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They bought a house in France for $20,000 without seeing it. Here’s what happened

By Tamara Hardingham-Gill, CNN

(CNN) — Her fascination with France began when she spent a summer in the European country while working as an au pair back in the 1970s.

From then on, Ellen, originally from the East Coast of the US, made it her mission to travel to France whenever she got the chance to.

She met her now husband Joseph, from the West Coast, in the late 1970s and the couple went on to marry and have three children, continuing to travel to the country as a family once every two years or so.

“It’s funny, Joseph and our daughter would tease me, because anytime we were planning a vacation, I always wanted to come to France,” Ellen admits.

“They liked France too, but they would say, ‘Can we go somewhere else?’ [I would say,] ‘Yes, as long as we stop in Paris first or something like that.’ So, it was a compromise usually.”

‘Half house’

Although Ellen and Joseph, who have chosen not to disclose their surname, had been toying with the prospect of moving to France for years, it wasn’t until they were both approaching retirement age that they began seriously thinking about buying a property there.

Ellen came across a tiny rundown home in the historic village of Lonlay l’Abbaye in Normandy, northern France, while browsing French real estate online, back in 2014.

“The house was affordable,” says Joseph, who previously worked as a business executive. “It was obviously a bit of a ruin. But it was within our budget.

“And that was always foremost in our minds. What can we budget? How much should we plan to spend on improvements, and so on and so forth. So, the budgetary element was pretty important for us.”

They then spent some time checking out the “charming” village on Google Street View, and eventually came across an account of two American soldiers who’d been “helped by the French Resistance in the village during World War II.”

The couple made the decision to purchase the house, which has around 400 square meters of living space, unseen, arranging for an inspector to view it beforehand.

While the property was on the market for around 18,000 euros ($19,400), Ellen and Joseph ended up purchasing it for around 13,000 euros following negotiations with the seller.

“It really wasn’t in move-in condition at all,” says Ellen, explaining that the house would need extensive work to make it liveable again. “The seller kind of agreed with that.”

Once the sale was finalized, they brought in local builders to begin demolition work on the property, overseeing things from their California home.

“They kept us informed. They would send us photographs to show us how the work was progressing,” explains Joseph. “And we would exchange ideas on how the renovation should unfold. So it worked out ok.”

The couple continued to travel to France regularly, flying over in 2015 and 2016 and checking on the progress of the work.

The following year they decided it was finally time to start the process of packing up their lives in the US and moving to France.

The first big step was applying for a long stay visa, which took a few months to finalize, then came what Joseph describes as the “wind down procedure.”

“Prior to your departure, there’s the decision to leave your homeland to go to another country, and all of the implications associated with that decision,” he notes. “All the preparation that has to be done in advance.”

They sold off many of their possessions, keeping only items of sentimental value, and set things in motion so that they could manage their affairs from France.

Big move

Ellen and Joseph, who also have a property in New York, decided to rent out their home in California rather than sell it.

They then set about renting an apartment in Paris as their base while work on their Normandy home continued.

“We found that, to be in the parts of Paris that we wanted to live in, it was much less expensive to rent than it would have been to buy,” explains Ellen.

“Plus, the older that you are, the more difficult it is to get a mortgage. We would have had to have sold up and probably bought cash in Paris.”

They arrived in Paris to begin their new lives in April 2017.

Ellen and Joseph quickly set about getting to know their new community, while also traveling back and forth to Lonlay l’Abbaye to check on the renovation work.

“Each year, we budgeted for a different phase of renovation,” says Ellen, before describing how they replaced the floors, walls, electrics, and the plumbing in the home.

“We sought out good building materials and learned about ventilation and humidity issues in old stone houses.”

Ellen goes on to point out that they were able to keep the original staircase inside the house, along with a wooden cabinet that had been in the study.

While they had no choice but to get new windows and doors, they opted to replace them with replicas.

“We like to think that the ghosts of the American GIs who helped to liberate this village would still recognize our house if they walked past it on the street,” she adds.

Their goal was to both transform the tiny house into a liveable second home, and “restore it and leave it in good authentic condition for future generations.”

“We wanted to keep it looking the way it was,” says Ellen. “We didn’t want to make any big changes.”

Renovation project

She points out that any major changes to the outside of our Normandy house had to be approved by the local authorities and the Architectes de Batiments de France, officials concerned with protecting monuments and historic areas, due to the house’s proximity to the village’s 11th century abbey.

But as the work continued to progress, the global pandemic hit, which led to renovations being halted for around two years and they were unable to travel to Normandy to visit.

Thankfully, Ellen and Joseph were able to resume work on the home once restrictions were lifted and had completed the structural work and painting by December 2021. Their new windows were installed a year later.

