The proximity of Normandy to Paris has made the northern French region a favourite weekend retreat for residents of the capital – and particularly those with an interest in horses, given the region’s myriad equestrian clubs and its concentration of stud farms.
Normandy has attracted British horse lovers, too. In 2000, Nicky and Steve Bodman moved from Warwickshire to an 18th-century farmhouse near the village of Saint-Siméon, with 30 acres of land including an ancient standing stone and burial ground. The property also came with three guest houses the couple now rent out.
When they first moved to France, with their two horses, the Bodmans spent several months renting a house in the Limousin region of south-central France. “It was beautiful but the flies ate the horses alive and there was also a problem with ticks. When we moved to Normandy we found a home with a barn that we could convert into stables, and a gentler climate. As a result, the horses were happier,” says Nicky Bodman.
The Bodmans’ property is in Lower Normandy, administratively a separate region to Upper Normandy, and generally more rural and bucolic than its neighbour (around Le Havre and Rouen there is some heavy industry).
The area also benefits from varied housing stock, with granite and slate common inland, and half-timbered homes nearer the coast. But its attractiveness as a good place to retire has led to an ageing population, or “papy-boom”. According to the French National Institute of Statistics, 18 per cent of the region’s residents are 65 or older, up from 14 per cent in 1990.
The upmarket seaside town of Deauville is the region’s property hotspot, says Nathalie Garcin, of the Emile Garcin estate agency. The pretty town has a wide bathing beach and is sometimes called the “21st arrondissement of Paris” because of its popularity with buyers from the French capital.
“The market has been at a virtual standstill since October of last year,” says Garcin. “But the return of fine weather in the spring, after such a long winter, and the drop in house prices, has encouraged buyers to arrange viewings.”
Horseracing and polo are hugely popular in Deauville, which is also where fashion designer Coco Chanel opened a boutique in 1913. An increasing number of Russian visitors can now be seen shopping at high-end outlets in the town, which has long attracted a well-heeled British, Dutch and German crowd.
Some locals would prefer for it to stay that way. In 2006, campaigners tried to stop Ryanair operating flights from the UK to the town’s diminutive airport, citing aircraft noise concerns. CityJet runs a seasonal service to Deauville from London City airport, but in Normandy low-cost carriers are still notable by their absence.
A mixed brick and half-timbered four-bedroom house, a heated outdoor pool, and 1,550 sq metres of grounds close to Deauville’s golf course is offered by Emile Garcin for €1.57m.
Despite local mortgage interest rates being at historically low levels, PrimeView, a Paris-based economic consulting company, predicts that French house prices will fall “at least 30 per cent over the next five to 10 years” from their high point in the summer of 2011. In a report drawn up last year, PrimeView noted that France was still “in the throes of a very large property bubble”. But with the numbers of transactions falling across France – not in the Cote d’Azur and central Paris but in many rural areas and small towns – property professionals in the country increasingly concede that this might be the calm before the storm.
For potential buyers in places such as the charming Pays d’Auge, a pretty area south of Deauville and famous for its cheese and cider, the question is surely: is this the right time to make a move? The once rather frothy property market here has already had two lean years and there is no reason to think prices will move in an upwards direction anytime soon. The winding country lanes – perfect for walking, cycling or riding – have a timeless feel, but in some villages the shops and bars are feeling the pinch and opting to close down as a result of la crise. In Normandy as in much of rural France, this could be a summer for finding a house, making a low offer and crossing your fingers.
With its oval-shaped central square ringed by beautiful, half-timbered buildings, Beuvron-en-Auge is one of the Pays d’Auge’s most attractive villages. Here, a four-bedroom, two-bathroom house – built in 2009 but in a traditional style with a steeply sloping roof and exposed beams inside – is on the market for €690,000 through the Orpi estate agency.
Buyers looking for a property to modernise should budget for about €1,000 per sq metre for basic renovation including new plumbing, heating and rewiring, says Nathalie Garcin, but luxury fittings and using specialist craftsmen could double this figure.
Although Normandy’s coastline is generally less dramatic than that of its neighbour, Brittany, the pretty seaside resort of Étretat, south of Dieppe, with its shingle beach framed by spectacular cliffs which have eroded into pillars and arches, is an exception. The town has a less exclusive feel than Deauville but has an artistic heritage all its own, helping it to attract a clutch of impressionist painters such as Claude Monet and, crise or no crise, second-home buyers today. A six-bedroom, six-bathroom detached house outside Étretat, with 8,000 sq metres of grounds, is available for €960,000 through Square Habitat. Meanwhile, the average price for a two-bedroom terraced fisherman’s cottage in the town is about €120,000. They may be of modest size but have good potential as holiday rentals.
● Easy train access to Paris. From Rouen, for example, the journey time is one hour and 11 minutes
● In 2012, property prices in Normandy fell 11.7 per cent
● No direct low-cost air services
● Patchy public transport outside the main towns
What you can buy for …
€500,000 A six-bedroom manor house in the Pays d’Auge needing some renovation
€1m A modern, detached four-bedroom home with a large garden in a prime location in Deauville
€5m A renovated eight-bedroom château with stables and extensive grounds no more than 90 minutes from Paris by train