How many times have you scrolled through Instagram’s myriad chateaux accounts or visited foreign real estate sites “just for fun,” to look up the price of villas in some European countryside to fix up and move into yourself? How many times have you watched your favorite HGTV show and thought, “how hard could it be?” You’re not alone in finding yourself lost down a rabbit hole of chateaux, historic houses, renovations, and DIY tips; Abigail Carter was one of them before she accomplished her dream of running a chateau abroad.
In early 2021, Carter’s daughter sent her a link to a YouTube video by How to Renovate a Chateau (without killing your partner), an account that documents a European couple who left Paris for the Normandy countryside, where they bought a once-dilapidated 18th-century chateau. “I started watching them and it just reminded me so much of my late husband and I,” says Carter, whose husband, Arron, died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks while at a conference in the World Trade Center. “I was like, ‘What am I doing with my life? Is Seattle where I want to stay and be?’”
Seattle had been Carter’s home since 2005 for a different project—it’s where she bought and successfully renovated a 1913 firehouse—but the 58-year-old has always been an adventurous person and avid traveler. So, in early 2021, Carter began to scratch an itch that had been there since she and her late husband had fantasized about buying a small French farmhouse on a trip to Lyon years ago while they were living in Brussels.
“It was the 20th anniversary of 9/11, and I was sort of reeling,” says Carter sitting in a verdant, scraggly garden of Chateau de Borie—her own early-19th-century chateau she purchased in August 2022. “I was at this crossroads in my life and Arron’s motto was always, ‘If you don’t like your life, change it.’” She’s strived to live by that motto ever since his death.
Here’s how she accomplished the feat of moving abroad to purchase and restore her very own chateau, which she says has been a labor of love. Plus, the missteps to avoid if you’re interested in taking your scrolling habit into a full-fledged, life-changing move abroad, á la Under the Tuscan Sun.
Chateau shopping: How to find options in your price range
Before you book that flight to France, Carter says the journey should start online. There are quite a few good sites, but she wound up using one exclusively: Le Figaro. Though her perusing began as an escape from the pandemic, once travel was safe for her she decided to book a flight to visit a few properties she’d found on Le Figaro. She created a spreadsheet which allowed her to keep track of all the properties she was interested in, sorting them by location, price, and size. She was looking in the southwest of France for homes in the $400,000 to $600,000 range, for example. With that, she was able to plot out the properties she liked in various areas. Next, she began contacting property agents, who she says take you a little more seriously when you have a specific date you want to visit.
Getting inside, and all the details
Carter rented a car and had hotels booked ahead of time, leaving a few days open to lock down some chateau visits after she arrived. But it was getting inside the actual homes that helped Carter narrow down what she really wanted in terms of location, building type, renovation potential, and more. At first, she thought she simply must have a turret, and all the old, original features of the home’s time period. But there was always something that had to be compromised if she stuck to those requirements: it was in the middle of nowhere, next to a busy highway, or there was a loud quarry nearby. Eventually, she found her dream chateau—a 12-bedroom, 12-bathroom Maison de maître just outside the town of Agen with a large garden, a detached cottage, and five cave rooms built into the adjacent cliff behind the house.
Technically, a chateau is defined as a large manor house or estate. Often, even when they’re referred to as a chateau, it can be a Maison de maître, which is another type of 18th or 19th century bourgeois home. Interestingly, Carter doesn’t know the exact build date of her chateau, since Agen’s records only date to 1810. However there’s a key stone inscription that reads 1774, so it’s likely house was built around that time.
That first trip nailed down a broad location for Carter, and during a second trip, she was able to narrow down her selection. Carter also notes that having a high-speed train close by has proven very useful.
The paperwork: Buying your house
“In France, paperwork tasks can be a catch-22,” says Carter. By virtue of owning a property, she was able to apply for a visa, though she took it one step further and applied for a “mini entrepreneur” visa which allowed her to start a business through creative retreats she plans to hold on-site. This required a business plan, and lots of paperwork including getting documents and certificates translated by an approved translator. Carter hired a consultant to help her with the visa to speed things up considerably and answer her questions along the way.
Opening a bank account in a foreign country can also be quite tricky. Carter’s first piece of advice: don’t close on a property in France (probably all of western Europe, to be fair) during the month of August; Europeans are notorious for taking the summer month off.
Utilities revealed much of the same Catch-22 issues: You need a French phone number, but you can’t get one without a bank account. You need to set up your utilities, but you can’t without a French phone number, which you can’t get without a French bank account. And so on. “I bought a French burner phone for the first month I was here,” says Carter. “Doing all these paperwork tasks in French also takes the frustrations to new heights, but I must say, my French has improved because of it.”
Renovations: Always plan for more
Part of why Carter bought Chateau de Borie was because it seemed only to need some cosmetic uplifts—but the joke was on her. Rarely do you find a house over 150 years old that doesn’t need construction to upkeep its bones; Carter has had to redo the kitchen and restore floors in bathrooms, update plumbing, and tackle drainage issues from all the natural springs on the property. Eventually, she will upgrade and rearrange the warren of bathrooms over the top two floors. Her latest project: completely gutting the cottage and replacing the main house’s roof, which was not something that was clear when she made her purchase.
Still, Carter counts herself lucky when it comes to renovations, which did indeed become far more extensive than she’d originally planned for. Through a woman she met during one of her first property visits to France, she was introduced to a contractor who became indispensable. A jack of all trades, he began by fixing toilets and plumbing, and now helps with everything from arranging contractors and negotiating contracts to helping Carter find new home insurance and get set up with WiFi (which, incidentally, she could write an entire book about).
Furnishing a large house on a secondhand budget
From watching other chateau DIY YouTube channels, Carter knew all about brocante—a cross between an antique store and a flea market which exist everywhere and deliver for a nominal fee, which means eliminating van rental fees and pesky pick-ups/drop offs. There is also a French chain store called Emmaus which is equivalent to the Goodwill and even cheaper than brocantes. Carter found many amazing deals at Emmaus, like a huge linen armoire for just $90. Then there is the French version of Craigslist, Le Bon Coin, where Carter also purchased 19th-century antique upholstered bed frames for about $160 each.
Except for one couch that she bought new from a website, all of Carter’s chateau furniture has been purchased second-hand. “I loved this both because it’s a far more sustainable option, but also because the furniture I have now is much more in keeping with the house than any modern, new furniture might have been,” she says. “And so much of it is also extremely well-made, unlike IKEA or even upmarket brands of today.”
Create a community along the way
Carter also recommends finding volunteers to lend a hand, perhaps by bribing family and friends with all the chevre and French wine their hearts desire. Turns out, there are plenty of people out there willing to trade some light labor in exchange for room and board at a beautiful French chateau. Carter began a YouTube channel to document her journey that would be the portal to even more volunteers. Last spring, she sent out a mass email to those who had expressed interest, and wound up with a dozen volunteers at various times over the summer, transforming the garden and painting, and filling holes, and cleaning. (Carter does note that a little bit of light background checking and a phone interview can go a long way to finding the volunteers who will be most helpful.)
“An old friend of my husband was one of those volunteers,” says Carter. “When I began this crazy journey, my number one hope was that I might create a new community of people who could love this place as much as I do. I dreamed of sitting around a big table laughing and eating good food and drinking good wine, and that is exactly what has come to pass. I pinch myself every day.”
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler