When we first had the idea to move here permanently it was 28 degrees, a very warm evening in early autumn. We were sitting on a sunny terrace looking across a quiet valley with the sun just starting to set in the distance. The classic holiday promo shot. We really weren’t thinking about winter at all, beyond the possibility of skiing at some local resorts within an hour of the area we were in.
We made a friend in one of the village where we stayed and when we told her our plans to move out and spend the winter in one of the gites we’d rented during the summer, she expressed concerns. It can be very cold here, she said. Yeah, we thought, cold is relative. We came from an old, damp and uninsulated stone house in the Peak District: we were used to cold.
It turned out that that first winter was one of the coldest they’ve had around here. We ended up huddled in a single room, the one with the woodburner and, largely because we were buying wet wood as needed, we burned around 10 steres of wood, costing us around 600 euros.
This was to heat a single room on a south facing property! But while it had the sun on the days it was sunny – and on many days it was – it was also a draughty old stone barn conversion with an uninsulated roof. That was fine for summer and the warmer parts of spring and autumn, but on a winter with nighttime temperatures of minus 10 and below and daytime temperatures not much above freezing, it was a wake up call. Now we were definitely thinking about winter!
Based on our experience so far, here are our tips for surviving winter in the South in relative comfort.
Choose a South Facing House or Building Plot
Whether you’re buying, renting, or building, you should consider why you’re here. Are you moving to the South of France solely for the food, the people, the pace of life? Well, yes, possibly all of those things but also a significant factor is probably be the sun. It’s easy to forget about winter when you’re buying a house. Entering a cool, dark house on a 30-degree is very welcome! We breathe a sigh of relief – but what happens in summer?
While looking for land and at houses we saw many insulated east-west facing houses. Houses on the south face but blocked from the sun by other buildings, so basically in the shade all day. Our biggest lesson in the importance of winter sun – aside from the guidance we received from the advice given by our French neighbours – came when James ventured out early one morning to check the aspect on a building plot we’d seen.
This was a beautiful plot. Up a quiet track, in the woods, a short and traffic-free walk from the school that DD was going to. It would have cost a bit to get services to it but we could see them at the end of the main track and the cost of the land was low enough that we could still afford it. And if not there’s always the option to go off-grid. It was great!
But then we got out our sunseeker app. This is a nifty little app for the iPad that enables you to get the highs and lows and watch the trajectory of the sun on the day you take the reading but also on the summer and winter solstice dates, so you can see it at it’s highest and lowest. What blocks the view?
It was because of that that James went down there early one morning. The house would have had only a few hours of sun in the morning at the height of winter, but after the surrounding trees continued to grow, as they do, then we suspected it wouldn’t be long before there wasn’t any sun getting to the house.
James wanted to see where the sun would actually come up, so on December 21st at 7am he wrapped himself up and went down there. He found something that surprised him. While we woke up and were able to come out on the sunny terrace (albeit wearing jumpers) James was huddled in a cold ball. It was 11 degrees on our terrace and closer to minus 11 on the plot. Furthermore, James said that as the sun came up on the other side of the valley, he could feel and see the cold air being drawn down out of the woods, off the north face. Not good. The contrast was stark.
If we’d built there we’d be wrapped up with jumper and hats but stripping off just 100 metres down the road, where the sun was shining. Mad!
After that first winter we moved. This time into an east-west facing house, another converted stone barn. It had a good-enough roof (insulated with with 20cm of laine de verre). There are tiny windows but at least it has windows!
As it turned out, the lack of windows made virtually no difference on several winters there because there wasn’t any sun! Even the neighbours with their south-facing house were complaining about the cold.
Don’t burn this year’s wood
So far we’ve only lived in house that are 100% wood-fired. This means we’ve learned the heard way how much money you waste when you buy and burn wood in the same year.
When you look around you know who’s been here a while because they have a wood store that never seems to go down because they’re always planning ahead to future years. Buy it, store it, use it when you need to, but always make sure you buy more, ideally during the previous summer so it has chance to dry and weather for a full year before you plan to use it.
We bought some sopping wet wood in our first year and could probably have knocked about 200 euros off our bill if the wood we were burning had been “seasoned”.
Think about insulation
When buying or renting a house you should get a diagnostic report, which gives you information about the property’s energy rating. If you fall in love with a house that needs work, this is a good opportunity to haggle over the cost of making changes to improve this. A house might be cheap but it will cost you – in wood, electricity, gas, or oil – year on year if you’re wasting heat through the roof, window and walls.
I know it’s boring and really takes the romance out of a move, but you’ll be glad of double-glazing, insulated walls, floors and the roof, of course, for at least 4 months of the year, maybe more. Floors is an interesting, as even on a new build, with reasonable roof insulation and modern materials for the walls, floors are often overlooked. A badly built, uninsulated floor will literally suck all the heat from your home and deliver it to the outside. Likewise if you’re renovating and putting in a concrete floor: pay the extra money now and save on your heating bills, plus your feet will be warmer in the depths of winter and will thank you for it!
It’s not all bad though because there are grants available to help with the cost of insulation, windows, and also installing a more modern and efficient heating system (this means pellet burners and heat pumps.) If the house is your main residence, you’ll be eligible for these, so worth looking into and factoring in the cost. As a tenant you also have the right to request improvements and should definitely factor energy costs into any rent negotiations.
So there you have it. Winter in the South of France is definitely a bit different to summer; and while it’s great to have snow-capped mountains within an hour’s drive, the cost of that is a cool or even very cold winter.
Taking this into account means anyone buying a cold winter area needs to think about whether a house has a good roof, good windows, how much sun it gets all-year-round (it’s no good having a sunny south-facing side if your terrace, beautifully cool in the summer, is an ice-trap in the winter!
We have ended up with a south-facing plot but would have been equally happy with a stone house and a good roof. What are you priorities?