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Backcountry Bargains

Courtesy Tourist Office of Tourettes-sur-Loup


Backcountry Bargains

March 11, 2011

The French Riviera, with its glamorous seaside resorts and picturesque hilltop villages, has been the domain of the world's monied set since it was discovered in the 1880s by British travelers, including Queen Victoria herself. For the elderly monarch, the coastline was a "paradise of nature", with a temperate climate, beautiful gardens and a privacy she had rarely experienced herself.

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Backcountry Bargains


If multimillion-euro sales are anything to go by, the allure of the Côte d’Azur has not dimmed. Indeed, the French department of Alpes-Maritimes, which includes the coast from the Italian border to Théoule-sur-Mer, hardly seems to have been affected by the faltering international housing market. According to Mike Braunholtz, sales director at the Prestige Property Group, houses and apartments on the Côte d’Azur are selling faster than anywhere else in France.

“We have had a very busy year in and around Nice, which seems to be the epicenter of all our big sales at the moment,” he says. “The high-end French market really does center down on the Riviera, where you will find some of the most valuable properties in France, in towns like Saint-Tropez, Cap-d’Antibes and Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. The prices make a grand crescendo into Monaco.”

“The Côte d’Azur is the only place in France that I know where the prices are really going up,” he adds, “and people that have money want to get into this market.”

However, contrary to popular belief, the entire Côte d'Azur is not exclusively for the rich and famous. There are still areas, especially in the dramatic backcountry that rises behind the coast, where property bargains can be found.

Braunholtz suggests that prospective buyers take a trip around the towns of Mougins and Valbonne, still only about a 30-minute drive from Nice-Côte-d'Azur International Airport, to find properties with a slightly more realistic price tag than those found along the coast.

“Here you can still pick up gems that need to be done up, tumbledown villas that need considerable work done, but on which you can put your mark,” he adds. He recommends looking at properties outside the main towns, particularly in newly built residences or apartment blocks, where there are more “gems” to be found.

Mougins, directly north of Cannes, is a grown-up and gentrified medieval village situated on a hilltop with a panoramic view of the coast and the Mediterranean. Long known as the home of celebrated (now retired) three-star chef Roger Vergé and his hotel-restaurant the Moulin de Mougins, it’s now a tourist attraction on its own. Prices in the village itself are very high, not least because of its proximity to several first-class international schools and golf clubs.

But a few good deals can still be found. For example, there is currently a two-room apartment for sale in an apartment building with a private swimming pool for €143,000. Granted, at 31 square meters (334 square feet) it won’t be suitable for a family, but it would make an excellent rental property or pied-à-terre. For about €10,000 more, Prestigimmo Azur has a current listing for a semi-detached maisonette with a small garden and a shared pool. The living space is smaller, just 322 square feet, but the outside space can be used for living and dining during at least six months of the year, when the weather is warm enough to spend much of the day outside.

Villas start at around €200,000, for two bedrooms and some outside space. If money is no object, of course, the price tags for larger properties in Mougins can go up to eight figures.

Slightly farther away from the coast, Valbonne is another increasingly popular town. Although it’s certainly not a bargain basement, it offers more affordable possibilities than the honey pots of Cannes and Saint-Tropez. The commune of Valbonne now incorporates Sophia Antipolis, a sprawling international high-tech industrial park and research community created in the 1970s and roughly equivalent to Silicon Valley. (Sophia is Greek for wisdom; Antipolis was the ancient Greek name for nearby Antibes, a port originally established by Greek traders in the 4th century BC.)

The old town of Valbonne developed in the 16th century, growing out from the 12th-century church and an abbey that now houses a small museum. Built around a lovely arcaded square surrounded by colorful Provençal houses and outdoor cafés, it’s laid out in a square grid of streets filled with flowering balconies, art galleries and boutiques. A small, 41-square-meter maison de village here is currently on the market for €185,000.

Relatively reasonable properties can sometimes also be found in the many private developments in the surrounding areas. One-bedroom houses in these gated residences start at about €279,000, and usually include use of a private swimming pool.

Other towns that real estate agencies single out as offering good value in the backcountry Côte d’Azur are La Colle-sur-Loup and Tourrettes-sur-Loup, both very attractive towns northeast of Nice and easily accessible from the A8 autoroute, which runs along the coast from the Nice airport into the Var département.

La Colle-sur-Loup, which has long been a little-known sister village to the famous Saint-Paul-de-Vence nearby, has a pretty, pedestrian only center, but perhaps its most appealing attribute is the wide Loup River that runs along one side. The river comes rushing down from the nearby mountains through the Gorges du Loup, a dramatic canyon known for white-water sports. A village house in La Colle will cost somewhere around €350,000, while a renovation project for a 160-square-meter villa is on the market with the Welcome Riviera real estate agency for €399,000.

Several miles up the winding river, the medieval perched village of Tourrettes-sur-Loup offers superb sea views and some quite reasonable prices—an 80-square-meter stone village house is currently on sale for €239,000.

The basic rule is that prices tend to decrease the farther you get from the coast, says Braunholtz. Property in villages such as Le Broc and Bouyon, directly north of Nice but still less than an hour’s drive from the airport, offer excellent value for money. The villages are smaller, and certainly less touristy than others mentioned here, but the views are just as remarkable and the lifestyle equally appealing. A three-bedroom house in Le Broc, for example, is available for €189,000, while a brand new, contemporary four-bedroom villa with 177 square meters of living space is being sold for €319,000.

But if these hinterland villages are too remote, there are also some great bargains to be found in Nice, says Braunholtz. “In the middle of Nice you can still find apartments priced between €200,000 and €500,000. Here you’ve got a beautiful rental market, which is not just seasonal but all year round. You have a transient young rental market, and a large student community. It’s a great place to invest.”

Buyer’s agent Rebecca Russell, of the agency Côte Abode agrees, pointing out that Nice offers much better value for money than Paris. “A renovated older-style apartment in the center of Nice is averaging between €4,000 to €4,500 per square meter right now. For anything close to the sea, the price goes up to between €4,500 and €5,500. Compared with Paris, where the cheapest inner-city quartier comes in at around €5,500 to €6,000 per square meter, and the most expensive is €10,000 to €12,000, Nice is good shopping.”

One caveat, she adds: “Prices in Paris have gone up by 10 percent and so I do expect the same to happen in Nice, since what happens in the capital usually happens in Nice shortly afterwards.”

Originally published in the February 2011 issue of France Today



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