French property caretaker: Could you do my job?
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From mucking in with the cleaning to helping clients with their paperwork, being a property manager in France means being a jack or jill of all trades. Read on to find out if it could be the perfect way for you to make a living in France or a changeover too far.
My husband Chris and I have been looking after other people’s holiday homes in the Lot valley for over 20 years, and we now wish to retire. However, it’s not a simple case of giving clients notice and handing back their keys. Our clients have become friends over the years; we’ve seen their children grow up and shared good times and bad.
Covid has caused several clients to review second-home ownership and luckily, they have sold to folk making a permanent move to the country which has made things easy for us. The flip side to Covid is that clients from far away have been unable to visit, and so are relying on us to find them new caretakers. Who knows when our four Australian owners will next get here?
Finding competent caretakers, cleaners and pool people has never been easy, and there is a market all over France for year-round reliable people to look after second homes, whether they are holiday lets or just used by the owners. If you need a full or part-time income, could you do our job?
GETTING DOWN AND DIRTY
Lots of people think I ‘just clean gîtes’. Yep, been there, done that, and I’m proud to say that we’ve never had a complaint about cleanliness.
It’s not like cleaning your own home, where you can choose to clean the oven one day and the windows another. On a changeover day everything has to be checked and cleaned as necessary, from the loos to patio doors, the coffee machine and behind the fridge, in a race against time. And change all the beds. It takes energy, organisation and a good cleaning kit – a collection of old toothbrushes for detail is essential!
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Does it work? There’s no point in cleaning an oven if you don’t check it works. Ditto all the lights, the internet connection, smart TV and the smoke detectors.
Outside, there’s garden furniture to clean, terraces to be swept and – ugh! – sometimes a very mucky BBQ to clean.
When you leave the place all sparkling clean and ready, don’t forget to pick up the dirty laundry. That’s your next task!
AVAILABLE ALL YEAR ROUND
Aside from being available for rental changeovers, living here year round to do regular checks on empty homes, plus extra visits after bad weather is essential. No going away for several months in Spain! Owners not tied to school holidays pop over when flights are cheaper; May bank holidays are busy and at Christmas, New Year and Easter we see a lot of people.
Depending on the owner’s instructions I might do a full clean and stock the fridge before they come, or just ensure the water and electricity are OK.
WAY TO MOW
We are not professional gardeners; we mow and strim grass, keep weeds down and do a bit of pruning and tidying. Chris does all the basic maintenance on clients’ ride-on mowers.
Some of our owners work very hard in their gardens when they are here, leaving us with the minimum to do. Others employ professionals and some leave it all to us, and we call in specialists as necessary.
DIVE STRAIGHT IN
Chris works on pools of all kinds, managing them throughout the season, from uncovering and setting them up through summer servicing through to overwintering them at the end of the season.
Some owners look after their pool when they are here, but call him in if there’s a problem. Chris prides himself on always leaving a sparkling clean pool ready for holiday rental guests when they arrive – to do that takes time, care and attention to detail.
If something goes wrong with the pool filtration system, Chris can usually identify the problem and if it’s a minor failure he’ll get the part and fix it, which saves the hassle and delay of waiting for a pool company. If the main pump packs up, he’ll remove it and take it to a nearby specialist dealing with agricultural and other pumps as well as pools.
Chris is the handyman, doing all the minor property repairs and improvements which everyone needs from time to time. It’s much more efficient to do this in-house rather than having to call someone out for every little thing.
Some things are beyond his skills and for these we have a long list of local people to call on. Need a chimney sweep, someone to collect a bee swarm, or a satellite repair man? No problem, we know the numbers to call – plus, of course, the usual gang of plumbers, electricians, dishwasher repair men and the reliable local ‘vidangeur’ for smelly fosses septiques.
PAPERWORK AND SERVICES
I deal with the EDF, water companies, house insurance and taxe foncière and taxe d’habitation issues on a regular basis. To do this, my clients have to trust me with their client information and their bank details. In return, I save them the hassle of hours of listening to muzak waiting to get to the top of a call centre queue, and speaking French when they get there.
If a technician has to come to a property, I try to get ‘first call’ on a time slot, but I can be waiting around in a cold empty property for up to four hours for someone to turn up, fiddle around, draw a deep breath and maybe say “sorry, but this is for EDF, not Enedis, I can fix it but it’s not my job”.
With just about every second home now having internet services, I’ve had to learn to be a whizz kid with internet and phone companies and their labyrinthine customer service lines and website ‘help’ pages. Not to mention knowing how to set up each different type of box and reset it when the line goes down.
For holiday rentals I have to keep each property’s ‘house book’ up to date, in English and in French, with information on local doctors, emergency numbers, market days and restaurants. Judging by the calls we get, most guests don’t bother to read it but the books do tell them how to change a gas bottle or turn the electricity on after a storm!
Burglaries happen, and second homes in isolated locations with no neighbours are particularly susceptible. We have arrived several times at empty houses and, with a sinking feeling, seen a broken shutter or wide-open doors. A call to the gendarmerie is the first priority, followed by making an assessment of what’s been taken and getting security repairs done before night falls. Telling the owners is always a difficult task.
IS IT FOR YOU?
If you enjoy meeting people, like a varied working life without being tied to a desk and don’t mind getting your hands dirty, why not? You’ll be your own boss, choosing what sort of properties and how many to take on.
A couple with a range of skills can have a viable business making a living. One of you at least needs to be fluent enough in French to handle phone calls, emails and business paperwork.
Registering your business in France is essential; the auto entrepreneur set-up is the simplest. You don’t need an accountant and by keeping below the TVA (VAT) limits, your clients won’t pay TVA at 20% on top of your charges.
Mary Hall is a property manager and former chartered surveyor ([email protected])