Monday, 10 March 2014

The Doer-Upper becomes Le Bargain Hunter.

Le Sporting is an unassuming little cafe on St Tropez's famous Place des Lices.

Even at this time of the year it's packed from breakfast through to dinner, mainly with locals.

Pushing my way through the crowded smokers terrace at 7.30 in the morning I felt lucky to get a table, a coffee and a chance to read the paper in the warm.

What I didn't feel so happy about was the bill. €4.90 for a cafe au lait.

Even the grossly over priced Gail's (or any of London's top end cafe chains) wouldn't dare charge that.

At these prices, I wonder how the French can afford to live. Except of course that these are not your typical French. These are the tradesmen, shopkeepers, notaires, vignerons and local landowners who have got rich on the back of a once booming local property market.

Across the Place is a large branch of Credit Agricole where some of those sipping their small espressos around me probably have credit balances running into millions.

Others around me are looking somewhat less content. The estate agents in particular.

For them, the last couple of years have been unusually lean.

Monsieur Hollande and the Eurozone financial mess have combined to make a second home in Saint Tropez a luxury few can justify.

Buying the house is one thing, owning it is another.

There are myriad local and national taxes, astonishingly high building renovation costs, daft hourly rates for gardeners, cleaners and maintenance workers and frighteningly authoritarian government powers.

(If you think I joke about French government powers, procure a copy of British Airways' High Life. In this month's issue John Simpson recounts how five police kitted out in riot gear took a battering ram to the front door to his Paris flat when he owed the local mairie €220.)

Homes from €1m up to €10m where people need finance have been hardest hit. Getting a French mortgage was always incredibly difficult, now it's almost impossible. The amount of paperwork you need to supply beggars belief, and the hoops you need to jump through would test an Olympic athlete.

As a result, I've never seen local agents with so many houses on their books (in stark contrast to those around me in Chelsea).

That MUST mean there are bargains to be had. And that's why I'm here, in an almost closed up town in the cold and wet.

I spotted what looked a good opportunity online, asked my trusty ex-business partner Murray to take a quick peek and then, on his say so, headed down to check it out myself.

It's a truly horrible house. Very small at around 84 m2. Derelict really. Neither old enough to have any character, nor recent enough to have been well built.

The problems don't end there. It's in an 'agricultural zone' so you can only add 30% to its size. There's a busy road only 300 yards away. And most of the one acre garden is in fact a working vineyard (I don't drink).

So why would anyone fly the best part of 1000 miles, then drive for 90 minutes and check into a shockingly grotty hotel in a dark, empty town for the sake of seeing this clearly useless property.

Because it's a bargain. And you don't get bargains in St Tropez. Or, you didn't.

For all its downsides, the property is a mere 3 minutes from one of the most fashionable beaches in the world - Pampelonne. Le Club 55 is just down the road. It is a hop, skip and jump to the beautiful, unspoilt hill town of Ramatuelle. And it is in an area that, come summer, will be at the hub of a multi-millionaires' playground.

The busy road at the bottom of its drive is the Route des Plages, a beautiful, snaking, undulating, umbrella pine lined road off which little tracks lead down through thickets of bamboo to the 5km long beach.

Johnny Hallyday, the naughty boy French version of Cliff Richard, lives a few hundred yards across the fields behind high gates to keep out le riff raff. Across the road, there's the grand holiday home of a once famous fashion photographer and his ex-model wife. And hidden away on single file back roads only traversed by locals, the lavish homes of bankers, northern european royals and assorted cashed-out business folk are pampered and primped like the spoilt offspring of Oligarchs.

To buy even the most unattractive property on an acre of land in this area for under €1m would have been unthinkable only a couple of years ago. Indeed, this property first went on the market well over a year ago and at well over that price.

Now the owner has reduced his expectations by around 15%, and is unlikely to get even that.

Buying it is an exciting if daunting prospect, and I leave Saint Tropez with a sketch book full of ideas and a detailed renovation costing from Murray.

For less than £1m we could end up with a small but beautiful 3 or 4 bedroom house with a pool set amidst the vines in one of the most desirable locations on the Med.

BUT, and it's a very big 'but', as my plane bumps and judders its way back up towards Heathrow, I can't help wondering whether I can actually face the personal turbulence of owning another property in France.

The never-ending bureaucracy, the taxes, the unfriendly neighbours, the slow grind of the planning process, the arrogance of their building trades,the uncertainty of their property market and the €4.90 cafe au laits.

Le Petite Vigne, as Murray and I have named the property, might appear, on paper, to be a bargain. But is it really a bargain if it comes with a lot of problems?

Back in London the talk is of bubbles not bargains.

In a frenzied market where desperate young people are over-paying for everything, my chances of buying an investment property to do up are remote. (Even with one of the best buying agents on my side.)

And our six month personal search for a retreat in Somerset has only turned up lots of over-priced characterless shoe boxes.

So, what do I do? Write a piece for the blog, of course.