5: Housing

You have arrived in France! The details of settling into a new house may not be foremost in your mind as you disembark from the aircraft, but you will soon be confronted with the task. There are English-speaking organizations available that can help you with the process of settling in. (See Chapter 23, “Leisure-Other Organizations”, or the list of Relocation Assistance professionals here below) and check with your company before leaving your home country.

First, think about “What are our needs?” You may want to make a list of the items that are important for your family concerning living accommodations as well as a list of the things you feel would be nice, but not essential. Prioritize them on a scale of one to five. Keep the weights in mind when visiting various residences.

Next, you and your family will want to decide what area you wish to live in and whether you want to live in the city or in the suburbs or even further out in the countryside. Some thoughts regarding city living versus country living are worth noting. Toulouse is an exciting town in which to live, but its pollution level is recognized as possibly hazardous to infants. Countryside living is more peaceful, but can be a bit dull. There are tradeoffs to be made.

HOUSING – TOULOUSE CENTER

The city of Toulouse has many things to offer a family. You are close to shopping, the daily market, schools, and cultural activities. However, travel to large suburban supermarkets and shopping centers require a car. A car is not necessary for local shopping as everything is easily accessible and the bus and metro are excellent. See Chapter 9, Public Transportation. It is very hard to feel isolated in the city, as there are many things to do and see. The disadvantages about city center are: (1) it is difficult to find parking, so make sure your home comes with a designated parking place, (2) you might not have any outside space (garden or terrace) and (3) it tends to be noisy and more polluted from motor emissions than the countryside.

HOUSING – SUBURBS OF TOULOUSE

The surrounding villages and small towns are beautiful and quiet, although some are somewhat secluded. They offer houses with gardens and a quaint style of village life. However, they can be isolating if you are very far out of the city or have few houses near you. Many of the suburbs are only ten or fifteen minutes from Toulouse center, but provide open country settings and a taste of French country living. Offers for homes in sub-divisions (lotissements) are numerous. These newer homes are often relatively small in size and close together. Large English-speaking communities can be found in Pibrac, Tournefeuille, and Colomiers.

HOUSING – BEYOND GREATER TOULOUSE

The outlying countryside — beyond Greater Toulouse (which is a circumference of about 15 kilometers from downtown Toulouse, see map here) — was once all farmland and still mostly is agricultural. It is mostly flat to the east and rises gradually to the north. To thenorth west (Bordeaux direction) and east (Narbonne direction) it is also very level land.

With the increase in housing prices within Greater Toulouse area, there has been a gradual spread outwards to further communities within a reasonable commuting distance of, say, 45 minutes. Residing here is a bit like in the suburbs of Toulouse as described above, with an even further accent on Country Living — with all its advantages (open air markets, fresh air, children’s play activities) and some of its disadvantages (seclusion from the hectic life in a large city).

RENTAL AGENCIES

After deciding where you want to live, the city or one of the suburbs, you are now ready to contact an agence immobilière or rental agency. Unlike some countries where a rental property is ‘multiple-listed’ with several agencies, in France an agency that has several houses or apartments for rent may or may not be listed with another agency. As a consequence, you must visit several agencies yourself to see what they have to offer. The rental offices are, in general, small. Be prepared to wait for an available person to take you to see a house and/or for them to make a “house visiting” appointment for another time. The properties the agency has are not always in the area of the office. (It helps to have a mobile phone to help you manage your search.)

A sign in a rental agency will look like this:

A louer: (For rent)

Type: T4 (3-bedrooms plus living room)

Surface: 100 Sq. M. (Area; one square meter is about 10 square feet, 10.76 sq. ft. to be exact))

Situation: Rue de Lombez (Location)

Loyer: xxx € (verify that charges are included in the rent)

Most agencies will not give a detailed description of the house, nor will they provide the address for you to see it from the outside. You might want to create your own check-list and ask questions whilst visiting the property. If you want to take photos, ask the owner’s permission beforehand. You haven’t the unsaid right to do so.

A recent study by Que Choisir?, the French equivalent of Which or Consumer Reports, focused upon the profession of Real Estate agents. The results are somewhat disconcerting. Therefore, you are wise to take some precautions.

