Coming out the other side

On Thursday morning we left early, not even sure that anyone else would be there. The meeting was being held at the office of the vendor’s notaire, about half an hour away. Waiting outside, I felt sick with nerves. Bang on 9 o’clock, Maître G, Chris and Gérard all arrived and we were shown into the waiting room of Maître B, a small serious man in large spectacles.  While we waited…and waited, Maître G explained that when Monsieur had been informed that we had pulled out of the sale he suddenly panicked and decided he would pay off the debt he owed, from the proceeds of the sale of the mill. The huissier, bailiff acting on behalf of the creditor, was whizzing down from Paris to handle the legal signing off of the debt and would arrive at 10am. The notaire’s team had worked until 10pm the night before to get all the legal documentation in order and the only thing we needed now was Monsieur.

Then there was the sound of someone arriving and being ushered quickly into another room. Chris explained that Monsieur hated the huissier with a passion and they mustn’t even see each other, let alone be in the same room or everything could go terribly wrong.

So it was not without a little trepidation that we entered Maître B’s office to find Monsieur sitting there, beaming at us affably. Everyone shook hands with everyone else and sat down. As we waited for the notaire to organise the massive pile of documents neatly into piles I looked round the room. Above filing cabinets and shelves piled high with fusty paper files every inch of the walls was covered with original oil paintings of Paris, the type you see on postcards – a collection obtained from a client who used to paint in Montmartre in Paris, apparently.

The meeting got underway, with the two notaires taking it in turns to read through each clause of the Acte de Vente and explain the implications. Every now and then one or other would leave the room to deal with the huissier who had arrived and been hidden in another room. After one such absence Maître G returned with a single sheet of paper which she asked Monsieur to sign, then left the room again with a crafty thumbs up to Colin and me as she passed. One hour in and we were still ploughing through the contract. We got to the clause about the fosse septique, septic tank, which Monsieur was supposed to have had modified to bring it up to standard. “Oui, j’ai tout fait moi-même” (Yes, I did it all myself) beamed Monsieur.

“And have you had it certified, as agreed in the presale contract?”

“No, I looked on line and it said I had a year to do it”

Sharp intake of breath around the room. Monsieur had not honoured another condition of the contract. All eyes turned to us.

Colin and I had already wagered that the fosse hadn’t been done, and quite frankly we would rather get it done ourselves than trust Monsieur’s efforts. We indicated that this would not be a deal breaker and everyone visibly relaxed again.

At last, three hours after arriving, and an interminable everyone-round –the-table-signing-every-side-of-every-document again (Maître B not having a reliable enough phone connection to even contemplate doing things on line) we got to the point of handing over the keys.

“Oh, I haven’t got the keys”, said Monsieur merrily. “They’re at the mill – it’s Ok, I’ve left it all open”

Finally, as Monsieur tottered off down the road, the rest of us stood outside the notaire’s office hugging and shaking hands. Both notaires said that in all their years in the business they had never had a case like it.

Of course everything stopped for lunch time but in the afternoon we picked up the hire van, drove it back to the mill and unloaded our furniture. As the sun slid down behind the hill, we cracked open the bubbly and wondered along the river, glasses in hand, to inspect our new domain. The next chapter begins!

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Tough decisions

I guess part of us had always been expecting this. Our previous experience of the vendor had not been exactly positive. Now, as our dream future in France settled in tatters around us, we just felt numb. Tomorrow, we were completing on the sale of our lovely house in the Sarthe – but now there wasn’t going to be a next chapter.

Maître G was so sympathetic and obviously hated having to be the bearer of this awful news, less than 36 hours before we were due to get the keys for our lovely new home. A lawyer acting for our vendor had contacted her the previous evening to say that he had just found out that the mill was about to be sold. Was she aware that the vendor had a personal debt secured on the property?

Monsieur had apparently defaulted on rent payable for land he used for his business over a number of years. Unable to pay, he had converted the debt of tens of thousands of euros into a private mortgage on the mill. Not only had Monsieur not declared this during the sale but he was disputing the debt (hence the involvement of the lawyer) and the whole matter had been  subject to a judiciary process for quite some time. If we continued with the purchase we would be taking on the debt and would in turn be involved with the French courts.

Maître G had delayed telling us until she had explored all the options. OK, so what could we do?

