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France finds its Maison d’être in the property world

After the lows of Hollande, Macron has breathed new life into the French high-end property market, writes Catherine Moye

Like fine wines and delicacies waiting inside a fastened picnic hamper, a scrumptious selection of French properties has lain almost undisturbed for the past few years. The economic shadow of the Hollande presidency has deterred all but the most ardent purchasers from seeking a rustic farmhouse, chic Parisian apartment or luxurious villa overlooking the Med. As roughly two-thirds of most high-end UK agents’ European transactions are in France, it was a solemn time for them.

Now that France has taken to the youthful Emmanuel Macron like a teenager in the first flush of a new romance, the lid of that picnic hamper has been pulled open. In fact, the mere prospect of the end of the Hollande era was enough to prompt a dramatic uptick in market sentiment, according to Mark Harvey, head of European sales at Knight Frank.

Online searches for French property on Knight Frank’s website increased by 97 per cent in April 2017 compared to March, and across the country 30,909 properties changed hands in the first quarter of 2017, up 8 per cent on the same period in 2016 and 29 per cent on 2015.

‘It’s amazing what sentiment and confidence can do,’ says Harvey. ‘For too long Britain has been the gainer from France’s rigidity, its protectionism, and nanny state – all the things that made France uncompetitive. Now, with Macron, there’s a feeling that the wave of populism that delivered Brexit and saw Trump elected has faded and people are back on the EU bandwagon.’

 

In Paris the upswing began about a year ago, when a lot of French expats coming out of the Middle East saw the prices in Paris as being ludicrously cheap, especially compared to London and New York. But more widely now, the indications in all prime regions are that this could be the time to buy.

Gascony, for example, where prices declined by around 30 per cent post-2008, has seen values stabilise across the region. The gap between asking and achieved prices has narrowed significantly, especially in the €2-4 million price band for properties located under an hour from Toulouse Airport or within easy reach of the Atlantic or Mediterranean.

The number of people registering with Knight Frank who are looking to spend more than €2 million in Provence increased by 175 per cent in the first part of 2017 compared to that period in 2016. That region’s two sub-markets, Luberon and Alpilles, are generating huge numbers of enquiries.

When it comes to the wealthiest buyers looking to acquire a second home in France, all roads lead to the Côte d’Azur. Not that buyers there are after the same sort of property they were a generation ago, observes Alex Balkin, head of Savills Riviera.

‘There’s been a major shift in terms of buyer profile,’ says Balkin, who’s been based there since 1994. ‘Not only have more northern Europeans entered the market, but age-wise the wealth has got much younger.’

This demographic change has caused consumer tastes to shift from the authentic Provençal-style country houses to something more modern. ‘People don’t want to be, or to buy, anywhere near where their parents used to,’ Balkin explains. ‘They want an über-holiday address, close to all the hotspots and beach clubs.’

Balkin’s point is also borne out when it comes to the challenges faced by the international jet-set buying in Paris. Despite price growth in the prime Paris residential market of 7 per cent in the past 12 months, less than 15 per cent of HNW buyers are foreign, compared to around 60 per cent in London, according to Savills. Paris’s high-end housing stock is typified by gloomy 19th-century apartments whose stuffy interiors are worlds away from the open-plan, wrap-around glazed affairs favoured by most international buyers.

‘Unlike London, where there are upwards of 20-25 large developments going on, in Paris there are fewer than three,’ says Hugues de la Morandière, who runs Agence Varenne, Savills’ Paris associate. ‘Consequently, Paris tends to be less attractive to people who want something of international standards, although there is a new trend of interior designers renovating older apartments into something more modern.’

The cloud of Hollande may have passed, but Harvey cautions against assuming that France’s property market will now be all sunshine and blue skies. ‘Macron has a huge challenge ahead of him,’ he says. ‘The mere mention of the word “reform” in France instantly brings to mind images of protesters burning tyres on motorways and traffic queues stretching for miles.’

France may have changed up a gear, but the jury’s still out on whether it’s going anywhere fast.



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