Sunday, 16 October 2011

Purchase of the 'House with no Name' - The End (or just the beginning...)

Hopefully this picture will explain why I haven’t managed to drag myself in front of my computer recently! I cannot stop looking at the view - so much sky, so much sunshine and so much work to do! However, for the benefit of those of you who are actually reading this because I said I would describe how the buying process here works, I shall continue by writing about the Acte de Vente and how the house finally became ours.

Our appointment with the Notaire was for 10am in the morning so we arranged to carry out an ’inspection’ of the house the evening before. This is important as, when you sign the Acte de Vente you sign to say that you are accepting the property in the condition you find it on the day so it is important to verify that everything that you have agreed to purchase is still in place and that they haven’t removed kitchen units or ripped up floor tiles without your knowledge (although we would have been pleased in this case as they are so awful!). Monsieur & Madame G looked absolutely shattered when we turned up as they had spent the day supervising the removal of 30 years of possessions, which at their age is no mean feat. Monsieur G had such a bad back that he could hardly stand up straight but still insisted on showing us how to clean the swimming pool steps and how to work the garden watering system etc. We had a brief inspection of the house and had to try hard to express our pleasure at the furniture they had left for us - some hideous table lamps, a couple of very antique (and not in a good way!) beds, and some assorted tables & chairs for the garden.

The next morning we arrived at the Place de la Republique so early that we went for a coffee and then strolled towards the Notaire’s office. On the way I was startled to hear a cry of ’Madame Eeell’ and turned to see the excitable estate agent bounding towards us. He suggested we go for a coffee before our appointment and just as we were demurring he caught sight of Monsieur & Madame G and included them in the invitation. They also suggested that perhaps there was not time as our meeting was in 5 minutes so he pointed out that without all of us there would be no meeting and then dragged us off to a cafĂ©! This was my first clue that Notaires are not quite as ’scary and official’ as I had first thought. I was also surprised to see that Monsieur G was wearing shorts, having earlier suggested to my husband that this was not an occasion to wear Jeans - you can imagine how delighted my husband was when we discovered that the Notaire himself was wearing Jeans!

The Notaire then read through all 27 pages of the Contract document, checked our passports, and then we came to the final part - the signature. The contract was opened on the page showing the property outlined on the ’Plan Cadastral’ (land registry) and then we all had to make sure our signatures started in the outlined section - presumably so that we all knew exactly what we were buying (and selling). And that was it - a shake of the hands and the house was ours.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Purchase of 'The House with no Name' - nearly there!

After a ‘quiet’ few weeks where very little seemed to be happening, everything is now back in full flow again and we have a completion date. The old couple who are selling the house to us were having trouble finding a new one to move into and while legally (thanks to the wonderful french system) we could have forced them out on a certain date, even I would have felt a bit mean making a couple of 80 year-olds homeless so we gave them a bit more time and have all now agreed on July 28th!

Technically this now means that we are ‘homeless’ in France for a few weeks as we have a tenant renting our apartment in Perpignan so I am now back in the UK and trying to sort out the move ‘long-distance’ which is even harder than doing it in person and not to be recommended. The traumas of moving all our personal possessions out of a 5th floor apartment (with a very tiny lift) and then cramming it all into a Peugeot 206 to transport it all to store it in a room in the new house pale into insignificance compared to dealing with all the relevant ‘services’. EDF were initially quite easy to get hold of but when I told the girl on the phone that I had no idea which of the 4 meters in the communal cupboard on the stairwell related to my apartment she just suggested I turn each of them off in turn. As I was leaving the building I figured it didn’t really matter whether my neighbours hated me for plunging them into darkness so went out to the cupboard and then realised that none of the meters even had ‘off’ switches. I tried again the next day and apart from an initial argument when the man accused me of giving the wrong account number (I later had to admit I thought I was talking to France Telecom!) managed to give all 4 meter readings and we managed to guess which one was mine! France Telecom was a different story – you can ring the customer helpline until you are blue in the face but if they are busy there is no option to ‘hold’ forever, they just tell you to try again another time and hang up on you! I must have tried 20 times with no success. I even tried from the UK on the ‘english-speaking helpline’ (which, naturally is only open from 9-5). During the ‘we are very busy’ speech they do suggest that if you speak good french you could try ringing the french helpline BUT you cannot access it from the UK! Grrrr. I did manage to get through on one occasion and was told that ‘yes, it is easy to cancel your phone-line but you must ring back tomorrow’ which seemed bizarre and when I questioned her further, she admitted that the computer was down! So near and yet so far. I ended up writing them a letter but am probably still paying for the landline even now!

