Making Your European Dream House a Reality
You’ve got the dream—Provence, Tuscany, Paris, Rome—now it’s time to tackle the details
by Don Wallace
There is a line by a poet that only gains in resonance with the passage of years: “In dreams begin responsibilities.” This has always been true for my wife and me in our dreams of becoming writers. We wrote, we applied for jobs, we scrambled. Finally, we moved to New York City from California (me) and Hawaii (Mindy).
Mindy and I were a bit long in the tooth to be holding down entry level magazine jobs at age 32, but we didn’t let that stop us. What did almost stop us was buying a ruin on a tiny island off the coast of Brittany. There’s a lot to be said about our state of mind and curious powers of reasoning—and in fact I wrote a book about it—but what I’d like to talk about here is the fine print, the details, the workarounds and life-hacking that you will need if you pursue your own dream of an overseas house or apartment.
There are several ways, in books anyways, where one comes into possession of a fine foreign property (or not so fine, as in our case). In the mode of Peter Mayle and A Year in Provence, an uncle kindly puts one in his will. In others stories I’ve come across, one’s grandmother or employer sends one on a mission to sort out somebody or something and suddenly there’s a house involved.
We will deal in reality here. Houses don’t fall from trees.
How you settle on a location I will leave up to you. Most people, I would guess, have a “dream house” in the back of their heads. Who or what put it there—books, uncles, movies, the handsome hunk who pulls your latte—hardly matters, except, well, it does. You will want to ask yourself: Do I want the beach? The mountains? Fields of lavender? A vivid city scene with cultural amusements? Do I want to be alone on a farmhouse with doves and pigs for company? How close to a major airport is it? Will my spouse./partner really want to spend holidays here?
It’s also good to ask yourself the kinda-crazy questions, such as, Is there a war on? Did some toxic event just happen nearby? Did the economy fail? A volcano erupt? And, more commonly, did the country just instate a punishing tax on foreigner investment, or, as in the case in Mexico for years, make it impossible for foreign nationals to hold legal title?
Suffice to say, you need to do a little general research (the more you read the better equipped you’ll be) and start looking for experts, books, and friends who have specialized knowledge or experience. (Let’s not be shy: The French House is one such book.)
Almost everyone who reads this or chases the great dream will soon be consulting real estate listings. All will either end up employing an agent or, in our case, benefiting from the friendship of an opinionated Frenchwoman who does the boots-on-the-ground searching. We had Gwened. My first piece of advice: Find your Gwened.
Getting an overseas friend involved on your behalf works on several levels. First, your friendship deepens (I hope) with a common dream. Second, your friend is knowledgeable, speaks the language, has contacts, and can do reconnaissance in person. This means you won’t spend the equivalent of a down payment on fruitless searches. Third, if you have a friend, then you’ve pre-qualified your dream. In our experience of 35 years of tiny-island-house ownership, it helps to have some roots in your future second homeland.
Still, don’t quit just because you’re parachuting in. Do budget extra time for cultural misunderstandings and searches for competent professional help. And keep looking for that Gwened person, even after you’ve locked on-target with your dream house. To own a piece of another country is a long, slow, process of ripening—of relationships, especially.
However—spoiler alert coming!—don’t pick the wrong Gwened. Ours nearly was. Although she put us into her village, the house she chose had serious problems, some of which she didn’t reveal. To be fair, Mindy and I were pretty dreamy when it came to the island, Belle Ile, and the village. We would’ve ignored Gwened if she’d said don’t do it—I think. But you have to keep your head and not yield every decision to your local representative, sales agent, master builder, and so forth.
Before you buy, do these things: look at the land plat that usually will be registered in the local mayor’s office; have someone look at it who speaks the language and has legal competency (or good local knowledge, such as Gwened) and who will search for any easements, restrictions, and commercial zoning issues next-door and nearby; have that same person listen to the local gossip as well as chat up the mayor or the bartender next door, all with an hear to assessing the character of the house/apartment and its village/neighborhood.
What to look for (details): 1. Zoning for agricultural use. Our house is on a communal threshing ground. We actually did inquire to make sure our farmers wouldn’t be dumping huge stacks of wheat and rye and feed corn at our front door. 2. Zoning for commercial use. If your neighbor can open a pizzeria, you had better like pizza—or look elsewhere. 3. Composition of the populace in your area, as in a lot of foreign owners. Your dream will seem less special if you buy into a village or building full of Germans, Swiss, or British (even decades after Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and others of the Lost Generation, there still aren’t that many Americans in Europe, which is a good thing, generally—you want a break from talking about politics). They can all be good company, but if your dream involves fitting into a foreign culture you’ve just set up a buffer zone of foreigners that will make it harder to get to know that culture. 4. Special assessments coming down the line. In our case, which is probably true for all of France, the governments local and federal always have a docket of projects they’re awaiting funding for, or, in the worst case, are hoping to raise taxes to support. Look out for water, electric, garbage collection, and sewer measures—just as you would at home. Once you’re an owner you can challenge them; we have, successfully.
