Making a living from properly in Provence is no picnic
warns Rosie Millard
UK Sunday Times
It might stem from a career in advertising. Believing the glossy ads, that is. Because that's what happened to Anne Froggatt. A former account director for Saatchi and Saatchi, she chucked in her job looking after the marketing for Dixons five years ago in order to get into the French holiday rental market. And guess what? She found it much tougher than the spiel implied it would be. Readers, if you are considering putting everything in la poubelle and heading off for la belle vie, read, mark, learn and digest.
"We'd had a small house in the Lubéron in Provence for five years. And we decided to move down there permanently," says Froggatt, whose husband Paul also suspended his job as a management consultant. "We thought it would form a good basis of a lettings business."
You can see the thought process: the Froggatts owned a nice house in Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, which was worth quite a lot. They also had a little maison, rented out to friends. She spoke good French. Crucially, they had heard of a market niche for golden oldies.
"We started looking for another house to add to the portfolio. And one for us to live in." And the problems began. First, their grand plan (all right, I'll cut the bilingual gag) coincided with a property boom in Provence.
"Prices were moving fast, particularly for small houses with a pool, or room for a pool, which is crucial. Finding a house took much longer than we had thought, and we couldn't find one for ourselves in our budget, so we decided to build."
Being unable to put up shelves, for me this seems madness. But the Froggatts applied themselves to building a three-bedroom house, with pool, with innocent gusto. Of course, it was much more expensive than they had thought, it took far longer than planned; French builders take six weeks off in summer, and so on. "Plus, we were still working back in England, so we couldn't attend to the building as much as we should have done," she says. They had estimated the work would take a year: in the end it took two.
We then tried to establish two businesses. One: the rentals. Two: a bespoke tour operating business, liaising with auberges and hotels offering holidays where visitors could see the real Provençal life," says Froggatt. Astonishingly for somebody who had worked at the sharp end in Britain, she was surprised at how much advertising and marketing cost. "We had set aside £10,000 per annum. We needed at least twice that," she admits. "We struggled to establish ourselves in a closed shop."
Official bodies such as the Association of British Travel Agents won't take on newcomers until they have at least three years' worth of accounts to show, plus there are thousands of websites to choose from. Factor in the Iraqi war, which has already cost them four cancelled bookings from nervous Americans, and you can imagine spirits aren't too high in the Froggatt household.
Still, the two houses, at about £900 a week in summer, are both full for the peak season. And the French have been friendly (never a dead cert). Yet Froggatt would like to pass on some advice for anybody hoping to buy .tQ rent in the French countryside.
First, go to your chosen area a lot before you buy..
"We didn't realise how parochial estate agents are. Their catchment areas are tiny, and agents are not very proactive. Well, they're not proactive at all, and never keep your details on file. Plus, we didn't realise prices would go up so fast."
Because it took such a long time establish themselves, the Froggatts ate further into their capital than planned, and needed to keep working back in England for longer than they thought, which prolonged the agony.
Equally, had they foreseen how prices would rocket so fast back at home, they probably would not have sold. "I wish we had rented the house in Henley. That was a mistake."
Other tips: greed is not good. Don' buy anything enormous, warns Froggatt. "And people on holiday do not want to mow the lawn. You will need to manage the property yourself Don't buy anything too remote; you want to keep your house secure and holiday-makers want to be in or near a village. Building was a terrible option, too. "It kept us out of the market for a very long time."
And be realistic. "Look at what similar properties are being rented out for. Don't think you will get your house away for £1,000 a week, just because you love it. The French year is highly seasonal. You need to factor in voids from October to March, and the houses need to be maintained. One winter we had a massive leak, which went undetected." Until the sitting room wall fell down, that is.
Wow. Sounds like a bundle of laughs. Doing it with your husband, as well. "Yes, we have had massive arguments," says Froggatt cheerily. She's gutsy, though. "Ifs still France it's still very beautiful, and when the sun is out it's marvellous." Does she regret making such a life change? "I would have absolutely planned things differently with the benefit of hindsight, however, I don't regret anything. But you need to be resilient. Watch this space!"
The Froggarts' houses and holidays can be viewed at www.real-provence.com or www.geocities.com/luberonmaisons