Four years ago, my wife Lynne and I sold our typical, modern estate house with a very small garden in a Cambridgeshire village to retire to France.
We had modest savings and, as I was then 63, I accepted that I would have to wait two years before I could claim my state pension. At the time of moving, our basic school French had only been marginally improved by our regular holidays to France.
Now four years later, we are French residents with no mortgages or loans and live in a large barn we had converted into a substantial home in Haute Vienne, central France.
It is located in a small hamlet on a gently sloping hillside above our own three-acre sheep meadow that leads down to a tranquil river bank below.
We built into our house a long, generous sized kitchen with a modern, roomy cooking area at one end, a large dining space with French oak table and chairs in the centre, with sofas around a large wood-burning stove at the other end.
As we were starting from scratch we made sure the house was fully insulated and we had it fitted with oak-framed double glazed windows throughout plus a modern heating system that includes four state-of-the-art solar panels on the roof to provide lots of free hot water.
Wherever possible, we have used local stone and seasoned oak on the renovations. This includes a wide oak staircase in the dining hall, a large solid oak front porch, polished oak flooring throughout the 1st floor and a traditional hand made stone fireplace plus over mantle.
We were also delighted to find an enormous pair of 200-year-old traditional French entrance doors on French eBay. Although we expected the bidding to go to well over 2,000 Euros, our final bid only needed to be 110 Euros to secure them. However, we had to travel across to the Gewurztraminer region of Alsace over a long weekend to fetch them.
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Investing in property abroad
In the four years since we arrived in France, we also managed to buy another dilapidated old stone building in the centre of a beautiful ancient hill-top village nearby. This now comprises two, newly renovated two bedroom apartments plus a shop on the ground floor. These are on 12-month rental contracts to French and British tenants to supplement my UK pension.
No, we are neither wealthy nor retired property developers. My career was in recruitment and my wife Lynne was a food scientist from the day she left university. Furthermore our experience of building was limited to the extension we had built onto our Cambridgeshire house many years ago.
While the barn conversion work was in progress, Lynne and I lived in a quaint stone-built cottage immediately next door, that was part of the original property purchase. This has since been fully updated and decorated and will soon be ready for long-term letting.
Getting to grips with the language
Through sheer necessity our French has improved considerably. This was entirely due to constant contact with our French builders and friends and neighbours, as we had neither the time nor the will to attend French lessons. Although in general, these are freely available in most towns and villages in France.
Since we moved here it has not all been plain sailing as we have had a few problems. Very early on, Lynne fell while painting and broke her wrist very badly. Only now is it starting to get back to normal. Also in the first year, our builder suddenly went into liquidation owing us money. This gave us an excellent opportunity to gain some understanding of aspects of French law and banking regulations.
In spite of these and other less serious set backs, there is no doubt in our minds that we have made the right decision and for now at least, there is no likelihood whatsoever of us returning to the UK. For both Lynne and I, it is an idyllic lifestyle with a standard of living we simply could not afford in the UK. We are also busy with plenty to do and we have made many friends and have charming French neighbours.
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However, we now realise that we have been very fortunate indeed. This is because we have come across a surprisingly large number of Brits who have made a decision to buy here that they have come to regret. Some may have simply bought the wrong house, or bought in entirely the wrong area. Some simply missed their many friends and family at home. Then there are some people who simply could not make the adjustments to life in France, for whatever reason.
Certainly if we had to start again, knowing everything we know now, we would have probably rented out our UK house and agreed to rent over here for at least a year or so. Renting in France outside major city centres is relatively cheap in comparison to the UK.
This means you can usually rely upon using the rental income from a UK house to more than pay your rent in France and to subsidise an extended holiday in France, to some extent regardless of the Euro to Sterling exchange rate.
Given the poor state of the UK property market, we regard that as an ideal state of affairs and an essential safeguard for would-be retirees to France.
Read our guide to safeguarding your UK home's value while you live abroad.