The children growing fast !
Although the previous six or seven years had been full of stress and unpleasant situations, I was the first to say that I had learnt a lot. I knew about conveyancing law, about talking with notaires, accountants, banks and administrative institutions of many sorts. I therefore did not need an agent to act for me when finding tenants for the Corme Royale flats. I had toughened up a great deal and had become to-the-point and said what I thought – sometimes to my detriment! I could act for me, no problem.
As in the UK, letting contracts were readily available, usually from any Maison de la Presse, and in those days they could be for either one year or three years. That has since changed and three years is now the minimum, though furnished lets fall in to a slightly different category. Ours were unfurnished.
Reading through the contracts and filling them out did not faze me at all, albeit in French.
Bruce sparked out !
I placed ads in the local newspapers and in very little time I had tenants for all three flats. I took the people that nobody else would take: there were not enough Council flats and houses, and these were people who would normally be housed by the Council. They were not necessarily social cases (though they often were), but people out of work for whatever reason, or – frequently – people who worked only on the black and therefore had no work contract.
The social system
The local authority paid me a month’s deposit against breakages for each tenant and, as soon as the contract was signed, the rent was paid straight on to my account by the council. Depending on the situation of the tenant in question, this could be 100% of the rent or as little as 20%. But it meant that, come what may, I always got that part of the rent. The council never ever got the breakages deposit back – not even once – because the tenant (as it wasn’t his money) couldn’t care less about damages or unpaid bills. And the French system, being the socialist one that it is, carried on paying damages deposits and rents left right and centre, almost regardless and all compliments of the tax payer.
We caravanned frequently during the summer months. In many ways it was the only way we could get away from work, because we worked from home. There are some wonderful beaches not far from here and lush pine forests. William almost always had friends with him, so there were invariably six or seven of us plus George. The children slept in tents. That old caravan got ripped apart in a storm some years later.
Tenants in France
Our very first tenant, actually, was the daughter of our worker, Michel. She had split up from her husband and moved in to the top flat with her two little girls. She was a good, clean tenant who always had her part of the rent (ie the part not paid by the council) ready for me in cash, and always kept her bills paid. The tenant who took the ground floor … I just cannot remember him or her. But the tenant who took the middle flat was a young English woman named Gina, with three little girls. She paid the rent just once but stayed there for four or five months. I afterwards learnt that she was on the run from the police in the UK and that her husband, who appeared briefly, was even more thoroughly on the run from the police. Why they chose rural France I have no idea, but from there they moved to Norway, where I hope they re-made their lives succesfully. I have to say that Gina was rude, foul-mouthed, po-faced, demanding and totally unpleasant. In her defence I will add that she was probably worried sick, fraught and lost. Any hopes I had of chumming up with her were dashed within the first five minutes when she yelled at me:
“How’m I supposed to pay the f—–g rent when I ain’t got no f—–g job yet ?!!”
The tenants knew how to screw every penny out of the system. It was quite extraordinary. Many were perfectly capable of work but had no intention whatsoever of finding any. Others would have preferred to work. Some were simply not up to it. Unemployment was high in the area and, because the bus service is very poor (both are still the case), people who did not drive and/or could not afford to pay for a car, relied on trains. And if there was no railway in their town it was very difficult. Rents in towns where there were railway stations were considerably higher. So it was a bit of a vicious circle.
Our second property was in La Tremblade, a really nice little town just off the coast.
Lovely port at La Tremblade. Like so much in this area, when we arrived it smelt terrible – fish, seaweed, sweat, diesel – but now it is dotted with smashing little restaurants (essentially just seafood) and is an excellent place for a stroll. There used to be a memorial to local men who were shot by the Nazis in 1942, but that has been moved to make way for a small park. I hope the memorial has been put somewhere else because it is important that the young understand how devastating war is.
Church at La Tremblade. There are several shops, banks etc. and a very good market on a … Saturday I think. They also do antiques fairs three or four times in the summer months.
Beach – we frequently walked George along here. I don’t do ghosts and such like, but when we went back to this beach relatively recently, I had a strong feeling of George running along beside us.
The banks went with us all the way. Although it was not necessarily easy to negotiate a loan, I always managed to get one from one bank or another – the cost of buying the property, the cost of restoring and converting it, my commission, general fees. With one or two exceptions, we converted the properties in to flats. I think there were just three that we left as cottages.
Social cases in France
The tenants varied. They were all from the lower end of the social spectrum and they ranged from barely eighteen years old to old folk. The level of their honesty and decency varied too. Some were such dreadful spongers, out for what they could get. For many, simply because I was the landlady, I was “bad”. For others I was a salvation in a desperate situation. And some of the situations were desperate – perfectly nice people who couldn’t get it together for one reason or another, or people who had had really bad luck. But I’m afraid to say most were simply social spongers. They wanted everything, and they wanted it now, and they wanted it for free. They were dirty, rude, dishonest. Any clauses in the contracts about no dogs, no cats, parking in such-and-such place, keeping the communal areas clean were usually completely ignored, and I have stepped over (and cleaned up!) every kind of disgusting stinky item you can imagine.
