20 years of FPN - Expat Life

Long-term French resident and chartered surveyor Mary Hall is well-versed in expat issues...

When I first moved to France in 1991, interest rates were in double figures and you could buy a habitable house for under �30,000. You had to provide an itemised list of all the belongings in the removal van, and jump through umpteen hoops and take a medical to get the essential carte d� s�jour. There was no internet, no satellite TV – we listened to Radio 4 on long wave when the weather conditions were favourable – and the local shop occasionally sold British papers in the summer. There were just five permanent British residents in our village, now there are at least 30, despite several returning to Blighty, and the shop sells 10 Radio Times a week. A chap who used to run a restaurant here in the late 1980s was recently back on holiday, and, as we propped up the bar at the village flower festival, he said: “They all huddle together, these newbies don't they? And they don't seem to have got the hang of the lingo either, they don't mix like we did.”

Pen pals When I started writing articles for FPN on property management, most holiday properties were simply furnished and few had pools. Changeover days were simpler. There were no cheap flights and the autoroute networks had yet to reach many areas, so folk left very early on Saturday mornings to drive back to the ports and incoming guests were rarely there before 6pm, giving you lots more time. Now so many people fly that juggling departure and arrival times to suit everybody is a nightmare. In today's competitive market, owners try to be as accommodating as possible, but it's not always possible.

Health and safety has come to play a greater part in life in France, as elsewhere, and since 2004, swimming pool security has been a hot topic. Owners of private pools have been obliged to install a security device aimed at preventing children under five from drowning. The effectiveness of this measure has yet to be proven, as coherent relevant official statistics do not exist. It seems that no effective means of co-ordinating reports on drowning in private pools was set up when the law came into force, so how can we tell whether the system works? A brief study, published by the Institut de Veille Sanitaire, covering a short period in 2006, indicated that more people (of all ages) drowned in the sea, in rivers and in lakes than in pools, but so far no-one has suggested banning under-fives from going to the beach.

While the articles I wrote about the introduction of the pool security laws gave rise to a lot of calls and emails from readers, my 2006 article on the laws covering shared pools generated much less correspondence. One owner, however, emailed to say that the laws couldn't apply to his property, as he wasn't aware of them! In the eyes of the law, a pool which is destined for use by more than one family is deemed to be a public pool and should comply with strict hygiene and safety rules controlled by your local DDASS. If you are running or buying a g�te complex or a B&B, it's worth checking out the law.

Articles on fosse septiques always generate interest. Since 2006, all private foul drainage systems have been subject to official inspection and identified defects must be rectified. The law is the same throughout the land, but local authorities delegate their inspection powers to various bodies, and the format and rigour of the reporting system and its enforcement varies from place to place. It appears that some inspectors rejoice in their powers, threatening awful penalties for non-compliance, whereas others are more laidback, assessing pollution risks in a practical way and accepting that not every French paysan or British incomer has the wherewithal to install a fully compliant new system.

Permission granted The need to apply for permission for building works, be it a permis de construire or the so-called simplified d�claration pr�alable, seems to annoy many British owners, despite the fact that the UK has had a more stringent planning control system in force for many years (visit www.planningportal.gov.uk for confirmation).

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My theory is that most people owned little boxes in the UK but buy large properties here and for the first time in their lives, get involved with serious renovation and building work, with land for a pool. Their frustration over the forms is also linked to the fact that many don't speak French, and, not being familiar with UK versions, they cannot interpret them.

The application of the reduced rate of TVA (VAT) on renovation works continues to be a vexed question. Only this week I had to argue a client's case with an intransigent plumber who insisted the reduced rate didn't apply; I ended up emailing the legal texts to his accountant! The calculation of the correct rate of TVA for the major renovation of an existing dwelling can be tricky, but it's worth doing as the cost saving is important. You must establish whether the lower rate can be applied before work starts; it's impossible to recover the higher rate once works have been completed. Following the credit crunch and the awful � to € exchange rate, owners are keen to find out about any TVA reductions for 'green' property improvements such as wood-burning stoves or heat pumps.

The bad news for many British owners is that, unlike the 5.5% rate of TVA, cr�dit d'imp�ts available for these improvements are not allowable on second homes, and only benefit those fiscally resident in France (www.ideesmaison.com gives a simple explanation). And finally, some of those selling up to go back to the UK have been very busy tidying up their houses to put them on the market, and I suspect that not all the tidying has been cosmetic. More than ever, buyers should be on the lookout for bodged jobs, and remember that a lick of paint can temporarily hide a big damp problem.

Mary Hall is a chartered surveyor Tel: 0033 (0)5 65 24 66 46 hall.bureau@neuf.fr