Employing a caretaker to keep an eye on your second home will give you peace of mind and leave you free to enjoy your time in France
If the improving sterling/euro exchange rate and the wealth of property on sale in rural France has finally tempted you to spend your savings on a second home, congratulations. Once you’ve got through the paperwork with the notaire and claimed your keys you can relax – but before you head back to the UK, here are a few reasons why a reliable long-term caretaker could be a good idea.
Checking the house
Closing the shutters and emptying the bins before you lock the door and jump in the car is, in principle, a simple matter but it’s amazing what can be forgotten. Not emptying the bread bin is a common failure; you’ll return to a green mess! Ditto bagging up the rubbish then forgetting it; or not cleaning the sink or the dishwasher filter properly.
Fridges tend to get turned off but things get left in them (full ice trays, the odd lemon, half a lettuce), the door gets shut by mistake and bingo, another mouldy mess. Kids using the loo last-minute after you’ve turned the water off, open packs of dog food or kitty litter left in the tray are other regular ‘oops’ which my clients tend to forget. You’re hassled when packing to go so for peace of mind it’s worth a few euros to have someone pop along the next day and just check everything’s shipshape and locked away.
Are you going to pop over to France to check your house every time there’s a bad storm which might have ripped off roof tiles? It’s cheaper to pay someone on the spot to run along and check; someone who can call in a roofer before the rain pours in.
Last winter proved that if you don’t take care, you can arrive to find your house uninhabitable due to water leaks and even burst radiators. We checked all our properties as soon as we could get to them, and ran up the water systems to test them as soon as we could. Problems were quickly identified and clients notified if they needed to make an insurance claim. After that, it was a question of prioritising jobs on the basis of which houses were due to be occupied first, then pleading with overworked plumbers and heating engineers to do our jobs first. Not always an easy task! I’m still negotiating with some of the more exacting loss adjusters and insurance companies (in French). Could you manage all that, from far away?
Second homes can be targeted by thieves, who’ll wait patiently until properties are clearly unoccupied, with all shutters tightly closed all day, garden furniture stored away and, even with a regular gardener, the grass looking rather raggedy. They take the time to visit and prepare access and escape routes. Long holiday weekends and the Christmas period are busy times for burglars when there’s usually less passing traffic and nosy neighbours are enjoying family time at home. Your caretaker can’t stop them completely, but a keen eye and regular checks will reveal any signs of attack, and a prompt local reaction to a break-in is better than your house lying open until your next holiday.
Are you planning to be at your house whenever the water and electricity chaps wish to call? No, they won’t tell you so far in advance that you can book a cheap Ryanair deal to be there for the three minutes they need. With EDF, you can set up online meter-reading submissions which mean that your two-monthly bills reflect your true use, not some wild estimation plucked out of the air or based on the previous owner’s bills. Great, but you’ll need your lovely caretaker to pop in for you and read the meter.
Bee swarms behind shutters, wasps nests in the letterbox, mice nesting under the sink or fouines in the roof; you don’t want to find these when you arrive for your holidays. Some houses are susceptible to bees and wasps but we know the properties where we need to be careful when we open up; looking first around the outside for buzzy things then peering at windows before opening them from the inside. We have a list of beekeepers who will collect swarms and we always keep powerful hornet sprays to hand for those hard-to-reach wasp and hornet nests.
Mice are a perennial problem. Keeping food in sealed containers helps, as do clean and tidy cupboards. Mouse poison in sachets, tucked well away from prying kids or pets is the only solution for second homes when there’s no-one there and traps need regular attention. Beasties in the roof can be a real pain to get rid of; the key is to do it before they breed, and to try to block their entry points.
When your plane’s late or there’s a delay on the motorway, you’ll appreciate your caretaker when you arrive to a functioning home without having to delve down into a manhole to get the water on or fiddle with EDF switches in the dark. Going further, a decent caretaker will offer a full spring-clean before you come with the fridge all stocked up or, if you wish, just a quick whiz round: beds made and services on. The choice should be yours.
Your caretaker will have local knowledge so when your fosse needs emptying, your boiler servicing or your chimney sweeping you won’t have to worry. Then there’s the garden and pool to keep up; plumbers and electricians to book. Your estate agent may be happy to hold your hand for a month or two after the sale but most of them earn their money, and therefore concentrate their time, on selling property. Ask them for names of local registered caretakers – people running a legitimate French business. Interview them, and ask for references from existing clients if you like. A ‘proper’ firm won’t be upset if you do. After all, you’ll be trusting them with your property and belongings. n
Mary Hall is a chartered surveyor and holiday home caretaker in France
Tel: 0033 (0)5 65 24 66 46