Castle keeps



Castle keeps
028-029 Property People
8:24 AM
Page 28
everything property people
Castle keeps
Words by Jim Merrett, pictures by Sifex
Queen of the castles
You can buy some very unlikely things on the Internet, châteaux among them.
Sarah Francis, director of Sifex, explains how her love of France led her to
manage some of the best French property on the Web
n this particular afternoon,
getting hold of Sarah Francis
is no easy task. “It’s been a bit
of a busy day,” she tells me.
“Oh well, that’s life at the sharp end.”
Leading a small team – herself and three
staff: two full-time employees, another
part-time – Sarah heads one of the leading
property agencies in the whole of France.
Formed in the late 1980s, Sifex has earned
a prestigious reputation in the industry.
“It all started in 1988, when the first
of my two sons went to prep school.
I suddenly thought, when the other one
went, what was I to do? I’d just come back
from a skiing holiday in France. I knew
I wouldn’t be in France for a year. Speaking
to a friend, she said to me, ‘Everybody’s
buying property in France, why don’t
you try and sell property?’ So I did.”
Sarah took the plunge, despite advice
against it. Her bold move seems to have
paid off – when she started, her business
covered only Normandy and Brittany.
“From there, we expanded into the Pasde-Calais and Picardy in the early 1990s.”
Once established in the north of France,
Sarah was tempted to investigate the
south-west. “When a list of châteaux was
waved in front of me by a Toulouse agent,
I couldn’t resist. I just couldn’t believe how
cheap they were.” During a holiday in the
Dordogne, she took time out to visit the
south-west and the agent in question.
“I was so impressed by the standard of
property and the prices at that time, I said
straight away that we should move our area
of business to specialise in the south.”
This change in the company’s philosophy
was followed by another dramatic
development in 1996 – the arrival of the
Internet. When Sifex piloted its first
website, the client database became
international overnight.
“When the site was redesigned and
relaunched in May 2003, because we were
well known for property at the top end
of the market, I thought we might as well
do all of France. We have no great bias as
to where our clients buy or what they buy.”
Being Internet-based puts the agency in
a unique position – unlike others, they are
not tied to any particular region. “Having
an unbiased approach attracts buyers,
particularly those from overseas needing
a professional service and who have not
much time to search. No-one offers the
same overriding view.”
As the company developed, a few things
had to change – the name for one. “The
original name was ‘Société Immobilière
Française Extraordinaire’, which is too
much of a mouthful, and always had the
French in hysterics. We shortened it to
Sifex.” The new name still has its downside:
“More often than not, when we mention
Sifex, British people think it is Ceefax on
the line,” Sarah jokes. Like the name, the
company has evolved with the industry.
“When I started up, it was the property
prices that attracted people. That might have
been the case then, but not now – prices
in the south-west of France have increased
by 50 per cent in the last four to five years.
I would say that’s down to supply and
demand, and the fact that now there is
a worldwide market. Because of e-mails
and mobile phones, people are able to work
from anywhere – and do. Now it’s mainly
the lifestyle drawing people to France.”
The clients Sarah deals with have also
Clockwise from far left: Sarah Francis, director of Sifex; a majestic, listed 16th-Century
château in the Gard; a medieval lakeside château in the Dordogne; a well-appointed
manor near Bordeaux; a charming château in the Gers, with vineyard
“When I started up, it was the property prices that attracted people. That might have been the case then,
but not now – prices in the south-west of France have increased by 50 per cent in the last four to five years”
changed – once only British, she now
gets interest from all around the world.
“We still sell to many British buyers,
but also to expats from everywhere –
even to the French and Belgians on
occasion. There is a very active European
market these days, especially the
Scandinavians and Germans.” Aware of the
lure of châteaux, the higher price bracket is
the speciality of Sifex. “We work with more
than 50 agents. When they get a château on
their books, they are usually very keen to
pass it on to us – they know we have
clients who will be interested.”
“We cover the top end of the market,”
she says. “We have a lot of Americans
looking in that sector, despite the downturn
of the dollar. Some people are so keen on
owning a historic property that nothing
will stop them. But we do deal with
everywhere – and everything: farmhouses,
maisons de maître, village houses and
mills. Lately there are more people buying
in that sector. It seems the top end has
slowed down a bit recently, probably
due to currency fluctuations.”
Sarah notes that her average clientbase
today is very different to that of 15 years
ago, especially in terms of age.
“At first, most of our clients were of
retirement age. Now, they can be anywhere
between 35 and 55. These people have
money and some are able to consider
buying a property to use for maybe six
months of the year.
“People move with their young children.
Instead of using international schools,
they want to put their children into French
schools at an earlier age, to integrate them
with the local community and give them
the chance to become totally bilingual.”
Sarah’s own sons are both now in their
early twenties. She admits they can be
handy to have around.
“The second son has a good head for
figures. At times, I wonder if he may be
inclined to help run the company. The
eldest one is in IT, so his advice on technical
issues and the website is invaluable.”
But Sarah makes it quite clear that the
website is her baby. Possibly her sons have
questioned her devotion to the site. “I think
they both think that I’m permanently
attached to the computer,” she laughs.
Her work has paid off though, seeing
significant improvement to the website.
Presently, Sifex have more than 2,000
properties posted on the site and a list
of around 8,000 registered users.
Sarah speaks fast and clearly thinks fast.
Likewise, her service is rapid. “We’re a
small, independent company – if clients
want something done, they just have to
give us notice. Let us know and we’ll
swing into action and do our best to
accommodate you.” Sifex Ltd
Tel: 020 7384 1200;