How to prepare to make your move: 1. Make sure your bank branch does electronic wire transfers without charging a huge fee, but also make sure they have lots of experience doing overseas transfers. In our case, my hometown bank not only took over a month to get our wire through to purchase the house, but they misdirected it several times. The aggravation was incredible. So, don’t use your hometown bank if it doesn’t have a big global presence. We’ve had no problems with Chase. 2. Choose your overseas bank carefully, using the same criteria as in No 1. You will need a foreign account (and it will register you as a foreigner as a matter of law). Check the banking headlines to make sure your bank isn’t about to be absorbed, nationalized, or penalized back to the Stone Age. Cultivate a local bank officer on your exploratory visits and keep the connection alive. Send cookies, or write a cheery postcard. Once you get a checkbook you’re in business, although you will use your foreign bank card more. 3. Lawyer up. Find someone who shares your idea of romance. You want to be able to chat and consider angles without running up a tab. So ask people you know who’ve bought overseas, or friends of friends, to recommend you the right Saul Goodman. 4. Ask around in the village and building for recommendations of contractors and artisans. If you expect to do any kind of renovating, you’ll need a master builder, or general contractor. Obviously, as in any home renovation situation, the choice of a GC is critical. Get references, don’t settle for the first name or the second—but don’t reject them out of hand, either. Do consider going local. We did and it made a world of difference over the past 35 years, in terms of getting artisans and specialists and plumbers on a Sunday.
These are the key nuts and bolts, the forces and allies you should be putting into place as you get serious about your dream overseas getaway. Ownership means joining a society; embrace yours. Be graceful and don’t be impatient, raise your voice, or say, as one visitor to our house did, “If I see a problem, I throw money at it!” Instead, turn yourself into a lifelong student of your adopted country and your village and its culture. That way you’ll continue to know the joy of the place, and grow that joy over time, through all the varieties of human experience.
About the book
When life gives you lemons, make citron pressé.
When Francophiles Don and Mindy Wallace received an offer for a house on a tiny French island, they jumped at the chance, buying it almost sight unseen. What they found when they arrived was a building in ruin, and it wasn’t long before their lives resembled it. Plagued by emergency repairs, a stock market crash, and very exasperated French neighbors, the Wallace’s could have accepted their fate. Instead, they embraced it.
The French House: An American Family, a Ruined Maison, and the Village That Restored Them All (Sourcebooks, 9781402293313; June 3, 2014) is the delightfully amusing and picturesque memoir about a family who seized life, rose from the rubble, and built themselves a home away from home.
GIVEAWAYThe publisher is generously offering 1 copy of The French House to a follower of this blog (please join by GFC and like Mina's Bookshelf on Facebook http://facebook.com/MinasBookshelf to enhance your chances to win). Comment below to enter the contest and kindly include your email address. Open to US and Canada only. Good luck!
“On a tiny French island, a couple of American dreamers redefine their lives by restoring a ruin—which in this lovely, shimmering story becomes a parable of a saner, greener, more sustainable path that we all can follow if we will but listen to the wisdom of the villagers the way the Wallaces did. The French House moves to a soulful, very funny rhythm all its own.” —Meryl Streep
“You’ve never been any place as beguiling as Don Wallace’s Belle Ile. He’s a funny, literate raconteur with a story full of fine twists, soulful turns, and fantastic neighbors.”—William Finnegan, author of Cold New World
"The French House is a brave, insightful and very amusing memoir about a fantasy that many of us have had but not dared to attempt. The only problem with it is that now I want to adopt myself into the Wallace family." —Jane Smiley
"In this beautifully-written, rich, moving story of a fabulous, resourceful and utterly original family, Don Wallace has crafted a delicious French bon-bon of a book. THE FRENCH HOUSE is full of humor, hope, and I dare say, lessons on how to live a life full of meaning. I loved it."—Dani Shapiro, bestselling author of Devotion and Still Writing
“The French House isn’t a memoir. It’s a vacation. Charming, gorgeous, perceptive, it is peppered with unforgettable characters and steeped in the deep red wine of long-term friendship, showing us how a remarkable place can make a life worth living. You will never want to leave Belle Ile or Don Wallace’s inspiring tale of holding onto a dream despite overwhelming adversity.” —Jennie Fields, international bestselling author of The Age of Desire
“The only question is which you’ll fall in love with first, Don Wallace’s plucky family, or the enchanted French island on which they (re)build their dream house. Lyrical, funny, and poignant, The French House is the next best thing to an extended vacation by the sea.”—Kevin Baker, bestselling author of The Big Crowd
“A journalist and fiction writer’s account of how a crumbling house he bought on a French island became his family’s unexpected refuge and salvation...Warm, funny and full of heart.” - Kirkus
Don Wallace has spent most of his life as a journalist, critic, and editor in New York City and Honolulu—that is, when not in France. He is the author of four books, including the novel Hot Water (Soho) and One Great Game (Atria). He has written about Belle Ile in four essays for The New York Times and others in Islands, SELF, Walking, and Diversion. Awards include the Pluma de Plata Mexicana for reporting, the James Michener Award from the Copernicus Society for fiction, and Best American Essays, Roll of Honor (ed. Cynthia Ozick). Visit his website at www.don-wallace.com and view his photos on Pinterest at The French House.