‘Au Revoir Angleterre’

Millions of Brits dream of a new life in the sun and every year tens of thousands try to make their dreams come true. But how do the dreams compare with the reality? Paul Jenner and Christine Smith, themselves expats for over 15 years, interviewed Brits living in Spain, Portugal, France, Italy and Greece. Au Revoir Angleterre is the result (Published by White Ladder Press in May 2005), an instructive and often hilarious account that will inject a little reality into everybody’s fantasies.


An avenue of trees leads up to it. As the building comes into view you see a broad expanse of gravel, wide steps leading to the front door, turrets, rows of windows with shutters, even a stable block that could become your studio. It’s a château. And it could all be yours. Yours for the price of a semi in Neasden. Of course, it needs a little bit of work. You’d have to expect that for the price. The roof has a problem. Most of it is missing. But if it wasn’t you could hardly afford it, could you? When all the work is finished in a few months (you didn’t get where you are by wasting time) you’ll have a property that any aristocrat who survived the Revolution would be proud of. And it’ll be worth a pile, too.

The Reality

You’ve already missed the boat in all the popular parts of Spain, France and Italy. Ten years ago you could have bought a ruined farmhouse in Spain for, maybe, £5,000. Even five years ago the price might have been £25,000. But now you’ll be lucky to find anything under £60,000. And we are talking ruins here, not just dilapidated. A few years back all the country folk were heading for the towns. They wanted jobs where you didn’t have to get up at 5am, as well as houses with central heating and inside toilets. Nobody wanted the countryside. Now everything has changed. Town bred foreigners from northern Europe have decided that squalor is picturesque and are fighting over everything the `peasants’ have abandoned.

Even so, prices are still lower than in the UK, basically because the population density in France is less than half that of the UK, while Spain (and Greece) are only one third. And there’s more good news. When you’re buying a ruin the price is almost irrelevant. You want to know why? Because it will be utterly dwarfed by the cost of ren­ ovation.

The snag, you see, is that buying a ruin is only the first of many pay­ments before your dream becomes reality. You need materials to put your ruin in order. You need bricks, stones, tiles, window frames, doors, plaster, electric cable… the list goes on and on … and on. And in most of Europe these things tend to cost about the same as in Britain .

Then you need labour . In France that costs about the same as in Britain ; in Spain, Portugal and Greece a bit less. But not that much. And if there are specialist skills involved (like building in stone) that may cost extra.

But surely, you say to yourself as you stroll around an ancient stone built mas, I could just pile the rocks back into place myself? And they won’t cost a thing, because they’re just lying around in the fields. Well, believe us, the cheapest way of completing those tumble down walls is in brick. Yes, brick. It’s a crime, but people do it. Then hide the scene of the crime under a layer of render. The cheapest – and most sensible option of all – is to knock everything down and start again with modern materials.

But, then, you’re not buying a ruin because you’re sensible. You’re doing it because you’re mad. (Well, it certainly helps.) This will give you an idea. We bought a stone water mill dating from the 16th cen­ tury for the equivalent of £25,000, together with five acres of land. It was only a small mill as these things go – about 100 square metres on the ground floor. At the end of two years, using local builders and tradesmen (we’re not very handy) we’d run through about £250,000. We have a beautiful home vastly superior to anything we could have afforded in the south-east of England. But, it’s not vast­ ly superior to houses we could have afforded in, say, Yorkshire or Scotland .

There are three basic ways of getting your dream home done up:


Employ a large building firm on an impressive looking, fixed price contract.

Employ the small, village builder.

Do it yourself (assuming you have the skills, and the regulations allow).

It’s very hard to meet any couple who are happy with their builder. This has something to do with builders but far more, actually, to do with clients. Clients (you) have quite unrealistic expectations. And quite unrealistic fears.

It works like this. You ask the builder for a fixed price. After all, it sounds sensible. But how can he possibly know how many beams are rotten, how much mortar has been washed out of the middle of the wall over the years or how much rock there is where the septic tank will go before he actually starts work? It just isn’t possible. So he has two choices. To quote a large sum which will cover all even­tualities, but lose him the job. Or to quote the smaller sum he knows you’ll accept and hope you can come up with more money if neces­ sary. When he opens up a section of stone wall and discovers – Hostia! – it’s all crumbling to dust, what can he do? He has to ask you for more money. And what do you do? You can try insisting he stick to the price. But this is not a big enterprise. This is one man, his son and his cousin. If you don’t pay them they’ll starve. You have to pay them. So what was the point of the fixed price in the first place?

