A lot of people have asked how I came to live on the Mediterranean, so here’s the story. To preface all of this, I was transferred to London for work with a proper work permit 15 years ago. After many years, I applied for British citizenship, which opened up a whole new world to me. That helped a lot, but you can still buy a place on the Med as a foreigner.
Are you familiar with the UK magazine and TV show called, “A Place In The Sun?” I am a junkie. It’s a dreamy program and magazine that talks about buying or renovating homes abroad. I have been an avid reader for years. I love the articles of escape, relocation, renovating a wreck, and finding a good buy. Month after month, I would scour it to see where I could possibly buy something cheap on the Mediterranean.
In 2007, I went on a viewing trip to Calabria, Italy, advertised in the magazine. I could have gone to Cyprus, Greece, Spain, or Turkey, but I was keen on Italy. They fly you down for around $99 and show you a bunch of properties for sale. I even convinced my friend Stacy to fly over from Chicago and go with me. I was drunk on the knowledge that one of the magazine’s reporters, Amanda Lamb, bought a cheap place in southern Italy, and was high on the prospects of getting my own place in the sun.
After viewing a number of properties, we ended up putting down offers on two apartments that weekend; one for me and one for Stacy and her husband. It was a new-build development just 500 feet from the sea. We postulated for the remainder of the weekend how we’d spend our summers, breaks and retirement down there.
After a few months, I could sense something was amiss. I’d been in property development long enough to recognise it. There were difficulties getting copies of their insurance and it appeared they may not even have the rights to develop. I was sensing a sort of mafia-esque influence going on; not Italian, but Irish. The developers are Irish. After two months, I pulled the offers off the table and got our deposits back.
Go sulk in Nice, France, for the weekend
Feeling sorry for myself that I wasn’t going to be dipping my toes in the Med next summer, I decided to sulk in Nice, France, for a weekend. I found a cheap flight and a great deal on a beach-front hotel. Just what I needed.
I hadn’t been to Nice since ’97, and back then, Old Town felt creepy. Its narrow, darkly-lit alleyways, hidden doorways, beggers, and drug addicts made you feel on-edge. Any rate, I was looking forward to lazing by the beach. I wouldn’t go into Old Town. I’d linger by the beach under an umbrella, with a cocktail in hand. Perhaps I’d have a spa treatment, but I was certainly going to read my latest edition of, A Place in the Sun, and get back to house hunting.
After a good night’s sleep, I scouted the views of Old Town from my window. It looked rather inviting and clean, not like I remembered. Tourists are buzzing around and there is a lot of activity. So I asked the Front Desk if it’s safe to walk around. She looked at me quite amazed, and said, “Of course, it’s safe.”
So off I go into Old Town. I stumble upon Nice’s famous flower market on Cours Saleya. It’s buzzing with fruit-scented, sunburned tourists buying sachets of lavender, herb-infused olive oils and kitchen aprons printed with recipes for ‘Socca’ and ‘Pissaladier.’ The restaurants were heaving with the hungry and queues were forming.
Cours Saleya, which offers a daily market (except Monday), displayed the most attractive fruits, vegetables, olives, cheese, potted plants and floral arrangements I’d ever seen. While this part of France is famous for its artists, the vibrant colours, melange of smells, and animated multi-lingual conversations consumed my senses. Nice was like the opening of a great new walkable, touchable, smellable, tastable art installation.
Don’t be afraid to look in the Real Estate agent windows and stop in.
As usual, I stumbled upon a real estate agent’s window, and I can’t resist. The property junkie in me was curious to get a fix looking at all the property I couldn’t afford. After all, I was on a Calabrese budget and the Cote d’Azur is the playground of the rich and famous. The adrenalin was building. Yes, more expensive than Italy, but not as expensive as I would have thought. The sign read, “English Spoken.”
Two hours and five apartments later, I was inspired. Old Town Nice is an easy village to walk, with very unique apartments ranging from the already modernised to those needing rouge and lipstick. Walk-ups are standard; wide stairways and elevators are not. If the sign says, ‘Needs renovation’ it may mean new electrics, an updated kitchen or bathroom, and most often there are traditional red, terracotta-colored tommette tiles on the floor.
The real estate agent, Laurence, who is now my new best friend, is chatting freely in English and Italian, and charting out my evening at a local restaurant and jazz club.
I slept in on Sunday, then relaxed at the beach, breathing in the fresh sea air knowing I was going back to a grey, wet, cold London. My mind was filling up with ‘what-if’ scenarios and mock mortgage calculations.
When a coincidence isn’t a coincidence…
The weekend came and went entirely too quick, and I didn’t get a chance to read my magazine, which was stuffed in my bag. On the flight back, I pulled out the tightly rolled magazine, and opened it to a random page. It was a story about a guy who lives in London and commutes to his place in Nice on the weekends. This was a rather strange coincidence. Actually, I don’t believe in coincidence. I needed to give Nice more consideration.
