When Trisha Mason fell in love with a derelict watermill during a holiday in France 15 years ago, she knew instantly that she had to buy it. It was not the most sensible decision to make. The mill had been left to rot for 40 years and had doors hanging off their hinges. And she was single-handedly bringing up two small children in London, having been widowed a few years earlier at the age of 29.
She was making a modest living as a freelance management consultant and had little money to spare. But the mill had turrets and a clock tower, and she was hooked. She says: ‘I decided that even if the property fell down around my ears we would still have 18 acres of land. We could put a caravan on it and be happy there.’
Mason bought the watermill for £45,000 and spent the next few summers renovating it with the help of friends. When those friends asked her to help them buy properties of their own in France, Mason decided to see if she could make some extra money that way. So she placed an advert in the paper offering her services as a property scout.
They would stay with me and I would cook them fivecourse meals and then take them out to look at properties for two or three days. Then I would drive them all the way back to England again. It was exhausting.’ But Mason had always relished a challenge. When her children were small she decided to start a business selling childrenswear and used to stay up all night making clothes.
Then, when they began preparing for their O and A levels she opted to take a psychology degree at the same time so that they could all study together round the kitchen table. She admits to being driven by a fear of being bored, saying: ‘I have very high energy levels. I love adventure and am always looking for the next challenge. I’m very directed and fast in everything I do. I can’t bear people who can’t keep up with me.’
As interest grew in her property consultancy, Mason started taking stands at French property exhibitions in Britain. She quickly realised that the service she was offering in Limousin could be extended to other parts of France. She sold the family home in London and opened three offices, in Charente, Brittany and Normandy, investing the £100,000 equity to set up Vivre En France, now known as VEF. She says now: ‘That was a big jump. I invested all of the equity from the house in the business.’
She never doubted, however, that the business would be a success and thinks her confidence stems from the tragedy of having being widowed at a young age. She says: ‘When you lose the most important thing in your life, the loss of anything else isn’t terribly important.’ Happily, her timing was perfect and VEF expanded just as the idea of buying a home in France started to capture the British public’s imagination.
‘It was lucky it happened when it did. People’s interest in buying in France was just taking off and we were really in at the beginning. Right from the start Mason opted to do things her way, recruiting native English speakers to run VEF’s offices in France as stand-alone businesses, instead of setting up partnerships with local French estate agents as rival companies have done. These guide buyers through the whole purchasing process from translating to legal work for an inclusive fee. She says: ‘Most of our clients don’t speak French and they need to have someone to hold their hand.’
I have definitely got one more project in me but next time round I would like to do something which is not necessarily about making money. I guess I need to earn my place in heaven with this one. I would just really like to feel that I had done something which had made a real difference to people.’