Moving to France

Estate agents in France - Part 2 - Bad times (names changed to protect the guilty)

“Robert, what’s that noise?” I asked as we approached the riverside mill. “Just some machinery that comes on occasionally,” he answered soothingly.

We had met Robert at a property exhibition in Harrogate. He seemed pleasant enough, spoke excellent English due to his previous work experience in England and he also said he had property to rent. At the time we had not fixed anything up for rental. He seemed a useful contact so even though by then we had made rental arrangements he was one of the first people we contacted for an appointment to look for property on our arrival in France.

We had supplied him with the list of criteria and he seemed to have looked through his portfolio to highlight things which he thought might interest us in our price range. So far, so good. As we were browsing through his files we noticed a large photograph on the wall depicting a mill which was clearly within our price range. “What’s the background on that Robert?” He told us it had been sold to a South African consortium but they had delayed in completion so he had just received instructions from the owner to put it back on the market. With the benefit of a more cynical hindsight we might have asked if that was the case why was there a picture of it displayed so prominently in his office. Off we trotted to view some other properties - and the mill.

I quite liked the setting on the river Dropt with the town of Duras sitting on the hillside above. Lynne was dubious because she thought the setting looked a bit depressing and also there was a disused unattractive building between the colonial-style old house and the river which obscured the view of the river. I was attracted by the fact the house was in basic good shape and the rooms were huge within it. As we explored the first floor I heard again the distinctive whine of an electric motor from the other side of the river but could not see any obvious evidence of industrial activity from my vantage point on the first floor. I raised it again with Robert and he said that he thought it was associated with the farms on the other side of the river. I was still curious.

Outside the property was a weir and the low water level made it possible to walk along the weir and hop onto the bank on the other side of the river. I walked up the path opposite the property to get a decent viewing position in the direction of the intermittent noise. As I got higher I saw the unmistakeable shape of …………….. settlement tanks for a sewage works! “Robert that looks like a sewage works to me.” “Oh that,” he replied, “it’s nothing to worry about as it’s only a small facility with pumps that come on for a short time during the night.” We looked at him incredulously as we did a mental calculation of the sewage output from the town of Duras into the facility not so conveniently-located on the opposite bank of the river. Our interest in the property took a vertical downward drop and even Robert sensed our disappointment. Fortunately we had followed him in our own car to the property so it was easy to make our excuses and leave him to lock up and secure the property ready for his next naïve clients. We wonder if the mill is still for sale but oddly enough we have not been in touch with him again.

Boris was another gem. Friendly, of east European origin, and immaculately turned out in a suit. He had made three appointments. Our first appointment was at a property with a magnificent view of two industrial-scale silos which obviously serviced the needs of local grain farmers. Additionally the owner had started to build a swimming pool in what used to be a large barn with the roof removed. We have seen this idea before but not previously as badly executed as this. Looking at the general state of repair of the property we told Boris it was not worth wasting ours and the owner’s time in viewing the inside of the property as a purchase was not even a remote possibility. The second property was unremarkable and we passed quickly to the third which gave us food for thought. The setting was fine and the house was spacious. A separate gite revealed an amazing museum of cinema and other 50’s memorabilia, including two rows of red velvet-clad cinema seats in a historically-faithful home cinema complete with vintage reel projectors. The kitchen contained various ancient but functioning white goods including an Arthur Martin (now Electrolux) ‘fridge and lethal-looking ancient food mixers. The occupant was apparently a cinema projectionist from a nearby town who had a collector’s interest in old things. We wandered outside to muse on this and other aspects of the property when we heard the loud noise which turned out to be a passing train. We moved to the edge of the property and discovered a previously concealed railway cutting. We asked Boris about this. “Ah I am so glad you asked me about that. It is a commuter line which carries two trains a day and they are scheduled to be withdrawn in September 2007.” Unconvinced we carried on exploring the property when ten minutes later we heard another train. “Ah Boris that must be the second train.” He nodded, apparently oblivious to the note of sarcasm in my voice.

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Moving to France

Estate agents in France – Part 1

I promised myself I’d write about Immobiliers and it’s a promise I am determined to keep. We met good agents and terrible agents. Every time we had to endure a session with one of the latter I vowed that our suffering would not be in vain so here goes in two parts. This part deals with the general situation. The next part will give examples of some of the best and worst experiences.

We had compiled a list of criteria for our ideal home with key factors like location e.g. - near a village with bar but at least 100 kilometres from a nuclear power station - and “ancienne” not modern. In fact there were about 20 key criteria. The good agents got a feel from our criteria and in most cases managed to give us a selection of their properties which were worth looking at. The bad agents were generally too lazy to do this. Most agents have their property filed in huge lever arch files organised in price ranges. They would let us look through these at our leisure but quite frequently when you picked one out they’d say “sorry that one’s sold. It should not be in there” Great!

Before embarking on the search for a house we had contacted several agents in the general area of our search and arranged a rough itinerary. This was essential as the search area covered whole departments of the Lot, Lot et Garonne and Tarn et Garonne. We soon fell into a pattern of spending at least three whole days a week with agents looking at property. Taking into account the travelling time to agents, the distance to and between properties and allowing time for “le lunch” it was only feasible to look at a maximum of five properties a day – maybe three in the morning and certainly no more than two in the afternoon. At the end of these sessions we would arrive back at Lacanal absolutely shattered and usually fairly depressed after the day’s events, thinking that we would probably never find a place remotely like we had envisaged.

Because of the favourable prices compared to UK, Netherlands and Germany, there is a hot property market for typical stone built “incomer” properties. Many French people prefer modern property. Prices for “ancienne” property are escalating everywhere as some unscrupulous immobiliers look for business by promising potential sellers that some idiot foreigner is just around the corner willing to pay a king’s ransom for the pig pen at the end of their farm. Sellers also have unrealistic expectations. We know of some who have different prices for French buyers and foreigners. What many sellers and Immobiliers do not understand is that typical foreign buyers of those “renovation projects” will probably need to spend at least the price of the house again on renovations so if your budget is,say, 150,000€, there is no point in looking at houses where that is the purchase price!

The foreign interest has led not only to prices rocketing and immobiliers all over France rushing to set up web sites for an international clientele but it has also created a growth industry in fringe immobiliers particularly from UK and Netherlands. They are “fringe” because the operation of immobiliers is strictly controlled in France and the fringe players need to work under licence of a properly trained and qualified immobilier. This has created a market in loose franchise arrangements whereby established immobiliers take a fee for allowing fringe players to operate under their aegis. This is not all bad. Some of the fringe immobiliers do understand their clientele better than some of the French immobiliers but some do not. These are bullshitting entrepreneurs who have just seen an opportunity to make lots of money without much work. The commissions enjoyed by immobiliers are truly staggering compared to the 1-2% charged by UK Estate agents so these self-employed foreign entrepreneurs have gleefully leapt into a market where just 4 sales per year can earn a respectable salary. Not a problem if you have met one of the good ones. Very frustrating if you have encountered one of the bullshitters.

Innocently we stepped into this viper’s nest. We saw properties which needed hundreds of thousands of euros spent on them cheerfully presented as “liveable-in.” Yes, if you wanted to live on a building site for two years. Yes if you wanted to camp in a mobile home whilst basic sanitary facilities and electricity was installed. Yes if you wanted to risk living under a roof with supporting walls sporting 3 inch cracks from floor to ceiling. House hunting for ancienne property in France is for the brave of heart.

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Moving to France

Leaving England

September 2006

It’s a dull day and the M25 and the M20 are bumper-to-bumper with a fair share of nutcases at the wheel. “This is something I will not miss” I think as we wind our way to the channel ports. On one hand I feel I should have a tremendous sense of excitement. On the other maybe I should feel sadness at missing family and friends. I feel neither. I’m just pre-occupied at coping with the journey and the next few months of interminable house hunting and dealing with the immobiliers and their ludicrously-priced properties. I recognise I am not in a good mood.

We arrive at Dover, blanketed in mist. I could mistakenly assume we’d gone back north to a sea fret. We pass the intelligence test, cunningly disguised as the instructions to get to the Norfolk Lines terminal. Check-in is efficient – no problem with our telephone reservation – collect our documentation and on to the waiting area with the massed ranks of caravans beside which our 4 x 1.5 metres trailer looks decidedly puny. We take it in turns to go inside the terminal building for the loo – sadly no last English papers in the terminal – and we get Jack out of the car to have a sniff round the assembled human and animal life at the terminal. He appears quite disinterested in performing for the pooper scooper and a few desultory urinary sprays here and there seem to comfort him. With Jack back in the car we make our way onto the ship which seems big but most importantly – clean compared to previous ferry experiences. The crew also seem to know what they are doing which is re-assuring.

