Lock up and leave: second homes in France
If you own a second home in France, you want to know it’s safe and secure when you are not in residence. Vanessa Couchman provides some handy hints
Whether you rent out your second home in France as a gîte or use it yourself, it’s likely to remain empty when the summer is over, and hard though it is to think about while basking in the sunshine, you need an efficient closing-down routine. Following a must-do checklist will secure your property and minimise potential costs.
Some people employ a property management service to supervise and maintain their property in their absence. This can be convenient and worthwhile, but there are certain things that only you can do before leaving.
Polly and Alan Fawcitt spend the summer at their second home in Tarn-et-Garonne. “Opening up and closing down the French house is time-consuming,” Alan says, “but we’ve got into a routine.”
This is at the top of the list. Burglaries do occur in France and rural areas have a less concentrated police presence. Most insurance policies require you to close the shutters while you are away, which some people feel is an advertisement to burglars. However, your insurer may refuse to pay up if you don’t comply.
You can minimise the risks by fitting secure, lockable shutters and industry-approved locks. Install multi-point locks on the front door, which is often the preferred point of entry. Don’t leave ladders or tools accessible. Your insurer may insist that you ask someone to hold a key and keep an eye on the property regularly in your absence.
The free French police surveillance service, Opération Tranquillité Vacances, operates only during July and August. However, it’s worth being aware of it if your house is going to be empty during those months. Application forms are available at police stations but can also be accessed online.
2. Post redirection
An overstuffed mailbox is a sign that no one is there and you could miss important letters if they are not redirected.
La Poste offers a temporary mail redirection service (réexpédition temporaire). For an international address, the charges are €31 (one month), €66 (six months) and €118 (one year). You can sign up online or at your local post office.
“It’s worth the money,” Polly Fawcitt says. “It works well and we know we’re not missing anything vital.”
Parts of France can be surprisingly cold in winter. Burst pipes cause extensive damage and can waste hundreds of cubic metres of water. If you have central heating, leave it on a frost setting to avoid pipes freezing and damp developing. Have the boiler serviced annually, and ask someone to check periodically that it is working.
Alternatively, shut off the water supply and drain the system completely, opening all the taps to empty them. Lagging pipes and providing extra insulation where possible will help maintain the temperature in the house.
Don’t be tempted to leave a window slightly ajar to air the place. This is likely to invalidate your insurance. Make sure your insurance covers burst pipes and frost damage.
Thunder storms can play havoc with your appliances, so disconnect TVs and telephones and any other sensitive equipment. It’s a good idea to unplug all electrical appliances, even if the electricity is turned off at the mains.
Defrost and clean the fridge/freezer and prop open the door to avoid mould developing. Also, check dishwashers, washing machines and water softeners for any leaks.
5. Fosse septique
Many rural properties have a fosse septique (septic tank) instead of mains drainage. They normally need emptying every three to five years, depending on size and usage, but check if yours needs it well before you leave.
Provided it has been properly installed and maintained, your fosse will not need any extra treatment before you go. It is easily reactivated on your return.
A neat and tidy garden gives the impression that the property is lived in, and hiring a gardener while you are away also saves you work when you come back. “We used to spend ages getting the garden back in order in the spring,” says Alan Fawcitt. “Now we ask a neighbour who runs a gardening business to cut the grass. He even mows around the orchids!”
Don’t forget to clean and lock away garden furniture and tools. Drain the fuel from petrol mowers and other power tools, since it can damage them if left for a few months.
If you are not leaving any kind of heating on, switch off the electricity at the mains and close the water supply, as with your appliances. Disconnect and secure any gas-fired appliances.
8. Swimming pool
Normally, you can leave your pool over the winter with a few precautions. Clean it, add hivernage (over-wintering liquid) and drop the level to allow for rainfall.
Empty the entire pumping system to avoid water freezing and causing damage. If you live in a cold area, put ice-breakers on the surface to prevent thick ice developing. Finally, cover the pool tightly with a cover, ensuring there are no dips in which water can collect.
9. External maintenance
Check the roof for any broken tiles or places where water could get in, such as flashing around chimney stacks, and clear out leaves from gutters, downpipes and drains. Also, ensure that rain can’t penetrate windows and check for rot in wooden window and door frames and shutters. Make sure satellite dishes and aerials are secure and prune branches that overhang power cables or roofs.
10. Pest control
Few houses are mouse-proof and rodents will take advantage of your absence. They are unhygienic and also chew through just about anything, including electrical cables and fabrics. The only sure way to eliminate them is, regrettably, to put down poison at strategic points. “We contain the mice by closing doors and ensuring there are no gaps underneath,” says Polly Fawcitt.
It’s tempting to leave food items for your return, but mice and other pests are experts at helping themselves. You can leave non-perishable items stored in airtight containers.
You can’t anticipate every eventuality when closing down your house, but some sensible precautions will prevent unnecessary damage and protect your peace of mind. Plus, it means when you come back to your French home for the Christmas holidays, you can simply enjoy putting up the decorations.
Vanessa Couchman is a freelance writer and journalist who moved to France in 1997
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