Print Posted By Lost in France on 20 Nov 2010 in Real France - Expat Interviews

Retiring to the Charente Maritime ...or not

Ropley's dream of a blissful retirement to France turned into a nightmare as the couple struggled to get even simple things done such as getting the water and phone connected...

What made you move to France and how long have you lived here?
Hoping for a relaxed life in retirement. We originally intended to move here permanently but now our house is essentially a holiday home because of the reasons below although we have no other property.

Charente MaritimeWhich part of France do you live in, and what's it like to live there?
The Charente Maritime. Good area but boring in the winter.

Open quote. Interviewee gives their moving to France tips When you think you have calculated how much you are going to spend on restoration - double it! Close quote

What is your age?
I'm 76.

Where were you born?
In Liverpool.

What was the worst mistake you made when buying in France?
Buying without checking the agents words to see there really was a new fosse and there really was electricity and water directly connected and that the telephone points in the house just needed re-commissioning.

Your best tip or advice to other people considering moving to France?

Did you find it hard to integrate or adjust to your new life in France and do you have any tips to help others?
No - speaking French is a good start.

What's the best thing about living in France?
The climate

And the worst?
Things you should know about retiring to France - it is difficult to find factual cases of problems people have when deciding to live in France because most of the publications or news sites make their living because there are people in France to read them! If you send in an article that is critical of what is on offer it is unlikely to ever get published. Maybe after reading this article it could save someone from making a costly mistake. Nearly half those who move to France return to the UK according to recent polls - with a bit of luck we will be joining them as soon as we can sell our house.

About five years ago, having spent many happy holidays in various parts of France we decided to look for a holiday home to which we could eventually retire. The first area we looked in was the Tarn. The scenery here is lovely, unfortunately the estate agents photographs and descriptions were somewhat misleading, and, the sad thing was, having travelled many miles to view, we were disillusioned.

An area we had always liked was the Royan area, but property prices here were just too high, so we tried the Corbiere hills area between Carcasonne and the coast. Once again the scenery was lovely and, after finding several properties which were of interest we decided to buy a large empty house in a small hillside hamlet. Lovely views, lots of potential and we agreed to the vendors price.

We spent several days taking photographs and measurements but had to return to England before the notaire was available for us to sign the sales contract (compris de vende). So, we made a date for the following Friday. Having booked and paid for our flights back to France we were rather upset to get a telephone call on the Thursday from our English speaking agent, to say the vendor had sold to someone else.

This was our first indication that when you are told something in France it does not mean, in any way, that it is going to happen - read on !
After a few months we decided to look again, and began our search on the internet. We found what looked like a lovely house set in a large tree filled garden about 9 miles inland from the Gironde estuary, just south of Royan, so, full of enthusiasm decided to have a look.

The web-site was run by an English estate agent working within a French agency which made the language situation easier. He showed us several houses but we liked the one we had seen the photographs of and encouraged by his comments that the Charente Maritime had its own ‘micro-climate', was the second sunniest part of France, and that there really was no winter; it just went from autumn to spring.

Well, when you have set your heart on something you will believe anything - we should have remembered this was a French estate agent speaking !
The vendor offered to include the commercial garage next door at an adjusted price, and as this gave us about 2 acres we agreed a deal, and, after about four months it was ours.

Lots of land may look very attractive, especially when the grass is short and the trees are in bloom, but it can look less attractive when you return to your holiday home and find a 2 acre jungle of waist high grass!

So, after some consideration we decided to sell off the commercial building next door and about half the land with it. This was the easiest property sale we have ever done. A handwritten notice in front of the garage and we had three offers within a week. The first one was the usual time-waster you find everywhere but the second guys were genuine and we sold which gave us money for continuing our development.

So now it looked like we were all set, and all we needed to do was get the services re-routed as they went to our house via the garage building. In the UK this would not present a problem, and when, in late 2005 the water board asked us for over 1000 Euros, to put in a new meter and all we would then have to do was to get a registered plumber to connect to the house (50 metres), we agreed and paid up.

Our cheque was cashed and after several calls to SAUR, the water authority we were told the work was imminent. The service was eventually provided two years later, in December 2007.

