Happy Friday! I have a special post to share today. Sunita from the lovely @chateaudecapelle shares the story of how she and her family bought a 30-year abandoned château in the South of France, to renovate into a beautiful family home! I hope you enjoy the interview.
Can you tell us a little about yourself and your family?
I was born and grew up in South Africa and my husband in Australia. In our early twenties we both ended up in England for work and studies, where we met during a rugby game in 2004. We both enjoyed travelling and exploring different cultures so a few years followed of us doing just that. Although we continued to live in London where we both worked and attended university, we travelled the world whenever an opportunity presented itself. After a few trips to mainland Europe, we fell in love with the beautiful mountains and countryside – never dreaming that we would end up living there! We married in 2011 and thought many times about a change of lifestyle, however it took a few years and three children for us to take the leap. Our family now consists of our two boys, 8 and 6, our little girl of 3, a young pup and five cats.
What led you to consider buying a château?
We often say that our chateau actually found us rather than the other way around! We did not specifically look for a château when we set out to buy something in the South of France. The move was aimed at establishing a new lifestyle for our family; more outdoors and a slower pace of life for our children to grow up in. We set our search criteria of minimum number of bedrooms, bathrooms and land size we were ideally looking for. The agents included a few châteaux amongst the French farmhouses, maison d’maitres, etc. that they showed us. Out of the 41 properties we viewed over two years Château de Capelle stood out to us despite needing a full restoration. We researched the scale and cost of the restoration and decided that it was viable, put in an offer and when it was accepted we felt it was meant to be.
Can you describe the property search process?
We searched over a period of two years. We started by researching areas of Europe where we would be happy based on climate, accessibility to an International Airport (we usually visit family and friends once a year) and where there might be potential employment opportunities for Andrew. He is a programme manager so consulting firms, telecommunication companies, etc. needed to be within commuting distance. Oh and of course mountains! Our research first led us to the Midi-Pyrenees area of France and we booked a flight there for a two-week period. On this, our first, trip in 2018 we viewed 15 properties but in hindsight we were really unorganised. We had not made enough real estate agent contacts beforehand, and not booked viewings in advance. One property was of interest, but nothing inspired us to really commit. On our second trip in 2019 we saw 26 properties (Château de Capelle being the first) and made our decision at the end of that trip. Our property searches were definitely interesting! Viewing around six properties a day is hard enough (driving time and viewing large properties and gardens can take over an hour) but with three little children in-tow it became even more of a challenge. We became experts in preparing stacks of ham, cheese and salad baguettes beforehand, overcoming the struggles of nappy changes en-route, amusing children during car journeys, and finding the boys when they disappeared in the long grass of a property that had been on the market for two years. A few interesting moments, and we look back on the experience with a laugh.
What was the moment like when you finally bought the chateau?
Well these moments are often different for my husband and I. The property buying process in France is different from anything we had done before and was a lengthy administrative process with extensive negotiations right up until the end. It was tiring, quite daunting and I had mixed feelings; thoughts like “What have we done?” crossed my mind a few times. The château was uninhabited for nearly 30 years and had some internal damage, no heating, water or electricity … so you can imagine the challenges we were facing. As for Andrew he could not have been happier and immediately went into planning mode to start renovations. His positivity helped me a lot in those first few days and I eventually became excited at the possibilities of the property.
What are the best and worst parts of renovating an old château?
The best part is undoubtedly not knowing what treasure or historical artefact we might find next. The old château has delivered quite a few talking points; letters from the 1700’s, a Napoleon coin, a few francs behind a skirting board, an old bottle of buried cassis with the seal still intact…and the list goes on. We discovered a number of special things that we can’t wait to display once the château is finished. The worst part is, again, not knowing what you are going to find 😉 . Removing old plaster can expose an unexpected rotten beam, cracks can reveal more work than the superficial repair we planned, and the list goes on. The walls and floors are also not always straight so installation of something that might be straight-forward (no pun intended) in a newly built house, is often a challenge in a château. The sheer size of it is a challenge in itself and require a lot of patience and creative thinking to stretch budgets. My husband and I definitely spend a lot of time reviewing plans, making decisions, and researching options and materials to be purchased.
What are your plans once the renovations are complete?
Our main plan is to enjoy life in the château with our family and to relax once some renovations are complete. For example, we are currently living in a one-bedroom apartment on the side of the château with a plan to move into the main part later this month. Once we move to the main part, the apartment will become available as a gite for guests who want to stay with us. We then have further renovations to do which will open up more rooms in the house, works to do in the garden, and we still want lifestyle changes like keeping our own chickens. Perhaps we will also investigate the potential of a wedding venue or hosting musical concerts.
Do you have any advice for those looking to follow in your footsteps?
Just take a deep breath and a step of faith; for us this was all about creating a new and better life for our family, so we try to stay true to that at every decision point. Also keep control of your finances, as renovations can, and usually do, get out of control. It is important to budget accordingly to the property’s renovation needs, so consider more than just the purchase price when shopping. Bear in mind that big properties need a lot of maintenance, in terms of time, any help you may want to hire, and also costs. Lastly keep the dream alive; the satisfaction of seeing the hard work come to fruition is priceless and the quality of life makes it all worthwhile.