Our recipe is this. Ask for recommendations. Favour the local builder. The sort of small enterprise that was started by granddad, where dad is now the boss and the two sons do all the heavy work. Their livelihood depends on them guarding their local reputation.

When you find a builder you like, ask him to charge you by the hour. But, you gasp, how can I trust him to tell me the number of hours? OK. If you can’t trust him to do that, don’t employ him. You have to find someone you believe you can trust, and then trust him.

How do you find out if you can trust someone? By starting off with a small job. Every big project can be broken down into a series of steps. So start with the first. If that goes well, continue to the next job. And so on.

If you can’t be present yourself throughout the work you’re asking for trouble. The fact is that it’s in the nature of renovating old buildings that something unforeseen will come up every day. Also, it’s all very well looking at a plan, or even artists’ impressions, but most people are not very good at envisaging how something will actually be. Almost certainly, as work proceeds and you see things taking shape, you’ll get new ideas.

Do you want this door opening to the left or to the right? Do you want the stone jointed in concrete (very strong) or would you pre­fer the colour of the more traditional lime? Wouldn’t it be better to put a shower here instead of a bath, otherwise there’s barely room for the toilet? If you’re not around to say what you want, the builder will be obliged to make a decision. If he’s a good guy he will do his best. But it may not be what you want.

You have to allow, you see, for cultural differences. In our mill we had a terrible job getting the builder to construct the bathroom to the dimensions we wanted. To him, it was a waste of space. That was his heartfelt advice. We could gain, he pointed out, another bed­ room which would make the house more valuable. (Yes, but an empty bedroom because we didn’t need it.) He just didn’t under­ stand that we would want to lounge around in the bath listening to music.

Do you need an architect? The local planning authority may not give you the choice. But – unless you like having everything taken out of your hands – we suggest you keep his role to the minimum. Our builder, Liberto was his name, knew far more than the archit ect. Which made the architect a waste of money. Moreover, the architect wanted to do things his way, completely overlooking the fact that it was our house.

The architect didn’t like slate around the shower. He felt sure we meant marble. Slate would be too difficult to clean. Nor did he like this. Nor that. In the end we got our way on most things but it was hard work. Which just about sums up every aspect of the whole process.

But, one day, as you lie in your circular bath listening to your favourite CD, a glass of wine in your hand, the light from the wood burning stove making patterns on the ceiling, you’ll reflect that, yes, maybe you were mad. But not to have done it would have been a whole lot madder.

– Pros –

If you’ve done everything right, and you can afford what’s necessary, you’ll end up with an enviable and unique home.

There’s immense satisfaction in putting your personal stamp on a building, having the space laid out to your particular needs, in seeing it brought back to life and – if this is your thing – knowing you’re living in a house that has history.

You’ll acquire an intimate knowledge of house building, local people and unusual phrases, such as: Anda ya! (In your dreams!)

– Cons –

The renovation is going to cost half as much again as you calculated.

And take twice as long as you thought.

At the end of it all, the property might be worth less than you’ve spent. You can’t be sure what you’re going to end up with, especially if the project is entirely in the hands of an architect and builders.

If you’re doing the work yourself you’re going to be losing a lot of income and/or leisure time.

Maybe, until the project is finished (one year, two, five?) you’ll have to

forego the very attractions that you actually came for (the beach, ski­ ing, riding etc..).



What is it about the idea of renovating an old property that appeals to you? Might you be better with a property that’s already been renovated? Or even a modern property? Who is going to do the work? If it’s you, do you have the skills? Or will it look like a bodge up and actually reduce the value of the property? Can you afford the time? Would it be better to keep the day job and let others do the work? If you have to rely on builders and other tradesmen, are they avail­ able? Will you be able to instruct them clearly in their own language?

Do you have enough money to buy the ruin and renovate it? So many people hopelessly underestimate.


Can you afford to have the entire renovation project completed at one go? If not, can you cope with living in a house which is constantly undergoing renovation? Or will you be living somewhere else? Where?


Have you really made a realistic appraisal of costs? Are you sure you’re not just deluding yourself because you so much want to do this? Do you have a contingency fund? You’re going to need it.