House Hunting

All you need to know about renting a villa or farmhouse in the South of France

The Cost

Rates are usually by the week and range from $1,500 to $50,000 in high season. At the low end you are getting a very modest farmhouse, at the high end a very luxurious house on the Riviera.


A 50 percent non-refundable deposit is required when the contract is signed, with the balance due eight to 10 weeks before arrival. "If the house is rented for a month or more we'll ask for thirty-five percent down," says Claire Packman, owner of At Home Abroad, a New York rental agency that has been handling luxury properties in the South of France since 1960. (Today they represent over 200.)

A 15 to 35 percent security deposit is also required, which is held by the rental agency as a form of insurance against damage. Some companies charge a flat fee. "We ask for three to five hundred dollars as a deposit," says Carolyn Grote, the owner of Ville et Village—a Berkeley, California, agency that opened eight years ago and represents 800 properties in France, about 30 of which are in the $7,000 per week range. (That's the highest their South of France properties go.)

Getting the security deposit refunded usually takes time. "We hold the deposit in a separate account in The Bank of New York," says Packman. "Sometimes it takes a couple of months for France Telecom to get the phone bills to us—they're so slow. The security deposit is most often used to cover phone calls."

What's Included

Very little besides the house itself and essentials such as plates, kitchen utensils, and appliances. Many contracts include 10 to 15 hours per week of maid service and sometimes a groundskeeper/caretaker. The maid's duties are roughly those of a hotel maid—making the bed, cleaning the bathroom, sweeping, and vacuuming. She's not there to serve cocktails, do the laundry, or mind the kids. Electricity and gas are often included in rental prices; heat isn't, and that can be a significant expense out of season.

"Unlike the Caribbean, they do not give you much in France," says Peter Collard of Villa Leisure, a 35-year-old rental agency based in Palm Beach that represents approximately 50 properties in the South of France, mainly on the Riviera. "We've frequently had to add on several hundred dollars or more a day for extras," he adds, referring to amenities like a full-time maid or a cook. Notes Packman: "You have to be independent when you rent a house. It's not a hotel where you can call up and get room service. You have to get out your maps, be more adventurous. And then, it's always good to speak some French."

Cancellation Insurance

Don't leave home without it. "Most definitely take it out," advises Sylvia Delvaille-Jones, owner of Villas and Apartments Abroad, a Manhattan-based agency that was founded in 1971. She recommends CSA Travel Protection (800-348-9505), while Claire Packman refers clients to Care-Free Travel Insurance (800-323-3149). Other top travel-insurance companies include Travelex Insurance Services (800-228-9792), Access America (800-284-8300), and Travelguard (800-826-1300).

"But cancellation insurance covers cancellation if it's for a substantial reason, usually medical," Packman states, "not just if you change your mind." Bob Chambers of CSA concurs. "Business reasons aren't covered, other than if the supplier goes bankrupt. But then, eighty to ninety percent of all claims result from sickness or injury." Travelex and Travelguard will cover the rental fee if you lose your job, and Access America will pay if you're in the armed reserves and are called to active duty. Other reasons for canceling covered by most policies include: acts of terrorism that occur within 30 days of your arrival in the town where you're staying ("acts of war aren't covered by anybody that I'm aware of," Chambers says); adverse weather or natural disasters, such as blizzards or hurricanes (he cites the landslides in Italy several years ago); if your house in the United States burns down or is burglarized before or during your trip; if you're called to jury duty, subpoenaed, or quarantined; or if there are labor strikes, either in the United States or in a country you're visiting ("the Northwest Airlines strike last year was covered," he says). At CSA prices are on a sliding scale based on age, costing more as your age increases. Other companies offer a flat rate regardless of age.

The Season

High season runs from July 1 to the first week of September. The South of France is very crowded throughout this time, particularly in August, when the entire country goes on holiday, much of it down here. You would be wise to consider renting in May, June, late September, and October, when the weather is good, the area isn't swollen with visitors, and the weekly rental rates are on average 15 to 50 percent less.

