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 Tales from Nouvelle-Aquitane Ep.6

“You have thirty seconds to comply”…

E-mails flew back and forth between Tracy our Immoblier and ourselves, like a game of cross-channel tennis. Tracy encouraged us to ask every question we could think of regarding buying Le Logis de Limalonges and suggested some more that we hadn’t even considered. On the rare occasions we came up with a query she couldn’t answer immediately, she would reassure us with a promise to find out as fast as humanly possible, which she always did, even sometimes emailing us late into the night. We felt we were in very safe hands, and we can’t emphasise enough the importance of having a good estate agent on your team.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, our first (and perhaps rather bold) offer was immediately rejected. The response to our second offer took a few days to arrive: again rejected. We waited a few days before attempting a third offer, which was finally accepted. We had to read the email twice each, to actually believe that our dream of living in France was finally happening. 

My mobile rang moments after the offer acceptance email arrived. It was Tracy confirming that our offer had indeed been accepted, and that we now need to arrange an appointment to sign the ‘Acte de Compromis’; the exchange of papers where we would pay a deposit. She explained that both sides would then have a 10 day ‘cooling off’ period. We just had to hope the vendors didn’t change their minds, because we certainly weren’t going to, after three years of searching.

We returned to France and met up with Tracy outside the Notaire’s Office. I was a nervous wreck, whereas Krysia was as cool as a very cool thing. (It seems 35 years’ experience of being a Solicitor and owning her own legal practice had put pay to any fear of bureaucracy!). Our Notaire, Fabrice, chatted to us in fluent English as we waited for the Australian vendors to arrive. In France, both parties use the same advisor to simplify the property purchase process, and everyone speaking the same language made the whole business a whole lot easier. (Obviously, it is vital to learn French to integrate here, but our lack of fluency certainly wasn’t a barrier at the beginning)

An hour or so later, with the deposit paid, we all went for a celebratory coffee. The vendors confided that they were relieved to think of us as the next custodians of such a fine old house, and they had kindly planned an ‘apero’ (informal gathering) to welcome us to Le Logis, and give us a chance to meet a few of our soon-to-be-neighbours. 

A couple of days later, it was nice to meet up again with the ‘Frenchman up a ladder’ who I had greeted in faltering French at our first viewing. He turned out to be ‘Eric from Sunderland’!

“I knew you’d buy it” he said, pouring me a glass of wine, as vendor Mr G invited us to help ourselves from the buffet he had laid on. I sensed our host was lost in other thoughts, as he seemed distracted. Perhaps it was because Mrs G had already returned to their homeland of Australia, or maybe it was the reality of leaving this beautiful place and this lovely group of friends. They seemed such a nice bunch and we looked forward to getting to know them better soon.

Back in London, the ten-day cooling-off period came and went. A trail of emails followed, with lengthy diagnostic reports on the house, consisting of pages and pages of detailed inspections covering general condition, plumbing, electricity and, curiously, an advisory note on lead paint, which had been found in the ‘volets’ (window shutters) and ‘some asbestos’. The shutters looked over a hundred years old, so it was inevitable that they had been repainted many times and there would be ancient traces of lead. It also transpired that the worrying asbestos, simply consisted of a six-inch offcut of pipe that had been long discarded in the garden!  

These apparently excessively thorough reports, commissioned by the vendor, are absolutely essential, as it may surprise you to learn that buyers’ structural surveys rarely happen in France. This may sound shocking, but it actually makes sense. The vendor has to point out all the faults by law, and if they sell a property without informing the potential buyer of any problems, they can be sued, as well as having to rectify the faults at their own cost.

We had accepted an offer on our London house and Krysia’s business. The UK estate agent who was looking after the sale had arrived in a flurry of flash car, slim suit, slicked back hair and designer stubble, and proclaimed that he would “make those French dreams come true!!”, without actually listening to a word we said! We didn’t trust him as far as we could catapult him and his manscaping, in complete contrast to the faith we had in Tracy, who consistently went the extra mile.