My abiding memory of finally moving out of the apartment was when I dropped into the agent’s office to drop off the last set of keys – there were two girls at the reception desk and as I greeted one with ‘Voici les clefs de mon appartement’ they both burst into song and assured me that there was a famous french song entitled ‘Here are the keys to my apartment’......!

Friday, 17 June 2011

Yes there is such a thing as a Free Lunch!

Just spotted an announcement in the paper that there will be a free ‘degustation’ and distribution of Cucumbers in the Place de La Victoire tomorrow. This event has been initiated by l'AOP Tomates et Concombres de France (I wonder if every salad ingredient has its’ own committee?) and is by way of restoring public confidence following the recent E.Coli epidemic in Germany.

I shall go and take my life in my hands – also a baguette!

Monday, 30 May 2011

Purchase of 'The House with no Name' - continued

I am still grappling with paperwork and am batting it away whenever it arrives in the inbox or the letterbox by signing, initialling or putting ‘lu et approuve’ (whether I have read or approved it or not). In no particular order, here is the latest update:

1. Mortgage Broker advises that the bank is almost ready to confirm the mortgage offer – but this is subject to the valuation of the property. Am not too concerned about this as we have not asked for a high LTV ratio (Loan to Value) (am so impressed with myself for learning all these new things)!

2. Solicitor – There are 3 (if not more) options for dealing with the legalities of buying a house. The first is for both parties to use the same notaire (who work for the government and are totally impartial), the second is to appoint your own notaire (who then shares the costs with the vendor’s notaire) and the third option is to do either of the first two options but then in addition, use a UK solicitor who is an expert in french law. We are gone for the third option, in that we are ‘sharing’ the notaire recommended by the vendors (as this notaire dealt with the original sale of the house so has all the relevant documents to hand) but also using a UK solicitor (at additional expense) as our intermediary so all the documents & contracts are sent & received via her. Although we understand the language and the purchase system we felt that as this is a major investment we wanted to get all our facts right regarding french inheritance laws, french wills, purchasing ‘en tontine’ etc. When we purchased our appartement in Perpignan four years ago our family Solicitor recommended a colleague who just happened to have lived and worked in France for several years and she helped us by checking through the Contract for us. I rang "Mrs Double-Barrelled" and explained that we were in the process of buying another property and she was delighted to help (and I would be ‘delighted’ too if I could charge fees like that!). It is good to have somebody I can just forward some of the emails/paperwork to without having to worry about it.

3. Rental of our current appartement – As it is a buyer’s market at the moment it is not a good time to sell, so we have decided to rent it out. The agent came round and explained the pros and cons of renting furnished or unfurnished (details available on most websites!) and we have decided to rent it fully-furnished – mainly because our furniture is very modern and I don’t think it will look right in a house in the country, but also because we get a higher rental and the tenancy can be reviewed annually. The agent noticed a crack in some plasterwork on a beam – in fact he couldn’t fail to see it as the beam is currently supported by some bits of rough timber in case the damage gets any worse! I explained that this had happened when the neighbour upstairs had been particularly heavy-handed while laying floor tiles but that I had struggled to find a tradesman to do the job for me (it has actually been like that for 6 months!) He assured me that this was not a problem as his uncle just happened to be an ‘artisan’ and he would get him round to give me a quote! In the meantime he has given me a rental Mandate to fill in – more paperwork, just what I wanted..