Such as:

  • The agency fees should be posted either in the window or on walls somewhere. If you don’t see them, ask for them in writing. These fees are competitive and may vary from agent to agent.
  • Ask for further information that may condition your decision to purchase. For instance, for the property under consideration, the Tax Fonciere (property tax, that tenants need not pay) or the Tax d’Habitation (community services tax) that either as a tenant or owner you will be obliged to pay. As well, ask to see past bills for electricity and gas if these have been the principle means of heating the premises.
  • The agency is required to have a Siret Number, meaning that it is registered as a viable enterprise. It will also have an insurance policy for covering all transactions. Look for both before signing any contracts
  • When visiting a property, sign a “Bon de Visite”, that identifies the property, its address, some specifics about the property and above all its asking price. If you are thinking of squeezing the agency by dealing directly with the owner, this Bon de visite will be proof that you were introduced to the property by the real estate agency in question. A court of law could require that you pay the agency fees and a penalty.
  • As a matter of course, do not leave any advance payments with a real estate agent. If they go out of business before the property is transacted, which may take a few months; you may not recuperate your down payment. If called for, try to leave any advance payment with your Notary. (What Notary? … you are asking yourself. Public notarie are  responsible for the transaction of all property in France. See explanation in our chapter Taxes & Legal.)
  • As a rule, never take the Notary of the selling party, who will be defending the interests of the seller. You should find your own to defend your interests. The fees are set by law, and the fact that you chose your own Notary to transact the purchase means the fees are shared by both Notaries.
  • You may be asked to sign either a Compromis de Vente or a Promesse de vente. The difference is that the latter is registered at the French Treasury and is more binding if in litigation. The Compromis de vente can be broken, but will require the decision of a tribunal judge and their judgment according to the facts presented to them.
  • Regardless of the contract signed, the Notary will check that the contractual documentation is completed with the numerous tests that must be undertaken prior to signature of the act of sale. For instance, an apartment will require an independent verification of its surface area. All properties will require a check for lead deposit in the paints used. And, some communities will require verification for termites.

LOCATING HOUSING THROUGH LOCAL ADVERTISEMENT

Other sources for locating rentals houses or apartments are advertisements at Aérospatiale or any of the other local companies, the women’s groups and the newspapers. Sometimes, by just driving around, you may find a house with a rental sign notice (à louer). While newspapers are a good source of information, you will have either to understand French or find a friend who is willing to help you translate, and/or write an advertisement if you are looking for a particular type of house or apartment. The following newspapers may be useful:

Le 31, 18 rue Rivals Telephone: 05 34 45 24 24
Hebdo, 51 boulevard Thibault Telephone: 05 61 43 15 00
La Depeche du Midi / Publi Toulouse, avenue Jean Baylet Telephone: 05 61 49 11 11

When reading a newspaper or other written information concerning housing the following French terms will be helpful:

Vocabulary – Real Estate

F1, F2, T1, T2 : ‘F’ stands for houses, ‘T” stands for apartments. The number equates to a living room PLUS the number of bedrooms. The kitchen and bathrooms are not counted (i.e. ‘F4′ would be a three-bedroom house).

Louer / Location Offre — For Rent

Appartements / Villas — Apartments/houses

Villa, Pavillon – A small house S., Standing–Good quality

G.S., Grand standing –Luxury apartment or home

Part., Particulier –A private individual is leasing the property versus an agency

Prop., Propriétaire — Owner Loc.,

Locataire— Renter / lessee

Séj., Séjour — Living room

Ch., Chambre — Bedroom

App.,Chb, Pièce — A single room for rent within an apartment Chem., Cheminée — Fireplace

Jar. Clot., Jardin Clôturé — Fenced or enclosed garden

Cuisine intégrée – Kitchen has cupboards and countertops; (normally a French kitchen has only a sink in a cabinet)

Cuisine équipée– Kitchen has appliances, such as stove, refrigerator, dishwasher, etc. (not commonly found)

Cuisine américaine — Kkitchen opens out onto the living area (usually an equipped kitchen with appliances as well)

Plein pied – Phrase used to describe any one story house

Cave — Wine cellar area

Sous-sol — Basement or storage area

1er étage — Second floor (USA) – first floor (UK)

2eme étage – Third floor (USA) – second floor (UK)

Dernier étage — Top floor

FRENCH TERMS AND CHARGES

  • Droit au bail – 2.5% of the annual rental fee goes to this tax. It may or may not be figured into the advertised rental amount.
  • Frais d’agence - The commission due the agency renting the apartment. It is usually around 7% of the annual rental amount and is paid by the owner, but not always.
  • 2 mois de caution - A 2-month deposit on the house or apartment is required and is to be paid in advance. The owner has 2 months to return the deposit after the property is vacated. The deposit may be kept to cover any work in the house liable to the tenant. (This is supposedly being revised to one month deposit, so check to see which is the legally valid.)
  • Fiche de paie / Bulletin de salaire – The agency will want proof of employment for the past three months. Pay receipts will be accepted. Or, they will ask you to put a Security Bond (held in escrow) for the total value of the rental over a given period of time.
  • Assurance incendie et dégât des eaux - It is a French law that you must have tenant insurance (fire and water damage) for the house or apartment at the time you sign the rental agreement. Insurance is available through several agencies in Toulouse. Insurance agencies generally require a three-month notice to close an insurance policy, which you must do by registered letter.

