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An American in the French Languedoc

Vintners House of Horrors

Pictures may be worth 1000 words, but with real estate, it is imperative to view a property firsthand. Photography and digital images distort, embellish and rarely accurately depict the unique surprises each listing reveals. A measure of perspective only emerges after the fourth or fifth distinct property is viewed.

      It is a dating procession with significant money at stake, especially if you are speculating for future resale. Choose poorly and you are saddled financially and timewise with your folly.

      My own initial test drive of Aude based real estate listings provoked a brief passionate infatuation with the very first property. Our agent (since departed from the industry) directed us to a promising former Vintners House on the periphery of Caunes-Minervois, an intimate winemaking village between Lezignan and Carcassonne.

      This character house, like most we would subsequently view, was publicized as needing renovation upgrades with the caveat that it had suffered past minor flood damage. This was not a significant foreboding as the entire Languedoc endured significant property damage during the flooding catastrophe of November 1999. The inundation prompted international media coverage.

      Five years and three months later, the large vintners manor still bore the water rings elevated at the four-foot level in the principle entry room.

      The elderly owners had never bothered to repair the damage and ultimately determined putting it for sale was the most prudent alternative. This should have been sufficient warning to flee immediately, but as the 1999 flood was billed as the disaster of the Century, the prospects for an encore were far from a certainty.

      The facade of the three-level house featured Art Nouveau intricate iron grillwork, gorgeous to the eye, but rusting and in need of paint. Nine different shutters protected the front windows and the exterior walls were remarkably in good condition with molding crowning the corner masonry.

      The tiled roof appeared sound although without direct assess and inspection or a trial Languedoc rainstorm, such assumptions are generally wishful thinking.

      One known history of the house was it had served as a seasonal dormitory for the Spanish pickers during the fall vineyard harvest. Apparently it had languished on the market for approximately a year and even had one Swiss buyer at one point who’d signed an initial sale contract. According to our source, the buyer vanished (probably after determining the required expenditure required for refurbishing).

      The rest of the interior was unremarkable featuring regional tile, marble fireplaces, paint and décor challenged rooms and exposed wiring dating back to the DeGaulle era. Yes, necessitated repainting, rewiring and retiling would form the workload itinerary, but the house radiated a certain caché, the French equivalent of charm.

      The steepest challenges involved forging a functional kitchen; living and dining room from two principle lower level rooms. Oh, and the upstairs bound concrete staircase barely accommodated my assent and would have made raising furniture to the upper floors impossible.

      What appealed to me and horrified my wife most about the property was a 6500 square foot courtyard only accessible from a half block behind the house for unexplained reasons.  Our agent cautioned us about the street side entrance door. Small wonder, the roofing had nearly worn away except for some precarious sheets of marble teetering on the edge of decent. Our entrance had dislodged a flock of nesting pigeons, who’d taken residence amongst the patchwork roofing.

      The pigeons fluttered their disapproval with our entrance and scattered to await our eventual departure. I’m surprised they humor themselves by employing us as target practice.

      Once past the crumbling entrance, an idyllic stonewalled courtyard with extensive overgrowth enlivened the panorama. A loitering inventory of stray objects included a gigantic stone wine press and two tremendous vats loitering idly from disuse and neglect. An attached inaccessible room featured more rotting vats and visions of integrating each into a rustic exterior garden. One supplemental feature of the property was an additional 2600 square foot steel gated garden completely detached across the street from the house.

      My wife Claudia was exasperated that I would even consider such a project with its accompanying baggage. My lofty imagination had graduated into restoring this fading jewel to elevated heights and reselling at two to three times whatever we could negotiate off the asking price of 160,000 Euros.

      In retrospect, my notion was probably folly, particularly as an initial renovation project. Such is the madness of infatuation. However, with a premium demand for village houses featuring terrain, the project would likely have been a profitable enterprise (with a certain constraint in expectation).

      The house (not the accompanying courtyard) ultimately sold three months later at a reduced price and a modest renovation was undertaken. One year later, the ornate ironwork still lacks paint and the upgrading appears superficially completed. The house is habituated however.

      Ironically, the single drawback I overlooked on my initial visit would have proven the most detrimental in the resale process. A barely discernable river outlet bordered the house and served as a runoff source during heavy rains. This outlets path streams uninterrupted towards the entry door of the house. Thus. The flood of the century is likely an annual occurrence in the entry room.

      Head over heart ultimately triumphed for us.


Marques Vickers



Marques Vickers uprooted from Northern California to the Languedoc region of southern France in June 2005. He currently resides in the wine village of Montseret.  

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