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French rusticity without the Provence markup

Real estate bargains improving the market in the Languedoc region.

With prices dropping as much as 30 per cent since the global economic downturn, the lure of bargains has begun to reinvigorate the real estate market around Carcassonne, the medieval fortified city in the south French region of Languedoc-Roussillon.

"There is a big difference between this year and last year - it has picked up a bit, which is quite nice" said Anne Mizrachi of Latitudes, a British real estate agency that specializes in French properties.

Carcassonne's centre is a maze of cobbled streets lined with shops and chic hotels to serve the three million tourists who visit its fairy-tale turrets each year. Below the castle is a bustling modern town of businesses and industrial buildings, with a total population of about 50,000.

And in Aude, a department within the region, are scores of scenic villages and vineyards that produce a large variety of wines, including the appellations Corbieres and Minervois.

Luxury villas in Aude that were selling for 1.25 million Euros, or 1.8 million US dollars, three years ago now are going for 900,000 to 950,000 Euros, agents say. Inland, homes cost an average of around 800 Euros per square meter, or about 107 UK dollars per square foot. On the coast, a 45-minute drive from Carcassonne, prices can reach 2,600 Euros a square meter.

By comparison, prices in the neighbouring, more fashionable region of Provence are almost twice as high, with prime properties selling from 5,000 Euros per square metre. Even entry-level homes are around 2,000 Euros per square meter.

In Languedoc, "you are getting an awful lot of property for your money and you could not build it for that price these days", said Paddy Gibbins of the Artaxa agency, an associate of Savills.

According to officials in Carcassonne, about 25 per cent of all residences sold in the Aude are second homes, so buyers generally favor the area south of the city, toward the sea. These southern regions of Minervois and Corbieres are warmer and sunnier, with less wind than Carcassonne, and its historic hamlets like Durban-Corbieres, Capestang and Caunes Minervois, with their narrow lanes and stone cottages, are in demand.

Prices start from roughly 225,000 Euros for a "maison de villa", a small house with a garden, and rise to 350,000 Euros for a three-bedroom villa with a pool on 1,000 square metres of land, Mr. Gibbons said.

Buyers seeking homes with distinctive character often opt for a stone "maison de villa" that is within, or even part of, the ancient walls of a "circulade", a medieval village built in a circle for defensive reasons, which abound throughout the Languedoc.

Half an hour southwest of Carcassonne, in the Haute Vallee area, is the pretty town of Limoux, popular with British buyers. A three-bedroom cottage with a garden in Limoux is selling for about 130,000 Euros. A farmhouse with about an eighth of a hectare, or two acres, of vineyards is priced at about 374,000 Euros.


Domaine de Nérige

In 2003, David and Sandie Apthorp, then in their mid-50s, paid 350,000 Euros for a derelict farmhouse on a neglected wine "domaine" near Limoux. The couple spent 500,000 Euros to renovate the house, which now has six bedrooms, five of which have en-suite bathrooms. There also is a swimming pool and more than seven hectares of woodland, fields and vineyards.

The couple rent out the house for about 20 weeks a year, mainly during the summer. The annual income of 50,000 Euros to 60,000 Euros "is more than sufficient and allows us to repay our loans as well as have a very good lifestyle", Mr. Apthorp said.


Languedoc-roussillon holiday rental country home Holiday rental country home swimming pool

While the economic downturn depressed property prices, Mr. Apthorp, said it has had little effect on their bookings. "The only change was that clients who used to come for two or three weeks, now just come for one or two weeks", he said.

While many second-home buyers, especially foreigners, may dream of emulating the Apthorps, agents say the local rental market is saturated and fees generally must be low to be competitive.


Covered dining terrace with table and chairs

"Letting your second home is not the money spinner people think", said Hugh Atkins of Pure France, the rental agency that handles the Apthorps' rentals. "It will return a good revenue, but there are many ongoing expenses such a property management and the running costs".

Domaine de Nérige - Holiday rental country home in the Languedoc.

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