Author Archives: Phill Edwards

French Language

It is very surprising that many British ex-patriates living in France don’t speak French. We really don’t know how they manage. Although there are English speaking Web call centres for some of the utilities, it is inevitable that it becomes necessary to communicate with somebody in French.

Phill took French lessons while still in London and got to an intermediate level. Since moving to France we have spent a lot of time int the UK on business and there has been little reason to speak French other than to waiters and shop assistants.  In May, while living in Montpellier, we wanted to go to our favourite Thai restaurant called Art Mango which closes for several months during Winter when the owner goes to Thailand to buy furniture. We went there and it still wasn’t open so we went to the restaurant next door called Il Mercato. It was a Tuesday evening and we discovered an organisation called Go Lingo. They do English and French evenings on Tuesdays and Thursdays and  a Spanish and French evening on Wednesdays. The idea is that you register for an evening on their Web site. You register with them between 1900 and 1930 and get a voucher for a free drink. The evening starts at 1930 where each native English speakers are paired with a native French speaker. We speak in one language for 8 minutes and then a gong is sounded and we switch to the other language. After a further 8 minutes the organiser switches all of the partners. Typically you speak to 5 people in an evening.

Phill signed up to Go Lingo and has been 9 times during may and June. It has been fantastic. His confidence in speaking French has improved a lot. He has learned a lot from the people he has spoken to. It is also a great way of improving vocabulary. If you don’t know the word for something you just ask! It is a good idea to arrive early at 1900. That way you get to speak to people before the event starts. Having moved into our property in Marseillan, we decided to go to Montpellier a night out. We booked a cheap hotel so that we could stay the night. Steve went to Go Lingo for the first time on 25 June 2015. Although he doesn’t speak much French he had a good evening and met some interesting people. Phill had a really useful conversation with a guy about French electricity regulations. We finished the evening with a lovely Thai meal at Art Mango.

Caveat Emptor – House Renovation – June 2015

The French regulations governing electric wiring, gas installations and sewage are an issue when buying a property in France. It is OK for an old house not to conform to regulations. When you buy a property it is the new owner’s obligation to make the installations conform to current regulations.

The electric wiring in our property is downright dangerous. Wires appear out of walls and disappear into adjacent walls. Most power sockets are 2 pin and there is no earth connection.  There are far too few sockets. Apparently a living room should have 5 power outlets. The water heater doesn’t work either. This is OK in the hot Summer weather when a cold shower is rather welcome.

We got an electrician in, via the estate agent, to quote for new wiring and heating. His quote was a staggering €18,000. He must use gold wires!

We also have 5 rather large pine trees in the garden. We got a tree surgeon in via the estate agent. His quote was a staggering €7,500.

We found a site called “Find a Trade in France” where you can post a job and several local tradespeople can then send in a quote. We will get at least 3 quotes before parting with any money.

There is quite a lot of work which needs to be done before we can start operating as a guest house. Now we need to prioritise the work and get the urgent things done as soon as possible.

Acte de Vent 19 June 2015

There was a 6 week wait after signing the compromis de vente. The Notaire has to do some checks and the Mayor need to have first refusal to purchase. During this time the mortgage offer needed to be obtained. We also needed to obtain mortgage and property insurance. The completion can’t take place without it. When it came to buildings insurance Britline came to the rescue. They were most efficient.

Everything seemed to happen at the last minute. There were several missing documents including the all important 30 page Acte de Vente which we didn’t see until two days before completion. Finally everything was in place.

We went to the Notaire’s office on 19 June 2015. The previous owners and the agents were there too. He was running late so we had to wait 20 minutes. We finally went in and the Notaire read through the Acte de Vente and then all parties had to initial and sign the document. The keys were then ours!

We went to the agent’s and drank a glass of bubbles to celebrate. We then went to the property. The previous owners were there removing stuff! Not that we wanted it. One of them asked if she could have the lights…

Waiting – April – June 2015

Having signed the compromis de vente not much happens for a while. The mayor has first refusal to purchase and needs to be given a month to decide. We have a completion date set for 19 June 2015.

In the mean time we needed to get mortgage protection life cover. This involved a lot of paperwork and a visit to the doctor to get the medical form completed. We got the mortgage protection insurance approved which was the final piece for getting the mortgage offer. The formal mortgage offer finally arrived on 28 May 2105. Receipt of the documents started a 10 day countdown. We must accept the offer on 8 June 2015 by signing some forms and sending them to the bank by courier.

Another condition of completion is obtaining buildings insurance. One company asked a lot of questions and then wouldn’t give us a quote. We contacted Britline and got a very reasonable quote which we will accept.

We also had to arrange a local moving company to move our things from Montpellier to the new property in Marseillan. We asked the estate agent if she knew a moving company. She put us in contact with Le déménageurs bretons who gave us a quote. We accepted it and they delivered a stack of cardboard boxes. We have arrange to move on 20 June 2015.