There are certain security measures that you are required to take, such as closing the shutters if the house or apartment is left for more than 24 hours, or that the entrance door be equipped with a safety bolt, that will be a condition of your insurance policy. Ask your agent because policies do differ.

Should your residence be broken into, call the police immediately (as well as your insurer) and ask them to come witness the damages (constat d’infraction et cambriolage) and particularly the breakage due to entry. Then ask for a copy of their “constat” (report). The insurance company may require a copy before they reimburse you.

RENTAL FEE INCLUSIONS AND EXCLUSIONS

If renting an apartment, your monthly rental fee generally covers the following:

  • Garbage collection,
  • cleaning of the common areas,

* But neither water nor heating if communal.

The monthly rental for a house may or may not cover the following items:

  • Garbage collection, see Chapter 10, Taxes – taxe d’ordures section• water, in some cases (meters are often located in the garden and billing is bi-annual)
  • Electricity, gas, fuel, television fee (which may change soon)

ENTRY (& EXIT) INSPECTION / INVENTORY

The French require an état des lieux (entry/exit inspection and inventory of the property) before signing the lease, that the owner or agent establish together with the renter. Make sure everything is listed, including nail holes in the wall, scratched surfaces – everything! Any and all irregularities and /or the actual conditions of walls, floors, and equipment should be put into writing. When moving out of said apartment / house, the exit inspection will be conducted and compared to entry inspection/inventory. If there is any unusual degradation of the property, you may be required to repair it.

The rule applied is that the tenant is allowed only “normal wear and tear”. Any abuse of an accidental nature must be repaired. Any change in the aspect of the house will entail the tenant’s responsibility to remake the property as it was before. For example, if there is no hole in the wall where you want to hang a picture, on exit you are expected to refill the hole.

So, if something breaks resulting from normal usage, inform in writing the property owner. If anything is broken accidentally or willfully, then repair it at your cost. However, do not agree to pay for the cost of repainting the residence — unless their is visible damage. Given the nature of the damage, you can repair/repaint it yourself or ask a craftsman to do so.

The reimbursement of your 2-month deposit may very much depend on the comparison of both the exit and entry inspection/inventory documents. If there are problems and the owner agrees to correct them, get everything in writing too.

If at all possible, take photographs (with a convenient newspaper front-page in the photo to confirm the date — and, of course, keep the newspaper!). If there is no one who speaks French on your behalf at the time of the inspection, a list of problems can be translated into French for the owner, with such a list to be ultimately signed by both parties. Although everything is negotiable, quite often tenants are expected to accept the state of the property “as is”.

HOUSING CHARACTERISTICS

Some aspects of French housing may be worth noting for general information:

  • Electricity is the responsibility of the tenant. Before signing the lease, make sure the amperage is sufficient for all the appliances you will be using. If it is not, ask your landlord to have it increased by the electric company. In some cases, the existing wiring cannot accommodate your needs. If this is not agreed upon before you sign the lease, it will become your responsibility.
  • The kitchens do NOT normally come equipped, and more than likely, you will have to purchase cupboards, counter tops, and appliances.
  • Most apartments, flats and houses do not have closet space, and require armoires (wardrobes) instead, which are the responsibility of the renter.
  • In general, rooms are smaller and storage space may or may not exist at all! This is especially worth noting for Americans, Canadians, and Australians who may be used to far larger accommodations.
  • Vacant houses often do not have lighting fixtures, toilet paper holders, towel racks, curtains, or other such ‘personal’ items. The French owner does not normally supply these items and expects the renter to buy their own. French renters take all such items with them when they move.
  • Most apartments, flats and houses do not have smoke and/or carbon monoxide detectors. Unlike the USA, there is no requirement to have them installed. It is a good idea to purchase two battery-powered detectors (one for the basement and one for the bedroom areas).
  • Insect screens on windows are not considered a necessity in France. They are only now becoming available pre-made in very limited configurations. For those who are somewhat handy with tools, they can be easily made from supplies readily available in local hardware stores, or stores such as Castorama. • Air-conditioning is also not common, but small portable air-conditioners are available from local retailers.

INSURANCE

You will be given the keys to the rental premises only upon showing that you have obtained multi-risk insurance (Assurance Multi-Risque). This will cover fire and water damage principally (such that the owner’s property is covered) but can include also break-in and theft, glass breakage as well in case of a third-party accident at your residence. There is also, apart, special insurance to cover your children whilst at and coming/going from/to school that is worth considering.

