Househunters International

Over the last couple of months, we have been looking for a house to buy in our region of France. Our search area includes towns, villages and countryside between Carcassonne and Béziers.

For those of you who might be interested in what available property looks like in this part of France, we would like to share some of the notes and photos we took as we visited the properties.

Grazailles…
which is a neighborhood of Carcassonne. The location could be good because we could bike into the town center. The house was built in the 60s. Apparently, it has been empty for about 6 years, hostage to a messy divorce. It was in pretty bad repair, frankly ugly. Living space and so-called master bedroom are on the top floor, two other bedrooms on the ground floor. Large lot with a pool at the other end, all of which hasn’t been cared for for years. We could make the garden into something. The interior layout is pretty tight and ungainly. The more we have talked about it, we would need to gut the insides even to get something that might be OK. The house has character, just the bad kind! And no view, which we are realizing is a deal-breaker for us.

Montlegun…
which is a bedroom residential development just outside Carcassonne. Fresher tidier houses, but also very suburban. This house looks great inside and out in that it is clean and nicely cared for. There is a good paved area for the car in front and behind a gate. The outside pool / terrace area is excellent. There are three different covered areas around the pool, for dining table, sitting out, reading. The side yard could be garden and orchard. Inside, the house is pretty small. We would need to take down a couple walls to make a large enough open-plan living / dining / kitchen area. There is a garage space, although not used as a garage, which could be either a nice guest-room suite or even a new master bedroom. The construction is developer simple. It sits in the middle of the suburban development, lacking a little privacy. No landscape view.

Pomas…
which is a village about 15 minutes south of Carcassonne.
This one is about EUR150,000 over our budget, but the photos showed a beautiful large open-plan house, and the realtor said it was great, worth seeing. We all doubt it could be negotiated down to our budget, but who knows. It is really more of an estate than a house. You take a private wooded rural drive up the hill to the gate. Covered parking for two cars. The main house has a huge open-plan space from kitchen to fireplace living room, with walls of windows facing south to a glorious valley view. Master bedroom and bath upstairs. There is a two-bedroom guest building, and immense covered pool. Lots of land (how would we take care of all that?). Currently just a couple live there. The story the realtor told us was that a big-wig in Carcassonne, a bachelor, had built the house for himself and his extravagant parties. You can see how the living spaces would be perfect for big parties, as well as the massive pool. The views are stunning. Kitchen was pretty good too, with big fridge and lots of work space. The positive is that we could move right in and be in an amazing world out in the country from day one. It seemed a bit too remote from my point of view; Mike didn’t mind at all. We both thought it might be just too much to keep up. The pool alone is so large (no problem swimming laps!) that who knows what kind of money pit it would be as it ages. And, of course, it is far outside of our price range.

Cavayère
In a suburban development outside Carcassonne, walking distance from a pleasant recreational lake. The story is that the man who was building it unfortunately died before it was finished; that was about 3 years ago. The heir, his youngest son, wants to sell the house. When the owner passed away, the contractor and workers put down what they were working on, and left, which is how we find it now. The upstairs is about 1650 sf, and is about 3-months worth of work from completion as originally designed. The basement is huge and completely unfinished, including garage, and can fairly easily be fitted out as bedrooms or sitting room or whatever. Upstairs, the living / dining / kitchen area is a double-high space, with windows on all sides. All of the upstairs is planned to have under-floor heating, which would be very comfortable and fairly economical. We think that if we were to buy the house, and if we could afford it all, we would take some walls down on the main floor where there are now two bedrooms, and combine them into one master bedroom suite. We would finish the downstairs to include a guest suite at the very least. The way the house sits on the lot is unfortunate: there is no available south-side land; all the land for outside living, including a future pool, is down hill, to the north, much below the main living level. The lot is large, framed by neighbors’ walls on 2 sides, and forest on the other 2 sides; the adjacent woods will always be wooded and undeveloped. We very much would like some kind of landscape view, which this house doesn’t offer. From the perspective of the potential for nice interior living space for us, the main floor is quite good. The site, in the suburban neighborhood, is less so, and would take a lot of work and expense to start being OK. The current owner wants to sell, so perhaps there is a good deal available. Nonetheless, it seems that it will take more expense than our budget allows to finish the house to match our needs. And without the view we dream of!

Carcassonne
This is a farm house, sitting in the middle of agricultural fields and vineyards, on flat land within Carcassonne. It is a 30 minute walk to town and La Cité. Quite remarkable because it is in the country but also practically in the town: the balance we are looking for. It would take a major remodel, almost a gut, to open the quirky interior spaces to be usable for us, but the asking price is low, so we could probably afford a major renovation. The house has about 1500 sf inside. The rooms are moderately sized, with nice windows, including views of the fields around, and from one specific vantage, the towers of La Cité. The house is an agglomeration of three constructions, which means that there are many levels, with lots of 2 – 4 step transitions between rooms. But there are rustic beams and cottage-y details throughout. Even once opened up inside, it may feel too cozy. The house sits right up against the farm road, and the south part of the lot is a bit shallow, against another farm road. But these roads are just for the few farms and houses in this area. The north side of the lot (the entry side) is larger, with room to add a pool. The good news is that the size of the lot is manageable for us, but the parcel is quite open to the neighboring parcels and farm roads. The neighboring parcels are vineyards and farm fields, not close-by houses. The house is FULL of rustic character. We can both imagine making it very pleasant. But at the end of the day, it may feel more cramped than right-sized. Would living day-in and day-out with the quirky layout and up-and-down steps everywhere become comfortable or annoying?

Ventenac-Cabardès
The next house we have seen is the so-called bioclimatic house. It was built in the 1980s for a couple who wanted to have a self-sufficient, resource-efficient house. We spoke at some length with the original owner, a woman in her early 60s, I’d guess. She was still quite passionate about all the design elements and performance of the house. The plan is roughly a triangle, with big windows facing south, and thick walls and service rooms on the north side to protect from the winter cold. The south face has two layers of glass, like a narrow greenhouse. The geometry of the glass panels blocks the summer sun from entering the house proper, but lets the winter sun fully into the house. The greenhouse layer heats up in the winter, which in turn heats the rest of the house. The annual electrical bill is reportedly extremely low compared to typical houses and what we’ve experienced so far in our rented house. Many of the walls, including internal ones, are concrete, designed to hold heat or cool depending on the season. Rain water from the roof is collected for garden irrigation. An on-site well provides water for the toilets. Toilet and shower waste is pumped slightly uphill to the septic tank, which then leads to a planted tank that naturally cleans the effluent, which is then also used in the toilets. There is even an ancient (by solar industry standards) hot-water solar panel for domestic water. Abstractly, it is a fine example of integrated design from the wave of sustainable design in the 1970s and 80s.

The house sits on a lot of about an acre. There is a gravel drive from the village road, past stone walls and woods. The house sits down the hill, overlooking the rest of the valley with farm fields and vineyards. From a few spots on the site, we could see the silhouette of the Pyrenees between the trees. In addition to the main house, there is a little wood round bungalow, a ramshackle barn/garage, and a chicken coop! Being late summer, the lawn area was bone dry, but nice and open and sunny. There is a large wood terrace to the south of the house, with one large shade tree.

But! The spaces inside the house were very tight, with low ceilings in the kitchen and master bedroom mezzanine. I would hit my head every day in that mezzanine bedroom area. Nicely quirky floor plan, which is fun. Open plan with kitchen, dining and living. The living room part is double height, with a fireplace, which unfortunately blocks some of the south windows. Nice large bathroom with big windows. And three small bedrooms, all of which are separated by concrete walls. We stood in these spaces, imagining what we might be able to do to update the house and make it feel less cramped. With all those concrete walls, not much to do except new kitchen cabinets and new finishes.

The house and the land made both of us think of a woodsy hippy retreat in Northern California, one that has seen many years. There are a lot of raw materials, unfinished surfaces, cracks and open joints. Fascinating that such a place exists here among the French vineyards. But not quite our cup of tea.

Pailhès
This is a vintner’s house, including ground floor working area with old vats. The current owner has completely renovated the living floors and the courtyard. He is obviously a man of elaborate good taste, a collector. Each floor of the house has four rooms, all organized around the central stair. He managed to create a feeling of openness and flow between the rooms, and even between the floors. He transformed the attic into a spacious master bedroom / master bath suite with a terrace with a grand view. We have to imagine the house without all his art, objects and furniture. The courtyard is quite large and nicely appointed, but without a pool. It feels completely comfortable, but it also is walled all around, without connection to the country views that we could see from some of the rooms of the house.

Magalas
Another vintner’s house. In this case, much of the original detail remains, without much major renovation. It is a big house, with lots of rooms and a central hallway. We could imagine how we might use the house if we were able to connect some of the rooms, to renovate the kitchen and open it to the adjoining room and the terrace. This house doesn’t have views except to some of the village. The outdoor space is one level below the main living floor, walled in by the house, its barn and neighbors’ stone walls. If we were to add a pool, it would be down at the bottom of the walled court. The property does include an immense empty barn which probably doubles the available inside area. But what to do with that?!

Villerouge-Termenès
Mike and I both are taking French language lessons now. Our teachers are a very charming and kind couple, Jeff and Valérie, who live and work in La Cité. You saw Jeff in our blog about the tour of the La Cité, with Jeff in medieval garb. When they learned that we are looking for a house to buy, he told us about a little village house that he is trying to sell. The price is about a third of our budget! But it is in a very remote and tiny village. We drove the hour through lovely vineyard and mountain countryside to view the house. The village does have a renovated medieval castle and a 13th century church, and even a café. But that is about all. Really tiny and rustic. If we lived and worked in a city in the region, it would be a fun little escape place.

Saint-Geniès-de-Fontédit
Beautiful pristine renovation. Great transformation of a barn without windows. But, very contained feeling since the windows are only on one side. A bit of a view, but not as much as we are looking for. Nice village location. In summary, too small and contained for us, without the view.

Cazouls
What a house – for a family of 8! Fascinating. Great character house details, pool and land. But, just too much house for the two of us. In addition, the living spaces are separated from the pool and garden areas by the vast barn structure. The house’s being situated on the main street was OK because the living spaces face the garden side. Too much house for us.

