Renting in France before you buy

Bill Hume is glad he made the decision to spend a year renting in France, although he encountered a few problems along the way...

Having agreed the sale of our UK house in June 2008, we decided to rent in France for a year to experience la vie fran�aise before settling in France or back in the UK. We found a furnished, UKowned house in the Charente, surrounded by vineyards, and a few kilometres from the nearest town with shops. However, despite having researched the move for several years, including devouring all the advice in French Property News, our particular circumstances threw up a number of unexpected difficulties. Hence this article is intended to help others who might find themselves in a similar position.Rental agreementWe tracked down long-term rental properties through the websites of UK-based companies and spent a week visiting them. When we received the draft contract (the final one has to be in French), we noticed a clause stipulating that the tenants agree that the rental property is not their primary residence for the duration of the contract. I imagine that this was to protect the owners, as under French law, furnished rental property leases cannot be for less than one year and carry the right of automatic renewal.We pointed out that, as we would have no UK address, we could hardly sign such a statement. Rather than doing something devious, such as listing a relative’s address, we took advice from a UK solicitor specialising in French property law. To cut a long story short, we were advised we could sign the contract as it stood.Banking arrangementsOur UK banks readily accepted our French address but some deposit account/investment institutions said we would have to close our accounts as they only dealt with UK-based individuals. They included a number of internet-only accounts. They would not be persuaded that the move was temporary or that we would continue to pay UK taxes. So it pays to check the small print in the terms and conditions.On the other hand, opening a French bank account with Credit Agricole could not have been easier. We left, after an hour, with all our bank account details in hand, including the RIB (rel�ve d’identit� bancaire) which we would need to sign up to the French health service.CarsOur removal firm put most of our belongings into storage and brought to France, a few days after we arrived, the items we would need for our year-long stay, including our smaller car. Our existing car insurers refused to insure us as we would not be UK based; however, the Cognac office of Bruno Sellier was happy to arrange French insurance for both of our UK-registered cars.It wasn’t until we arrived in France that we discovered this would cover us for all trips to the UK and provide comprehensive breakdown, repatriation and medical assistance across the EU. This seems to be the norm in France, all named drivers being given a small card with contact details.Before we left the UK, I arranged insurance for the larger car through a specialist UK company which registered our French address, but it only covers us for 28 days in the UK and doesn’t include French breakdown insurance. So in the event of problems in France, I’m on my own!The only reason I took out the policy was a fear that on our long trip south to the Eurotunnel, we might be screened by an automatic number plate reader and stopped by police as no current UK insurance policy would show up. Whether they would accept our French documentation and green card wasn’t something I wanted to test, given our time deadline and absence of a bona fide UK address.Health insuranceThe three options were to take out private insurance for the year, join the French health service or use our European Health Insurance Cards (EHICs). Initially, this last option seemed appropriate as we were advised that it might be difficult to obtain short-term private health insurance, which would be costly and exclude existing or past medical conditions.We were also advised more than once that registering with the French health service implied becoming French tax residents. Not what we wanted to hear, as we weren’t sure what we’d do after our year’s holiday’.This left the EHIC route, but further investigation revealed that it couldn’t be used for such a long stay and that in the event of non-urgent hospitalisation, we might be refused treatment and advised to return to the UK (hardly a realistic option).The French state does not normally reimburse 100% of healthcare costs (except in certain circumstances) so top-up insurance would also be necessary. This is available to EHIC-holders but reading the small print revealed that hospitalisation was restricted to accident and emergencies.Transitional top-up health insurance can be obtained for those who intend to register with the French healthcare system, but even here the plan we found still limited hospitalisation cover to accident and emergencies and carried an excess of well over €100 per claim for GP and specialist outpatient charges.You can imagine our frustration. It was obviously important to have comprehensive healthcare, so we felt we had no alternative but to join the French system, and leave issues of French tax returns and residency for a later date. Incidentally, although you may read that a stay of more than 183 days means you become French tax resident, you should seek advice on this. At this stage, we felt trapped between two bureaucracies – unable to do something as simple as staying in France for a year without incurring undue concerns over healthcare, taxes and residency.We arrived in France in the middle of January, equipped with our EHICs and a promise from the UK DWP that form E121 (my wife has a UK state pension) would be waiting for us at our new address. This would allow us to register with the French health service at the regional CPAM (Caisse Primaire de l’Assurance Maladie) in Angoul�me. In the meantime, we hoped we wouldn’t have any health problems that might be outside the scope of the EHIC, before we could enrol via the E121. Being below UK state pension age, I would be included as ayant droit on my wife’s form.After a couple of weeks there was no sign of the E121 due to a mix-up at the DWP, but after a month we were able to take our documentation to CPAM. They enrolled us onto the system, so at least we had basic French healthcare. Unfortunately, however, it is not possible to arrange top-up insurance without a social security number. This took about another six weeks to arrive, partly because CPAM initially rejected our marriage certificate as illegible’.The English-speaking CPAM helpline managed to cut through the red tape and also procured the French-issued EHICs which we would need to ensure healthcare during visits to the UK. Only then, some 10 weeks after arriving in France, were we fully covered with top-up insurance, again through Bruno Sellier. However, it will still be months before we can expect to receive our cartes vitales (health insurance cards).The remainder of our time in France should pose fewer problems, although what to do with our cars, both of which run out of MOT and UK road tax later in the year, remains an issue, especially as the DVLA will not register a foreign address on car or driver documentation and will not accept French insurance certificates.Initially, we thought that it would be straightforward to sell our UK house and spend a year in France but the lack of an official UK address has caused several problems. For those who decide from day one to become French residents, the situation appears more straightforward, as it is when retaining UK domicile. For others, like us, be prepared for some turbulence on the way.However, with better weather, reduced traffic, the ability to walk wherever we want through the vineyards, combined with the views from the house, I certainly have a contented feeling at the end of each day.