“We’re extremely proud of the builders, who managed to transform this from basically a small country ruin to a very liveable place,” says Joseph, adding that they’re still working on the furnishing and the “decorative side of” things.

They’d also eventually like to finish off the attic, which is currently used as storage space, and perhaps add a “half bath” up there.

Ellen and Joseph estimate that they spent a total of 65,000 euros (about $70,000) on the building works and labor, and a further 5,000 euros on appliances and furniture.

Now settled in France, they continue to flit back and forth between Paris and Lonlay l’Abbaye, stressing that they wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s kind of like a French Brigadoon,” Joseph says of Lonlay l’Abbaye. “There’s a certain magic to the village. The history. The Abbey. And everything is just so close. You’re surrounded by these small hills with trees and grass.

“It’s really a dramatic departure from living in a city like Los Angeles, New York or Paris.”

They’ve formed strong friendships in Lonlay l’Abbaye and travel there by train “every five or six weeks,” staying at their “half house” for a few weeks, before heading back to their rented apartment in Paris.

According to Joseph, the journey between the properties is a little over two and a half hours – their home is a 20-minute taxi ride from Flers station in Normandy.

Both feel that life in France has done wonders for them, explaining that they walk a lot more, and eat much better due to the readily available fresh produce.

“Our daughter thinks that we’ve definitely extended our lifespans by moving here,” says Ellen.

“It just seems like a much healthier lifestyle for us.”

Early on, they decided to “shoulder the responsibility” of learning French to make the transition easier, and stress that this has helped tremendously when it comes to forming bonds.

“Now 90% of all speaking that we do is in French,” says Joseph. “Even though we are far from proficient in French, it’s just something that really, really matters to us. And of course, it makes a difference to other people as well.”

However, the couple admit that they still occasionally find it daunting while attending a dinner with only French speakers who want to discuss philosophy.”

They’ve had to adapt to some of the cultural differences between the French and Americans, and say that some have been easier to get used to than the others.

For instance, Joseph points out that the French are “very, very private” in comparison to Americans, and perhaps less willing to share their lives.

“They don’t invite you to their home right away,” he notes. “They don’t address you in the first person.

“And that’s in contrast to the United States, where people are much more open with each other.”

However, Ellen acknowledges that she’s always been “more comfortable with the French frame of mind” when it comes to relating to people and forming friendships, so this has suited her fine.

“Maybe I’m just a little more introverted,” she notes.

Charming village

The couple, who chronicled the renovation in an online blog, have found life in France to be more affordable than in the US, noting that their health care costs and property taxes are considerably less now.

In fact, they say the latter is roughly five to six times more on their properties in the States.

“I think that’s one reason why a lot of Americans are thinking of Europe,” says Joseph. “Because of the cost of living, and the property taxes, but also the health care.”

While they both miss living in southern California, neither has any regrets about leaving, admitting that it had become quite draining for them towards the end.

“The traffic. The craziness. And then, to some extent, politically. The divisions in the US were very stressful,” says Ellen.

“It’s not like we were having daily battles with people. But it was hard to watch. It’s still hard to watch the press from overseas and see how divided America is.

“Gee, it doesn’t feel like the America we grew up in anymore.”

They’ve gotten to explore much of France during their time there and have been enjoying learning about the different regions.

“We fully appreciate how much the French enjoy and appreciate the seasons, the moments and the food,” says Ellen. “It’s a different cultural thing, but it’s something you can appreciate.”

They say that they’d advise anyone considering a similar move to research their chosen destination carefully and refrain from trying to “replicate America” wherever they go.

“Leave some of those expectations behind,” says Ellen. “Because you don’t want to just beat your head against a brick wall, and insist on thinking like an American. Saying ‘well, this should be easy, and they should do it this way.’”

They acknowledge that spending so much time in France beforehand made things easier for them, stressing that things may have turned out differently if they had been less familiar with the country.

“We have encountered that with some friends,” says Joseph. “You [can] get some real culture clash.”

Ellen and Joseph currently have no plans to buy a place in Paris and say they’ll continue to move between their apartment in the 7th arrondissement and the countryside, perhaps spending eight months in Paris and four months in Lonlay l’Abbaye in the future.

“It’s kind of an ideal situation where you have a place to get away to. To enjoy everything that Paris has to offer, but then to also get a break from the noise and the business.”

Although they’ve returned to the US to spend time with their family and friends since relocating, they have no intention of returning to the country to live at this point, and can see themselves remaining in France for the rest of their lives.

“There are moments, of course, when we do miss a place, or something from the United States,” says Joseph.

“But this is a way of life. We’re trying to be Americans enjoying France and living here compatibly with the country.

“But never forgetting that we are Americans and our country is very important to us.”

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