This week we introduce Lee and his French husband, André. They are living the dream, not just because of the French château they have bought and are restoring, but because of the warmth of the welcome they have received from the village they now call home.
Their adventure began two years ago.
“We used to watch other people restoring châteaux in France on the TV and we always said, ‘Wouldn’t that be lovely?’ but we never put anything into action. Then overnight our attitude changed. We realised that if we didn’t do it now, we were never going to do it,” explains Lee.
“I had worked in insurance in the city and was with the same company for 24 years. But after Covid lockdowns, we both felt that this was the right time to change our lives.”
As soon as Covid restrictions were lifted in October 2021, Lee and André jumped on a plane and headed to France to visit a shortlist of properties they had liked online. André had grown up in Paris and knew a lot about the different areas of France. Despite originally thinking of the Dordogne, André had a hankering for a hillier landscape so they focused their search in the southwest of France.
Their instincts were good.
They landed in a tiny village called Mailleres in Les Landes, in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region. Lee and André laughingly call it a ’20-minute village’. “We are 10 minutes from the 10th-century commune of Roquefort, 20 minutes from beautiful Mont-de-Marsan, one hour from Biarritz and one hour from Bordeaux, so it’s handy for everything!”
The very first property Lee and André visited was the one they ended up buying.
“We fell in love with the château on the internet, then we got here and it was a lot bigger than we thought, with over 6 hectares of forest and woodland. It also had a huge 13×6 metre pool. We particularly liked that there was a barn we could convert, as well as a 17th-century house that was completely gutted inside but had four solid walls, a new roof and electrics. The château itself also had a new roof, which was a big tick as far we were concerned. We also decided on a full survey to ensure that our decision was the correct one.”
Lee and André were lucky in that the proceeds from the sale of their London home covered the purchase of the château, but they will be taking out a short-term mortgage to pay for the renovation work. “The advice we got was to use the bank’s money”, says Lee, “which made sense to us.”
Lee and André became proud owners of the château on the 30th of April 2022, a mere seven months after first setting eyes on it. While André is still running his business in London, the restoration project in France has become Lee’s full-time job. He realised quite quickly that his language skills might not be up to the rigours of the French administration. “I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing and as André left France at 16, he wasn’t up to speed with all the processes either. It was at that stage that our best friend, Barbara, a current client of French Connections HCB, suggested that we should ask the team for help.”
Lee contacted our founder, Richard, and explained what they wanted to do and the things they needed help with. The French Connections HCB team leapt into action!
“Charlotte organised my visa, then we flew out to meet the bank manager of the Crédit Agricole. We opened an account with him, then another at the Crédit Mutuel, all facilitated by Richard. Perhaps we would have got there under our own steam eventually, but we needed to get stuff done quickly – especially when it came to my visa – and the service was seamless.”
Lee and André have also asked for Richard’s help in buying a Ford Ranger, which is André’s dream car. Lee laughs because he only passed his driving test a week before he left the UK, but driving became essential because Maillere, like many small French villages, has limited public transport and no shops. With André making frequent return trips to the UK, Lee needs to be independent.
As well as the big items like visa, bank accounts and car purchase, Lee and André have called on French Connections HCB for help with all manner of everyday smaller things.
“Charlotte has been looking after me, sorting out my EDF direct debits which had accidentally been cancelled, then she found a vet for our dog. Juliette found a dentist for me, and a doctor. Originally I paid as and when for these smaller admin jobs, but now I’m here in France, I just pay 89 euros a month and the FCHCB team look after absolutely everything for me.”
Lee and André have big plans for their new home.
“Within two years, we will be renting out the château as a luxury holiday rental, and we’ll also create a yoga retreat at either end of the holiday season when the weather is cooler.”
There’s a lot of renovation work to do, but Lee is confident of meeting the deadline.
“I have now met Richard many times. I have asked his building company to do the restoration work at our property, which will start in January. Richard’s builder is going to move in with me to save costs, and the job is programmed to take 6-7 months. He will start with the house, then we can move in there while he starts on the château. Currently the château has 11 rooms but over the years, some of them have been chopped in two with stud walls, so the plan is to bring it back to its original state.”
The biggest joy for Lee and André has been the reaction from the village.
“As two gay guys, we were wondering if we would be welcome – but we are, absolutely. People are pleased that new life is coming to the chateau. In July we went to the Bastille Day celebrations and were welcomed by the village. Some of the older generation told us that what we have done in the short time since we arrived is how they remembered the house, with the old oak trees standing proud in the front. Using the tree surgeon from the village, we’ve already taken down 30 pine trees that were hiding the property. The deputy Maire came to see us. He could see what we were doing in opening it all back up and he loves it. Yes, we are the talk of the village, but everything we have heard back through the gardeners is very positive.”
Another great surprise was learning the real name of their château.
“When we bought the property, we believed it was called Domaine de la Grange. I know that means ‘domain of the barn’ but it didn’t seem right – and ‘grange’ is too close to ‘grunge’ for my liking! But when we were chatting with the locals on Bastille Day, they told us that the real name of the property is ‘Château de Jostelle’. For about 50 years, it was owned and run by nuns, and Jostelle was the name of their order. Recently, a man who was helping the tree surgeon told me he used to go to Sunday school with the nuns at Château de Jostelle and had very fond memories of the property, so he was happy to be working there.”
Based on his own experience, Lee has already recommended our services to other people.
“I’m an intelligent, smart man, but when you are moving and you don’t speak or read French, it’s hard. Before meeting Richard, we had applied for a mortgage ourselves and we were declined with no explanation. Richard put us in touch with Crédit Agricole and secured an agreement in principle straight away. It’s a funny feeling for someone like me who has always been in control, but I get terribly frustrated from the point of view of the language barrier, particularly when it comes to financial matters. For example, neither of us has a Will, which is essential in France. Richard put me in touch with their Financial Advisor, Simon. I’m also getting his help with setting up a company and putting in my tax declaration. Doing it yourself is not as easy as I thought and I’ve also realised that the French love paperwork! ”
So how would Lee and André sum up their experience in France so far?
“Whilst enjoying Bastille Day at the village hall, we met other newcomers who, like us, have bought properties in the village. We now have the pleasure of new neighbours from New Zealand, Grenoble and Hong Kong. All had the same attitude after Covid, that a change of lifestyle was the most important thing for them and their family. For us, this is the start of a different life, a different journey. Hopefully we’ll look back in two or three years and think, wow, look at us now! Our château has been empty for 20 years, and the gates have remained closed. We found out that people from the village used to play football on our field and the village Fête was held there, so we’ve told the Maire that once we’ve made the trees safe, we are absolutely up for that…”
At French Connections HCB, we’re delighted to have played a part in Lee and André’s adventure. They have promised regular updates as the work on Château de Jostelle progresses, so keep an eye on your inbox!
In the meantime, if you need help with any aspect of moving to France, including car purchase and registration, property search, visas and financial advice, you can book a free initial 15-minute call here to see how we can help.
And if you are already in France and would like to take advantage of the subscription service that Lee mentioned, our team will be delighted to sort out unlimited everyday tasks for just 89 euros a month. You can cancel at any time, which means it’s also perfect if you are visiting your holiday home. You can find out more here.
We look forward to talking to you.