A real alternative: Investing in a chateau in Normandy
The financial media is full of bores and quacks - just like Congress. But all the hacks share a common and vulgar hustle: They all promise you more money. There is something unbalanced about it. Only half a man's life is passed in trying to make money, and not necessarily the better half. The other half is spent trying to get rid of it. The following little letter is designed to help.
Last week, we drove out to a small town in Normandy. There, we spent two hours in a grim office signing papers. From that day forward, we would be responsible for the town's most remarkable building - the former seat of the local marquis... an 18th century chateau. The place had been on the market for more than a year. Since no buyers who knew anything about it could be found, nor any who hailed from anyplace within 4,000 miles of it, your editor became its "chatelain."
It was a moving occasion. The seller had owned the place for many, many years. There were so many family memories attached to it, she said. The poor woman had a small tear in her eye at the end; we barely noticed her winking at the notary when the deal was done.
There is something timeless and dignified about owning a magnificent pile of stones. It makes you think of the next generation...of eternity - that is, of blowing your brains out.
A man buys a house to live in. He keeps an apartment as a convenience. He has a beach house for fun. But he buys a chateau to inflict pain - either on himself or his family.
We bought our first one ten years ago. It was an ideal investment, we discovered. Unlike stocks, or real estate, or gold - a chateau in France is a sure thing. Your stocks might go up, or down. Real estate, too. And gold...who knows what the gold price will be a year from now? But a chateau - a huge, old stone house - is much more reliable. It is practically guaranteed; there is almost no way you can win. You see, dear reader, the correct translation of the word "chateau" is actually "money pit." There are more enjoyable ways to part with a fortune. There are quicker ways too. But none is surer.
But even the vast expense does not fully describe the suffering that a chateau causes. Writing checks is one thing. But you cannot simply write a check. You must write it to someone. And therein lies a punishment suitable for a serial killer. Each check requires a payee as well as a payer. And the payee of your chateau checks will be the local artisans, roofers, electricians, merchants, plumbers, cabinet makers, tax officers, half-wits and miscreants. None will present himself readily. None will present his bill clearly. Not a single one will complete the transaction without innumerable meetings, compromises, delays, mishaps, threats and misunderstandings. The process will not "stretch out" over years...for that suggests movement and flexibility. No, it is more like a long stay in a federal penitentiary, punctuated only by tedious visits from an incompetent lawyer - who bills by the hour.
Our first chateau fix-up project stretched out over nearly 10 years. It is still not complete. Not that there hasn't been any progress. When we arrived, the chateau was broken down, but at least we were in pretty good shape to tackle it. Now the chateau is in good condition, but we are broken down. And is it any wonder? We spent nearly every weekend and holiday for the last 10 years in a cold, dirty, drafty, smoky, uncomfortable place - our own chateau. We scraped the lead paint off the walls; we laid up stone walls in the icy rain; we choked in front of open fireplaces....trying desperately to get warm, we stood so close to the flames that our buttons melted, while our backs were still cold. We climbed up to the top of chimneys, 50 feet above the ground - this is a chateau, remember - to clear out the crows' nests. We slept amid the mould and mildews and contracted strange and wondrous diseases that haven't been seen since the 19th century, and excited the curiosity of medical school students. And we felt lucky; we survived.
But what is the purpose? Why make such sacrifices? Because, once you get the place fixed up you can throw a big party, invite your friends and enemies, and show off. Just don't forget to do it in the summer. In the winter, the place will still be drafty, cold, and dangerously unhealthy. Even if you had a nuclear reactor next door, you will never be able to get the place warm. All the energy in the world is not enough to warm up these places in January. Which is why your nose will always run...you will have a lingering cough from October to May...and your friends - if they ever do come to your celebration - will look on you with pity and ask if they can call an ambulance.
All of that, though, is the good part. The bad part is that after buying this pile of rocks...and spending a fortune fixing the place up so that you will have something to leave to your children...the children themselves will want nothing to do with it. By then, they've spent hundreds of weekends shivering in front of an open fire, too...being asked by Dad to help with this or that. Whatever scales Dad still has over his eyes dropped from theirs years ago. They can barely wait to get rid of the place so they can return to a tidy apartment in Paris with a bistro next door. When you tell them that you intend to leave it them in your will, they will scarcely be able to wait; they are likely to club you with a fireplace poker right on the spot, and have the place up for sale before the sun sets.
To make matters worse, even after enduring the torture of buying and renovating a chateau (every one of them is apparently in urgent need of repair), the owner hardly gets the respect he thinks he deserves. The French look at him in awe; how could anyone be that stupid, they ask themselves. They've spent years trying to offload their own piles so they could buy a trouble free place on the Cote d'Azur. Americans, meanwhile, look at him in shock; why would he want to do such a thing, they wonder. Even his fellow chateau owners give the man no more admiration than he would get from a Paris waiter. In fact, they regard him as pathetically "petit." For no matter how much you spend, your place will always be small in comparison with others in the area. Here we enter into the strange realm of middle-aged male psychology...and the real reason we get involved with chateaux in the first place. For no matter how big yours is - viewed from whatever angle - it is never big enough. There is always someone fifteen minutes away with a bigger one. And when he gets drunk and flirts with your wife at cocktail parties, your sense of jealousy and inadequacy gets the better of you.
Which is why, of course, you buy your second chateau. It is a bigger money pit than the first. It requires even more meetings, more checks, more decisions, more drafty weekends, and more resentment from the family. But at the end of it you end up with a bigger place - and then you get drunk and flirt with his wife!
P.S. Your editor has become a farmer. Not that he set out to be one. But when he purchased his place in Normandy, he found himself in possession of 17 cows. Being as ignorant of cows as of economics, he sent his trusty friend, Pierre, to survey the situation.
"How are they?" he asked.
"Appalling," replied Pierre.
"What do you mean...what's wrong with them?"
"A good herd of cattle comes from careful selections," Pierre explained. "Over time, you end up with a quality herd. For some reason, it looks like they selected the wrong ones. I think one of the cows only has three legs."
"Hmmm...that's too bad. I was hoping to make some money on the farm."
"I was hoping to make money on the farm."
"That's what I thought you said. But you'll never make any money on that farm."
"Why not? I thought the European Union gave farmers all sorts of subsidies."
"They do. But this farm doesn't get any. They just never properly registered. And it's practically impossible to register now. No, that farm doesn't make money; it loses it. Probably lots of it."
"Well, let's get rid of the farmhand and stop farming."
"You can't do that. First, the farmhand has a contract. You can't just fire him. He's probably been there forever. It would cost a fortune to get rid of him. You'll probably have to run him over with the tractor, or something. And second, you can't not farm the place. You have to farm the place."
"It's part of the subsidy system."
"But we don't get any subsidies."
"Doesn't matter. If you don't farm the place, they'll let someone else farm it."
"Well, so what? Well, then it's no longer yours."
"Oh, maybe that would be a blessing."