  1. We could go ahead with the purchase and take on Monsieur’s debts. We would not be able to dispose of the property and stood a good chance of the creditor suing us and winning.
  2. We could try and negotiate a solution whereby we rented the mill from Monsieur for as long as it took for the legal battle to be resolved – years rather than months she estimated. And in the meantime Monsieur would probably lose the mill and we’d have been paying money down the drain for nothing.

Or c) we could pull out of the purchase completely.

We couldn’t believe it. Why couldn’t the notaire just withhold the disputed sum from the proceeds of the sale and pay off the debt? “I really wish that was possible”, she said “but because this matter has already gone to judiciary process we cannot do that.”

“If we pull out of the purchase, will we pay a penalty?”

The French house purchase system is much stricter than in England. Once the compromise de vente, presale contract, is signed and the purchaser’s obligatory cooling off period has expired, either side must pay a penalty (usually 10% of the purchase price) if they pull out.

“No, the vendor has obviously broken his side of the contract by not declaring this mortgage.”

“Is there any way we can get out of the sale of La Tourelle at this point?”

“Unfortunately not. Your sale is perfect. Your purchaser has done everything he is required to do.” (including flying out from San Francisco to sign the Acte de vente tomorrow, we thought grimly.)

My mind was racing, trying to explore all the possibilities.

“If we pull out of our purchase can we claim a penalty from the vendor for breaking the contract?”

Maybe we could get the vendor to cover the cost of us pulling out of our sale?

“I can certainly explore that aspect for you, but this man is in so much mess that you would probably have to sue him for the penalty sum.”

We had no choice. Colin and I both agreed that, with heavy hearts, we would have pull out of the purchase of our beautiful mill.

Jean-Paul arrived. “Salut, ça va? Tout va bien ? , Hi, how’s things ? Everything going OK ?

La Tourelle

The following morning was quite surreal. We locked up La Tourelle for the last time, threw our bags into the car and drove to the notaire’s office, an hour away. It was the first time that we had met our buyer and he turned out to be a really nice guy. Having recently inherited several millions from his parents who had been astute/lucky enough to have bought some land in the area of California later to be known as Silicon Valley, Jack had been buying small characterful houses in several different countries around the world, and was intending to spend a couple of months in each, every year – letting them out through airbnb when he wasn’t there.

When we arrived, Chris had hinted that he had found out something from Gérard and that things were not as desperate as everyone had first thought. I really didn’t dare raise my hopes. After we had all gone through every clause in every document and signed (a much faster process this time, as Maître G had invested in the technology to do everything on an encrypted connection, signing just once on a tablet) The notaire confirmed that there had been some progress but she wouldn’t say more until she had spoken to all legal parties concerned. She would phone us later that afternoon.

As we had originally been planning to do a bit of sight-seeing on Wednesday, before completing on the mill on Thursday morning, we decided to make the most of the day. Well, we hadn’t got a home to go back to, had we? A stroll round the market in La Flèche, followed by lunch in the warm sun at a brasserie on the church square, then an afternoon walking around St Pierre sur Erve. Masochists we must be, because after a walk to the Chapelle de St Sylvain, we carried on to see le Moulin de Gô, a watermill in the process of renovation.

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It was nearly 5pm and we still hadn’t heard anything from Maître G. I tried ringing her, forgetting that the office was shut on Wednesday afternoons. So I rang Chris. He couldn’t get hold of her either but said that he was 99.9% sure that the meeting with the vendor’s notaire was still happening first thing the following morning, as planned. It had been scheduled for 9am and we weren’t surprised to hear that the reason for that was so that Monsieur would be sober enough to participate. The notaires had also planned to have a gendarme collect Monsieur and escort him to the meeting and attest to his fitness!

You can imagine the emotional state Colin and I were in that evening. We were staying with Marianne and Jean-Paul. They had kindly offered to let us stay as long as we needed. It was a lovely evening under the circumstances.

I still didn’t have a clue what we would do with the van full of furniture. The nearest self-storage facility was 40 k away in Le Mans. I’d asked our old neighbours if they knew anyone who had garage or out-house we could rent. Jean-Paul had dashed up to the chateau to see if the owner could store it for us, but Madame had already departed on her winter travels.

