Forget hotels -- for a few weeks, at least, call the Cote d'Azur Home

As property prices soar Stateside, more and more people in the glamour trades are turning to the relatively reasonable alternative of a second home on the Cote d’Azur — and the dramatically cheaper inland territory — rather than staying in hotels when they’re in southest France. Celebrity interest in the area has increased as well. John Malkovich recently bought a house in Luberon, Provence, and Hugh Grant is looking to buy a beachfront villa on Ile St. Marguerite.

“Property isn’t expensive here,” says Nicholas Cain, partner in Trips Europe, a French rental agency catering to foreigners. “The French are moving away from the country, and what they’re leaving behind are farmhouses and rural properties they don’t see as having much value.”

One film distribution exec who finds himself in Cannes three times a year for business — for the film festival as well as Mipcom and Mip TV — started to think twice about the rent he was regularly paying on a lavish two-bedroom suite.

“For under E1 million ($1.23 million), he could buy the kind of apartment these executives need to entertain in,” says Jackie Pressman, a Cannes-based real estate consultant now working with the exec (who prefers anonymity) on a property search. “Two bedrooms, two baths, salon and terrace. And his return is fantastic, because he can rent it out the rest of the year.”

The strip of picturesque cliffs descending to the warm Mediterranean between Toulon and Menton has been a holiday getaway since the time of the French Revolution. But its tourism tipping point came in the 1920s, when American glitterati turned the winter escape into a summer idyll. Cole Porter, Mark Cross heir Gerald Murphy, Ernest Hemingway and other creative types moved in when German and English tourists closed up their winter vacation homes. F. Scott Fitzgerald immortalized the tipsy hijinx among well-bred Riviera expats in his 1934 novel “Tender Is the Night.”

Then there’s the James Bond factor. The glamorous reputation of the Cote d’Azur is well deserved: There’s theater, art exhibitions and fine dining year-round; skiing and casinos are a quick drive away; and, yes, women sunbathe topless on the beach. For property owners, all that translates into rental income that doesn’t dry up after the holiday season. In a sense, it’s always the holiday season there.

Nicholas Barnes, who two decades ago worked as a cook for foreign film delegations at the Cannes Film Festival, loved the Riviera’s lush weather enough to stay. Though he’s not as wealthy as the fat cats he served, he saved up enough to buy two apartments in nearby Nice, one of which he rents to tourists. Now he makes his living, in part, assisting foreign buyers in getting loans from French banks. (In fact, there are a lot of English-speaking consultants to guide buyers through the process.)

“The Americans who come to live here are writers and people in a fairly high social category in terms of their education,” says Barnes. “They are doing well, and they recognize the high quality of simple life here.”

Celebrities moving to the area have increased the popularity of gated communities. “It’s a very American trend, to want 24-hour security,” says Patricia Mansfield-Devine, who edits FrenchEntree.com, a site about Gallic real estate. “The developers are selling a lot of these. They don’t like to advertise it, but it’s footballers buying them.”

Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis are looking to buy something new on the coast, too. Already with a property in the countryside near Ste. Maxime, they are looking for something closer to the sea. For that, they’ll have to pay. Another expatriate buyer, who told Mansfield-Devine he’s looking for a place with an unobstructed ocean view near Cannes, came up short. For his €4 million, he, like the new influx of American buyers with interest in the area, will have to go a little further inland.

But for those who don’t require an ocean view, property in southeast France can be surprisingly affordable, in part because French laws curb the quick-flipping, price-jacking tactics of speculators. “Apartments are really competitive,” says Mansfield-Devine. “You can get a one-bedroom for under €150,000 ($184,000).” Indeed, Jackie Pressman just sold a studio to an American directly across from the four-star Martinez Hotel on the Cannes Croisette for €170,000.

“There are no restrictions for Americans to buy here, and it’s a relatively easy process,” adds Konstantin von Kleist, who’s with Riviera real estate firm AFA Intl. “It’s a good time to buy now because owners are getting more reasonable.”

Of course, timing is everything when you hear about a Croisette pied-a-terre for under $200,000. Even James Bond can’t predict if market dynamics will be the same come festival time next year.

FOREIGNER-FRIENDLY AGENCIES

AFA Intl.
http://www.afa-international.com/

French Riviera Property Search
http://www.frenchrivierapropertysearch.com/

Buy Property French Riviera
www.buypropertyfrenchriviera.com

Azur Properties
http://www.azurproperties.com

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