4. Accountant – To avoid any comments in the future of ‘why didn’t you do it this way and save yourself unnecessary tax’ (bitter voice of experience here) I decided to just run the whole idea past our UK accountant. While he is the first to admit that he knows nothing about the french way of doing anything, he has coped admirably with finding the right place to put my french income down on my UK tax return. When I explained how the rental of the appartement would fund the mortgage and that everything would run through our French bank account (and therefore we won’t be troubled by vagaries in the exchange rate) he actually couldn’t find anything wrong with the plan! I bet he’s having sleepless nights now trying to find an error!

So, for the moment, that seems to be everything - I can’t believe how many people are involved, how much time it has taken and how much work I have been doing, but I keep looking at the photographs and realise it will be worth the effort.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Give me a mortgage please!

Getting a French mortgage (rather than through a UK bank) for the new French property seemed a sensible option – particularly in view of the fact that while the euro/£1 rate is so bad at the moment, we can keep our eyes on when the rate is more favourable and then perhaps start paying some of it off (when we win the lottery). Having had several discussions with several different mortgage brokers, I had narrowed the choice down to the one who seemed the most patient and understanding of all my questions – so I rang him to confirm that we had found a property, confirmed that we would like to take up ‘Option B’ of the various proposals he had outlined, paid the £200 administration fee and then watched in horror as my inbox filled up with pages and pages of forms to be filled in. I pride myself on my methodical filing system but this was a real challenge and it took an entire weekend (and more) to track down everything they asked for which included: Copies of Passports, Birth Certificates, Wedding Certificate, up-to-date statements of any assets (savings accounts, bonds, stock portfolios etc), current valuation of any properties we own, the last 3 month’s payslips, the last 3 month’s bank statements (to prove that we didn’t have any undisclosed regular debts), a letter from an Employer confirming your status & salary, copies of last tax returns, and, as my husband also has his own business, copies of the last 3 years annual accounts. I was very tempted to send my 10-metre swimming certificate, just in case it might be useful.

The whole thing was a massive task but made me realise why the french banks have not suffered to the same extent as others during the ‘Banking Crisis’ – they do not allow people to get into debt easily.

The feeling of relief was fantastic as I posted/emailed everything and sat back in my by now well-ordered office and waited to see if I had ‘passed the test’. (Sadly not quite as the broker rang back with 3 queries – one was that I needed to photocopy the outside envelope of the payslip (?), another was that a statement said that it was ‘page 1 of 2’ and they needed page 2 (just a list of my loyalty points I believe!) and finally querying a couple of entries on the bank statement). Finally I was assured that all was in place and ready to be sent to France for ‘consideration’. Scary!

Monday, 2 May 2011

Purchase of 'The House with no Name'

I did a little bit of homework before rushing into buying a house in an attempt to have everything vaguely in place – so this week was the time to get everything into action. The first job was to get a surveyor to check out the property for us – the French are always appalled by this idea (as they think that surveyors always find too many things wrong!) but as this house is pretty substantial and has several cracks – not to mention the fact that it relies on a well for water and is not on mains-drainage - we felt that an expert opinion was in order. During the course of my work I had met a very well-qualified bi-lingual surveyor (name available on request) and he agreed to visit the property on our behalf the following week. One problem became apparent when he asked for the address and I realised that the property didn’t have one – no name, no number, just the name of the road, the nearest village, and a postcode which encompassed an entire commune. Luckily our agent agreed to meet the surveyor and guide him to the house on the appointed day, but it made me realise that arranging furniture deliveries, France telecom/EDF visits etc. could prove very difficult in future so we will now have to work out how (and what) to name the property to make life easier for everybody. No doubt it will involve plying the Mayor with drink!