We also arranged for our belongings which have been in storage since September 2014 to be delivered on 23 June 2015.

We now have to wait for confirmation that the Notaire has completed his work and that the acte de vente can be signed on 19 June 2015. It will be nearly four months between having the offer accepted and completing the purchase. All of the pieces are falling into place to get this far and there is still much to do.

Compromis de Vente – February – April 2015

Having had the offer accepted, the next stage was to get the contract of sale – “Compromis de Vente” prepared and signed. This process took much longer than expected. Our solicitor, the agent and the Notaire all seemed to be involved. Several changes were asked for but didn’t appear in the next version. Sometimes just getting the latest version of the document was difficult. With a two week business trip due to start on 18 April, we needed to get the compromis signed by 17 April at the latest. Finally, a version of the compromis was agreed upon by all parties on 15 April, ready for signing on 17 April.

We went to the Notaire’s office in Marseillan on 17 April. The vendors were present as were the agents. A few last minute changes were made to the document. The Notaire then proceeded to read the document addressing either us or the vendors for approval. All four of us vendors and purchases then had to initial every page of the document. Steve and Phill then had to hand write a paragraph in French before signing. After signing we went to visit our friends at Villa Littoral for a glass of champagne to celebrate.

Caveat Emptor – July/August 2014

We made the decision to give the required two months’ notice on the flat on Friday, 18 July and then we flew to New York for five weeks. We flew back to London on Saturday, 15 August and Phill flew to India on Sunday, 16 August for three weeks.

I immediately started the process of packing up the flat and getting quotes for putting the bulk of our stuff into storage.

Phill had a flash of inspiration to move to Montpellier for an initial six months whilst looking for a place to buy; which meant that I had four weeks to find a place to live in France!

Trolled the web looking for rental property in Montpellier and came across Home Away – HomeAway, which was very useful in narrowing what and where we wanted to live for six month.

After much toing and froing with Phill in India, we decided that this would be the best of the bunch: HomeAway Apartment

I contacted the owner directly, who said yes pretty much straight away as would be income for him over the winter months, when things a much quieter in the South of France. Also, rental wise, it was a lot cheaper than living in London we can assure you.

We had requested a Certificat d’Urbanism Informatif from the agent. We finally received this important document on 4 August 2014. It describes the current regulations concerning the property. The certificate stated that the property was in both a blue and a red risk zone for flooding. Phill was concerned about this and did some investigation online. He found the PPRi document for Le Grau d’Agde area which showed the flooding risk zones. We were shocked to find that a good third of the land and about a third of the house were in the red zone for flooding risk. This means that it is impossible to build anything new or even modify the existing building. We reported our findings to the agent and to our solicitor. The agent replied with an email which didn’t make a lot of sense. The solicitor said that things that the agent had told her contradicted what the Mayor had told her.  It was clear that the vendor and the agent had lied to us. We pulled out of the purchase.

Offer accepted – 16 June 2014

Negotiating the purchase price is interesting. The vendors often won’t reduce the price. The estate agents don’t want the price reduced as it cuts into their profits. Once an offer has been accepted the property is taken off the market. It will disappear from the estate agent’s listings.

The French estate agents have a bigger responsibility that their UK counterparts. UK agents basically introduce the purchaser to the vendor, act as an intermediary for any price negotiations and chase  solicitors. French agents also draw up the Compromis de Vente (purchase agreement). They will also hold a deposit payable on signing the Compromis de Vente. The deposit is about 15%, usually rounded down to the nearest €10,000.

The agent will require information for drawing up the contract. They need proof of identity and information about any mortgage. This will include the mortgage amount, the lending bank, the interest rate and the term. Remember that French banks are very regionalised. Credit Agricole isn’t sufficient to name the bank. It needs to be qualified by region – Credit Agricole Normandie.

As mentioned previously, there are blue and red zones. After the floods of the late 1990s, areas of land in danger of flooding from the sea or river have been designated as red zones. It is forbidden to build anything on a red zone. Red zone land is worthless.

As we are buying part of an existing plot of land it is necessary for the land to be officially divided into separate plots ensuring that we get the 1350m2 we want. The Cadestre is the French equivalent of the UK Land Registry. Their Web site is quite good and you can get information on plots of land. Apparently the boundary will be marked out by pegs and it is an offence to move pegs until boundary walls or fences are in place.  The land needs to be divided before the Compromis de Vente is signed.

Another important consideration is how the property is owned. It is important to get this right otherwise French inheritance laws can prove very expensive. One option is to create a special company called a Société civile immobilière (SCI) which owns the property. It is worth getting the SCI option written into the Compromis de Vente as this gives the Notaire the option of transferring ownership to an SCI on completion.

