Meet the York couple and find out about their dream home in France

Kath and Stephen Hazell are used to negotiating their way through the French property market after many years of running their York-based business, the French House.

But even they were starting to wonder whether they had done the right thing when they had to wait six years between buying their house in France and moving in.

Not because they were dragging their feet, but because they were taking a huge gamble – purchasing a beautiful six-bedroom 17th century manor house in Sancerre by the French system called “Viager”.

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Put simply, a Viager loan allows a buyer to purchase a property at a reduced price while the seller continues to live in it for the rest of their life, receiving a sum of money (an annuity) for the duration. The property then passes fully to the buyer on the death of the seller.

The reclaimed 17th century fireplace was bought from a French dealer. (Picture: Features Services).

In Kath and Stephen’s case, the house remained occupied for six years after they bought it in 2006. Only when the owner died were they able to take full possession of the house and begin the renovation and update of the property to make it their own.

“It generally works well for both parties and is a popular way of buying houses in France,” says Kath. “We used those six years to buy materials for the eventual renovation, storing everything in our warehouse until the property became vacant.”

When they took it over, the house was very dated, stuck in a Seventies time warp and with many of its original features removed or covered up.

“We were keen to bring it up to date in a way which emphasised its period,” says Kath. “Many of the changes that had been made over the years were not really in sympathy with the house, so our aim was to restore its beautiful character.”

The manor house stands elevated above an acre of walled garden. (Features Services).

Kath and Stephen were in the perfect position to do it well. Kath runs the French House, based in their home city of York while Stephen has been renovating properties in both countries for more than 25 years.

They were keen to create a permanent base in France, settling for Sancerre which is roughly halfway between families in York and the south of France.

“Our passion for French furniture began when I was stripping out a house that I was renovating in the Pyrenees 25 years ago,” says Stephen.

“I kept some pieces but sold most of it to friends and acquaintances. It was such a satisfying experience that I started to look for lovely old furniture that I could restore and sell, and a whole new business was born. I love the character, comfort, style and elegance of French furniture.”

Kath and Stephen Hazell. (Features Services).

But before they started furnishing the house, they wanted to restore its beautiful features – and add some of their own. Over time it had been fitted with white ceramic floors, the beams had been covered up, fireplaces ripped out and some PVC windows installed. The decor was, says Stephen, “very Seventies kitsch”.

“We didn’t want to change the basic structure of the house but we did want to restore it to its former glory,” he adds.

Gradually, with the help of a chain of French and English sub-contractors, they replaced the floors with 17th century oak planks salvaged from another house in Sancerre, exposed the beautiful ceiling beams, fitted 18th century panelling in some of the rooms and lime plastered the remainder, then reinstated one marble and two stone fireplaces.

“When we find something beautiful that we can’t resist we tend to buy it, but it’s easy to accumulate far too much. I have a rule that if Stephen comes back with something for the house, then another piece of furniture has to go,” says Kath.

The warm stone-built house is on a south-facing hillside and most of the key rooms look over the garden towards a valley and vineyards beyond.

“We have no particular plans for the house – we just add to it as we go along. It’s a fabulous place to live, but we are always very conscious that we are only custodians here. The house will be around long after we’ve gone,” adds Kath.

The French House in York is a favourite with interior designers thanks to its rooms full of French finds. Tel: 01904 400561,