The agent had emailed through copies of all the ‘Expertises’ that had been carried out (like the ill-fated UK Home Information Pack) so I forwarded a copy of these to Mr. M the Surveyor who promptly rang up to make sure that we were talking about the same property – I had originally shown him the website details of the house and he had based his quotation on the amount of rooms listed there, but the ‘Expertises’ mentioned a hallway, bureau, cave, 2 garages and 2 additional attic rooms which, in his opinion, made this a ‘different animal’! We renegotiated the fee and, as it turned out, the poor man ended up spending a solid 8 hours at the property.

The Surveyor’s Report put our minds at rest about several issues – the cracks have been explained, the water & drainage situation appear to be normal (for France!), and even the fact that the Expertises regarding the electrics had, in several rooms, mentioned ‘Danger de Mort’, this was ‘something that they always say’ and is just a question of adding a few earth sockets. So far, so good. And now on to the mortgage....

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

I gave in to temptation!

Regular readers (hello to both of you!) may remember that a few blogs ago I mentioned that, despite being a townie, I was beginning to feel tempted by some of the more rural properties I have been viewing. Well, we are now in the process of buying one!

I had asked some of my regular agents to keep an eye out for anything ‘especial’ and a few weeks ago was taken to see a house that I fell in love with. Despite the fact that his visit coincided with the 3-day ‘monsoon’ we experienced in March, my husband also loved it, but (being a typically sensible man) insisted on not rushing into making an offer there and then but to wait a couple of weeks until his next visit and see it again on a sunny day. He also wanted me to check out irritating little details such as whether we could actually afford it! I had an agent out to value our apartment in Perpignan and decided that rather than sell it we would rent it out fully-furnished which seems to make a lot of sense as property prices are very low so it is not a good time to sell. The rental income will pay for a French-mortgage and we will therefore only have to sell one of our two children to be able to afford it!

We went back to the property on a beautiful sunny afternoon and now that there were no clouds or rain obscuring our views of the Pyrenees, the decision was easy. Everybody had smiles on their faces when we said that we would be making an offer – particularly the agent – and he gave us a Proposition d’Achat form for us to fill in with our full names, addresses etc. and the details of our offer. He had asked me to fax it over to him that evening but in the event, was so excited about the deal that he actually came to collect the document personally the next morning, took it to the vendors, rang from their house to negotiate further (they weren’t smiling so much when they saw our offer apparently!), and then came back with their signed acceptance later that afternoon!

So, here we are again at the beginning of a purchase process, which will no doubt run totally smoothly – watch this space!

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Trials & Tribulations of Property Finding - Part 2 of many!

I have met some strange estate agents in my time but this one really takes the ‘gateau’. I had been trawling the internet looking for a very specific type of property and came across a new ‘team’ of estate agents I had never heard of before. They seemed extremely specialised in that there are perhaps 5 of them scattered around the Pyrenees-Orientales but just covering one or two villages each – which is a pain in the neck when you want to see a house in one village and then another just 5 miles away which is handled by a different agent entailing a separate appointment. However, ‘Mr. B’ had two properties which looked good so I called him and we arranged to meet outside the bakery in St. Esteve. My heart sank when his car pulled up next to mine – I believe it used to be some type of Audi but the only clue was the four-circle logo on the bonnet, the rest of the car was so scratched and dented that it was practically unrecognisable. He cleared the front seat of sweet wrappers, cans and childrens’ toys and then we set off. We had a good chat about how his ‘team’ worked and he explained that he specialised in just 2 or 3 villages as he felt this made him an expert in the area and that anyone wanting to buy or sell properties in these villages would come to him. (I think it also helped that there were no other Estate Agents offices in these villages too)!

The two properties we saw were totally unsuitable but he then mentioned that he knew of a house for sale about 30 minutes away, which was technically not in his area of ‘expertise’ but the owners were friends of his etc. etc. So off we drove – as he explained the various short-cuts he knew which avoided the main roads with their fixed speed cameras. We drove for miles at high speed through country lanes, narrowly avoiding tractors, red squirrels, ramblers etc. until after 45 minutes he stopped the car and admitted he was totally lost! A telephone call to the owners eventually guided us to the property which turned out to fit the search brief in every detail except for the fact that it was just too far away from civilisation. It was only later that evening as I was typing out my report to the clients summarising the day’s viewings that I glanced at the map and suddenly realised that the house was in fact just 10 minutes away from a lovely town full of shops and restaurants and not in the middle of nowhere after all!