Our plan was finally coming together, and the contract would be exchanged on the old house in London by the time we could complete on Le Logis. We arranged an appointment at our bank to transfer the rest of the purchase price to France. We were shown into a side room where a bank official was speaking to a currency exchange specialist via speaker phone. They would monitor and tell us what the precise Euro exchange rate would be and if we were happy with that rate, we had thirty seconds to accept or reject it. Of course, the exchange rate could go up or down at any moment, so it was a potentially high-stake gamble. This was nerve-wracking and not something for the faint-hearted. (Yes, Krysia was super cool, as always, and I was the nervous wreck!) Three years of searches and countless house viewings had all come down to this moment. 

The completion date was set, but we hadn’t picked the best of weeks to exchange pounds for euros, given the economic uncertainties of Brexit, so we held hands tightly and desperately hoped for some sort of miracle. Suddenly, the exchange rate from pounds to euros leapt up sharply. The bank official coughed. We shouted ‘STOP!!!’ Then there was silence. There was no voice at the other end of the line. The bank official stared at the telephone.

“Hello? Hello?” she said. The line seemed to have gone quiet. She picked up the phone and spoke with her colleague at the other end in hushed tones. (I was holding my breath, and my heart was pounding so fast that I thought this was the end of me!) Her hand was shaking as she placed the receiver back in its cradle. She composed herself and smiled. “Yes, all confirmed”. 

She explained that the rate had risen sharply for the first time in weeks, and we had caught it at precisely the right moment, just before it dropped back to below where it had started. Someone was clearly looking after us that day. We all breathed a sigh of relief.

Late summer arrived quickly and we found ourselves back at the now familiar Notaire’s office in France to complete the sale or “Acte du Vente” as it is known here. We waited for Mr G to arrive. Krysia and I were shown into Fabrice’s office. Sitting in his big leather chair, Fabrice greeted us from behind his desk. Displayed on the wall behind him was an impressive collection of football scarves from around the world. “Do you like football?” he asked, breaking the ice. I told him it had been years since I had been to a game, and besides which he didn’t even have a Tooting and Mitcham scarf, so what was there to discuss? Fortunately, he laughed.

Mr G arrived and formalities began with having to sign every page of two weighty tomes. The contracts were in French so Fabrice explained what we were signing. At the end of the contact were spaces for Mr G to sign as well as Krysia and myself. We sat at the back of the room as Mr G picked up the pen. I heard him sigh. He signed his name, placed the pen back on the table, and slumped back into his chair. It was the most bittersweet of moments seeing a man sign away what he had clearly thought would be his forever home, while trying to contain our joy that we had just become the new owners of Le Logis de Limalonges. Fortunately, we already suspected that he wasn’t entirely overjoyed to be leaving France, and had agreed in advance that we wouldn’t show our excitement until we had left the office.

Out on the street Tracy congratulated us. Mr G came out moments later. “I suppose you’ll be needing these,” he said, handing me a set of door keys. By co-incidence he had parked his car next to ours. “Is there anything else I can do for you?” he said. I thanked him for everything and shook his hand. We got into the car and said our goodbyes. The car wouldn’t start. I tried again. Nothing. Mr G had already started his engine and was about to drive away. I scrambled out of my car and just managed to stop him in time to ask if he had any jump leads. “Yes, but they are back at the house”.  I told him not to worry as I would phone for a recovery truck to help. He started to drive away, calling over his shoulder “Oh, by the way, the house is unlocked ready for you”. As a lifelong resident of London, this was not something I was expecting to hear!

I rang the recovery service who said they would be with me within the hour. I don’t know what made me do it, but I gave the key one more turn in the ignition, and the engine started! I cancelled the recovery truck and made it all the way back ‘home’ to Limalonges. We would be staying for the night before returning to London where the removal company would help us pack up all of our furniture. We spent our first night as French homeowners in one of the bedrooms in our ‘West Wing’ gite. Mr G had prepared a bed and left a note on the kitchen table welcoming us. The note directed us to the fridge where a chilled bottle of bubbly was waiting for us. A kind and thoughtful touch.

The next morning, we were up early and locked our wonderful new home carefully. The car was packed and we were ready to go. However, no matter what I tried, the old car just wouldn’t start, and there was the small matter of catching the midday ferry…

Read part one here
Read part two here
Read part three here
Read part four here
Read part five here