Second homes

Second homes are residences used at weekends or during holidays. Their distinction lies in the fact that they are not the household’s address for tax purposes.

France, land of second homes

A second home is a unit of accommodation to which French statistics body INSEE applies a ratio of five persons per residence. In 2017, France (excluding Mayotte) had over 3.2 million second homes (Chatel et al., 2021). According to sociologist Jean Viard, this gives France the most second homes per capita in the world (see this interview on 2 July 2022), although the number of second homes in the world remains unknown. Nearly six out of ten second homes are located on the coast (40%) or in high-altitude regions (16%), with a significant number in large cities, too (12%). In some municipalities, second homes represent a large majority of the total housing stock (Chatel et al., 2021).

Second homes serve mainly as alternative accommodation units: both in terms of time, since they remain unused for part of the year, depending on the habits of their owners (who range from absentees, or absentéistes, to regular users, or réguliers, as per the categories identified by Bachimon, Dérioz and Vlès, 2017), and of space, as an occasional rather than everyday residence (Moles and Rohmer, 1982). Accordingly, tourism operators sometimes associate second homes with the image of “cold beds [unused beds] and closed shutters” (Blondy, Vacher and Vye, 2016), since these residences are not systematically rented out in their owners’ absence, and their use during the off-season is no longer relevant.

Second homes everywhere?

Second homes seem capable of acclimatising everywhere. This is because they can be acquired, an act which in itself reveals a choice, but they can also be inherited. Therefore, the attachment many people feel to their roots, to use a consecrated term which reduces people to the status of vegetables, means that families are maintaining ties pretty much everywhere. Their distribution, however, is another matter.

First of all, the spatial distribution of second homes is an indication of touristicity in a given location. Locations where concentrations are highest (and still rising) are on the coast, particularly in the warmest areas, and in the highest, most picturesque and snowy mountain ranges. Second home distribution also points to the recreational function that the countryside surrounding big cities serves. In this regard, significant asymmetries reflect the contrast between expanses of intensively farmed land, which is less appealing (e.g., east of Paris), and the picturesque valleys of Perche in western Normandy, which are more sought after for weekend relaxation and holidays.

However, these metropolitan haloes are disrupted by a twofold dynamic (Violier et al., 2021). On the inside, where they face an advancing urban front, second homes are in decline, being absorbed into growing cities. Here, they become principal residences. On the outside, they expand into the surrounding countryside, conquering new ground (Ill. 1).

Ill.1. The number of second homes per municipality in mainland France between 1968 and 2017 (data processed by Véronique Mondou)

A key player

Second homes serve as investment funds for local authorities and for owners. The increase in second homes goes hand in hand with the growth of the tax base on which local authorities rely. This is a decades-old argument, raised whenever a hazard threatens areas urbanised through tourism, in order to obtain significant investment through public action to protect private properties (Vincent, 2005). In France, second-home owners are still liable to pay housing tax.

For individuals, second homes are a family landmark, somewhere multiple generations can spend time together on holiday and at weekends, as well as a heritage item to be passed down as inheritance. Second homes are also investments in the arena of work and leisure (Perrot and La Soudière, 1998; Bachimon, 2018) and proved a boon for many during the COVID-19 lockdown, and today for remote working purposes.

The possible absence of second home owners does not resolve the issues surrounding the residences themselves, which must still be kept secure (by private companies or police patrols) and maintained, especially before the arrival of tourists (gardeners, painters, etc.). Second homes are therefore a cornerstone of localised tourism systems (Vlès, 2015).

Differences in living standards can be very marked locally: the proportion of second homes owned by wealthy households exceeds 45% in some public institutions of intercommunal cooperation (EPCIs) in the Alps (Vanoise, Haute-Tarentaise, Briançonnais), Belle-Ile-en-Mer and Normandy (Pays d’Auge) (Chatel et al., 2021).
Possession of a second home engages owners in a game of domination between those who have “succeeded”, especially former locals who symbolically return by making such an investment (for the most extreme cases, see Barcelonnette, for example, in Homps, 1990) and the local people who make a living from this trade, as real estate agents or construction workers.

The acquisition of buildings as second homes because of their originality and location in tourist districts can also be considered part of a process of general patrimonalization, which lies at the root of visitor tours (Arcachon, Saint-Valery-en-Caux, Ronce-les-Bains, etc.) and the idea of seaside or mountain heritage. The richest can distinguish themselves by buying property in so-called “old” districts because these have become patrimonalized. We see examples of this in the Point development in eThekwini (Folio, 2014), a location sought after by wealthy South Africans, where the façades of early-20th-century Edwardian mansions are restored and the rest of the building rebuilt identically.

The balance of power between dominant outsiders and dominated locals can also be reversed through this same process of patrimonalization i.e., by forcing the dominant owners of sumptuous second homes to respect urban planning rules implemented by the local dominated societies, as long as the latter remain in control of the local authorities (for a general overview, see Pinçon and Pinçon-Charlot, 2007, or Melot and Bransiecq, 2016).

Johan VINCENT and Philippe VIOLIER