But I shall certainly be using Mr. B again, not least because of the fact that he charges the vendors a flat-fee of 10,000euros regardless of the value of the property, rather than the more usual 4 – 6% commission that most other agencies seem to charge. For example, say you wanted to make an offer of 425,000 euros for a house which was for sale at 450,000euros, the owners would be more likely to accept it under Mr. B’s arrangement whereby they would receive 415,000euros, but if it was for sale with a regular agency, the figure they would receive (after deducting commission of 21,250euros) would be 403,750euros which they would be unlikely to accept. Sadly this maths doesn’t work for anything much under 250,000euros but I shall definitely keep in touch with this agent – providing he buys a sat-nav!

Sunday, 20 March 2011

A storm in a teacup

The Languedoc is one of the sunniest places in France with over 300 (or 320 depending on whose website you read) days of sunshine every year. We can sit out and enjoy al fresco lunches in December, in January while the UK is experiencing the grey, post Christmas depressive weather we can go for long walks on the beach, in February we can drive through the vineyards and admire the blossom on the fruit trees in the orchards.

But not last week. Last week it rained solidly for 5 days. The streets were deserted apart from the occasional intrepid shopper seen scurrying along clutching a soggy baguette; the pavements were a nightmare as, for some reason, all drainpipes spill out over the tarmac rather than into drains; and all the bars & cafes were filled with sodden customers sharing stories about which roads were closed.

The bitter irony for me was that I was facing a deadline to finish a magazine article entitled ‘Why I Love Perpignan’!

Obviously the recent weather/geographical-related disasters that have happened around the world in recent weeks put life very much in perspective and makes us all realise that this is just a very minor storm in a tea-cup.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Trials & Tribulations of Property Finding - Part 1 of many!

I have had two terrible house viewings today. There was nothing wrong with the actual properties – it was the owners! The first house was owned by a gentleman who had designed and built the house himself and was naturally extremely proud of it and insisted on showing me every last detail, including the original blueprints. The house was on nine ‘levels’ which I actually found quite dangerous – imagine carrying a tray of drinks and having to remember that there is one step down to the living room, two steps up to the tv corner, and seven steps up to a mini-mezzanine level. (And also imagine remembering all that on the way back to the kitchen, having drunk the contents of the tray of drinks…) We looked in every single cupboard – although I would dispute the fact that there is a tiny step down to ‘Le Dressing’ counts as one of the levels. I left the house thinking that bungalows were a fantastic idea!

The second visit was twice as bad because there were two of them! A really sweet elderly couple for whom our visit was obviously the highlight of their week – they had even laid out a tray of coffee & cakes. Luckily the house was fantastic but it was very hard to see as they preceded us into every room (even the tiny toilets) so it was difficult to take my usual realistic photographs – even my picture of the ‘spectacular sea view’ has Madame’s tightly permed head in the corner! The worst thing was that Monsieur had obviously had little else to do since his retirement than to invent ways of ‘improving’ the house. He was delighted to show me the special light-system in the entrance hall which showed whether the garage door had been closed or not, the electrically-operated sunshades on the 3 terraces (all of which were extended to 10cm and then closed to prove that they worked), and the recycling system for rainwater which was somehow involved the sprinkler system and the pool filtration unit. There was absolutely nothing that hadn’t been thought of. Even the ‘Summer Kitchen’ had electric shutters to protect the barbecue from the winter weather. We watched in sarcastic awe as he pressed a button and the shutters went up and down, and then he explained that he had found a solution to a problem that we hadn’t even thought of – what if there was a power cut and you couldn’t open the shutters? This would obviously be une catastrophe! But no, he smiled, and produced a special key which allowed one to open the shutters manually!

