Vices cachés, Vertues avérées*
*Hidden defects, revealed virtues-- what you should know before you buy that chateau!
What's behind those walls? It's a question of structural integrity...but not only. In one 14th-century castle I visited near Montauban, legend had it that its owner, a Marquis, was so jealous of his young and exquisitely beautiful bride, that he confined her to a room for the remainder of his life. Another legend tells of a bride who disappeared in a château just before her wedding. The wedding party searched for her for days, to no avail. Only some fifty years later was she discovered-wedding the dress intact--trapped behind a mysterious wall. Well, those are of course stories from long ago. These days we are more concerned with estimating the cost to maintain a château through the two decades, even after it has stood the test of centuries. The paradox of our synthetically-sustained, technologically-enhanced age is that human craft has become unaffordable for most, and of little interest to others. A French château can be astonishingly inexpensive. How about 420 000€ for a château in the charming town of Chinon? That same price will hardly fetch you a studio apartment in central Paris. What's the catch? As a general rule, you can expect the renovation budget to be at least as much as the purchase price. The lower the price per square meter, the greater the renovation multiple. There are detractors who point out that a château is nothing else than a financial drain. It's a bad investment to be avoided at all costs, you may read. It is true that if your only interest is ROI, you're better off reading the writing above the castle gates: "Woe to those who enter here!"*
Surrender to the château as something greater than yourself, and it may confer upon you its inherent nobility.
Well, I suppose there are those who purchase art only for its probable resale value, but those who love art purchase for art's sake. The same is true for a château, with the added benefit of serving as a home. Once you have understood and accepted that renovations and maintenance are an integral part of the deal, you need to ensure that you have the funds to see it through. This implies a reasonable budget estimate based on studies prior to the purchase. This is where my work as a search agent comes to bear. While there are a certain number of inspections required by law, there is also an awful lot that is not, starting with structural integrity. While it may be reasonably assumed that a château having stood the test of centuries will easily stand for the decades ahead, that assumption can hide impending fragilities. Sellers are expected by law to disclose what they know in response to the buyer's questions, but if you suspect after your acquisition that something important had been willfully concealed, the burden of proof of vice cachée will be on your shoulders. French real estate law provides that the buyer agrees to purchase the property in its current state. No exhaustive description of that current state is required. For example, if you want to know the state of the wooden beams supporting the roof, you'd better have a look at them, or appoint a qualified professional to do it for you. Again, except in the case of willful non-disclosure, neither the Seller nor his agent are considered liable for defects discovered after the sale. The buyer is advised to order his own inspections.
This brings us to the practical matter of what needs to be checked before you sign on a château. The list below is intended to give you an idea of the issues that concern châteaux in particular. In my work as a buyer's agent, I use a much more exhaustive check-list, and call in the appropriate experts as needed.
Top-down, start with the roof. A troubled roof will be costly to replace or repair...as much as 200€/m2. If the château will serve as your primary home, there are subsidies available for this and many other improvements. The same is also true if it is classified as a historical monument. Most châteaux have slate roofs, and their exceptional height requires specialized labor (un couvreur) and scaffolding for security.
If the roof is in a really sorry state, there will likely be water infiltration, with damages ranging from mold to destructive fungus, the worst of these called mérules. An often admirable wooden frame (la charpente) supports the roof, accessible from inside the château The Seller must by law provide you a termite-free inspection report; however, there are other wood borers that can, over time, compromise the beam's resistance. You can expect to see plenty of tiny holes in the beams. That is not a problem, but there should be no active wood-boring, signaled by wood dust. If there is, the cost of the treatment will depend on the total surface requiring treatment.
Check all ceilings for water damage and cracks. Inquire about the origin of such damages. The Sellers wil likely tell you that it's been fixed, but you need to understand what caused such damage to avoid a repeat experience
Windows are a magnificent feature of a château, but are also a major cost item given that they are custom-made. You'll want to verify for water infiltrations and cracks. Make sure they all open properly.You'll be faced with an energy-efficiency dilemma (replace with double panes or not). There is no perfect answer, but energy efficiency needs to be addressed as an entire system. It doesn't make sense to over-optimise one component if the rest is not up to the same performance standard. Water and wastewater did not have the same level of importance when châteaux were built.
Most châteaux are currently benefit from a municipal water supply, but septic tanks are used for sewage; The wastewater standards are revised every few years, so you will be required as a buyer to replace your system in conformity to the new standards. This replacement is required (not really enforced) within year after purchase. I advise, whenever possible, to install a plant-filtration system given that your property is generally large enough to accommodate one.
Most châteaux are still heated (both for heat and hot water) by fuel burners, but these are being phased out. You should therefore expect, within the next decade, to replace them entirely with a mix other more ecological solutions such as geothermal for heat, and thermodynamic for hot water. For the sake of charm and coziness, you'll no doubt want to keep your fireplaces and wood-burning stoves.
Further to this foray into vices cachés, let's end with some vertues avérées.
Notice, amidst all the things that may be in need of repair, how the château is unique. There will never be another like it. Take a moment to identify its particular charms, imprinted by time. Some of these may speak to you in a special way. Perhaps it's the majestic stone stairwell or a vaulted ceiling? A tapestry on the wall? A curiously cozy tower room? The magic of the morning light through the hight windows? Or even some domestic detail such as an old bread oven. Beyond the visible, there is a history of the place that excites the imagination. There remains something of an inherent nobility to which the edifice calls you.
Truly, this is not just real estate. You are entering the realm of things eternal, beyond price.
If you’re contemplating the purchase of a château or any historically exceptional home in France, allow me to make your path smoother for you. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org