- Tonnay Boutonne, 1991.
We sold the house near Rochefort at the required profit - or close enough to it. At the eleventh hour the buyer suddenly wanted to pull out, which would have been a disaster for us. In France the system is so much better than in England, for when you choose a house you put down a deposit of approx. 10%, varying according to the value of the property. If you pull out you lose that 10% unless there was a condition or clause in the initial contract. In this case there was no clause, so it would have meant that we picked up the 10%, but that was not what we wanted. The stress of it was huge. Het-up phone calls back and forth, wringing of hands .... We had already paid our 10% for our new house, organized a mortgage for the balance, and were due to complete later that same day.
The French notaire is like a god
The notaire handling the sale was one Mme Drouart. She was brilliant, a fairly tall and wide woman with a mass of grey frizzy hair. She was somewhere in her sixties. Her office was in a narrow street with only the oval brass plaque sticking out of the wall to indicate there was a notaire at all. I worked with her a lot. She once told me she wished I was her daughter, and she looked after me during those first months of finding my way in and out of the legal system. Notaires in France command a high level of respect, and I think that one of the things she liked about me was that I was so English, ie so casual, in my address to her. I respected her, of course, but I was chummy rather than in awe. It never dawned on me to be in awe.
Not that I'd have called her by her first name - to this day that just isn't done. I recently interpreted for some UK friends who were completing on a house and, to my horror, my English friend called the notaire by her first name. My friend, of course, thought she was being friendly, but from anybody other than a foreigner who had not long been in France, could speak no French and was clearly not au fait with French good manners, it would have been astoundingly rude.
Mme Drouart had no children of her own and was married to a man considerably older. She had lived in the same house all her married life, a huge batisse in the centre of a nearby, and she smelt of soap and lavender. I learnt a lot from her, enjoyed her company, and in all those years she was the only woman I was to work with. She took me under her wing with a gentle kindness that I very much appreciated though, of course, any sales were French francs for her. She died three or four years ago and is buried in the village.
Anyway, she swung in to action and somehow managed to persuade the buyers that they did want the house after all. How she did it I don't know because the situation went from a very firm "we're pulling out", absolutely a dead cert, to buying again.
The front of the house looked nothing like the back, almost as though there had been two different architects. We were surrounded by farmland in all directions. At first I didn't mind the isolation.
Primrose, a manoir-cum-hunting-lodge.
We called our new house Primrose. That was just our name for it and I have no idea why we chose it, though my father had had a motor boat of that name when I was a child in the South Pacific. The house was really called La Petite Jarlee, a small manoir-cum-hunting-lodge perched on an isolated hill near Tonnay Boutonne. It had a history to it, dating from 1800 or so, and being the hiding place of a WWII collaborator who was eventually murdered there. We sometimes wondered if it was haunted ... it had a kind of "feel" to it - not menacing in any way, but a constant feel that somebody else was there. I don't really take any notice of that kind of thing, but several times I thought I could hear a piano being played. On the top floor there was an entire appartment with a secret door and a double floor so that he couldn't be heard ... the neighbour told us that he hid up there for several years after the war ended as French patriots sought vengeance, some of it brutal.
The property had been built as a hunting lodge, though it wasn't clear to which Chateau it would have been attached or who the original owners were. We imagine a hunting lodge as a timber cabin - well, I do anyway - but although this property had no exquisite features apart from fleur-de-lys tiled floors, it had been created with elegance and taste. What was left of damp old wallpaper and curtaining was of good quality. The rooms, although not large, were nicely proportioned, with big windows overlooking fields and trees. Off to one side were the ruins of another building, way too far gone for restoration, though we did half-think of doing a new-build there. The same neighbour, a farmer whose house was about three miles away, told us the old building had once been a chapel but that didn't seem likely to us.
We chose the property for several good reasons. One, it was incredibly cheap, even for those days - about £35 000 for a run-down seven-bedroomed property, five acres of land and unbroken views in all directions. Two, it had potential - we would do it up and it would be worth considerably more, and also there was a wing to one side that we could make in to a holiday gite to supplement our income. Three, we were surrounded by all the little isolated fermettes my clients hankered after and I would therefore have less travelling to do. And last, but not least, it seemed to me at the time to be a little entity in itself, a sort of beacon, somewhere I could hide and lick my wounds. I had wounds to heal.
I remember one client asking me if I worked. I had driven her and her husband round and round all day, showing them in to properties, explaining the conveyancing system, interpreting as and when required, pointing out features in the town ... and she asked me if I worked! Yes, I said, I do this. Oh, she replied, I suppose it is a kind of job. You have no idea, I wanted to say, you have no idea - the hours of driving people like you round and round, listening to whatever you are saying, showing you in and out of houses, all on the off-chance you will buy.
