What Alex And Greg Like Best About Their New Life In The South Of France
Alex and his partner Greg were in marketing and advertising in London. In 2003, they decided to leave the rat race and head to France with the thought of making a property investment. They settled first in Aix-en-Provence, where they enjoyed the big student population, both French and foreign. Their intention was to develop student rental apartments, but they came up against the age-old problem for foreigners in France—lack of interest from the banks.
Over the next four years, they drove miles and miles through the countryside, exploring farther west into the Languedoc region, where property prices were still pre-the-Peter-Mayle-Year-in-Provence-effect. There were deals to be had. They bought three small townhouses and lived in one while renovating the other two, both of which they quickly sold to foreign buyers.
As Alex and Greg journeyed around Languedoc, they discovered that, although this is a region crammed with things to do and see, little has been put into writing about it in English (or French). More and more expats were being drawn in, attracted by the climate, typical French lifestyle, and low property prices, yet frustrated by the lack of information in English.
That gap in the market led to the birth of the website Creme-de-Languedoc.com, a superb resource about the area that I’d say is unmatched by any other for real-person reviews. Over the years, this service has grown from an online guide to include property sales and holiday accommodation.
Their new business up and running, Greg and Alex set out to scout the region for a home. At that point, they had no intention of buying or running a gîte, B&B, guesthouse, hotel, or anything of the kind. Both sets of parents lived in France, in Languedoc, and they were looking at properties with “granny flats”—somewhere the parents could live, too.
The parent project didn’t happen, but what did was the renovation of a mansion built by one of Napoleon’s generals in the 19th century in the village of Roujan, five minutes from the ancient town of Pézenas and 25 minutes from the beaches of the Mediterranean. Greg and Alex fell in love with the property but knew that it was too big a place for them on their own, so the idea of an upscale guesthouse catering to the gay market was born. Eight years and a lot of sweat, blood, dust, and, I’m sure, tears later, that seed of an idea is now Cinq et Sept (cinqetsept.com), a beautiful and tranquil place intended specifically for gay visitors.
Roujan is a pretty, rural town, with just about everything you need to live a comfortable life. It’s also in a superb location for exploring Languedoc’s countryside, art, culture, and beaches. But is it a good place for gays to retire overseas? I’m curious to know if Alex and Greg, their gay guesthouse, and gay guests are accepted by the locals, a fairly conservative lot.
“We have never had any negativity toward us,” Alex told me as we sat overlooking the pool.
“The locals are pleased that we have transformed one of the larger village properties from the run-down dilapidated state that it was in. Our guests bring money into the town—the guesthouse has five self-catering suites, so guests shop for food and drink in the town as well as eat out there. And, since we opened, seven gay couples have purchased property in the area.”
I was interested to know what was so enticing and captivating about Languedoc for Alex and Greg. What had attracted them and what keeps them here still, all these years later?
“Life here is less materialistic,” Alex told me. “There’s a noticeable respect for older people and greater importance is given to the family. We love the area for its variety; we can be on the beach one day enjoying the sun and the next up in the mountains in the snow. And, on a cultural note, there is so much to see and do. Roujan is in easy driving distance of Montpellier, Carcassonne, Nîmes, Narbonne, the Canal du Midi, and the breathtaking Cathar castles.”
Many people I’ve spoken to about living in France dream of opening a B&B or guesthouse here. I asked Alex if he had any tips that might help a would-be owner make a success of this kind of business.
“You’ve got to love people and sharing your space with them,” he said.
“It is not a nine-to-five job and don’t expect it to be a big moneymaker. The market is very competitive, and you have to expect seasonal ups and downs. My advice would be to find a niche and market hard to that; ours is obviously the gay market and that works well for us here.”
I wondered what the property market in the area is like now, post la crise.
“There has been a price correction since 2008, and the British are very definitely back!” Alex told me.
“Unfortunately, obtaining a mortgage is still a roadblock for many foreign buyers,” Alex continued, “but cash buyers with dollars and sterling are in the best position they’ve been in for years. We’ve also noticed that buyers are less interested in property that needs work; perhaps they are worried about bureaucracy. In our experience, we found it was minimal. Once we had the basics OK’d for our renovation work by the local administration, there was very little interest from them.”
So are they now sitting back and enjoying their successes? Enjoying, yes; sitting back, no. Ever watchful of the property market and increasingly knowledgeable about it, Alex and Greg noticed that more and more people are contacting them asking for help, not just help finding a property but also help guiding them through the whole buying process, particularly buyers with higher-than-average budgets.
“We have decided to go down the route of offering a hand-holding service for potential high-end buyers,” Alex confided.
The rolling countryside of the Languedoc is a good place for them to try out this idea. The region hides mouthwateringly beautiful high-end properties. Towns, villages, and open wine country all have their fair share of impressive châteaux, maison de maîtres (literally, master’s houses), and wealthy merchants’ homes, and many are on the market.
This comes as a bit of a surprise to me. Over the years visiting the region, I’ve assumed that these grand, historic properties are family heirlooms, passed from generation to generation, never coming onto the market. I was wrong. However, they do come at a price, usually at least 500,000 euros.
Crème de Languedoc currently lists dozens of properties in the range of 500,000 to 1.6 million euros, from contemporary, luxury villas to gorgeous, upscale historic delights—including a six-bedroom maison de maître built in 1836 to the east of Roujan, between Carcassonne and Narbonne. This beautiful home is in a typical Minervois wine-growing village, has a pool, large gardens, a terrace overlooking the vineyards, and bags of French style, and it is in easy reach of major tourist attractions. Tantalizing for sure.