“We sold our house in Fergus, Ontario, and bought an 11-bedroom château in France”

“We sold our house in Fergus, Ontario, and bought an 11-bedroom château in France”

Sara and Stephen Cole’s 6,500-square-foot castle came with 37 acres, a 16th-century tower and an outbuilding the size of a two-bedroom house

Stephen and Sara Cole in front of their chateau in France

Nothing highlights the absurdity of Ontario’s real estate market like comparing it with the bang you can get for your buck in other parts of the world. But, while most of us only fantasize about a better dollars-to-square-footage ratio, Sara and Stephen Cole decided to make the leap. After years of mulling over a move to Europe, they sold their four-bedroom home in Fergus, Ontario, and broke even on an 11-bedroom castle in southwest France. Now, they spend their days in a Disney-esque locale, where they also run their creative events business, Manor and Maker. Here’s how they did it.

Sara Cole: Stephen and I have been together for 20 years. We met in Toronto in 2004. I was working as a tech consultant and living in a house in Cabbagetown that I’d bought with a few of my friends.

Stephen Cole: I was living in the Junction and working as a graphic designer.

Sara: We met online before it was cool to meet people online. It was on Lavalife, which feels pretty retro these days. After we’d been dating for a while, I reshuffled the living arrangements at the house in Cabbagetown so that Stephen could move in with me.

Stephen: We loved our time living in the city, and we still love Toronto. But we’d both grown up in small towns—I’m from Kincardine, and Sara’s from Peterborough—and we found ourselves craving a bit more community and a quieter area. So, in 2015, we bought a four-bedroom house in Fergus.

Sara: Fergus was exactly what we were looking for at the time—it has a great community of artists, and we were able to get involved in town events, like the Fergus Scottish Festival. It really has that small-town feel.

Stephen: Even though we felt at home there, we’d always talked about moving to Europe. We both have British citizenship, and we’ve always enjoyed travelling. For a long while, though, the timing with our careers never felt quite right.

Sara: Eight years ago, we did seriously consider a move. We were torn between France and the UK. My French is strong, but Stephen’s is a bit less developed. So we were leaning toward the UK, but then we started to hear whispers about what would eventually become Brexit. In the end, we weren’t quite ready to pull the trigger.

Stephen: We did continue travelling often, though, and France always seemed to be the country we came back to. Any trip we took, we’d look for an excuse to visit.

Sara: We were drawn to the lifestyle there, the fact that the emphasis is on spending time with friends and family instead of working. Art is also highly valued; it’s not an afterthought. The French always say things like, Why have a subway stop when you can have a subway stop with art? Why have a park bench when you can have a park bench with art?

Stephen: Sara and I both love history, especially the kind of art history you can find in France. The proximity to other European countries was another bonus. Then, in 2019, we were watching the BBC program Escape to the Chateau, which is about expats from the UK buying châteaux in France. I felt inspired, so I started looking at property values for châteaux. I was surprised by how attainable the real estate market was, particularly in rural France. So, buoyed by this love of watching other people do it, we thought maybe we could do it as well.

The Coles's chateau in southwest France

Sara: We love Fergus. We’d recommend the town to anyone. But we’re people who thrive on change. What better change than taking off to a château in rural France? So we started looking at hundreds of online listings and sorting out what exactly we were looking for. I made up a big spreadsheet, the whole nine yards. We knew we needed enough space to eventually run an events business where guests could stay the night. We didn’t want it to be derelict—we had neither the inclination nor the funds to do a major renovation. And no moats: they’re adorable, but they’re a maintenance nightmare.

Stephen: In 2020, we flew to France to spend two months living there and viewing properties. We saw five or so castles, which helped narrow down our criteria. For example, one property was so big that it took us three hours to view it, and we still didn’t see all the rooms. That felt like a bit too much for us to handle. We saw another that was beautiful but too small to facilitate a business.

Sara: While we were there, I found one listing near Saint-Germain-des-Prés in southwest France, a small town of about 500 people. It was a château, but it wasn’t listed as one. It wasn’t even listed in the right town. It felt like it had been hidden from everyone until we were able to get to it.

The Coles bought an 11-bedroom chateau in France

Stephen: We loved it as soon as we drove up. It was like something out of a fairy tale, with a huge 16th-century tower and beautiful stonework. Parts of the building are over 500 years old. At the time, we couldn’t see the interior, so we had to return to Canada for six months and then make another trip over to France. It was worth the wait. The ceilings in the grand entrance room are almost 29 feet high, which is unlike anything we’d seen at other properties.

Sara: It has a basement and three floors. On each floor, there’s a main room, and all the other rooms branch off of it. On the main floor, there are two salons, a dining room, a butler’s pantry, a kitchen and an office. The second floor has five bedrooms and a few washrooms, and the third floor has six bedrooms. All in all, the château building is 6,500 square feet. It also has two outbuildings—a barn and a former washhouse, which is the size of a two-bedroom house—and the property it’s on is 37 acres.

