If you are not going to move to France full time you need to think
seriously about how you are going to get backwards and forwards, as well
as how your tenants are going to get to your house if you’re thinking
of letting it out. Beware of buying a property close to a small airport
where only one discount airline operates. What happens if it goes bust?
Try to find somewhere with several options. The ideal is a mixture of a
small airport, the TGV and an international airport not more than an
hour’s drive away. Being in the middle of nowhere is all very lovely,
but not when it’s a fifteen hour car journey from London.
Visit the Mairie
Before you buy, go the local mayor’s office and ask questions about
the property and surrounding area. You do not want to arrive with all
your belongings three months later to find a wind farm in your back
garden. There will be plans of the house and countryside around which
will show if the land is constructible or not and the mayor’s office
will also be aware of any major projects in the pipeline. They are not,
however, under any legal obligation to tell you, so you may want to ask
around as well. In the countryside, wind farms and rubbish dumps (déchetterie)
are the main worries, along with major roads and airports of course.
Photocopy every bit of official-looking paper you have at least ten
times before you move. Get copies of your birth certificate with your
parents on it as well (I am not joking). Get marriage certificates,
national health cards and birth certificates for you and your children
translated by an officially approved translator (you can get a list from
the French consulate). I found in my struggle to get onto the French
system that shoving bits of stamped and official looking paper under
people’s noses worked better than anything else.
You will need to decide before you move whether you want your children
to go into the French or the international system. The French system is
very academic and extremely tough for children who have no French to
integrate into. Teachers I have spoken to say it takes about three terms
for a child of around 8 with no French to acclimatise. The upside is
that the educational levels are high, discipline is generally speaking
excellent and it is free. If you are going to go for the state system
then check out the school in your area before you decide to buy.
According to a French teacher friend of mine, you should avoid those in
the ZEPs (zone d’éducation prioritaire). They are usually in
suburbs and have a lot of problem children. The French ‘private’
sector is also an option. The French private schools are state
subsidised and great value. They tend to be religious schools and the
main difference is that the teachers don’t go on strike as much as the
state schools. There are also around 30 international schools in France,
some of which offer an English curriculum. These are expensive; usually
around €10,000 in fees and €6,000 on top of that if you want your
children to board or live with host families.
By this I don’t just mean where in the France, I mean the position of
the house as well. If you love the evening sun and go to sleep imagining
you and your friends enjoying a glass of wine on the terrace bathed in
balmy evening sunlight, then make sure the terrace gets the evening sun.
Also look carefully at the position of the pool (or proposed pool). Does
that get the sun all day long?
What will you do?
Do not assume that because you have a successful career back home, you
will be able to replicate it in France. In most instances your UK
qualifications will not be valid, even if you speak fluent French and
have a job, such as teaching, that is transferable. If you want to set
up your own business, you have the French bureaucracy to deal with and
remember that growth will be limited due to the punishing social charges
here. If you employ anyone you will pay half their salary again in
social security contributions and tax. If you have come out to
semi-retire and live off the income of a gite then you need to be sure
you have a good business plan. There are now five gites for every person
looking. If as a couple you were both used to working full time you
might find it a bit of a shock seeing so much of each other. “I am so
fed up with him hanging around the house, I am trying to encourage him
to build a garden shed,” writes a reader who has moved to Limousin
with her husband, a former London cabbie.
Culture and Lifestyle
If you are moving from Islington to deepest Mayenne, be realistic. How
will you cope with having to drive for 40 minutes to the supermarket?
There is no equivalent of Upper Street. Eating out will be followed by a
long drive home. Are you happy to watch George Clooney in French? In the
provinces they dub everything. Maybe you should consider living at least
close to a reasonably cosmopolitan city? People tend to get carried away
by the dream of living in splendid isolation, but don’t realise how
terrifyingly lonely it can be. Especially if the locals are not
friendly. Pick somewhere that is used to foreigners, such as Provence.
When we bought our house here we used the same lawyer as the vendors.
This is common practice but is not very sensible. If you have a problem
with the purchase you will need independent legal advice. You should
also beware of agents offering legal advice packages, they are costly
and I have had countless letters of complaints about them. “There are
reported cases of lawyers deliberately ignoring or failing to
investigate matters which could adversely affect the best interests of
the buyer,” says Stephen Smith of Stephen Smith (France) Ltd. “Hence the need to instruct totally independent bilingual lawyers who
do not rely on estate agents for their living.”
Learning French is an obvious tip. But it is amazing how many people
don’t bother. There is an increased animosity towards Brits that just
point and shout, so get your phrase books out and make an effort. I have
heard a few terms of endearments recently to add to les rosbifs. Les
goddams and les ****-offs. I think the fact that a lot of
Brits come over expecting some sort of colonial lifestyle has a lot to
do with the growing resentment.
There is nothing quite as complicated as the French tax system, so you
need to find out what applies for your specific circumstances. There are
several tax specialists and lawyers that can help you, such as Russell
Cooke, Blevins Franks and Stephen Smith (France) Ltd. However, there are
a few tips you should be aware of.