Home thoughts from abroad: a British expat in France

Property owners in France are required to keep their garden in good order

Property owners in France are required to keep their garden in good order - Credit: Archant

George East on wearing the wrong glasses when viewing houses

How does your garden grow in France? I ask because I’ve just received a call asking for help from a British friend who owns a very dilapidated farmhouse outside a lovely little village about an hour to the south-east of Cognac. It is a truly idyllic spot but, for reasons into which I will not go, he is a permanently absentee landlord.

Horace – let us call him Horace – bought the property on a whim while passing through the area about a decade ago. While in a bar he heard about an old property for sale, and shortly fell victim to Rosé-Coloured Glasses Syndrome (or RCGS).

As touched on in this column before, RCGS is something that I actually observed, identified and named many years ago, but have so far not been credited with my discovery in any significant medical or scientific journal.

In brief, the ailment affects people with no intention of buying a particular property in France; sometimes as in the case of my chum, it even strikes those with no intention of buying any property in France. Strangely, it never, or at least rarely, afflicts people who, in the cold light of day, make an appointment to see a French property which meets their budget and other criteria.

The point about RCGS is that it happens, like a car crash, with no warning. It may be that the victim hears about a place for sale when in a bar or glimpses a photograph in an estate agency window. The sequence then is invariable.

The individual or couple will visit the property with no intention of putting in an offer, but then find themselves unable to resist doing just that. The illness does not always strike after strong drink has been taken, but this is often a significant factor.

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Sometimes, victims are able to overcome the urge to follow up on the offer; often they are helpless to resist ending up with a home in France they never intended buying. The excuse most often given is that, like seeing a pair of designer boots in a charity shop at a knock-down price, the property was so ridiculously undervalued that the buyer simply could not resist buying it.

HAPPY SUFFERERS

To be fair, I have to say that I know a good few past sufferers of RCGS who have made a full recovery and are actually very pleased to have been stricken. The property has grown on them, and they are glad they put in that spontaneous offer. I think my chum’s situation is a bit extreme, if not unique, however.

Believe it or not, the fact is that he has never returned to the property he saw and bought on a whim. As he said to me and applying his own form of logic, how could he not buy a farm at a price less than he had paid for his latest (secondhand) car?

He has homes elsewhere around the world and is in a position to pay the small bills which arrive at regular intervals from the local mairie.

The reason for his call was that he had just received what appeared to be a stern letter of warning from the local mayor, and, worse, it had a very official-looking stamp on it. My friend’s problem was that the mayor had written to him for some reason in French, so he came to me for translation and any negotiatory activities which might be needed.

I have to say, the letter must have looked a tad scary to someone who can just about order a beer in French, and then insists on pronouncing it as he would in his Surrey local. At the head of the letter, the subject was classified as ‘property not maintained’.

Using his Google translator, it seemed to my friend that the mayor was demanding that he restore the wreck of a farmhouse completely and straight away. If the work was not done sharpish, it concluded, Monsieur le Maire would get a local tradesman to do it, then send the bill to him.

I was able to put his mind to rest and explain that what the mayor was interested in was not a replacement of the missing gable end and roof, but a general cleaning up of the land surrounding the place.

As I said to him, if there were a new law that every owner of a ruined property must restore it to pristine condition poste haste, the tradesmen of France, Germany and Poland combined would not be able to handle the demand.

Having said that, by bringing the point up I hope I haven’t given any ideas to the members of the Gallic equivalent to the UK’s Governmental Committee For Thinking Up New Taxes.

GARDEN ANGELS

I suspect not too many Britons with homes in France know of Article L2213-25, which came into force in 1996 and deals with the responsibility of the property owner to keep his garden in order.

It is actually not uncommon for country dwellers to complain about the state of a neighbour’s garden, sometimes bringing about tensions and situations similar to those in Jean de Florette and Clochemerle. I recall one particularly bizarre event that occurred in my local town when we lived in west Brittany.

Following complaints about the length of the grass and weeds in the garden of a British expat, a party of officials from the town hall visited the property. Disturbed by what they saw through the window, they broke in and found the elderly Briton had fallen and been lying there for several days.

Happily, and thanks to the excellent French health service, he made a full recovery. As some of the townspeople said, it was a sad commentary on the changing ways of French country life that it took a complaint about a garden before anyone noticed that their British neighbour was missing.

Others with a more bureaucratic turn of mind smugly said it just showed what a good and even life-saving idea Article L2213-25 had proved to be.

See you next time.