The Surprise

The word "villa" usually conjures up some Gatsby-like image of Riviera luxury. In fact, except at the top end, most of the villas on offer here are probably not as well outfitted as a house or condo you would rent in the United States, not to mention your home.

"Americans expect the same conveniences abroad they are used to at home," says Delvaille-Jones. "The U.S. is so service-oriented. At the very top end of villa rentals in the South the service is there, but you usually have to pay extra for it."

If you're looking for contemporary residential architecture, décor, and amenities brokers advise that you head for the coast; elsewhere, the rustic look is usually more than just aesthetic. Here is a rundown of what you should and shouldn't expect.

Staff None, other than the maid and the caretaker and/or groundskeeper. "My clients often want a full-time maid and chef, and they want the chef to take care of all the food shopping," says Delvaille-Jones. A chef, she says, costs on average $1,000 per week; maids cost $20 per hour outside of the maid service that comes with the property; babysitters cost $350 to $500 a week, and a full-time chauffeur is $500 to $700 per week. Her agency is willing to arrange for all of these. But that's not to say every broker will. "I won't arrange for babysitters," says Packman. "I don't want to take responsibility for clients' children. And I don't deal with cars. If clients need a chauffeur I tell them to ask their travel agent." Says Grote: "Arranging for extra cleaning isn't a problem. Babysitting and cooking depend on whether the owner of the house can recommend someone. For chauffeurs, we usually recommend Auto Europe, which offers that service." (It can be reached at 800-223-5555.)

Air Conditioning "It's uncommon," says Packman. Says Delvaille-Jones: "The cost of energy is so high in France, that's why you don't find it much. Even on the coast, where more houses have it, the air conditioners barely cool." Inland you may not need it. Often days are spent outside anyway, and the nights tend to be cool. You can maximize your comfort by renting a stone house, which stays cooler, and/or a house on a hillside rather than down in a valley, where temperatures tend to be highest day and night.

Window screens Virtually unheard of. "Europeans are busy with their gardens—they like to look out their windows with nothing between them and the outdoors," explains Packman. "It's a whole different mentality." Ask if the house is furnished with electric insect-repellent devices.

Shower "Showers were less common but are getting more so," says Delvaille-Jones. "Houses on the coast normally have a shower and bathtub. But older houses often just have handheld showerheads."

Telephone Standard. But use your calling card or cellular phone; French phone rates are notoriously high.

Fax You will probably have to rent one, which some agencies will arrange for you. "We're finding that more and more clients aren't going on vacation to get away from work," Delvaille-Jones says. "They bring it with them."

Laundry Usually there is a washing machine. A clothes dryer is much harder to come by. Doing the laundry is usually not part of the maid's duties, although you may be able to arrange it for an extra fee.

Appliances Dishwasher, stove, and often microwave are standard. Satellite TV is common along the coast but less so inland. Stereo, TV, and VCR are common.

Tennis courts "Less than fifty percent of the villas have them," says Delvaille-Jones. "But even if a villa doesn't, there are often courts nearby, and access can be arranged." Of the properties she represents, the distribution of courts along the coast and inland is pretty even: three in Var, five in Provence, seven in St.-Tropez, and two in other locales on the Côte d'Azur.

Swimming pool Very common.

Heated swimming pool Fairly easy to come by, but you pay extra for the heating and have to request it in advance. "It can be quite expensive," says Delvaille-Jones, who estimates, "depending on the size and the depth of the pool," a cost of $350 to $500 per week.

Jacuzzi "No, no, no," says Delvaille-Jones. "Maybe one or two houses have it."

Home gym or exercise equipment No way. (The only exception we found: La Bastide, featured on the first page of this article.) And most villas don't have a membership agreement with local clubs either. "That's London," Packman says, "not the South of France." Delvaille-Jones says she will arrange for a personal trainer and access to a local gym if requested. "But we have to search to find these," she says, explaining that they're not easy to come by. "Most French on vacation play tennis or go swimming." Says Collard: "I've never had a client request access to a local gym. One asked to have some equipment put into a house, but when he heard how much it would cost to have it shipped from the States, he said forget it."

