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Expert property guide to Pyrénées-Atlantiques

Typical chateau style in Pyrenees-Atlantiques, pale stone and blue shutters, plus large courtyard

Pyrénées-Atlantiques is a department in the southwest corner of France. It takes its name from the Pyrénées mountains and the Atlantic Ocean. The region is split between two distinct areas: Pays Basque Country and Béarn. We talk to local property agent Charlie Ellis to get an expert view of property in the region…

What areas in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques are popular with expat buyers?

Map showing Pyrenees-Atlantiques department on the border with SpainAlthough many expats search for properties in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques because they want to live close to the sea and the mountains, many quickly realise that those hoped-for bargains are quite elusive. Old Basque houses on the coast are traditionally huge and often shared by three generations living together or divided up into several apartments. Therefore, you really have to come inland if what you’re looking for is a detached farmhouse with a decent amount of land. And you’ll find the architecture is far more varied in the Béarn.

In all the time we’ve lived in the Basque Country and the Béarn, we’ve met just a handful of English-speaking expats – our expat friends tend to be Spanish! However as a Leggett agent, I can tell you that English-speakers are predominantly near Salies-de-Béarn, where excellent properties often come up for sale. And also west of Oloron-Sainte-Marie in the foothills of the Pyrénées.

Many buyers – French and English-speaking – hope to live with walking distance of a boulangerie and a bar. However I do warn that for some buyers, it can be far more important to have a doctor’s surgery or health clinic fairly close by and also a good supermarket.

Where should home buyers look for great properties in Béarn and the Pays Basque?

Pretty pale stone house with blue shutters surrounded by countryside

This is a difficult question to answer because I would recommend just about anywhere and everywhere in the Béarn and Basque Country. It really depends on the sort of property you’re looking for, what sort of landscape you’d like to live in and whether you have children. It also depends on your budget. While property is generally quite affordable in the Béarn and the more inland Basque Country, as you approach the coast it becomes more expensive. Biarritz, Saint Jean de Luz and Hendaye reach almost French Riviera levels.

Property in the Béarn

In the Béarn, anywhere to the south and west of Pau is great for easy access to the Pyrénées, skiing and Spain. The riverside towns of Oloron-Sainte-Marie and Navarrenx are great value with characterful townhouses to invest in and impressive maisons-de-maître to renovate and bring back to life. Oloron has worked to improve the layout of the town, so investing here could prove very worthwhile.

If you love the hilly terrain of vineyards, there are châteaux, hotels and farmhouses in Jurançon, Monein and Lucq-de-Béarn. If you prefer the mountains, there are properties to suit all budgets for instance in Arette and Lescun, from boutique B&Bs to hilltop cottages. Most have fantastic mountain views. And if you have children, living in or around the town of Nay is highly recommended because of the excellent schools. There is also an International School in Pau where they use the English Curriculum and award British qualifications.

Property in the Pays Basque

In the Basque Country, the town of St-Jean-Pied-de-port is very lively due to its famous association with the Chemin-de-St-Jacques-de-Compostelle. Better bargains can probably be found the closer you get to St-Palais. If you have a very healthy budget, then the lovely towns about 20 minutes away from the coast are worth looking at. But the closer you get to the sea, the bigger the price tag.

What sorts of properties are available in Pyrénées-Atlantiques?

Pretty B&B in Pyrenees-Atlantiques, ivy and roses climbing over pale stone wall

The Basque country comprises three provinces moving from west to east – Labourd on the coast, Basse Navarre and Soule, which borders the Béarn. In Labourd and Basse Navarre, Basque houses predominantly have orange roof tiles, white walls and Basque-red or very dark green shutters and woodwork. Labourd houses often have colombage features. Basse Navarre houses are less decorative and look a little more austere. Farmhouses in both these areas tend to have barns incorporated into the farmhouse rather than as separate barns. The architecture in the third basque province, Soule, looks more “Béarnais”. The roofs tend to be dark slate and are often very steep to stop snow settling on them.

The Béarn is far more varied architecturally and the area is teeming with watermills. Perhaps the most noticeable architectural feature are the dormer windows on Béarnaise houses. Some can have as many as ten. “Enclos Béarnais” is where a farmhouse and its barns are set around a huge courtyard. There are even distinct architectural differences as you go from one neighbouring village to another. In one, the houses might be side on to the main village street or may not even be visible because they’re protected by high walls and tall gates. In another the houses might be built in L-shapes or have decorative spikes on their roofs. And, of course, the architecture of the high mountain village houses will differ enormously from riverside or vineyard properties. There are many more châteaux and manor houses (maisons-de-maître) in the Béarn than in the Basque Country.

Many buyers are searching for properties which they can run as a wedding venue or host yoga retreats. Spacious farmhouses to renovate as a family home are also popular. This area is more popular with the French but savvy British buyers are discovering it and tend to search for farmhouses with outbuildings in order to set up gîtes and B&B businesses.

What can home buyers get for their money, doer uppers to chateaux etc.

Street in the Basque area of Pyrenees-Atlantiques, half timbered buildings on a cobbled, hilly street

My most popular property ever was a château to renovate for 250,000€ even though it will require at least the same budget again on top to do it up!

If you need to generate an income as soon as you move to France, buying an up-and-running business is definitely a consideration since creating something from scratch can sometimes cost you more in the long-run. Many businesses are sold fully furnished and equipped, so all you have to do is start welcoming your first clients!

Farmhouses with several hectares of land are always popular with buyers, especially those with horses.

What 3 key pieces of advice do you give to your clients when they’re looking for property in the area?

At the start of your search, try to be 100% honest with yourself – and with your estate agent about how much money you have to spend on your project. This helps the agent to match you up with a property that’s going to suit you, your project and your budget. Don’t forget that your budget needs to include the price of the property, the notaire’s fees (around 8%) and the cost of any renovations.

When you start looking for suitable properties, don’t feel you have to buy somewhere with lots and lots of land. Only buy land if you plan to use it. Land is a huge responsibility because you have to keep the boundaries securely fenced and tidy. When we had our farmhouse, our neighbour kept his horses on our land to keep the brambles down and he also cut the grass in return for the hay. If you don’t have a friendly neighbour to do that for you, keeping the land clear can become a bit of a headache…

When you’re searching, be aware that this region has two different areas: the Béarn and the Basque Country. The Béarn has numerous different terrains – steep mountain villages, deep river valleys, gorgeous riverside towns, Jurançon vineyards and in and around the historic city of Pau. The Basque Country also has distinct areas – coastal, inland and further inland bordering the Béarn. If you’re unsure about where exactly you’d like to live in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, drive around the different areas before you think about visiting any properties. That way, you can focus on searching for properties in the areas that you really like.

See Charlie’s portfolio of homes for sale in Pyrénées-Atlantiques 
Read our expat guide to the good life in Pyrénées-Atlantiques

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