So, it was December 2007 and, as I had retired we decided to sell our UK house and move to France for a year to see how things went. This we did, and were fortunate to get quite a quick sale on the UK house before the dreaded ‘credit crunch' played havoc with the market.
Fortunately we had an agreement with the new garage owners for water during this period, but, unfortunately when it came to paying the old meter costs we discovered that our new neighbours had not been as careful as we had in water usage, and had in fact fractured a water connection in their land. The result was a massive bill for water used, and, as the water board had not yet provided us with the new service they insisted we had to pay it in full. Our neighbours seemed quite happy with this arrangement and it took the intervention of a sympathetic mayoress to persuade them they should pay half.

The telephone was a similar story. As our house had telephone points fitted France Telecom allocated us a new landline number in February 2006, and we mistakenly thought this meant we could now have a connection. We were a bit surprised when our new telephone did not work, and, after discussing the problem with France Telecom they decided they would need to do a survey as our property was now classified as a ‘new house'. The cost of this survey was to be 664 Euros and we had to agree to pay before any installation would be done. Well, we had no choice as the cost of my French mobile with calls to the UK was not good news.

A date was made for the survey whilst we were still in England so a friend kindly waited for the France Telecom person to arrive. He did not come, so I called France Telecom from the UK and arrange another meeting. Nobody came to this one either.

We waited until our next visit to France and did manage to meet the France Telecom survey person. He arrived, looked at our house from the road and departed five minutes later. (so much for my 664 Euros !) All this took place well before our move to France so we really thought we would have a telephone connected for our arrival in December 2007. You've guessed it - no telephone, but, being on site it should now be easy. The France Telecom representative promised us the line would be connected within two weeks, one month at the most. I had had such problems with FT that I asked the mayoress if she would speak to the representative and confirm the connection time - she kindly did this and it was as stated. We were promised the line would be in before Christmas anyway.

The connection was eventually made at the end of April 2008, and we were given someone else's number in error which resulted in another weeks delay. Our line was finally activated on May 2nd.

The electricity board were rather more efficient and actually connected the supply when they promised.

We can't wait to sell our house here and return to the UK Oh! - just in case we were thinking everything was sorted, the wine season started and the new silos were being delivered. Last month the telephone line was cut three times. The contracted technician told us that they should have used 10 metre poles and he would fix it. I am still waiting in eager anticipation, hoping that the line gets raised before the next high load.

So what lessons have we learnt which may help others who may be considering retiring to France?

1. The so called French ‘LAID BACK' attitude is another name for ‘UNRELIABILITY'

2. Be aware that registered French tradesmen have to pay a lot in insurance and taxes each month, even if they are not earning, so prices tend to be high. The standard of work however is usually good.

3. Before we moved to France we made the mistake of allowing a French builder who was doing some work for us to stay in our house with his family for three months over the winter, whilst his own house was being completed. The agreed cost was 600 Euros per month plus electricity. When it came to pay time he suddenly had no money, yet seemed to be spending a lot on his own house, so, cutting our losses we agreed that he would ‘work off' the money by doing work for us. He did about three days and then disappeared, never to return. The lesson we learned from this episode was that when someone says to you they are going to do something, all it means is that their mouth is open!

4. When you think you have calculated how much you are going to spend on restoration - double it.

5. When you think you have calculated how long it's going to take you - double it.

6. If you think the cost of living in France is cheaper than in the UK you are under a misapprehension. The exchange rate has changed things dramatically.

7. If you hope to live on a UK pension, remember it is going to be worth far less now than it was a year or two ago.

8. Do not rely on the fact that there may be other ex-pats in the area. They may be totally involved in trying to make a living and have time for little else or may move in a totally different social circle and have little in common with you.

So, if that looks like bad news - motoring in France can be just as painful an experience - read on !
Motoring in France
By chance I saw an advertisement for breakdown insurance, and as we were planning a holiday to France decided to investigate further. That was one of the smartest decisions I have ever made. I would point out that this is not an advertisement for any company and I receive no reward for anything I write in this article. I checked out the ‘usual suspects' but found that both the AA and RAC costs were higher than I wished to pay. Then I came across Morethan, a company I had looked at for vehicle insurance in the past, but never used.

Their offer, which included a comprehensive Europe assistance contact, was priced at about £50, and I bought it.

My car is a Landrover Freelander and has given me many years of relatively trouble free motoring, so I looked on the insurance purely as a safeguard.
Well, when we came to leave our rented Chamonix ski apartment, the battery had frozen and would not start the car. I called the UK helpline number and about an hour later the recovery vehicle came and the mechanic started our car.