Sauna/steam room Generally, you won't find either. But Delvaille-Jones represents two properties that are so equipped: Villa St. Hilaire in St.-Tropez, which boasts a steam room, and Villa Aujourd'hui in Cap d'Antibes, which has a sauna. (Why you'd need them in summer is the question.)

Fireplace Common, especially in country houses. "Even a lot of houses on the coast have them," says Collard, "but they are often decorative, filled with flower pots." If they do work, you have to buy the wood. "It's not usually supplied," says Packman, "but it's not hard to find."

Pets Depends on the owner, though, as Packman says, "the French love animals." A written request for permission must be made well in advance. "If you have to bring your pet with you, start looking further in advance for a rental," Delvaille-Jones advises, adding that a pet often increases the security deposit required.

Helipad Only at the very high end. One example: Villa Cap Camarat in St.-Tropez, which rents for $15,000 to 25,000 per week. (Delvaille-Jones represents it.)


"I've never had a complaint about security," says Collard, who estimates that 95 percent of the luxury properties are gated or in gated communities along the coast in affluent areas like St.-Tropez and Cap Ferrat. Says Grote: "We had two complaints of houses getting robbed because people didn't lock the doors or shutters when they left for the day. But in general if you do lock up, security's not a problem."

Inland, however, even the most luxurious villas tend to lack security gates. And most don't have private security systems either. "South of France villas tend to be pretty open," says Delvaille-Jones. "For our high-profile clients, we choose villas in security-conscious areas that include surveillance. We have a couple of houses geared toward high security, with an alarm system and TV monitors. Guards aren't common, but we can arrange for them." Most villas don't even include a wall safe, although a few, she says, do have strong rooms. "A couple of properties have alarm systems," says Packman, "but forget about on-site guards." If you require high security, Delvaille-Jones advises that you specify what you need to the broker—and start looking for a villa a year in advance.

You can also bring security with you. Bill Daly, managing director of Manhattan-based Kroll Associates (212-593-1000), one of the world's largest private security consulting firms, says that wireless portable security systems originally created for the defense industry can be leased for short periods of time.

"There are portable alarm sensors for doors and windows that can sound a local alarm or send an alarm to the local police station," he says. "There are also motion detectors, which can be placed throughout a house, that transmit a signal via a radio frequency with built-in algorithms so it can't be decoded." Such systems cost on average about $2,000 for installation and a one-month lease. To set one up in a South of France villa, Kroll coordinates with its Paris office or, in summer, with its regular South of France representative. A less expensive alternative that, Daly says, "really works": the motion sensors designed to hang on doorknobs, such as those found in the Hammacher Schlemmer catalog; they're priced between $100 and $125.

The Coast Or The Hinterlands?

It's really a matter of what sort of experience you want: sophistication or rustic sophistication. Keep in mind that the coast is very crowded in high season and that the traffic—especially in places like St.-Tropez—is migraine-inducing. The same goes for certain pockets inland, such as Vence/St.-Paul-de-Vence, Gordes and some of the nearby villages in the Luberon, and around the larger towns of Bouches-du-Rhône (Aix, Arles, St.-Rémy).

"It depends on whether you want to be around lots of people or more on your own," says Grote. "Some of our clients want to live in the midst of the French, so they rent townhouses in villages. The quality of the interiors can be just as nice as in stand-alone villas, but you give up the grounds, the pool, and the lavender fields."

Who Goes Where?

According to Collard, most people who rent villas in the South of France "don't want to see and be seen, otherwise they would stay at the Hôtel du Cap-Eden Roc or the Hôtel Carlton." Instead, he says, they rent villas because they want privacy. "With a villa you enjoy the best of both worlds," says Delvaille-Jones. "You have a home while you're there. Friends can stay with you. You can also go out to visit all the busy places, but you can retreat for privacy."