One very important thing is never sign anything than estate agent gives you, other than a Bon de Visite, without talking to a lawyer. An English speaking lawyer if you are not a fluent French speaker. We engaged Annie Digby  from Guellec Digby & Co. She produced a very comprehensive list of things she would do as part of the purchase process, some of which we hadn’t thought of.

Property Found – June 2014

Our estate agent, Julien at S’Antoni, sent through information about what he thought would be a suitable property for our “project” on Thursday, 3 June. It is 1000m2 of land with an existing old house on it (stone house built sometime in the 1800’s). We arranged to view the property with Julien at 1400 hrs on Thursday 12 June 2014.

We headed to Paris for our usual overnight stay and bounced out of bed early to get our train to Agde. When we got to the station we discovered that our train had been cancelled by the on-going train strikes being held by SNCF, so we had to defer our visit to the property until 1700 hrs. It is part of a huge plot of some 2700m2. The 1000m2 did not include the swimming pool, but the owner was prepared to sell another 350m2 making a total area of 1350m2. The house is livable, but will benefit from refurbishment at some point in the future.

We showed our friends Jean and Laurent the property details. There was some concern over whether the land was in a red zone for flooding risk from the sea and the river – which thankfully it was not.  Jean, who has lived in the area for over 20 years, kindly agreed to visit the property with us on the morning of Friday the 13th (lucky for some!).

We visited the property for a second time with Jean. He asked the questions that we had not even thought of ourselves and told us that it was a good investment. We put in an initial low offer which was rejected and then got our final offer accepted on Saturday, 14 June. It is going to be a huge project to turn the house and land into a guest house, but will be a wonderful experience for the two of us

We have pictures on our Web site.

French Property Learning Curve

We learned a lot from our first property finding visit. Here are our findings on aspects of French property.

French estate agents only provide a basic description and a few photographs. They never provide a floor plan – though the vendor may be able to provide one. They are also very rarely willing to provide the property’s address. They usually want potential buyers to sign a “Bon de visite” which prevents you from buying the property through another agent of directly from the vendor. The reason for all of this is that properties are usually being sold through several agents often at different asking process depending upon the agent’s fees. Agents don’t want to risk losing their commission!

Property sizes are designated by the ground area in square metres along with the total land area in square metres. There are often building restrictions that the property area is less than 0.1, 0.2 or even 0.4 times the land area. These restrictions are sometimes local to a town or even to a street. It is important to verify whether it is possible to extend the building if it is required.

Beware! After the floods of the late 1990s, areas close to the sea, rivers and canals have been given designations of zone blue and zone red. Zone blue is fine and you can build on it given the existing constraints. Zone red is a disaster area. It is forbidden to do anything with zone red land. It can’t even be used as a recreational park area. Many people now own zone red land which was once worth a fortune and is now is totally worthless.

Properties are often described in terms of the number of rooms (pieces). Sometimes the number of bedrooms (chambres) is also provided. A room which is below a certain size should be designated as an office (bureau) rather than as a bedroom. Agents often blur this distinction.

There are two types of bathroom. There is a salle d’eau which is a shower with a wash basin and possibly a bidet. Then there is a salle de bain which will also contain a bath.

Toilets are almost always in a separate room as the French find it distasteful to put the toilet in a salle d’eau or salle de bain. The toilet room may also contain a bidet but often not. It does make one wonder about the potential consequences of having the toilet and bidet in separate rooms!

There are several types of kitchen. A cuisine is a separate room. A cuisine Americain is a kitchen built into a living room. A cuisine été is a Summer kitchen designed for outdoor cooking. A barbecue is quite common either on a balcony or as a separate outdoor unit.

Swimming pools have to have one of three safety features. They can be fenced off with a gate. They can have a pool cover. They can be fitted with an alarm which goes off if someone, or something, enters the pool without disarming it.

Another thing to check for is does it have a forage – free ground water for swimming pools and watering the garden. Mains water is quite expensive.

Initial Search – May 2014

We went back to Le Grau d’Agde over the period 17-25 May 2014, and stayed at Villa Littoral.

We had a viewing scheduled for the Monday morning with Julien Sanier from S’Antoni. The property we saw we both liked. It seemed to tick all of the boxes.

We then visited 9 properties through Neale from French Entrée on Tuesday and Wednesday. None of these reached the bar we had already set.

We then visited another property with Julien and then revisited the first property on the Thursday. We were both very keen on it and having discussed it over lunch we put in an offer. This was rejected for being too low and the seller only came down in price by €5,000. We made a higher offer. We discussed the property with Jean and Laurent at Villa Littoral. They said that the property was over priced and needed work. They said that our offer was about what the property was worth.

On the Friday our offer was rejected as the owner wouldn’t drop the price by more than €15,000. We pulled out as we were not prepared to increase our offer. We also decided to revisit our requirements.

We will be returning in June to continue our search.