Back in London, I Googled the guy to see if we could meet. And there he was, on LinkedIn, and his office was 3 minutes away. I sent an intro email and he agreed to meet for a coffee that week. Wow!
I drafted a list of questions and wanted to hear his take. I had read about many failed attempts, and learned from the Italian experience to be cautious. His experience was anything but. It sounded safe and easy.
The pros and cons
Over the next month, I made two more trips to see a total of 15 apartments with different agents. My criteria had changed from Italy and I knew what I was looking for. I couldn’t afford sea view, but the sea would be close in Nice. In Italy, you would need a car. In Nice, you could walk everywhere.
Air transport would be better, too. There were more than 10 flights a day to Nice from London. Between British Airways, Easyjet, Cityjet and Norwegian, prices would remain competitive. And, with a 1.5hr flight, I could easily be in Nice on the weekend and back to work Monday mornings.
Making an offer
In September, I made an offer on the very first apartment I saw. Yes, that one in the photos above. Something about it stuck with me. It had enough space for family to come and visit, along with an office. It has a slightly out-of-date bathroom, funky tiles on the floor, and other nuggets from years gone past. The wall are yellow-washed, and the kitchen has a God-awful burnt orange stove top and sink from the 70’s! All completely usable, but I could update over time. It was five minutes to the beach and around the corner from the bus, direct to the airport. Perfect!
The situation was definitely in my favor. Due to Lehman’s bankruptcy, the markets were still in turmoil, and property prices continued to fall. The owner’s four children inherited the apartment, and they owed hefty inheritance taxes. They needed to sell. Knowing this, I ‘low-balled’ it, and after 10 tense days, they agreed. Yes! The wait for Closing commenced.
The buying process in France
The buying process in France is pretty easy. In essence, start by speaking to your bank or mortgage advisor well in advance. Or seek out international specialists. There are a variety of articles about how to finance a home purchase from overseas. And France is one of the easier ones. I bank with Barclay’s in London and they were already set to do my mortgage in Italy. Luckily there was a branch in Nice and Barclays set up a foreign account for me. They just needed to tweak the mortgage details to fit France. This saved me about a month’s time and I knew what my budget was quite quickly. HSBC bank is another that comes to mind.
The rules will be different for non-EU citizens. For instance, I needed to have a 20% deposit, versus 10% for locals/EU citizens, and the interest rate was higher. Some banks may require you to have 25-50% of the purchase price. It all depends on the bank. But if you have the cash, why not? I didn’t care. I wanted ANY mortgage they’d give me knowing that in a year, as a UK citizen, I could remortgage to more favourable rates. To be honest, if you have a decent deposit set aside, and a solid salary history, it’s very possible to get a foreign mortgage.
When you make an offer and it’s accepted, you have a 10-day cooling-off period to pull out of the deal. After 10 days, you are locked in and you should have your apartment in three months. Shortly thereafter, I transferred part of the monies to my Notary who starts the checks for termites, asbestos, lead, leans, and legals. I did not use a lawyer as it is the Notary’s responsibility that your property is free of issues.
The Closing Process
On the day of the closing, I transferred the remaining money to the Notary. My mortgage was already in order, all the direct debits were arranged, the property insurance was in place, and everything went smooth. Even the real estate agency stays involved until they end. She set up each of my utilities, so when I did receive my keys, I had water and electricity. I waited a week for the gas to be turned on, but thankfully I didn’t have to call these companies because my French was non existent.
You need a court-appointed translator
Closing was scheduled for December 29th and my real estate agent accompanied me to the Notary’s office where my court-appointed translator was waiting. You need to have a translator if French is not your native language.
While waiting, my translator arrives and we are exchanging pleasantries about art exhibits, the jazz music scene, and the upcoming Carnival. She is a lovely, petite woman with a very American accent. In fact, she sounded just like me.
After a bit, she asks where I’m from. To which I said, “Chicago,” which is a lie. I grew up in Wisconsin, three hours north, but Wisconsin is an anomaly for most. It’s easier to say Chicago. She responds, “How funny. I spent a year teaching French at the University of Wisconsin-Madison….” I had to laugh. Another coincidence? That’s where I went to college.
I had keys in hand that day and rang in the New Year sleeping on a blow-up mattress I schlepped from London. I bought a kettle for hot water and showering, and a space heater to stay warm. It was the best New Years ever.
Get your place in the sun!
So, If you’re looking for that dream destination on the Mediterranean, be sure to check out A Place in the Sun or subscribe to their magazine. There is excellent info about buying abroad and lots of helpful resources. Another great search engine is Rightmove. You can find all sorts of overseas listings there.
If you are in Nice, stop by and speak to the super staff at Palais Immobilier. The 4* Hotel Beau Rivage is in a great position for exploring Old Town, as well as the newly renovated 3* Hotel Geneve, just off of Place Garibaldi. For a more decadent weekend, splurge on the 5* Hyatt Regency Palais de la Mediterranee. Otherwise, drop me a line. I’m always willing to help.