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But the extraordinary phenomenon of this area is that you don’t have to be a millionaire to get your slice of the Riviera, especially if you are a fan of urban living. It’s true there is a vast selection of villas and old farm houses in the hills behind Nice that are worth many millions of dollars, but if you want to buy a well presented apartment in Nice itself, just minutes from the beach, your budget wouldn’t need to go much over $180,000.
One American who has made a success of his property purchase in Nice is 54-year old Gordon Scales from San Antonio in Texas. He bought a tiny apartment in a 350-year old building in 1998 in the incredibly picturesque Old Town with its narrow winding streets and tall Italianate apartment buildings. Gordon says it’s not the place for every American as it’s still a little bohemian and very urban. But it’s the life and vibrancy of the Old Town with its many restaurants, shops and services, just a 3 minute walk from the beach that has entranced and delighted him for the last 8 years. Gordon who’s a physics lecturer when he’s back in the US says he loves the sense of history and culture associated with living in such an old city and he highlights the strong sense of community that comes with a town where everyone has to walk. He also made the point that he feels much safer walking through the dimly lit streets of the old town at one in the morning than he does in San Antonio.
But Gordon does warn potential buyers from the US that if you don’t make an effort to learn at least the basics of the language and try to integrate it can be a difficult transition. But he adds there’s lots of help available for new American buyers with a large expatriate community and clubs like the English-American Bridge club, the English-American library and a vast array of social gatherings all year round.
Gordon’s experience is fairly atypical of most Americans who purchase property in the South of France. The vast majority of buyers from North America are looking for bigger more luxurious villas or apartments and according to the British mortgage bank Abbey National, although US purchasers account for only 2 per cent of international buyers on the Riviera they are still the biggest spenders averaging 229,000 euros on a property. The average price for British buyers is 142,000 euros, but the Brits account for around 40 percent of foreign buyers in the whole of France and that figure is even higher in the South.
The Brits have been the most vociferous buyers in the South of France for the last 6 years due mainly to the birth of a number of highly successful low cost airlines in England and Ireland that dump 40 planeloads of British sun seekers onto the shores of the Cote d’Azur every day. Buyers from other countries are reaping the benefits of the “British invasion” as the city of Nice has seriously cleaned up its image over the last 5 years because of pressure from the mainly middle class buyers who want a safer, tidier, cleaner environment. The Council is updating old streets with new pedestrian friendly areas, a new state-of-the-art tram line will begin services by early 2006 and the city’s police force has been told to be more sympathetic to the concerns of foreigners and expatriates living in the area like English couple Peter and Sue Corbett.
They came to Nice in early 2005 and started looking for property after cheap flights started from Liverpool in the UK to Nice. Their search was facilitated by the biggest selling web-based agency for the Nice area – a London company called totallyNice. Peter said: “the key to buying in France without complications is to get an English or American based agent who knows the area well and is looking out for your interests”. totallyNice found just what the Corbetts wanted and they ended up buying a top floor apartment in a 300-year-old building in the old town of Nice for €81,000 (£55,000) Peter said: “We plan to use it for holidays and to let friends and family use it. We bought it for pleasure, not as an investment, but still hope for some increase in value”. The latest French real estate statistics show that the Corbetts will probably see a 15 to 20 percent rise in their investment over the next year.
But it’s the American invasion that is getting many agents very animated. They say the South of France is seeing many more Americans enquiring about property over the last twelve months. US clients are returning to the Riviera in ever growing numbers following the slump in tourism following 9/11. Many financial analysts in the region claim the next property invasion will be from North America. There is certainly a lot more Americans in the streets of Nice, Cannes, Monico and St. Tropez than there has been for years. And the welcome mat is certainly out for tourists from the US. There is still a great affection in the South for Americans who in many ways reinvented the Cote d’Azur in their own image at the turn of the last century starting with the American railroad magnate Frank Jay Gould who single handedly opened up the summer season in Juan-les-Pins and built the magnificent Palais de la Mediterranee in Nice. He was followed by the likes of F.Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway and in later years the jazz greats from the US made their second homes on the Riviera. In one famous incident the American millionaires, Gerald and Sara Murphy, persuaded the Hotel du Cap on the Cap d'Antibes to stay open for their partying entourage in the summer of 1926 - something it had never done before. In more recent times the likes of Ivana Trump have bought on the Riviera and the Microsoft Billionaire Paul Allen has taken to spending more and more time in the South of France using his yacht, the largest in the Port of Antibes, as his base.