One of the chateau's 11 bedrooms

Stephen: The surrounding area is mostly rolling hills and greenery, with some patches of forest. It’s near the Dordogne River, and the area is known for its premium food products.

Sara: We could drive five kilometres down the road and buy truffles that had just been dug up. There’s also a lot of artisanal nut products and cheese being made here, and duck too.

Stephen: We put in an offer the next day. In the end, we were able to buy the château with the money we made selling our house in Fergus. We were thrilled, but obviously there was some trepidation as well.

A bedroom in the castle with antique furniture

Sara: I want to be unequivocal: buying a château like this is an objectively bad financial decision. You don’t get the same returns you’d expect on a property in Canada because it’s a heritage building and needs constant upkeep by specialized artisans.

Stephen: But we find a lot of joy in being the custodians of a property that’s been around for so long. It’s something we wanted to try. Even if it all goes south, we can officially say we owned and lived in a château in France. To us, that made the risk worthwhile.

Sara: Plus we knew the one big no-no: do not burn down the château. So many of them have been burned down. Everything that isn’t made of stone is made of wood, and the older and drier the wood gets, the higher the risk. So you have to be really careful about that.

A view of the tower through a bedroom window

Stephen: In 2021, we picked up the keys in town and officially moved in. On our first night, we went out onto a balcony off one of the bedrooms with glasses of wine. Honestly, we were in hysterics. We kept looking at each other and bursting out laughing, just being like, Oh my god, what have we done? This is nuts.

Sara: Since then, of course, we’ve settled into our new reality. Even though the château is big, it starts to feel more manageable and human-sized once you’ve been here for a while. It can still be exhausting to have to walk across it to grab something, though, and when I lose my phone, it’s lost. Getting Wi-Fi through solid stone walls was also a challenge, but we have a lot of boosters now. And there are some things that just never get old. For example, I have my sewing room at the top of the tower, and every time I go up there, I walk up a 16th-century spiral staircase and think, I can’t believe this is my life.

A bedroom featuring antique furniture and lots of natural light

Stephen: We’ve spent at least one night in every bedroom, but now we tend to use just one. It has a Juliet balcony, a view of the tower and a view of the fields outside.

Sara: When we bought the place, it had almost no furniture, so we’ve been slowly decorating. A lot of the château was built in 1900, in the Gothic Revival style, but a lot of the interior design is belle époque and art nouveau. Plus there are the sections built in the 16th century. So we figure we can basically work with anything made after that time. We’re not too picky about the era as long as we love the piece itself. Luckily, the second-hand market here is thriving, and it’s easy to find beautiful antiques. For example, at one estate sale in the village, we found a 400-year-old armoire and a couple of hand-painted glass vases.

The Coles have furnished the bedrooms in the chateau with antiques from nearby flea markets and estate sales

Stephen: We don’t have plans to renovate the first two floors. We’ve been slowly painting and bringing in brighter wallpapers, but not much more than that. We do most of the decor work ourselves, but we hire people for the plumbing and electrical. The third floor is a bigger project—eventually, we’ll probably tear down the walls and reconfigure the space into more guest bedrooms for Manor and Maker, which is the business we run here. For that, we’ll probably need to consult with an architect and a structural engineer.

A French bedroom

Sara: We knew all along we’d need to have a business to make things work financially. We wanted to create an artistic space where people could come and geek out over the things they’re passionate about.

Stephen: We host retreats for artists and artisans, including writers, musicians and silversmiths. People can also rent the space for events, including corporate gatherings and days-long yoga retreats. It’s still new, so we’re open to everything while we figure out what works best for us. Recently, some students from the town rented the space for a party. They had a DJ going until 6 a.m. Then, after they cleaned up, we welcomed another group for a much quieter writing workshop. We’re also trying to get some signature events going, like art shows and our Belle Époque en Plein Air festival, where people come in period costumes and artists paint their portraits.

Sara: Over the two years since we moved, we’ve noticed a subtle shift in what we’re prioritizing and how we spend our time. Instead of spending hours commuting, we can go out to visit other castles or go thrifting. If we run into friends, we have time to spontaneously stop at a terrace for coffee.

A view of the chateau's exterior at sunset

Stephen: We still spend a lot of time working—we’re probably working harder than we ever have before. But, instead of working for somebody else, we’re the direct beneficiaries of all the energy we put in. Our life is our work now, and we get to do it all in this very magical place.

Sara: We’ve made friends here who have been running properties like this for 10 or 15 years. The joy of the lifestyle hasn’t worn off for them. We’re hoping it never does for us.