Remember to cancel all insurance upon leaving by means of a registered letter. If you are changing premises you may carry the insurance with you. Regardless, it is a good moment for looking at comparative insurance prices for a better deal, since the fact that you change physical residence is a legal reason for terminating the insurance contract.

Also consider a separate policy for Legal Insurance. This is often included in Mulit-Risque insurance mentioned above, but its coverage is limited. If, for instance, you will be renovating or building, you will be signing contracts for considerable amounts. You must therefore be assured that your Legal Insurance is up to the task. Discuss this with your Insurer — but try looking for equivalent insurance on the net (if your French is up to it). As it is likely to be much less expensive.

HANDYMAN SERVICES

Now that you’ve found and/or moved into a dwelling, there are no doubt a number of things that you would like to have installed, repaired or painted.

  • English-speaking contractor:

Alex Service (Tel: 06 09 72 90 73)

  • No Job Too Big or Small:

Euromaster Builders (Tel: 06 75 24 03 98, email: euromb@wanadoo.fr)

  • Available for yard work and petits travaux (small jobs) or as an intermediary between you and your propriétaire: Jean Charles (Tel: 05 62 74 14 16)

RECYCLING

Most towns now offer a recycling service. Blue plastic containers are affected to your home for collecting paper, cardboard, metal cans, juice bricks, plastic bottles … Other trash will be collected in the regular grey containers.

Glassware should be deposited in the street containers.

Pick up days vary, so check with your local city hall.

LEASE CANCELLATION

Leases can normally be canceled with either a 1-month or 3-month notification depending on your situation. Notification should be made by Lettre Recommandée avec Accusé de Réception (registered letter with acknowledgment of receipt), so that you know when your landlord received it. The legal date of notification begins on such date.

  • A 1-month cancellation with no penalty is acceptable when there is a job transfer or loss of employment. The landlord is entitled to formal justification for the short cycle cancellation, such as a letter from your employer. For less than the period stipulated in the contract, you will need a valid reason to break the lease. If being transferred have your company confirm in writing and attach it to your cancellation notice.
  • A 3-month cancellation is acceptable for the other situations, including normal transfers and end-of-contracts.
  • Owners’ cancellation notification: if your landlord is going to sell the house/building, he must give you 6-months notice during which time the renter is free to move out whenever he/she chooses.

* You will be required to accommodate agency visits to re-rent the house, should the owner desire to do so.

RENTAL VERSUS PURCHASING

Most Newcomers will want to rent upon arrival. It is well worthwhile not to rush into buying a place. It takes some time to get to know a realty market, and a rental is an ideal solution for those who want to shop around for a permanent residence.

However, many expats do opt, sooner or later, for purchasing a residence, since it makes for a good investment. French property prices stagnated and fell slightly in the early 1990s, but historically they have appreciated steadily. In the last years they have been rising substantially in the Greater Toulouse area, with the influx of people to work there.

So, purchasing, either within Toulouse or Greater Toulouse or even beyond in the surrounding area, is well worth considering for those thinking of staying beyond a three or four year assignment in the area.

French real estate agents have no central listing, as stated above. So, one must dedicate a considerable amount of time to looking about for their Dream House. Remember, realty agents work for the seller, not the buyer — even if the buyer is the one who ultimately pays their commission. Potential clients come and go, but the owner and their property remain.

Be prepared to take notes, survey well the property and ask some incisive questions. There are basically two markets, an apartment or a house. The other important variable is age.

As regards apartments, a sales transaction requires certain certifications, namely, the exact area of the apartment, if it is an apartment building. If it is detached from an existing older building and has been renovated, this may not be the case. So, be sure to take your own measurements. Also, if an apartment was built before the 1950s, it must be certified to be lead-paint free.

As regards an older house, some communities require a termite inspection. If the roofing is seriously infected, it will require a costly renovation the cost of which can be negotiated off the price. It is also advisable to inspect for lead piping in the supply of water, though its use in waste water is not a concern. Also, remember that some of these houses have no “crawl space” or cellar under the flooring. That is, during winter they are likely to be a great deal colder than had they had a proper insulation space under the floor, which in French is called a Vide Sanitare. Not too mention rising damp.

Ask about the various local taxes to be paid for garbage collection and other communal services. Also, if you are keen to have a suitable Internet connection, be sure that the Centrex (local telephone exchange box) is not more than 5 kilometers from the house. DSL speed degrades with distance and beyond 5 kilometers it is seriously impeded.

Aside from the real estate commission, you will pay also the Notary fees and sales taxes that will be anywhere from 6 to 8% of the sales price. So, once into a house, for you to resell it and break even requires another two or three year wait for all those fees to be recuperated by the increase in property values.