Château Living Part I – To Buy Or Not To Buy?
It’s been almost two weeks since we moved into the Château.
White flowers are blossoming on the ornamental cherry trees, violets are sprinkled throughout the forest and brilliant yellow daffodils provide splashes of color on the lawn. The sun is out, and morning coffee on the terrace has become a daily ritual followed by daytime work in the main salon & adjoining drawing room. For a mansion that has over 10 main rooms as well as a next-door house with another 8 or so, it’s kind of hilarious that we squeeze our entire family into just two of them, but I guess all those years of RV living leaves its mark? Well that and the COLD. But I’ll get to that in a moment….
Our other daily ritual is walks around the property with Polly.
She’s become quite the Château-dog and now considers the entire 25-acres area her personal domain. With land this size, it’s a full-time doggie job that requires dedication and fastidious canine responsibility. There’s no end of places to sniff and check, not to mention the hours that must be spent in front of the main door monitoring the enormous driveway and being ready to bark at the neighbors sheep if they happen to slip into sight.
Ah yes, Château life is interesting and GRAND and such a unique experience that it does make you think.
Could this be a way of life for us? Is it worth it to buy a Château in France?
Our time here is allowing us to explore that question, and the first answer comes today….
We Are One Of Thousands
There are an incredible amount of Châteaux in France.
There’s no exact list of the actual number, but estimates run up to ~45,000 of all sizes, ages and shapes.
Some of the oldest buildings are stone fortresses with walls that can be up to 2 meters thick. They were built to withstand marauding armies and are often in spectacular locations, with expansive views for defense, and large, imposing walls. They also tend to be bulky, bitterly cold and dark. Windows were a rarity in those days (only small openings with bars, and perhaps a wooden shutter or some wax paper to cover) and chimney fireplaces a luxury not seen until the 12th century.
The “newer” Châteaux, especially those from the Renaissance era and onwards, are much more elaborate and flowery.
This was the prime-time of French noblesse and power, where stately homes were routinely built in the countryside en masse by the rich. The grandest of these is undoubtedly the Chateau de Versailles which became the royal residence of Louis XIV in 1682. Think massive imposing building with lots of multi-paned windows, spires and elaborate interiors with arches, carvings, wood panels, wallpapers, marble, gold and gilt. The ultimate showcase of pride, richness and prestige.
It became the architectural benchmark for Châteaux all across France.
The Loire Valley in central France is an exceptional example of this. Known as the Valley of the Kings, it has over 300 Châteaux along a 175-mile stretch many of which were elaborately renovated and expanded during this time (if you ever want a serious “Châteaux-fix” in France, the Loire is definitely the place to go). But other areas also followed suit with noblemen building countryside retreats all across the land. Basically if you were anyone of note between the 17th and 18th century, you had a Château somewhere.
This latter period of history is the very reason there are so MANY Châteaux in France, especially the pretty/flowery type. So while you can still find a lot of interesting stone fortresses, the vast majority of French Châteaux are built in a style that reflect renaissance times and the “modern” eras thereafter.
Exactly like the one we’re living in at the moment….
This Could Be You Too!
At any given time there are anywhere from 400-1000 Châteaux for sale in France. And some of them are real bargains…to buy.
There is no nationwide MLS in France so you can’t go to one place to see all properties for sale country-wide, but there are a ton of individual real-estate firms (each of which have their own website listings) as well as several large platforms where multiple firms list on. A perusal of some of these sites, such as seloger.fr (https://www.seloger.com/), French-property.com (https://www.french-property.com/), Leggett (https://www.frenchestateagents.com/) and LeBonCoin (France’s equivalent of Craigs List, https://www.leboncoin.fr/) show hundreds of Chateaux with superbly varied pricing.
Below EUR 500,000 you can find smaller spots with work with do. Between EUR 500,000 to 1,000,000 you can nab medium-sized spots or spots with partial reno’s and above EUR 1,500,000 you can get some rather swanky properties, with reno’s already partially or fully complete. The average for a habitable place seems to be around EUR 600,000-800,000, but there’s tons of variation. And yes, that’s for a WHOLE Château plus any grounds that go with it. Wow, right?
But buying your little slice of French history is just the first step in your Château adventure…..
Beware the Extra Costs…
Costs, costs, costs….they all run up.
It’s got to be said that most of the “budget” Châteaux (say, below EUR 500,000) in France are not in the best of condition. The French Revolution of 1789 marked the end of the French noblesse, and a great number of the grand old Châteaux got destroyed and ransacked. Then many years later during the two World Wars, Châteaux were commandeered and used as military headquarters. A few of these were subsequently taken over and maintained by the government, but most were not and those that remained in private families have struggled to survive. On top of that huge inheritance taxes and maintenance costs (and kids that don’t want all that) mean that many castles are simply abandoned or fall into ruin when the older generation passes away.
It happens….A LOT.
So yeah, there are lots of Châteaux for sale in France, but many of them are in serious disrepair and require a ton of work. This not only means you have to put in more money up-front (mortgages are much harder to get on abandoned Château, usually requiring substantial down payments before the bank will accept to finance them), but you also have to infuse quite a lot of cash to bring the property up-to-date and make it livable.
