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July 27, 2012 9:47 pm
The city of Albi and the surrounding region of southern France known as the Tarn attract the type of buyer who favours a converted barn over a château, and prefers rolling countryside to a packed ski slope. The growing appeal of this discreet location could be down to its striking good looks.
Albi is called la ville rouge thanks to its distinctive red buildings, some dating back to the 12th century. They are dominated by an ornate cathedral, finished in the 15th century, and by the 13th-century Palais de la Berbie, a fortress that now houses a collection of works by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who was born locally. The city’s gardens are intricately designed, and 3km of grass-based public footpaths have been created for tourists to traverse the most popular sites.
There is also beauty beyond the city boundaries. “It’s a lovely landscape of rolling hills, vineyards and woodland – it’s often described as Tuscany meets the Cotswolds,” says Paul Bedford of Bedford-Bailey, an estate agency selling homes in the “golden triangle” area running from Albi to Cordes-sur-Ciel and Gaillac.
He has noted growing international interest in the area thanks to the designation of the episcopal centre of Albi as a Unesco World Heritage site in 2010, and an increase in flights serving Toulouse, 84km south-west of Albi and newly regenerated to mark its role as the base for the Airbus project.
“There are quite a number of British buyers but also a broad range of others: Belgians in growing numbers, Swiss, Scandinavian, American, Canadian, Australian, quite a few Dutch and even Chinese,” says Bedford. “There are more French now from outside the region, particularly from Paris and the south coast.”
By French standards this is an inexpensive area, particularly as values have dropped about 25 per cent since 2008 in headline terms, before inflation is taken into account. Even so, it has a range of high-end properties.
In Albi the most sought-after location is the historic centre at the Quartier de la Madeleine, fringing the banks of the river Tarn. Nearby, Bedford-Bailey is selling a four-bedroom house with an indoor pool, media room and views of the cathedral for £1.255m. Just off the Rue Emile Grand and close to the Pont Vieux bridge, Chesterton Humberts is selling a six-bedroom house – again with an indoor pool and cinema room – for £1.5m.
Outside the city you get more for your money, but do not expect to find a classic château easily. Villages in the Tarn typically have many half-timbered medieval houses but in more remote areas the most common properties are farmhouses, many in poor condition. The idea of buying a wreck and restoring it – popular with British purchasers before the downturn – is not dead in this part of France.
“Prices have generally calmed down and with the increase in the strength of the pound against the euro, there are more UK buyers who have decided not to wait any more,” says Charles Smallwood, who runs Agence l’Union, an associate of Savills.
His company is selling a mid 19th-century manor house with a separate guest house and outbuildings on a 106-acre estate south of Albi. It includes a lake and a 140 sq metre pool. The price is £1.33m – an indication of how much you get for your money in this region.
However, an uncertainty for the top-end property market in every part of the country is whether the new tax regime proposed by President François Hollande will deter buyers. His recent announcements have suggested that an annual charge, hitherto levied only on second homes owned by the French and rented to holidaymakers, may be extended to international owners. More certain is that capital gains tax on profits made when a second home is sold will be increased, for foreign and domestic owners alike.
Unsurprisingly, estate agents are trying to emphasise the positives.
“The proposed increase in tax on French rental property is only applicable to unfurnished rental properties, which very few British and international investors would own. As for the increase in capital gains tax, taper relief still applies and as most second home owners are buying for the longer term, the new rules are unlikely to prove punitive,” says Andrew Hawkins, head of the international department at Chesterton Humberts.
“Under previous rules, owners paid capital gains tax of 19 per cent for the first five years, with taper relief taking this down to zero by the end of the 15th year of ownership. Now, owners would pay the increased amount of 34.5 per cent for the first five years, but this would taper 2 per cent a year to year 17, then 4 per cent a year to year 24, then 8 per cent a year until year 30, when owners would have a 100 per cent deduction,” he says.
Hawkins believes the global downturn, rather than France’s new fiscal measures, is obliging buyers to modify their habits. He says this works to the advantage of relatively newly popular locations such as Albi and the Tarn: “We’re seeing buyers reassess where they’re going to find value. Some looking in the Côte d’Azur and Provence will look further west. Location remains a key driver for many but in these economic circumstances, value for money is a top consideration.”
That may be a relief to tourist chiefs in Albi, who hope their city’s Unesco designation will make it a well-known holiday destination. With much of the Tarn region less than three hours from the Mediterranean and a similar drive from the Pyrenees, it could also be a location for more international holiday homebuyers – so long as the tax does not deter them.
● Value-for-money properties
● Good local cuisine – cassoulet is a speciality
● Reasonably short drives to beaches and ski slopes
● Albi will become more crowded thanks to its Unesco status
● Agents say few properties are coming to the market
● More summer rainfall than Mediterranean coastal areas
What you can buy for ...
€100,000 A small two-bedroom apartment in the centre of Albi or a rural house to renovate
€1m A five-bedroom historic house in the centre of Albi with a walled garden and a swimming pool, or a five-bedroom rural house with extra land and a pool
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