This house is definitely on my list of recommendations for my clients to view BUT only when I find out when the owners are on holiday and the agent has the keys!

Monday, 14 February 2011

If you go down to the woods today....

I always thought I was a true ‘townie’ but my current property search is leading me astray. I have been asked to find a family home in the country with plenty of land, views and a pool, and some of the properties I have found have made me have a bit of a rethink. I can now imagine flinging open the shutters of my stone mas and taking my cup of coffee down to the pool where I can look down the garden, to the fruit trees in the orchard, and admire the view of the Pyrenees in the distance. I was almost thinking about chickens and perhaps a donkey until a viewing last week reminded me that country living is not always as idyllic as you might think.

The owner showing me around was accompanied by a very enthusiastic and bouncy dog who, having given me a very inappropriate greeting (the dog not the owner!) insisted on following us around and getting in the way to such an extent that we finished the house in 10 minutes and then proceeded into the garden. The garden was fabulous – about an acre of flat land with terraces near the house, a swimming pool in the middle, and then grass and trees dipping down to a river just beyond the fence. On the other side of the river was woodland which also belonged to the property. I could just picture my clients and their children paddling in the river and strolling through their woodland but there is a price to pay for everything: the first thing to consider is that if you ‘own’ part of a river it is your responsibility to keep it clear of debris, the second is that woodland generally needs annual ‘clearing’ of undergrowth and if it is left to run totally wild the Commune can fine you. I’m not suggesting these are reasons not to buy a property but are just worth bearing in mind if, like me, your idea of outdoor life is lying on a sun-lounger rather than intensive manual labour!

The dog was still galloping around and coming back for surprise rugby tackles as the owner laughed at how ‘playful’ Bob was being and then, as an aside, mentioned that they were lucky to have him as he kept the ‘Wild Pigs’ from the garden. Have my clients got a dog? – No. End of viewing. Wild pigs (or Sangliers) are very common here in the Pyrenees-Orientales and although they prefer to live in densely wooded areas, are not averse to making nocturnal visits to neighbouring gardens where they can do a lot of damage through digging and scratching young trees. Also, where there are Sangliers there will be hunters - during the season of ‘La Chasse’ you will come across groups of men with guns up to 3 times a week, and whether you put up signs on your land saying ‘no hunting’ (or even have your land designated as ‘non-hunting’ land), Sangliers cannot read and hunters are not renowned for checking out local bye-laws!

Wildlife apart ‘though, I really am beginning to see the merits of living in the country – any excuse to buy a pair of Cath Kidston wellies!

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Thankyou Ryanair

I bet that caught your attention - two words you would not normally expect to find in the same sentence! Ryanair gets a lot of bad press (not least from me) but they surprised me so much in December that I wanted to publicly thank them!

I was in the UK when the blizzards hit. I had a flight booked to Girona on the Tuesday and despite the fact that that no cars had been in or out of our hilly cul-de-sac for 3 days, I optimistically packed my case. (Which only involves transferring files from my computer onto a digi-stick and making sure I have my inflatable pillow and i-pod headphones to make the flight bearable but it makes the story sound more dramatic!).

On Tuesday morning things were looking even worse – there had been even more snow overnight, the AA were warning that journeys should only be made in an emergency and the airport was only managing 50% of scheduled flights. I decided to abandon the idea (it was one of my ‘bargain’ £5 all-in flights so I wasn’t losing much) and, having found another flight for £29 on the Saturday, decided to rebook.

Saturday just happened to be the day that the Spanish Air Traffic Controllers decided to walk out on an unofficial strike. Thwarted again!

The only positive part of this sorry tale is that when I went back on the Ryanair site, there was a very easy to use link to click on for a refund. I filled in the very brief details and sure enough, a couple of weeks later, the money was refunded onto my card. Fantastic service and it is good to know that they look after their clients so well – apart from when they are flying them somewhere!