The trials and tribulations of buying and selling houses in France.
A house-selling experience and a half!
By Val Wineyard
It has surely never been more difficult to sell a house in France. The system doesn’t help; agents take a hefty commission and the notaires are obliged to make you pay a hefty 5% or more tax – all property transactions are taxed in France – and ordinary people are reluctant to pay it.
“Nobody buys using agents any more,” a French friend told me. “They all do it privately, or else use low-cost web-sites.”
And so I put a notice on my door, put an advert on a French site, sat back and waited for possible buyers.
I think nearly everybody in the village where I lived wanted to buy a house or had friends and distant relatives who wanted to buy a house. I had a constant stream through my door. One young woman brought seven people with her, four of whom were simply nosy neighbours!
Then there were “the microscopes.” They inspected everything minutely looking for faults. One man told me it would cost so much to repair I ought to pay him to buy it! A young woman wearing very high heels and a cynical expression told me I must sell immediately to a builder (who I later found out was her boyfriend) for pennies because the house was dangerous and I might be injured when I fell through the floor! Another couple yanked at a stuck cupboard door and pulled it off the wall.
Then I saw Chez de Chez Properties on Facebook, looked up the site which had an English landline number, dialled and asked; “Would you be interested in selling my little village house?” “Certainly would!” said Deborah cheerfully. She used to live in the region of Languedoc herself and understood – well, everything. Her system was to liaise with an agent in nearby Narbonne, but he declared that no-one British would buy a house without a roof terrace. So Deborah suggested that I should show people round myself.
That was no problem and I did not expect to be overwhelmed! British people buying houses in France are making a huge decision, changing a whole lifestyle either because they loved France or because they were starting a business here; who would want my village house, even if it did have a lovely view of the church? I had been told by French agents that the English-speakers wanted 200,000€ houses to let out, not to live in themselves.
One should never presume nor even, perhaps, listen to French agents! The first people Deborah sent within the week already lived in France, were selling their bed and breakfast business and wanted a smaller house for their retirement. I liked them as people and we all agreed that my house, with its twisty staircases in the 19th century style, was not quite the one for elderly people!
All this time I was looking for my own dream home to buy. For a long time I had my eye on an unusual property in Carcassonne, tucked away in the Bastide or lower town, with a courtyard between two tiny houses that needed renovating – a LOT of renovating. I could handle that and got quotes. Then one day I went there and found that someone had left the windows open and the place and the furniture in it was full of pigeons and their droppings, and it stank. Yuk, that was too much! I backed out of the sale but it was still a dream that had crashed and bitten the dust. My friends told me the pigeons loved me and were trying to give me a message. Hum. I didn’t love them!
Meanwhile I was travelling regularly to the High Valley of the Aude, the region between Carcassonne and Quillan for my work and research – I write books in English about the region – and a French word-of-mouth led me to a tiny house, much taller than it was wide, partially renovated but going for a song.
The owner met me outside it an hour after I had rang him. The inside lay-out with a courtyard at the back was absolutely perfect for me and all the major things like electricity, plumbing and roof had been perfectly done. (I have no problem with simple DIY like painting walls.)
We stood together outside that house and there was a moment like the wind whispering a message from eternity in my ear.
I made the owner an offer, he accepted immediately, and we shook hands. The deal was done! We would sign in three weeks.
But I still didn’t have a buyer for my house near Narbonne! What to do? I dropped the price by a massive 25%. I discussed this with Deborah and as always, was entranced by her sympathy, friendliness, sense of humour and sheer flexibility.
One day Deborah rang out of the blue. “Can you speak directly to a possible buyer? She has seen the pictures of your house and says it is the house for her!”
Oh, I thought, one of those, a gusher! Call her bluff.
So I rang and Pauline arrived two days later. She is Irish and the friend who took me to meet her off the train recognised her before I did. Well, he is Irish too!
I had found Pauline somewhere to stay but first she had to see the house. Her eyes opened wider and wider. “I want it, I really want it!”
She really did, so I accepted her offer for a quick sale. Then we went out to the village summer fête and we told everybody she was going to buy my house. It was a crazy high buzz! The next day she said; “You can take your notice off the door!” Then we had a quick preliminary meeting with the notaire which was quite amusing. “How did you get married?” he asked.
“Er – in a church like everyone else,” Pauline replied. Then he explained all the different systems by which one might get married in France. I never knew it was so complicated, what choice of contracts there was, both for getting married and buying houses together! Of course, the notaire needed this information for the compromis.
A few days later I was able to go to sign for the High Valley house with the news that I had a buyer! Wasn’t that wonderful? I fell in love with my seller too, a lovely man, we went for a glass together after the signing to celebrate, in the café outside the yoga studio where he went every day. He is a calm guy, very “zen.” We got talking so much I nearly missed my train home.
So both transactions were going well, and if anything resembling an Act of God happened, then I wasn’t worried because Deborah told me many more people were after my house at the new low price.
Low prices work, OK? Many of my friends had advised me not to drop the price. “Hang on for your money!” they said. But I believe it was the right decision on various levels. We’ve got an economic crisis here in France that might well get worse and money is only squiggles on pieces of paper that never quite behave as you expect. I would still be worth one house in a delightful location near the mighty River Aude, that I love.
Village houses for 80,000€ or less are a dime a dozen. The local estate agents, who charge as much as 10% commission, can earn much more selling an expensive house, and so they put all their energy into that, and the stockpile of smaller properties is increasing. Some English-speaking sites won’t even advertise the lower-priced properties but Chez de Chez does and Deborah always has the time to encourage her sellers.
When I say I never doubted that Pauline would complete the sale, that’s not quite true, I told my friends that my chickens hadn’t hatched yet but there were cracks in the eggshells and distant “cheeps.” The word “destiny” floats through the mind . . . but my joy was complete when Pauline sent the money to the notaire immediately. She wanted to secure the house and make dead certain that I wouldn’t change my mind! I appreciated that a lot. Money speaks louder than documents.
Acte de Vente day dawned. I was as nervous as a cat, as I was travelling by public transport. A whisper ran through the crowd. Argh! A bus had broken down and we all had to wait half-an-hour for another one to come! Oh no!
But I got there in time and there was Pauline’s smiley face waiting for me at the notaire’s. He was in a high good humour and started teasing us that we couldn’t proceed but Pauline sailed through it all as though she had been buying houses in France all her life. We signed each page together.
She is an amazing woman. From southern Ireland she came into my life like a whirlwind, she works full-time, she has a husband and a family of teenagers, she had never been to France before and she got on a Ryanair plane to meet up with people she didn’t know and to buy a house she didn’t know. It was for her future, would you be knowing it now.
We will always be friends and it was an incredible experience to find two new friends through buying houses, not a shred of clever-dick negotiation, just one minor miracle after another between honest sincere people.
Maybe it’s true the pigeons had something better in store for me . . .
Val writes and publishes books – www.valwineyardpublishing.com