It worked like this, more-or-less in this order:
- I would find several houses for sale, drive over to see them (often quite a long way), take photos, go home and type up details (in itself stunningly tedious once you have done it several times), and then put a couple of ads in places like The Lady and The Telegraph
- in order to do this I had to use up precious funds on petrol, advertising, getting films developped etc., and I had to bear the children in mind. Frequently one of them would come with me; Jake, aged only 3, often came with me. I decided he was my lucky mascot.
- enquiries would come in by fax or by phone. Because in those days it was cheaper to phone in the evenings, people invariably phoned at night, just as we settled down to a film, or supper or both. I would then post the details to the interested party, knowing full well that only 2 or 3 for every 100 would result in a sale
- this had to be done in a roll-on system so that I had a stream of new properties, a stream of new clients and a stream of new ads. I could never be without clients or without properties.
- the client would usually turn up, but sometimes they'd make an appointment and simply disappear off the face of the earth. This could be devastating for me because, in order to see them I had usually driven to 2 or 3 different places to pick up keys, phoned around to make the appointments, left Jake with a childminder (who had to be paid, of course) and then driven to wherever we had agreed to meet. I would wait an hour or so before deciding it was a no-show and I would then have to take the keys back and phone the disappointed vendors who would tell me that les anglais are not serieux. There were no mobile phones in those days.
The whole area, for miles in all directions, was rich (or was it riddled?) with buildings for renovation. This huge old barn was only £3000, with about an acre of land. I always wore jeans because of the brambles and stinging nettles, and even where there were none, jeans were better for climbing in to lofts, reaching out to close shutters or whatever.
- as and when I had a client who wished to go ahead and buy, I then had to get him or her to sign a Compromis de Vente. If I could possibly get this done in a notaire's office that was great, but it was difficult to get a quick appointment and, to coin a phrase, I had to strike while the iron was hot. It has always amazed me how my clients trusted me and signed in a cafe, or in the car or their hotel. At that stage they would also have to give me a cheque for 10%, made out to whichever notaire was handling the sale.
- I also had to negotiate a price. Sometimes the buyer would make such a low offer it was an insult to the vendor. Either way, the difference between what the vendor was willing to sell for, and what the buyer was willing to pay - that bit was for me, whatever it was. Sometimes it was a pittance, sometimes it was a lot.
- I then handed the whole thing over to the notaire and theoretically my role should have ended there. But because my clients could rarely speak French, and the notaire virtually never spoke any English, my role continued, up and down throughout the various stages towards Completion. I nudged it forwards, keeping the client happy, till I got my commission.
- then Bruce took over, if possible, with the house renovations - which is a different story altogether
- suffice to say it was a job fraught with hassles and stresses. On the surface it seemed so pleasant to an outsider, but there were so many pitfalls along the way, so many loops to have to jump through, and the vast majority of my clients were selfish and demanding. They didn't think so, of course, but they were. Believe you me, it was a high-stress job. The competition from local French agents was vicious, truly nasty. Vendors were unreliable, and often enough just would not be available with the key for me to show my client around the house - my client that I had almost always gone to so much trouble to get. And my commission was frequently the only income for the family. Many a good sale would fall through simply because of some silly incident, or because of somebody cutting me out ... And clients never seemed to understand this was my income, my only income. They seemed to think that I was some kind of charitable bi-lingual taxi service and would become angry and unpleasant as soon as they realized there was money in it for me - in effect, their money.
With one of my numerous brothers (far left). Bruce, Pippa & Jake, my nephew Tim (seated in white T-shirt) with me sitting just behind him. We called this the bri - or braai, to be more accurate - from braai-vleis, the South African version of a BBQ (literally burnt meat).
And it was a lonely job that I did alone. Before this I had been a teacher. I used to go in to school, teach the lessons, go home again. Sometimes it was easy, sometimes it was not, sometimes I had marking to do, sometimes not. But I got paid to do what I did, and I didn't lose any pay if my pupils didn't pass their "A" levels. There were set books to work through and a fairly standard sequence of lessons and off-shoots of lessons to give. Standard things were provided - a staff room, coffee, colleagues, car park and a back-up system via the Heads of Department. Now I had to create situations that in turn would create money. I had to make thin air produce an income. That is what running your own business is, just that. There was no back-up system for me, nothing "ready" for me to use. I knew nothing about price negotiation, documents, legal papers, cadastral plans, building permission, contracts ... but I learnt it all very quickly and, rather to my surprise, found that I was not a teacher at all but a business-woman, and a good one at that. I earned good money, did a great job, but the wear and tear on my nerves took its toll as the years tripped by ...
Part 5 to follow.
Catherine Broughton is a novelist, a poet and an artist. her books are available from Amazon/Kindle worldwide or can be ordered from most leading book stores and libraries. They are also available as e-books (£1.99) from http://www.turquoisemoon.co.uk