The region's ability to remain on the A-list with so many people is partly the result of its beauty. From the deep blue of the Mediterranean to the glamorous cities and medieval hilltop villages, the French Riviera is hard to resist, and many more tourists are buying property after their third or fourth visit.
One of the Riviera’s most successful property finders, Francois Haury from totallyNice.com, says the market across the entire Riviera is still very buoyant and is set to remain so for the foreseeable future. He claims this is due to the requirements of foreign buyers who are very specific about what they want – mostly based on a romantic idea of the Cote d’Azur and its old stone farmhouses and 1000 year-old hill villages. They also want their ‘perfect’ property to be close to the region’s only international airport in Nice.
Mr. Haury says
“this means there is a limited supply of prestige and picturesque properties
available that fit the criteria of foreign buyers and supply and demand
means prices will keep rising as these romantic old properties become more
difficult to find.” He adds “this has forced a change in the expectations
of many North American and British buyers who realize the difficulty of
finding their ‘dream’. They are now looking at new-build projects and more
modern apartment developments up and down the coast”. There has been massive
growth in this sector of the market with some parts of the coast transformed
into permanent building sites.
In the last 4 years the Riviera property Market has seen annual growth of around 15 percent a year, which makes it one of the fastest growing markets in Europe. It seems more and more people are convinced that the French Riviera is the place to put down some roots or just buy a holiday home. The reasons for this are many and varied, but most buyers interviewed for this article cite the lifestyle, the rich cultural life, the beaches, the ease of getting around and security. As more and more destinations in the sun have become no-go areas due to international terrorism many buyers say they feel safe and secure in a part of France that has never been touched by the bomb or the bullet.
But as in all areas of the world being a foreign buyer comes with its own inherent problems, so you have to be careful, but a good agency will help you avoid any possible pitfalls, steer you through the bureaucracy and make the buying experience a pleasant one. With that in mind there are a few Golden Rules for buying in France.
1. Find an agency with fluent English speaking sales staff. Some of the biggest problems faced by foreign buyers are misunderstandings caused by not knowing the local vernacular.
2 Talk to the agents you want to deal with before you travel or wish to start looking at properties. You’ll quickly get a sense of their professionalism over the phone if they can answer your queries about the local property market in detail.
3. Do your research. Have a good understanding of the region and a fairly good idea of where and what you want to buy. This will help both the agents and yourself in securing the exact apartment or house you want without spending days sitting in a car seeing hopelessly inappropriate properties.
4. Ask for references. If an agency is doing a good job for its English speaking clients they should be able to send you the details of a least 3 happy clients who can tell you all about their purchase and the agency you wish to work with.
5. Get a good Notaire. A Notaire is a peculiarity in the French property market. He’s a semi-government appointee who trains for seven years to deal with every intricacy of your property purchase. The Notaire is essentially a property lawyer who makes sure that there are no debts associated with the property and that a freeway is not going to be built through your living room in five years time. He also administers the now mandatory search for asbestos, termites and lead in the apartment. A good Notaire will hold your hand as an independent party in the transaction. A bad one can be arrogant and off-hand. Technically as an independent party the Notaire can act for both sides in the transaction but it’s always advisable to get your own and it doesn’t cost you any more.
6. And last – come with an open mind. France and many of its buildings have been around in one form or another for a thousand years. Unless you’re spending over 1 million euros don’t expect to find 200 square foot bathrooms or large American fridges. A tip from the most savvy property buyers in Europe – the British – cute and old are always the best investments.
There is no
doubt that the South of France has become one of the leading real estate
markets in Europe and it's easy to see the attraction. There is something
for everyone on the Cote d’Azur - medieval hilltop villages, magnificent
and awe inspiring geography, great beaches and famous people and movie
stars on every corner. You could travel the length of the Riveria in two
hours if you take the motorway. But this compact package holds more money,
more spectacular sights and more fantastic real estate than almost anywhere
in the world.