another thing France does well - keeping litter off the streets.
A few more minutes on from Alaigne is Belveze du Razes. This has a bank, bar, butchers, bakers, spa, little playground, convenience store, newsagents, police station, pizzeria, winery, pharmacy, and doctors. In-between the two, at Routier, is a riding stables. Fifteen minutes from the house is Limoux, twenty five minutes to Mirepoix and forty minutes to Carcassonne - a UNESCO world heritage site (provided the inspiration for the Disney castle). I could wax lyrical on things to do there but that's for another blog.... or four.
Pincardel is set within 12 acres of land providing privacy, peace, beautiful views (in all directions) and lots of space to run around in and explore. Céline, a local horse trainer, keeps her horse and pony on our land. They rotate through the fields and act as our lawn mowers. Her mare, is due to give birth at the end of this month so we are all very excited to meet her foal!
Room for guests:
We have five bedrooms plus an annex room and lots of entertaining areas - from a large kitchen, with island, leading onto an outdoor deck with seating area and a dining table and chairs, front porch decking, covered barn with more seating, lawn with seating area, large sitting room with door onto the garden and a large dining room with double doors onto the garden. A tree swing, pool, lawn and a lower games paddock. With all this space you don't get on top of each other. Children can run around, be free, and make as much noise as they like without the worry of upsetting the neighbours. This was also really important to us since we travel long haul from HK and need to get over jet lag in our own way whilst entertaining. As much as we all love family and friends I think we can all relate to needing our own space.
Pincardel has that, in abundance.
Pincardel has a pool is set within the main lawn which is overlooked by the dining room, sitting room and covered barn area. You don't have to walk ages from the house to access it so you can sit and eat in the barn and still keep an eye. It is great for family gatherings and when not in use we have one of those electric roll pool covers for safety.
So much to do:
There is so much to do in and around the area. From restaurants, beach clubs, cycling, watersports, horse riding, wineries, caves, castles, markets, lakes, picturesque villages etc...So much so that I've created some PDF guides that are available on our website (French and English versions). These has been created from gathering research from many online sources and personal experiences. When I say a lot of things to do.....I really do have you covered.....I think I've written over 57 pages so far!! This, again, was a big pull to the region for us....the fact that there is so much to do. In a few hours you can drive to Spain, in an hour or so you can reach the beaches of the Med or the ski slopes of the Pyrenees. The later being a huge selling point. As our children grow up (and inevitably try and be 'too cool for school') and pretend they don't want to hang with their parents we believe our location will compel them to spend time with us. I have yet to hear of anyone turn down a free ski holiday. Our cunning plan anyway. I'll report back in a few years to see how that one is going!
My to-do list for the house and garden is huge. Some things have had to be put on the back burner since the priorities are always going to be key structural, functional and maintenance issues, which are ongoing overheads and 'must haves'. We've certainly had to tackle a few issues from afar that we hadn't planned for. But such is life and is what credit cards are for, apparently.
One day I'd like to add another bathroom downstairs and potentially add an internal staircase from the barn to the house to link them. A proper stable block in the field would also be a nice addition and perhaps enlarge the pool. France has strict planning regulations and lengthy applications processes so these things are 'nice haves' for the future when we have the time, headspace and budget to bring them to fruition. They will also all add to our tax bill, which is already eye watering. France does love a tax.
More tangible and shorter term 'wants' include adding an outdoor pizza oven, zip lines across the valley, updating and adding more furniture, installing a fire pit at the top of the valley and also revamping the annex. And I do love a cushion....so I'm sure I'll be buying even more of those, much to the chagrin of my husband. Slowly, slowly, catchy monkey.
The reality is however is that these things get bumped to the bottom of the list for practical and priority 'must have' items such as an extra set of mattress protectors for every bed. Not a very exciting purchase, but necessary.
I have a constant internal battle with myself over these things. In an ideal world I'd love to do everything now. I'm impatient and tenacious (in my next blog I'll chat about what we achieved in the first two weeks spent at the property) but money does not grow on trees and it has been tough these past 18 months, due to covid, so I'm having to be sensible and manage the to-do list accordingly. It's a long game after all.
I'm looking forward to sharing our updates and progress with you!
Have a great week.