The latter can easily double or triple the original price of the building!
For starters, there are basic improvements that absolutely have be made such plumbing (older Château may not even have running water or bathrooms), electricity, septic tanks not to mention roof replacements and basic structural work. Then there’s the “nice” stuff such as heating, windows (e.g. upgrading to double-pane), painting, plastering, interior decor etc. Plus each reno project has a sizeable budget. For example a Chateau roof can easily cost $100-200K to replace, the septic tank another $25K, a stone chimney another $10K, and so forth and so on…
From various written accounts I’ve seen, average Château reno costs run between 1500 to 2000€/m². So if you buy a “medium-sized” 500 m² Château for 400,000€, you may need to budget at least another 750,000€ to fully renovate it. Yeah, now it’s starting to add up….
As you may imagine, most Château owners try to do a substantial part of the reno’s themselves.
There Is Help To Be Had (With Caveats)
If your property is classified by the government as a historic monument (e.g. monument classé ou monument inscrit) that can bring both benefits and negatives.
The biggest benefit is that you may be able to get help with restoration costs. There are government aides (through DRAC) which can help with 10-50% of reno costs. On top of that there may be local aides (collectivités territoriales) and even foundations (e.g. la Fondation pour les Monuments Historiques ou les Vieilles Maisons Françaises) that can help. Plus there may be tax benefits too. There are limits to how much you can get back, but as with many things in France if you know where to look and how to apply (i.e. the right paperwork to use), you can get a lot done.
The biggest negative is the local branch of the Architecte de Bâtiments de France (ABF) has to be involved in approving any changes to the property, to preserve the look and heritage of the place. Mostly these are limited to external changes but sometimes internal changes have to be approved too, depending on the level of the building’s protection. O….M….G.
Given that took us 4 months to replace a standard septic tank in our not-at-all-noble-or-anything-historical farmhouse, I can’t even imagine the headache of paperwork and time involved in doing anything with the guys at ABF.
But hey…if you’re buying a Chateau you should be ready to be in it for the long haul, right?
Maintenance Costs Are Also Substantial
Once you’ve bought your little piece of French noblesse and put in your reno time & costs, it’s all smooth sailing, right? Well…..not quite.
Running costs are your next consideration, and like all the rest they are not the faint of heart. I’ve watched a bunch of YouTube Château reno videos, and also consulted several websites and written accounts, and from what I can tell the basic running costs for a small to medium Château are around 20,000 to 30,000€ per year. For a bigger Château you may have to bump that to 40,000-60,000€ per year. That includes property taxes, basic on-going maintenance, electricity/water, garden & grounds, and not-to-be-trifled-with heating.
Which brings me to the COLD!!
Perhaps the first thing we noticed when we moved into the Château here were the temps. Coming from our cozy place up the hill with our newly-installed pellet boiler, we hadn’t thought about heating for a while. But here in the big mansion we suddenly became very, very aware.
And it’s a common problem.
Almost every single YouTube channel devoted to Châteaux talk about heating, and pretty much every written account I could find does too. In the older fortress-style Châteaux with thick stone walls it’s a constant problem, but even with renaissance-style mansions it’s an issue too. These big old houses are COLD so either you heat with wood from your own on-site forest (if you have one), which involves working fireplaces and extensive chopping & manual labor, or you pour a bunch of cash into heating installation/use.
In the two weeks we’ve been here we’ve had the fuel-oil-sourced heating (the only possibility) almost constantly on, plus we’ve had to bring in two supplemental electric heaters just to get by despite living in only two rooms. The rest of the Château is bone-cold chilly and will likely stay that way until the warmer months.
Perfect for summer, but perhaps a bit on the nippy side the rest of the year?
Most Folks Make A Business Out Of It
As you may have guessed by now, unless you have wads of cash to spare, no-one in their right mind would buy a Château just for their own enjoyment.
The vast majority of privately-owned Châteaux make the whole thing work with a combo of overnight stays (Gîtes), weddings, private events and more. And that CAN be lucrative if you work at it. For example if you’ve got 5 or so rentable rooms, and and you book ten or so weddings each year you can bring in 50,000 to 100,000€ per year, well enough to cover costs and a little extra for renovations. Plus if you’re savvy enough you can do YouTube, Patreon, maybe even real-time TV on top. Hmmm….not bad!
Most of what you make goes right back into the property (and taxes) of course, but it’s a pretty unique business.
Which brings me back to our original question. Is it worth it to buy a Château in France?
I think it’s a very individual decision. It IS totally possible to get a really good deal, especially if you are handy and willing to do a lot of the reno work yourself. Plus it IS totally possible to make it work, but it does also take an incredible amount of time, dedication and money. And it’s not really a long-term investment. People buy a Château for one singular reason. To live a unique life in a property they love, and to share that experience and place with others. A life of passion, in a place of history.
So is it the future for us? Well, I’m not so sure, but we’re still exploring and will certainly let you know.
Up Next -> Our internal Château tour. Stay tuned….