But privacy is relative. Those who want a scene close at hand flock to the coast—in particular to Alpes-Maritimes (Cannes, Juan-les-Pins/Antibes, and St.-Jean-Cap-Ferrat). This area often attracts newcomers, states Packman. "They've just started to discover France and tend to start here after Paris," she says. "They love the sea and the casinos." The coast, offers Grote, is "more cosmopolitan—glitzier. You get a lot more tourists."

Others head to the heart of Provence, Aix, Arles, and St.-Rémy. "It's very French," Packman explains. Says Grote: "Princess Caroline of Monaco has a summer home in St.-Rémy. It's a wonderful area. It's one hour north of Marseille and very Provençal. You get great vistas, and lots of Roman ruins. Lots of our clients spend one week on the coast and one week here."

Those looking for history and culture, but on a more local level, gravitate toward the Vaucluse, the countryside east of Avignon. "People who stay here are generally a bit better-traveled," says Packman. "It tends to attract people who are interested in old villages, stone farmhouses, festivals, open-air markets, and antiquing." Collard agrees. "They're going for the food, the flowers, the smells, the culture," he says. Delvaille-Jones adds: "In the Vaucluse there are lots of perched villages where you can be totally removed, yet within easy striking distance of things to see and do."

One surprisingly private area is the Massif des Maures, the region just to the west of St.-Tropez. "There's tons of open land around St.-Tropez because there are lots of vineyards and the government won't let developers cut the grapes down," Collard explains. "You'll find villas on lots of acreage here. They're much more expensive to rent than in other areas, but they're also much more lavish."

Is There Any Place That's Undiscovered?

Not really. But there are regions less traveled. Here are three.

• Drôme Provençal, the area just north of the Vaucluse around the city of Nyons, noted for olive production. It's been tagged as the next Luberon. "People aren't specifically asking for it yet," Delvaille-Jones confirms, "unless they've heard about it from someone. You can find excellent-quality villas to rent for less money. And you'll get away from the crowds. But if it's your first time in the South of France, you may feel a bit lost. In that case, I'd put you closer to a larger town, such as Aix or Avignon."

• North of the D562 between Grasse and Draguignan. There are no major tourist sites here, and the area is just far enough from the coast to make it overlooked. Among the best villages are: Montauroux, Callian, Fayence, and Seillans. "It's very nice and less expensive to rent here than in other areas," says Packman. "But you need to be a bit more adventurous, without the need to lean on a local agent, who may not be around all the time." Says Delvaille-Jones: "It's such a beautiful area, and villas are available. People who are well-traveled know of it. The Grasse location gives you the best of both worlds. It's inland, so you get pretty, rural villages, and it's wonderful for bike-riding. But you can still do the coast easily because there are good roads connecting to Mougins, Cannes, and Nice. I'd recommend it even for a first trip."

• Gard, the department due west of the Rhône, which is being discovered by more and more French, judging by the number of home restorations we saw in the course of researching this issue. Prime areas are around Bagnols-sur-Cèze and Uzès. "We have a number of villas on this side of Avignon," says Delvaille-Jones. "These areas are less traveled than Aix, Avignon, or St.-Rémy, which are in full bloom in July and August. Here you'll get out of the traffic."

Top Brokers

There's no association that licenses or regulates international farmhouse/villa rental property brokers, which means it's important that you interview them before you sign up. One good question to ask the broker about a property you're seriously considering: Have you seen it yourself? The best brokers make regular trips to France to see firsthand the homes they represent. Here are four brokers who specialize in higher-end properties. You can also rent villas through the American Express Platinum Card Concierge, which will arrange for maids, chauffeurs, and chefs.

American Express Platinum Card Concierge 800-345-2639
At Home Abroad Claire Packman, New York, New York; 212-421-9165 $
Villas And Apartments Abroad Sylvia Delvaille-Jones, New York, New York; 212-759-1025
Villa Leisure Peter Collard, Palm Beach, Florida; 800-526-4244 $
Ville Et Village Carolyn Grote, Berkeley, California; 510-559-8080 $

$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.