How to Buy a Home in France

Start out an ugly American who thinks France is a "once in a lifetime" destination and not a place where a freelance writer and a music teacher can afford to buy property. Smile and nod when your spouse returns from a trip abroad and announces, "We must own a house in the south of France!" even if you think he's nuts — and mistaken. Stand gape-mouthed and thrilled when he finagles a way to bankroll the purchase with a stateside loan, in order to avoid attempts at financing property in another country. Cheer. Begin packing.

Go to France. Be a person who has forgotten words like "condo" and "realtor." Practice saying "immoblier" and "village house." Know that an apartment is something an American lives in, and a maison is often something built before plaster and indoor plumbing were invented and therefore more desirable. Say, "I'd like something on a place." Say, "Who needs air conditioning with a view like this?" Claim to be overjoyed that your final choice is the former servants' quarters of the town's only celebrity: a 17th-century physician who authored an encyclopedia of mental illness.

Redecorate. Pretend to be amused that a cup full of interior latex house paint costs 30 Euros in France. Discover that junk shops in Provence are filled with hundred-year-old breakfronts and French Deco bedsteads at fire-sale prices, because in France they're just "old furniture." Tell your new neighbors, "We love that the electrical wiring is on the outside of the walls!" even if you don't. Remove from your new home four tons of taxidermied birds, broken appliances, and erotic novels left behind by the former owner. Say to yourself, "I thought crocheted toilet paper cozies were an American thing!" Try to convince yourself and your spouse that a leaky sky light is not a bad thing; it's a French thing. Learn to drink wine with breakfast.

Return to America. Practice answering dumb questions. Say, "Yes, they have running water in Europe. Also electricity and toilets." Say, "No, the French aren't awfully mean, so long as you don't expect them to speak English, approve of your politics, or claim responsibility for Celine Dion." Say, "I don't know how my chalet in Paris is, since I've never been to Paris, and am not really sure what a chalet is." Smile when people ask how you like living part-time in France and reply, "It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience."


Americans do this weird thing. Say the word "France" to them, and often they hear the word "Paris." Know the difference, and keep in mind that while Paris real estate is always pricey, homes in cities and towns in other parts of the country are often less expensive.

Learn a little French — and a little decorum. The French prefer that you begin any question with an apology, particularly if you're not French yourself. You may not like this, but on the other hand, will it kill you to say "Excuse me" before demanding to be shown a villa or two?

Forget all those snobby things you've learned about wine and when to drink it. The French, who know a thing or two about wine, buy it in cardboard boxes from the marche and in plastic jugs from a local vintner cave.

Dump the propaganda about the French not liking us. It's churlish and frankly inaccurate. Like all civilized people, the French dislike impolite clods, regardless of their nationality. Be respectful when you visit, and you'll be fine.

In some of the smaller villages of France, the maire (mayor) gets to decide whether you can buy the house you've put a bid on, and can weigh in on whether the asking price of the property is okay with him. Often this decision is based on whether he likes you or not. No one in France cares how you feel about this rule; it simply stands.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela