Oyster farmers are a shy breed, says 33-year-old “Pierre”, in part-explanation for not wanting his real name to be used. But his reticence is also due to his situation as someone who was born, raised and now runs a successful business on the Île de Ré, on France’s west coast — but can’t afford to buy a home there.
“Even finding somewhere to rent is hard as most owners want to rent out their houses and get high rents from tourists in August, so if you do find a rental property, you often have to vacate it in summer,” he says. His oyster farm and restaurant are located in Ars-en-Ré, a picturesque village with a distinctive black-and-white Gothic church and narrow alleyways of flower-clad houses. But on a small island with limited housing stock — and little available for sale — even a small two-bedroom house there will cost more than €1mn.
Pierre and his girlfriend have found a solution, however. Since last September, the island’s urban plan (PLUi) has allowed homeowners to subdivide and sell off parts of their plots. “We did a deal with my parents and bought a 50 sq m portion of their five-bedroom holiday home in Le Bois Plage and turned that into a one-bed house,” he says. “We all agreed, of course, but normally it’s not that easy as people fight to have a bit of the Île de Ré. Other people I know end up renting mobile homes long term.”
The Île de Ré — an idyllic outcrop of golden sandy beaches, vineyards and pine forests, which many locals and tourists traverse by bike — has long been a playground for wealthy Parisians. But during the pandemic it took on a new level of popularity. In the days leading up to the first lockdown in March 2020, there was gridlock on the 2km-long road bridge that links it to La Rochelle on the mainland, as French families fled to their holiday homes.
The island’s permanent population of 17,000 swelled by somewhere between 3,000 and 5,400, according, respectively, to the Charente Maritime police and the mobile phone company Orange. And property prices have been rising ever since. Le Bois Plage, in the centre of the island, has had the highest rises, at 32 per cent year in the year to May, according to figures from Christie’s International Real Estate based on the median price per sq metre.
“A lot of our sellers asked us to raise our prices. They were adding €100,000 or €200,000 to €1.5mn houses and they were getting it,” says Angelique Sawtell, commercial director of Maxwell-Baynes, a Christie’s affiliate agent in La Rochelle, of that early pandemic period. “They were mainly Parisians who could get a lot of money from selling their Paris homes, but the British market has been surprisingly strong too — people wanting to keep some of their money in Europe.”
Mélanie Lefevre from La Rochelle Île de Ré Sotheby’s also reports higher demand, with the number of sales in 2021 about 40 per cent higher than pre-pandemic levels. “Bank finance was easy to get and people were making impulse buys. Some didn’t think about the reality of taking on a renovation project and are already reselling, but they haven’t lost out as prices have continued to rise.”
Prices on the island are the highest in the Charente-Maritime region, with average prices in Le Bois Plage and La Flotte at €8,385 per sq m and €8,223 per sq m this month, compared with the regional average of €2,323 per sq m, according to the property portal Figaro Immobilier. Houses start at about €1mn, rising to €5mn for the most sought-after “hidden” houses, says Lefevre, referring to properties tucked away on large rural plots in Les Portes-en-Ré, an enclave in the far north-western tip popular with Parisian and Belgian holiday homeowners.
Islanders often mention the sense of security that comes from being a bridge away from the mainland, or “le continent”, as they call it. Sawtell says some buyers are swapping life on the Côte d’Azur for the Île de Ré, feeling it is safer. “But people who buy here aren’t show-offs. There are no nouveaux riches here.”
There does appear to be little sense of one-upmanship. Most of the Île de Ré’s housing stock consists of pristine, whitewashed single-storey houses with shutters and gates painted in a limited palette of greens permitted by the local council (a hangover from when local fishermen used to paint their boats green, then used the leftover paint on their homes’ woodwork). Even the controlled-rent housing dotted around the island follows the same architectural aesthetic and colour code, so it’s hard to distinguish the millionaires from the average wage earners. But plenty of high-profile French politicians and celebrities are among those who own homes here.
“It’s a small paradise. You feel it the moment you cross the bridge. There are no traffic lights here, no advertising [billboards],” says Lefevre. “But the cost of housing is a big issue. Only new people are buying here now,” she adds, referring to buyers from Paris, Lyon, Switzerland, the UK and Belgium.
“We’re losing this part of the heritage, the local community. Property prices have made it too hard for people — especially younger people — to live here. It feels more like a holiday island now, not so much a place to live all year round.”
Christopher Vadot, a French-British former journalist who set up a “concierge” company, Holiday Services, in 2003, likens the island’s extreme seasonality to a theatre. “It has an offstage, onstage feel. At the end of October, the lights go out — apart from over Christmas and New Year. In April, they switch them back on and the show starts again,” he says.
He lives in Rivedoux, a beachfront town near the bridge, with his wife and daughter, and looks after 70 rental properties, managing everything from lettings and maintenance to building furniture and repairing bikes.
He identifies three types of people who live on the Île de Ré. “There are the old Rétais [locals] who have been here for generations, the neo Rétais, like me, who had a life before, moved here and either work in La Rochelle or from home, and the retirees, who come for a few months at a time, often splitting their time between here and homes in Paris or London.”
The over-60s account for 39 per cent of inhabitants, compared with the French average of 24.4 per cent, and the island’s second-home owners have an average age of 67, according to 2020’s PLUi. Vadot says, despite ambitions to reach 20,000 permanent inhabitants, the island’s population is declining. “Only by a small amount, but it’s going in the wrong direction. The lack of housing often means people have to move off the island. And while it’s a great place for young children, there’s nothing for teenagers. Once they reach 16, they have to go to school in La Rochelle.”
He talks, too, of the difficulty in finding staff for those running businesses. “The general policy to limit new development is good, but it means existing houses are so expensive that people who work in shops or schools can’t afford to live locally. It also means there’s not much choice — if you don’t like the local electrician, you’ll struggle to find another one. That’s the way island life is.”
The peculiarities of island life are precisely what some property hunters want to buy into, though. One London couple, a 56-year-old freelance journalist and her husband, a 60-year-old chartered accountant, who prefer to remain anonymous, bought their single-storey three-bedroom house with a pool in Loix in 2011, having being entranced by the island on holiday.
Their house now is worth about €750,000, “significantly more than we paid,” she says. “We love the clean, salty air, the big skies and total tranquillity — off season, anyway. We jump on our bikes to wild Atlantic beaches, often without seeing a single car, and we love watching the colours change in the vineyard and salt marshes that surround our villages.”
Residents talk of the influx of holidaymakers every summer — when the island creaks under the strain of up to 10 times its usual population — being a challenge. There are traffic jams and bike mayhem as amateur cyclists vie for space on the paths that weave through the fields and forests. “Up to Bastille Day [July 14] it’s OK, then after that it’s manic. No one feels they’re doing their jobs properly in summer,” says Vadot.
But there’s a trade-off, of course. “Locals know the income it brings,” says Jeremy Capoulun at La Rochelle Île de Ré Sotheby’s. “These people spend a lot of money in restaurants, buying ice-cream and oysters.”
Residents who can’t handle the crowds have the option of capitalising on high summer rents and heading the other way across the bridge. As Vadot says, there’s no better time to visit Paris than in August, when much of the city, it seems, ends up on the Île de Ré.
What you can buy . . .
La Flotte, €2.13mn
A five-bedroom house in La Flotte, a port village on the eastern side of the island. Built in 1821, the former artist’s studio has 270 sq m of living space, a courtyard, two annexes, a workshop and garage. For sale with La Rochelle Île de Ré Sotheby’s International Realty.
A six-bedroom beachfront villa with pool in the village of Sainte-Marie-de-Ré, in the south-east of the island. The 274 sq m house is on a plot of nearly 1,450 sq m and has an office, games room, heated outdoor pool and landscaped gardens. On the market with Maxwell-Baynes.
Les Portes-en-Ré, €3.15mn
A six-bedroom house in the northern village of Les Portes-en-Ré, on a 600 sq m plot. Four of the bedrooms are en suite and there’s a total of 205 sq m of living space, including a cellar. The garden has a sheltered terrace for outdoor dining. Listed with Victoria Keys Île de Ré.
Property renovation is strictly controlled on the Île de Ré. Extending properties is difficult and residents can only use certain colours on woodwork (green and, on occasion, grey).
Purchase costs in France are usually around 7 per cent of the sales price and include stamp duty, land registry costs and the notary’s fee. The 5 per cent estate agent’s fee is usually included in the price.