Donald Bauchner and his wife never expected to own a French chateau. But they rented a vacation home in Provence three years ago and fell in love with the region. "We started looking just to see what was out there," says the New York City businessman, 59, "and we were enthralled." What the Bauchners wound up with was an 18th century stone castle and 22 acres of forest. The place was a bargain at $570,000, even though a two-year renovation more than tripled the original cost. Now the Bauchners spend most of their time in Provence entertaining, visiting the surrounding villages and beautifying their property. Says Bauchner: "It's been a really wonderful experience."
Leslie Critchlow, 34, a manager at Accenture in San Francisco, got an even better deal: an 18th century chateau in Brittany with 14 rooms and a 20-acre park for only $285,000. Along with her mother and brother, she is hoping to turn it into a bed-and-breakfast. "We saw this chateau and fell in love," says Critchlow. "We were shocked to find out we could afford it."
Bauchner and Critchlow are part of a fast growing group of Americans who are buying and renting everything from castles to cottages in France, Italy, Spain and other European countries--and often for less than the price of a cramped apartment in Manhattan. "In the past five years," says Emile Garcin, owner of a French real estate agency that caters to foreigners, "the number of Americans buying chateaus has doubled." One big reason is the strong dollar, which has gained 40% against the franc since 1995 and 20% against the euro since that currency was launched two years ago.
In France, many Americans are drawn to the sunny Provence-Cote d'Azur region, but prices are much lower in Brittany, Normandy and central France. A fixer-upper can be found for as little as $150,000, and rentals are equally attractive. A two-bedroom ski chalet in Haute-Savoie rents for $300 a month. A one-bedroom flat in central Paris goes for about $2,000 a month, as does a four-bedroom home near the beach in Nice. "Americans can find great deals on little 19th century chateaus," says Serge Henu, director of the France Chateaux agency in Brittany. "For the French, that's not considered old enough to be interesting."
Eighteenth century chateaus are particularly desirable because of their large windows and roomy interior spaces. Laure Jakobiak, who works on chateau restorations with architect Bruno Lafourcade, says, "It is essentially Americans who are interested in restoring chateaus. They are very attracted by the history."
The search for a bargain chateau can begin at home, where one can scan specialized websites like vacationspot.com castles.org and athomeinfrance.com Chateau hunters should also flip through upscale French real estate reviews such as Demeures et Chateaux, Proprietes and Belles Demeures, available at international newsstands in most large U.S. cities. Prospective buyers should contact reputable agencies experienced in steering foreigners through the shoals of house hunting and real estate transactions in France. Agents like Garcin (emilegarcin.fr) and Henu (france-chateaux.fr) can arrange hotels for prospective clients, visit properties with them, help arrange financing and oversee the closing formalities.