Louise Sayers’ complete guide to the practicalities of renting out a city pad in France
Traditionally, foreign buyers have been more attracted to France’s rural countryside than to the cities. With more and more Brits looking to enter the buy-to-let market in France, however, a city pad makes very good sense, especially if you are interested in making a long-term investment. After all, bricks and mortar are generally a sound place to put your money and historically France has proved to be a stable place to invest.
I look after five rental properties in Perpignan and know from experience that a city buy-to-let in France can be a great investment. However, it is important to go into a project of this nature with your eyes open. Here are some key points to consider when buying to let in a French city.
1 LONG-TERM VS SHORT-TERM LETS
This is a choice that you need to consider and your decision will be affected by two main factors: whether you are happy to have your money tied up for the long term and whether you might also want to use the property yourself.
French law covering unfurnished property rental is designed to protect the tenant rather than the landlord. The minimum contract is for three years, with the tenant having first right of refusal to stay for a further three years. At that point, they can only be given notice if the landlord plans to live in the property himself or intends to sell it. Furnished properties have a minimum term of one year (except for student lets when this can be shorter) and tenants have the same rights as above for renewal of their lease after a one-year tenancy.
This means that you should only go for a long-term let if you are happy to have your investment tied up for at least three years. For many people this is too much of a commitment and they require a bit more flexibility, so therefore opt to rent for shorter periods of up to three months as holiday lets.
2 KNOW YOUR MARKET
Research is key when you are considering purchasing a buy-to-let property. This is not only essential in deciding whether to go for holiday or longer term lets, but also for gauging demand, working out pricing and getting a realistic idea of how much money you can make and whether your investment is worth it.
For some people the aim will be purely to generate income, while for others it may be to fund a holiday home by letting it when you are not using it yourself. In the first case, you need to use your head over your heart and not be swayed by what appeals to your personal taste, whereas in the latter case your heart will undoubtedly rule.
It is imperative to get to know the city where you are hoping to purchase. This is where a trustworthy estate agent will come into their own. They should be able to advise on points such as what kind of property will rent well and any areas to avoid, as well as any particular demands within a city, such as a large student population.
It is also worth researching annual festivals, events and conferences in your city of choice as these can be a great source of guests willing to pay top dollar when accommodation is scarce. For example, Perpignan hosts an annual international photojournalism exhibition called Visa Pour l’Image every September, and during this time rental properties are in high demand and command premium prices. Similarly, English rugby league fans coming to see their teams play the Catalan Dragons are a good source of bookings.
I provide assistance to the owners of one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments. I have found that the two-bedroom apartment is the most in demand and offers the best rental yield. We combine off-peak lets to Erasmus students, who spend between three and nine months studying or teaching abroad, with high-season one- and two-week lets in July and August. The occupancy rate for this apartment over the last year has been at over 90%, which is excellent.
3 BE REALISTIC ABOUT COSTS
It is easy to be blinded by the tempting yields offered by buy-to-let property but don’t forget that there are costs too. Unless you are on the ground close to your purchase, you will need someone to manage it for you. For long-term lets, this would usually be an agent who will charge commission. For this they will find tenants, collect rent and be on hand to sort out any problems that may crop up.
If you opt for holiday lets, there are changeovers to consider as well as the cost of cleaning, laundry and meeting and greeting guests. There are plenty of Brits all over France offering this service but of course, you will pay for it. You should also choose carefully – you need someone that you can rely on 100%. The last thing you want is holidaymakers turning up to find an unclean property or one that they’re unable to get in to.
Then there are property taxes to consider. All properties in France are subject to taxe foncière, which is payable by the owner of the property regardless of whether they live in it or not. Taxe foncière in cities tends to be higher than in the countryside because more facilities are paid for by the commune. The second property tax, taxe d’habitation, is payable by whoever lives in the property, so a long-term tenant will be liable for that cost but if you have a holiday let, you won’t be able to pass this on directly.
Thirdly, all properties need ongoing maintenance and you will need to factor in these costs too. Any letting agent will sort out things that go wrong such as plumbing (and be under no illusion, things will go wrong) but they will charge you extra for this, on top of the bill from whoever carries out the work.
If you are buying an apartment, you may also have to factor in shared costs for the building such as building insurance, lighting in common areas and often fees for the managing agent, although sometimes you’ll find that owners have an informal agreement among themselves.
4 PRESENTATION AND MARKETING
Marketing is vital to the success of your rental property. There is an awful lot of competition out there and you need to try and make yours stand out. While many traditional holiday properties are very photogenic with swimming pools and pretty gardens, a city let might be harder to present in an attractive manner. Townhouses can be difficult to photograph due to narrow streets. A photo of the exterior is great if you can get one but less important for a city property.
Make sure you make the interior look as appealing as you can – neutral décor is essential and the property should look tidy and welcoming with the beds made and the shutters open. If you have any outside space, you should definitely include a photo of that, as it is always a big draw.
One word of warning though – keep it real. A photographer friend took some beautiful photos of her quite average property which made it look like a luxury boutique hotel. Guests were always hugely disappointed when they turned up and some even asked for a refund and found alternative accommodation!
As well as clearly stating the size of the property, number of rooms and how many it can sleep, it is important with a city let to point out where it is and what amenities are in the vicinity. This is particularly crucial if you are aiming at conference or festival-goers – proximity to the conference centre or festival venue might be the deal clincher.
It is a good idea to have your own website with photos and as much information as possible on it, but you will need to pay for some marketing too. Your little site just won’t be able to compete in the search engines with the big boys. Obviously, if you want to attract a French clientele, you will need to be advertising on French as well as English sites. Some of the big UK ones will offer partnership deals with their French equivalents.
5 WHEN THE BOOKINGS COME IN
You will need to decide whether to manage the booking enquiries yourself or pass this responsibility on to your person on the ground. The most important thing is to ensure that all booking enquiries are dealt with as quickly as possible. Some of the big sites send a text message when an enquiry is sent, which I find particularly useful.
As well as being prompt, any reply should be well written (correct spelling, good grammar) and personable with the answers to any questions clearly stated. People like to deal with friendly people. This has been key to me securing some of my student lets – worried parents sending their children abroad to study find it reassuring to have a friendly, English-speaking person to deal with. Make it personal by addressing the individual who has sent the enquiry.
For city properties, people are often concerned about parking so point out where the nearest parking is as well as the cost as a matter of course. It never hurts to reiterate some of the advantages of the property in your reply to make it sound as tempting as possible, and always offer to answer any further questions that your potential guest may have.
Be very clear about your rental price and payment terms, as well as if there will be a security deposit to pay (I strongly advise this). Keep all correspondence in case of disagreements further down the line.
Make sure you have a contract template drafted and ready to send out when someone confirms that they would like to book, and tell them exactly how you wish them to pay. Bear in mind that French guests will expect their contract to be in French.
Finally, prepare an information pack or welcome letter to send out to guests with useful information about the property and nearby attractions. This could include basic information such as arrival and departure times, where to empty the bins and emergency contact numbers (112 is an English-speaking emergency service number valid throughout Europe) as well as recommended things to do, places to eat and links to local websites with further information.
If you are thinking of entering the buy-to-let market, now is a good time to take the plunge as many vendors are willing to negotiate on their asking price. You really could pick up a great bargain and if you choose well, it should provide you with an income as well as an asset that will rise in value in the mid to long term. Bon courage!
Louise Sayers provides administrative assistance and relocation services to individuals and businesses throughout France
Tel: 0033 (0)4 68 56 54 22