Sometimes it was very disheartening. I remember one bottle-blonde lady, a very large lady, with too many children and a whole coffer of financial social support. She had almost nothing in the way of furniture, so I donated a few bits – a couple of mattresses I didn’t really need, a cot for the baby, a few chairs and our camping table …. but did it make her any better as a tenant ? No, of course not. Her foul languange and her dislike of me, just because I was her landlady, was something !
William in a wheelbarrow, mucking about with one of his friends. That boy, Cedric, died of a drug overdose just recently.
Despite this, it was a pleasant patch in our lives. I enjoyed driving round viewing potential properties, going to the various banks, negotiating, talking to the vendors, the agents, the notaires, the bank managers. Bruce was brilliant at thinking-out how a house could be converted in to flats, and in several cases created fantastic mezzanine areas in what had been loft space too shallow for use, balconies, walled gardens. He did all the plans himself. His vision was extraordinary and, although I enjoyed pouring over plans and ideas with him, that was really his department. Efficient division of our labour was part of the key to our success. I trusted his judgement and he trusted mine. Often enough I would come home and announce we’d just put an offer in on such-and-such a house, though it was important Bruce come along to look at the structure of the thing. He’d just say “good” and he trusted my instinct and my abilities.
The houses were built of local stone, with tiled roofs and thin clay block brickwork for the inner walls. None had cellars, which was a shame; I always think cellars are interesting places. Many had old bits of furniture abandoned in them, much of it too wood-wormed to be restored, but some of it worth saving. Very few had any toilet, let alone a bathroom. If there was a toilet it was usually outside. It made me smile each time because I remembered a moment during my estate agent days when a client, English, asked me how come French toilets are usually outside or in a barn.
“Oh,” I replied, “this part of France, you know. They have only just come down out of the trees. They have moved indoors now, and I daresay toilets will follow …”
And as I said it I remembered that the vendor, standing with us, and an ex tennis champion by the name of Challumeau, spoke good English. I very rarely wish the floor would open up and swallow me, but that was one of those moments.
Fine old stone fireplace in a derelict room, one of many, many, many.
Generally speaking building permission was not needed, though this varied according to the proximity of the building to the town centre. If there was no wiring in the building it needed an official inspection by EDF personnel, but if there was exisiting wiring, no matter how old and dangerous it was, no inspection was needed for re-wiring. There was always mains water. Mains gas was a new idea to this part of France and almost non-existant. Mains drainage was installed in almost all towns at about this time, so septic tanks were usually no longer needed either, though we did have to install one or two.
And likewise despite the rude behaviour of so many of our tenants, I enjoyed that too. For every nasty person there was also a nice one and that sort-of outweighed the nastiness – and Lord, did it need outweighing sometimes! Over the next few years I got greeted at the door by snarling dogs, a man with a shotgun, many many a drunkard, screeching overweight women … argued with tenants about keeping things clean, tried to come to deals with them about keeping things clean … I had obsceneties hurled in my face, I witnessed out-and-out fraudulant abuse of the social system …. I drove back and forth, sometimes as much as half an hour each way to keep rendez-vous that got ignored or were fruitless, or both … despite the low rents and so much good will on my part I had cigarette-and-beer encrusted people lurching infront of me and telling me I was a thief … and none of them could see that paying the rent was just a normal thing to do.
Yet despite all this, it was a good patch in our lives. It was a positive, satisfying time and we felt good.
Visitors from home were regular, and particularly appreciated during the winter months. This is my aunt Flick with George at the market on Oleron, one chilly Sunday morning.
The Fort Louvois in Bourcefranc, a Napoleonic defence against the British. I think it never served. When the tide is out you can walk out to it, somewhat muddy and slippery! This coastline is dotted with fortificvations of one sort or another, some restored and in good condition, others just ruins.
We bought properties in all the neighbouring towns, going as far as Saintes in one direction and Bourcefranc in the other. Most of the properties were in run-down little hamlets, or in side streets of run-down little towns. I think the smallest amount we paid was £13 000 for a house in Marennes, and the most was £60 000 for one in Saintes. Most of them were around the £25 000 mark.
We had days off when essential work in our own house needed doing, or when Bruce’s Meniere’s was too bad, and when we needed to get away. On the whole we enjoyed these projects very much indeed; there were some mistakes where we hadn’t borrowed quite enough money to complete the work, or when letting the finished product seemed to take ages, but on the whole it went smoothly. The houses for conversion were plentiful and cheap. Bruce and his crew worked steadily through them, and I worked steadily through tenanting them.
Within three years we owned thirty-six flats and cottages in the area.
Part 16 to follow.
Follow Catherine on Facebook: