When I first came to France, my neighbours would say “Ah, the British who bought that crappy old longère on the hill”. I had to look up what they were talking about. It turns out that the word is used to mean a long low traditional-style house. I have to be honest, I bought my house on a whim so I didn’t really get into house terms at the time but since then I’ve become an avid snooper of houses for sale online. And there’s a big difference in house property styles in France with words that may make no sense to non-French property seekers. For instance, “maison de ville” sounds obvious and translates as “town house” but in fact it means a house in a town.
There are big regional differences in property character and design. These are the most common styles of French homes, where you might find them, and some of the pros and cons…
Bastide is an old French word and general refers to medieval towns in the south of France. But you also get bastide-style properties – particularly in Provence. They are normally detached, square shaped and made of stone with tiled roofs that are often almost flat. They are highly sought after by French buyers and tend to be on the pricey side.
Many people think of chalets, the traditional alpine homes, as being “chocolate box” houses nestled on the slopes of snowy mountains. These do exist, but there’s actually a great deal more choice in alpine houses says Andrew Morgan, property consultant for Leggett Immobillier in Haute-Savoie.
“Contemporary ski chalets utilise insulated glass and modern materials. They offer light, open spaces for contemporary living with lots of modern advantages. A demi-chalet (semi-detached) can be a more affordable option. There are also Alpage chalets. They were built as summer residences for farmers taking their herds up to high pastures, but now they’re lived in year-round and make for wonderfully peaceful homes. Increasingly popular is for people to buy land and design their personal dream home or to buy a new build off plan. These come with a 10-year guarantee, modern insulation, reduced running costs and the possibility to recover the 20% VAT on the purchase price if the property is rented out”. See our guide to buying property in Saint-Gervais-les-Bains.
Charentaise is the name given to traditional houses built from local stone in Charente and Charente-Maritime. Prices vary from bargain doer-uppers to mansion-like buildings. See our guide to buying property in Deux-Sevres.
Chartreuse houses are large stone houses in the southwest of France, particularly Dordogne and Gascony. They are often mistaken for chateaux and generally come with lots of land.
Not all chateaux in France are huge properties with lots of land. Some can be quite petite. “With such a long history and vast landscape, chateau styles vary from region to region and from century to century and the price can also differ enormously” says Patrick Joseph at My French House. “The good news is that prices are often more affordable than you might think”.
He advises buyers to consider key factors when searching for their dream chateau. For instance are you happy to take on a big project or do you want something ready to move into? Importantly for those considering sharing their chateau as chambres d’hôtes for instance, consider the practical issues. Do you want to keep visitors on one side and your home on the other, is there good access, room for parking, shops and activities for guests nearby and potential for the income you want to achieve. See our guide to buying a chateau in France.
A house with a lot of land, an “estate”; for instance vineyard properties are called domaines.
A ferme is a farm with a rural farmhouse, usually with outbuildings. A fermette is a small farm or farmhouse in the countryside. Often they come with land. Giselle Lord, local agent in Brittany for Leggett Immobillier says “you can find these types of homes in all sorts of conditions. From needing a complete rebuild to fully renovated. They’re popular because they have lots of character, for instance wooden beams and large fireplaces. But they often need some work such as re-wiring and double glazing”.
You might also come across the term ‘corps de ferme.’ This a group of farm buildings, which will generally include as well as the main house, barns, stables, storerooms and a courtyard.
Not a hotel as many people think, but a grand town house. They’re found in cities and large towns all over France. There were originally built for aristocratic members of society or the very wealthy.
Longères are a traditional house style found in almost all regions but especially in the north and west of France particularly Brittany, Normandy, Haut-de-France, Limousin and Pays de la Loire. Typically they were built to house agricultural workers. One part of the building was devoted to storage, which could mean produce or even animals such as cows, sheep, goats etc.
They are usually a rectangular shape, one storey high, made from local materials for instance beamed ceilings. They were easy and cheap to build. Many have been converted to two-storeys and they’re usually quite big inside.
Manoir, which translates as ‘manor’ indicates that the house was originally occupied by a man of rank, a seigneur perhaps (lord), or landowner. They’re not as grand as a chateau, but usually they are quite large and located in the countryside. “They often look like small chateaux” says Patrick Joseph at My French House. “They typically have a bit of land, lovely high ceilings, are easier to manage than a chateau and have less planning restrictions”.
Maison à colombages
Colombage means ‘half-timbered, an architectural feature that can be seen on many different types of houses from longères to fermettes. You’ll find them in several regions, though most commonly in Normandy, Brittany, Burgundy and the north east of France. Wooden struts provide the framework for the house. Then the gaps are filled with torchis (a clay, straw, sand or animal manure mix) and usually covered with a lime render. They look beautiful but beware, like the thatched cottages of England, restoration can be costly. One way to reduce costs when you need to reinforce old or weak wood, is to place new wooden beams over the old ones to retain the look without the high price of replacement.
Maison de Maître
Literally this translates as “master’s house”. These were popular homes in the 18th and 19th century, owned by the rich and bourgeoisie (middle class). You’ll find Maison de Maîtres all over France, elegant buildings built to a symmetrical design inside and out. They often resemble small chateaux but they’re less costly to buy, renovate, maintain and heat. They are almost always in towns and villages and many still have original features such as tiled floors, fireplaces and sometimes fancy plaster work.
Like a Maison de Maitre but not as grand. They make great family homes.
Detached house often used to describe a bungalow.
Literally it means foot on the floor but in housing terms – a flat or an apartment.
Modern, contemporary house, often with luxury features, designed by an architect.