On Avenue Molière, one of the smartest streets in the Brussels commune of Uccle, stands an elegant townhouse that has been on the market for several weeks.
The property has four en suite bedrooms and two spacious reception rooms, plus a lock-up garage with a separate flat above it. The corner location means that the house has plenty of natural light on three sides; the drawback is that it has no garden. As things stand the asking price, €2.7m, or a figure approaching it, is likely to be offered by a French – rather than Belgian – buyer.
“I’ve had 10 viewings and all were people from the Paris region,” says Hélène Van de Velde of Emile Garcin, an estate agency specialising in high-end properties.
Since late September, when France’s socialist government introduced a 75 per cent marginal tax rate on earned income over €1m a year, an increasing number of wealthy French people have been beating a path to the greener suburbs of Brussels.
By establishing residence in Belgium – a straightforward step under the EU’s rules on freedom of movement – they can reduce their tax liability considerably, given that Belgium’s top tax rate is 50 per cent.
The initial signs are that France’s new tax regime is boosting demand for homes in prosperous Uccle above all. The district is the site of the city’s French Lycée and a longstanding favourite of wealthy French incomers, some of whom arrived in 2006 when Ségolène Royal was preparing to challenge for the Elysée as the socialist presidential candidate.
According to the Belgian government, at least one in 10 residents in Uccle are now French, up from one in 15 a decade ago. And out of the 1.19m people living in the Brussels region, 54,000 are French, more than any other foreign nationality. Nationally, there was a net annual influx of 5,000 new French residents between 2008 and 2011.
“I have been getting phone calls and enquiries for months, but it is really since the middle of September that things changed and French customers arrived en masse for viewings,” says Van de Velde, who adds that it will take months for notaries to pass sales information to the National Statistics Office. Official data on very recent prices is thus still some time off.
Some Flemish commentators – who tend to regard the goings-on of French incomers in French-speaking areas such as Uccle with a certain detachment – estimate that about five high-end homes a day are now sold in the city and its suburbs to French buyers not previously resident in Brussels.
The mini-exodus was underscored in September when the news broke that Bernard Arnault, boss of the LVMH luxury goods group and France’s wealthiest man, had bought a pied-à-terre in Uccle. Arnault has applied for Belgian nationality but denies that he is a tax exile.
Prices are rising faster in Uccle than anywhere else in Brussels, making some fear that what appears to be a local bubble could burst if Paris changes its tax code.
Belgium’s economy may be lacklustre, but bricks and mortar are generally considered a safe long-term investment. In 2011, the average price of a house in Uccle rose 23.1 per cent to €670,414, easily the biggest increase across the capital’s 19 communes (six of which recorded price drops).
Meanwhile the average cost of a used apartment in conservative, old-money Neuilly-sur-Seine, the Paris suburb most frequently compared to Uccle, is €9,120 per sq metre, according to the Association of French Notaries. The average value of used apartments in Uccle is about €3,000 per sq metre, making Brussels seem relatively cheap. Best Home Consult is marketing a four-bedroom, 260 sq metre penthouse in Uccle for €1.1m.
But the tree-lined avenues of Uccle, with their cafés, galleries and bistros, are a world away from downtown Brussels, where the streets are shabby and most housing is of poor quality.
“In the past, some French people have been apprehensive about settling in Brussels,” says Alain Lefebvre, a French editor and businessman who settled in Brussels in 2005. It has since set up Juliette & Victor, a publication aimed at French nationals in Belgium with the tagline “le magazine de l’art de vivre franco-belge”.
“Parisians in particular think that life in Brussels will be in some way provincial,” says Lefebvre. “But they are often surprised to see that it is a real capital with a lot of cultural activities, such as concerts, theatre and the opera. Plus, now there are people from all 27 EU member states working here, it has a young, dynamic feel.”
Uccle has the advantage of proximity to the motorway towards Paris and is relatively close to the terminus for the high-speed Thalys train service to the French capital, which connects the two cities in 1 hour 20 minutes.
Uccle also has a large number of buildings made from what is locally called pierre de France, a pale stone that contrasts with the red brick commonly found in the rest of the city, giving parts of the district a French aspect. Meanwhile, the trendy area around Place du Châtelain in adjacent Ixelles, with its farmers’ market and bars lining a core of cobbled streets, is popular with younger French arrivals. A three-bedroom duplex with parquet floors close to Place du Châtelain is available for €625,000 through Immobilière Jacques Bonnivers.
However, buying a home in Brussels presents some potential difficulties. The vocabulary in Belgian property advertisements is often unintelligible to the French, even if the language is in theory the same. One example is the indication of a feu ouvert (fireplace) in listings, often shortened to “FO”, which is known as a cheminée in France.
More importantly, Parisians have to get used to a city where the atmosphere can change abruptly from one road to the next – even in leafy Uccle – making street-by-street reconnaissance a necessity before purchase.
• Good dining and shopping
• Close to the forest that flanks Brussels
• Relaxed, cosmopolitan atmosphere
• Risk of a localised housing bubble
• High transfer taxes, particularly for new-build properties
• No metro link to the rest of the city
What you can buy for …
€100,000 A studio flat in a secondary location in need of refurbishment
€1m A four-bedroom house with a large garden near the French Lycée