Leaving port does give me a funny feeling. Lynne gives me the camera to take departure photos and they are somewhat ruined by the carpet of mist shrouding the port and land features. I struggle to analyse my feelings at that point. I feel a sense of “moment” but it is very difficult to describe the absence of lump in throat. I don’t have a sense either of “Oh God” or of “Thank God.” I don’t believe France will turn out to be “better” than England but having sworn that we are not motivated by negative feelings about England I have to confess that I greet the shrinking sight of mist-covered Dover with something approaching relief. Maybe it’s the broohahah surrounding Blair’s proposed “final tour” (is he really that conceited? Probably yes I guess) or maybe it’s the effect the traffic has had on me or the depressing attitudes of some of the southern work-obsessives we met during our temporary stay in Harpenden but I am so glad to be setting out on this adventure. Perhaps I am just naïve and ignoring the extent of the difficulties we might face. Anyway, onwards we go.

Overnight we stay in Dreux at a less-than-prepossessing Campanile. The room has a broken wind-up blind but we manage to get it functioning so we can have some air in the unseasonal heat. Jack seems to like the room but when we go for dinner we decide to play it safe and leave him in the car so that there is no chance of accidents.

We are seated in the non-smoking part of the restaurant which is divided by a glass partition from the smoking part. On the other side of the partition I make eye contact with a French traveller who is obviously keen to communicate. We embark on a bizarre mime fest. He is trying (I think) to convey the fact that we are being extravagant in having ordered a good bottle of wine to accompany our steaks. He has ordered the house carafe and is putting on an exaggerated “visage triste.” I start to regret ever responding to his first contact as our mimes through the glass partition get ever more unreal. The waitress attends to him and he obviously attempts a pass or some other comment with the waitress because she gives him short shrift and he gives me a conspiratorial wink which I think is meant to convey that the waitress likes him really. He gets up to go for his dessert – Lynne is getting scared because she thinks he is leading up to a 3-in-a-bed proposition. Fortunately before the mime can be transformed into real conversation our steaks arrive and we have the opportunity to look steadfastly at our table.

A steady start to the following day and onwards we travel towards Chartres and Orleans and from here to the autoroute south. The day passes with a series of rest stops and opportunities to stretch Jack’s and our legs and we eventually start the final leg from the outskirts of Cahors about 4.30. It is still incredibly hot. We arrive at our temporary home at Paul and Esther’s at 5.30 and after exchanging greetings embark on the unpacking. Our mutual friend Bruce arrives to collect the parcel I’ve brought him from UK. It’s a set of “Ferrari lights” for his Nissan ZX sports car. The temperature is about 30˚C – in other words bloody hot – and I’m sweating like the proverbial pig as Paul, Esther and Bruce watch me unload the trailer whilst sipping chilled white wine. I conclude this is part of an initiation ritual for new English in France. “Everyone must have a sweating and dehydration phase on their arrival.” I decide that I must complete the task now I’ve got lathered up and proceed to empty the trailer, including the bike. Inside the rental house Lynne is sorting the various packages into “to be unpacked immediately” and “to be stored” piles. I’m impressed that she knows instantly which package belongs in which pile without the benefit of labels.

We finish about 7.30, totally shattered. I’ve been sustaining myself with the promise of a shower and the possibility of a celebratory meal at “Le Jardin” but Paul and Esther invite us round for welcome pasta and it’s actually a much better idea as they have twigged that we are totally past it. Showered and changed we join them on their terrace. Jack and their two Dachsunds, Dennis and Toffee, are eyeing each other suspiciously. The difference in size is very significant and we worry in case they might not get on. We relax and pitch into the meal when all hell breaks out with the dogs under the table. I drag Jack out into the open and remonstrate with him but I can tell there is going to be trouble as he gives me a look which suggests he has unfinished business. I feel sorry for Dennis. Poor bugger has suddenly had his territory invaded by a young upstart and can do little to assert his authority as every snarl is met with Jack’s bared teeth and large paws placed on his head. The omens are not good.

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