Murveil
Fascinating. A village character house that is not quite so large and has a nice terrace level right off the living spaces. The fact of the large salon to the right of the entrance is nice, with windows on both sides. The kitchen is pleasantly fitted out although too small for what we envision; we need to think about how to enlarge or relocate it. We can imagine turning the first floor into a large master suite, or alternatively the top floor with its tall ceilings. The state of finishes in the house now is unremarkable, rather sloppy, so our renovations would include many new finishes. While there is room to add a pool in the lower garden, the fact of crossing the access easement as well as the exposure of the pool area to the neighboring houses requires some more thinking on-site. The price is good, allowing renovation works. The view is pleasant but not the bigger view we are looking for. In summary, this may need a second viewing, especially to consider the terrace and garden areas.

Faugères
This one definitely offers the big view that we’re looking for. Other good attributes: open plan inside, tall ceiling in the living room, fireplace, generous windows, covered terraces, the big pool, the studio next to the large garage, the terraced land. The pool looks like it will need some refinishing soon, as does the pool terrace. The kitchen does not have enough counter or work surface, and it is not obvious how to add more counters. The master bedroom is small, although the window is nice. The upstairs rooms have great views; one would probably make a good writing room. The view of the distant Mediterranean is undeniably very nice; we would really like a view of the mountains rather than the horizons line of the sea. In summary, almost a good fit for us, but the kitchen and master bedroom areas are too small, the view is not quite right for us, and the price is too high.

Cazalhac
This is a gut and fixer-upper. Our French language teacher referred us to another real estate agent. The story was that the woman who owns the agency is also part of the municipality, so she has a large network. We set up an appointment to meet her. When we arrived, her staff said that she was out at a different appointment, and we were directed to a different agent. We explained what we are looking for, and he said that there was just one house that fit the bill, and it needed a lot of work. We arranged to meet the next day at the house.

When we arrived, the agent explained that in fact this house belonged to him. It was the house he grew up in. His father had died a few years before, after which his mother needed to move to a retirement facility. The house had been sitting idle for a few years. We discovered a half-acre site completely overgrown with trees and brambles. Through the brush, we could see a pleasant view across a valley and purportedly to the Pyrénées. The house, open to the elements, contained piles of debris. The agent explained that the structure of the house, including the roof beams, was all concrete, so the shell is robust. Everything else, including building systems, needs to be replaced. If one is interested in a quirky (very quirky) house and a lot of renovation, this might hit the mark. Hiding among the aggressive growth on the site is a large pool, which the agent and his family are using; they live in the house next door. The village where the house is located is not particularly attractive, although it is only about 4 km from Carcassonne. We suspect that the realtor tries with every new customer to see if someone will take on the renovation of his family home! Alas, not us. (We didn’t take photos of the brambles because we were a little overwhelmed with the uniqueness of the house!)

Caux-et-Sauzens
About 8 years ago, a retired Scottish couple built this house with a pleasant terrace, pool and view, next to a small village about 5 minutes from Carcassonne. The house looks as if it was finished last week, such is their care and approach to maintenance. This is at least the third house that they have built over the years, so it is quickly apparent that they were very thoughtful in many details of the house, making it immediately comfortable and livable. The husband was an engineer before he retired. He was delighted to show us many details of the electrical system. They both have kept extensive records of every step of the design and construction of the house, and of every single appliance and piece of equipment. They showed us all the utility records. They explained that their builder had wanted to try a new, higher-performance insulation system, which the builder paid for; the result is impressively low electric bills (like a third of what we are paying in our current house). What struck us the most was the view. There are large windows in all the rooms, opening the house to views of the vineyard next door, the rolling hills in the middle distance, and the Pyrénées in the far distance. The house is not as large as most that we’ve seen so far, so feels like a good scale for the two of us. It is most definitely a new house; while very nicely laid out and proportioned, if you don’t look out the windows, the house could be anywhere. But once we look out the windows, we are most definitely in some beautiful French countryside. This is the first house that we think we would enjoy living in!

Caune-Minervois
There is so much in the Caunes house that matches our list. And yet at the end of the day, we both feel it isn’t yet the house for us. The view is lovely, for sure, but we really want to see the mountains. The fact that the house faces east rather than south makes us concerned about what it will be like in the winter. There is plenty of space in the house. We would want to create a larger master bedroom. But, all in all, this house doesn’t feel right for us.

Pierrerue
Extraordinary view high above the village of St-Chinian. The layout of the house is compact, with living / dining / kitchen / porch areas arrayed along the view side, and bedrooms and bathrooms on the back side, facing up the hill. The kitchen is large, with a nice window facing the view; we would need to open the wall between it and the living / dining area for openness. The current owners have added a pool which tucks into the hill and enjoys the tremendous view. One of the current owners is an artist who has added distinctive sculptures to the house. The house is located high up a hill off of a rural road, and is not part of a village. The view and the setting are stupendous, while the interior of the house feels cramped. As long as we are living outside, this could be a wonderful place. But what would it be like through the colder months?

One thought on “Househunters International”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s