We motored back to our holiday home without incident and nothing untoward happened for about two weeks. Then, returning from a shopping trip the engine simply died on me, and no attempts to start it would work.

So, once again, it was call the Morethan Rescue team in the UK. They asked me to call back with more information about my location, which I did, and about an hour later the recovery vehicle arrived.

This time the mechanic could not start the engine so the car was loaded onto the back of his lorry and my dog and I were loaded into the cab. We were dropped off at our holiday home and the car taken to the garage, about ten miles away.

The next morning I had a call from Morethan (who operate with Europ Assistance I believe) to tell me that the car needed to go to Bordeaux to the Landrover specialist, who had the diagnostic equipment required. They said that, as this was likely to take a few days, a hire car had been arranged and a taxi would collect me at 0900 the next day to take me to the Avis car hire premises. All this was to be done at no cost to me.

Sure enough, at 0900 the next day the taxi arrived and took me to the Avis office. I noticed that the meter was reading about 55 Euros, so, if I had been paying, the round trip fare would have been about £100.

Two weeks later and my car had still not been repaired so I drove the 60 miles or so to the garage in Bordeaux to see what was happening. The short answer was - nothing - because the French garage has it as a low priority and tell me ‘tomorrow' or ‘next week'. Well, I have spent enough time in France now to know that that could mean anytime in the next month or so!

Morethan told me that they would give it another four days and then arrange for the car to be removed and repatriated, along with my wife and I, to the UK if the garage has not sorted it out.

I have nothing but praise for Morethan but am decidedly unimpressed with the French Landrover dealer who originally diagnosed the fault as a fuel pump, replaced the pump, and then decided it was a fuel injector, ordered the part (so he says) and then decided it was not an injector fault. So my car was stuck in the garage with the engine in bits.

After the four days had passed Morethan told me that they had informed the garage that they were going to repatriate the car to the UK and would have it collected the next day. Miraculously I had a phone call the next day to tell me the car had been repaired and was ready for collection. This had all taken three weeks.

I went to Bordeaux and paid the sum of over 1500€ for the work which included two injectors, one fuel pump and one fuel filter. After checking with LandRover UK I disputed this cost/work with Landrover France and got exactly nowhere.

So, what lessons did I learn from this experience?

1. Make sure you have good breakdown insurance.

2. Make sure your mobile phone is fully charged and loaded - calls to UK take a lot of credit.

3. Make sure you know how to get credit on your phone by understanding the French operator. (Their recorded messages are very quickly spoken!)

4. Have a contingency plan to cover the eventuality that your stay in France may be longer than expected. (If we had not had the convenience of our holiday accommodation More than would have paid for us to stay in a hotel).

5. If you have to deal with a French garage try and get one who tells you facts not fantasy.

All this may seem bad news but I did learn my lesson. About a year later my car lost power and the engine management warning light came on. My local garage told me that, as they did not have the diagnostic equipment I would need to go to the LandRover/Jaguar agent in La Rochelle. As long as it wasn't Bordeaux I was quite happy, and the garage kindly arranged an appointment for that same afternoon, so I slowly motored into La Rochelle to the garage. Very smart and clean and not at all busy, they quickly put my car onto their diagnostic tester.

After about half an hour they told me I had an injector problem but they could sort it out there and then if I could leave the car for two hours. So I asked how much it would cost to change the injector and was told 2000€ and I needed all four injectors changing.

This seemed so unlikely that I called my local LandRover garage in the UK. They said that their cost for changing four injectors would be about £1200 but the chance of all four being faulty was remote and I could not have even driven my car!

Thoroughly disheartened I told the garage manager what I thought of his estimate and drove slowly back home.

By chance I heard about an English garage owner who advertised in an online magazine that he did LandRover diagnostic testing. His name is Andrew Cole and he lives at Charroux.

I took my car to him the next day and after half an hour paid my bill of 47€ for having the fuel filter cleaned. Andrew showed me the result of the injector test he did; his only comments being that they were all in good condition and the car itself was in excellent shape. (And there was I thinking a couple of days before that I would have to scrap it!)

So, there are lots of negatives and we may have been unlucky, and I must admit that, in the warm weather it is lovely to just relax by the pool or in the shade of the many mature trees in the garden, but in retrospect, I think our first idea of having a holiday home here rather than a permanent residence, would have been a better bet.

That's why our home is advertised on this site.

What do you think?

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