Nice, the capital of France's famous Riviera, has once again become the by-word for glamour, charisma and that certain French sense of style that translates into an easy life. The place to been seen, to be hedonistic, to relax and to eat well.
The Riviera has gone through countless transformations over the last 150 years following the discovery of its charms by the British aristocracy and then later the Americans in the 1920s and 30s. In the last 10 years the most famous stretch of beach in the world (from St.Tropez to Menton on the Italian border) has been through a significant renaissance and has once again become the destination of choice for many wealthy Europeans and Americans.
The vast majority of buyers from North America are looking for bigger more luxurious villas or apartments and according to the British mortgage bank Abbey National, although US purchasers account for only 2 per cent of international buyers on the Riviera they are still the biggest spenders averaging 229,000 euros on a property. The average price for British buyers is 142,000 euros, but the Brits account for around 40 percent of foreign buyers in the whole of France and that figure is even higher in the South.
The Brits have been the busiest buyers in the South of France for the last 6 years due mainly to the birth of a number of highly successful low cost airlines in England and Ireland that dump 40 planeloads of British sun seekers onto the shores of the Cote d'Azur every day. Buyers from other countries are reaping the benefits of the "British invasion" as the city of Nice has seriously cleaned up its image over the last 5 years because of pressure from the mainly middle class buyers who want a safer, tidier, cleaner environment. The Council is updating old streets with new pedestrian friendly areas, a new state-of-the-art tram line will begin services by 2006 and the city's police force has been told to be more sympathetic to the concerns of foreigners and expatriates living in the area.
The latest French real estate statistics show that present day buyers will probably see a 15 to 20 percent rise in their investment over the next year. But it's the American invasion that is getting many agents very animated. They say the South of France is seeing many more Americans enquiring about property over the last twelve months. US clients are returning to the Riviera in ever growing numbers following the slump in tourism following 9/11. There is certainly a lot more Americans in the streets of Nice, Cannes, Monaco and St. Tropez than there has been for years.
There is still a great affection in the south of France for Americans who in many ways reinvented the Cote d'Azur in their own image at the turn of the last century starting with the American railroad magnate Frank Jay Gould who single handedly opened up the summer season in Juan-les-Pins and built the magnificent Palais de la Mediterranee in Nice. He was followed by the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway and in later years the jazz greats from the US made their second homes on the Riviera. In one famous incident the American millionaires, Gerald and Sara Murphy, persuaded the Hotel du Cap on the Cap d'Antibes to stay open for their partying entourage in the summer of 1926 - something it had never done before. In more recent times the likes of Ivana Trump have bought on the Riviera and the Microsoft Billionaire Paul Allen has taken to spending more and more time in the South of France using his yacht, the largest in the Port of Antibes, as his base.
The region's ability to remain on the A-list with so many people is partly the result of its beauty. From the deep blue of the Mediterranean to the glamorous cities and medieval hilltop villages, the French Riviera is hard to resist and many more tourists are buying property after their third or fourth visit.
The market across the entire Riviera is still very buoyant and is set to remain so for the foreseeable future. This is due to the requirements of foreign buyers who are very specific about what they want - mostly based on a romantic idea of the Cote d'Azur and its old stone farmhouses and 1000 year-old hill villages. They also want their 'perfect' property to be close to the region's only international airport in Nice. This means there is a limited supply of prestige and picturesque properties available that fit the criteria of foreign buyers and supply and demand means prices will keep rising as these romantic old properties become more difficult to find.
This, in turn, has forced a change in the expectations of many North American and British buyers who realize the difficulty of finding their 'dream'. They are now looking at new-build projects and more modern apartment developments up and down the coast. There has been massive growth in this sector of the market with some parts of the coast transformed into permanent building sites.
Those who specialize in finding large properties in the hills behind the Riviera, says the properties are there to be found and the large character properties that many buyers dream about have not disappeared completely, they just cost more. One example was a beautiful picture postcard former 17th century mill in the hills about 30 minutes from Nice. A property where nothing has really changed in the last 100 years. The massive old millstones and the water wheel that drives them have survived and still work and the pond that feeds the water wheel has now been turned into one of the most spectacular pools in the area. The old mill was on the market in late 2005 for 3 million euros.
As in all areas of the world being a foreign buyer comes with its own inherent problems, so you have to be careful, but a good agency will help you avoid any possible pitfalls, steer you through the bureaucracy and make the buying experience a pleasant one. With that in mind there are a few Golden Rules for buying in France.
1. Find an agency with fluent English speaking sales staff. Some of the biggest problems faced by foreign buyers are misunderstandings caused by not knowing the local vernacular.
2. Talk to the agents you want to deal with before you travel or wish to start looking at properties. You'll quickly get a sense of their professionalism over the phone if they can answer your queries about the local property market in detail.
3. Do your research. Have a good understanding of the region and a fairly good idea of where and what you want to buy. This will help both the agents and yourself in securing the exact apartment or house you want without spending days sitting in a car seeing hopelessly inappropriate properties.
4. Ask for references. If an agency is doing a good job for its English speaking clients they should be able to send you the details of a least 3 happy clients who can tell you all about their purchase and the agency you wish to work with.
5. Get a good Notaire. A Notaire is a peculiarity in the French property market. He's a semi-government appointee who trains for seven years to deal with every intricacy of your property purchase. The Notaire is essentially a property lawyer who makes sure that there are no debts associated with the property and that a freeway is not going to be built through your living room in five years time. He also administers the now mandatory search for asbestos, termites and lead in the apartment. A good Notaire will hold your hand as an independent party in the transaction. A bad one can be arrogant and off-hand. Technically as an independent party the Notaire can act for both sides in the transaction but it's always advisable to get your own and it doesn't cost you any more.
6. And last - come with an open mind. France and many of its buildings have been around in one form or another for a thousand years. Unless you're spending over 1 million euros don't expect to find 200 square foot bathrooms or large American fridges. A tip from the most savvy property buyers in Europe - the British - cute and old are always the best investments.