Moving house

Ready to go

It seemed like ages since we had come back from France in August but the time had not been wasted. Plans, bookings, lists and more lists – I AM the epitome of a list maniac. But now everything was happening with military precision. We’d caught the overnight ferry to arrive in Avoise first thing on Saturday morning. We spent the day grocery shopping and whipping the garden back under control for the new owner.

The French, it appears, are not too concerned about being able to move straight into their new home once they have vacated their old one. We had had to fight hard to get the completion dates of our sale and purchase in the same week, never mind within a couple of days. As it was, we would be having one night with no place to call home – and nowhere for all our belongings. To solve this problem we had planned to move half our stuff (boxes, garden tools and so on) to our friends’ garage down the road and keep all the furniture in our little hire van overnight,  moving it into the new house the day after. We were due to pick up the hire van on Tuesday, so Sunday and Monday were spent trekking backwards and forwards with the stuff that was going to be stored in the garage down the road.

Now, it’s only about 80m between the two houses but it’s a one-way lane so between us we worked out a brilliant system of filling the car with boxes, which Colin would drive down the road, with me following with something too big to go in the car…bikes…garden tables etc. We’d unload them into the garage and then I would belt back up the lane to start shifting the next lot out while Colin drove off down the lane, through the village, up the hill and round the fields to come back down to the house from the top of the lane.

The whole process was further complicated by the fact that we had a massive pile of firewood stacked in the cave at La Tourelle which needed to be moved to our new home. I hadn’t actually considered the fact that we might be moving when I reordered 3 years’ worth of firewood last autumn. As the minimum order from our local wood mill is 4 stères (a stère of wood being the equivalent of 1 metre high by 1 metre deep by 1 metre wide) there was a large amount of logs that had to be removed from the cave, stacked carefully in the boot of the car, driven down the road, removed from the car and stacked neatly in the garage… over and over again.

By Monday evening we were exhausted, our arms felt like they had been run over by a steam roller but half our French life was now neatly stored away down the road, to be collected once we had moved into the mill.

On Tuesday morning we were up bright and early to drive into Sablé to pick up the hire van.  Getting it into the tiny courtyard at La Tourelle was a bit hair-raising as the old stone houses along the narrow lane open straight onto the street, with no room for error. How Colin managed to reverse through the gates into our little garden without needing recourse to the additional damage insurance we’d taken out, I don’t know.

We started loading the furniture immediately.  Our friend Jean-Paul was due to arrive after lunch, having insisted that he would be round to help load after his night shift. But to be honest, everything was going really well – every square centimetre was used to pack 13 years’ worth of lovingly collected furniture.  “Last piece and we’re done”, Colin called as he went back into the house.  As I waited on the tail-lift, he came out of the kitchen door with my mobile phone in his hand. “Three missed calls”. With La Tourelle being built into the cliff, mobile coverage is dire at the house. We’re always picking up voicemails for calls that never made it through. The first message was from Maître G, our notaire.  “ Madame Coles, please could you call me as a matter of urgency. We have discovered a big problem.” A second missed call from her a few minutes later was accompanied by the same message. I tried to call her but by now it was midday and the automatic answering service helpfully informed me that the switchboard would be closed for lunch until 2pm. With a sinking heart I listened to the third voicemail – this time from Chris, the estate agent. Still stood in the back of the van I shushed Colin as I listened to Chris’ crackling voice telling me that Maitre G needed to talk to me immediately. “Don’t worry, the completion on your sale for tomorrow is all fine. But she says that she urges you to seriously consider pulling out of your purchase!”

Sitting on the floor of our empty echoing livening room with the landline phone pressed to my ear after two of the longest hours wait of our lives, I listened as the notaire explained the problem. What am I saying? It wasn’t a problem – it was a DISASTER!

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In SAFER hands?

Only two weeks to go until we jump on that ferry and drive down to La Tourelle for the last time; two weeks before signing those magic papers and handing over the keys to our buyer and picking up the keys for our gorgeous mill. Or so we thought until yesterday.

Although the notaire had warned us that we wouldn’t get a confirmed date for the signing of the final contract, or Acte de vente, until the beginning of October, I’ve been itching to get everything sorted… book annual leave, book the ferry tickets, confirm the van hire, notify the friends who have offered to help, to see if they are still available…the list goes on. If you know me, you’ll know that I am a bit of a control freak. I like all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed, or I stress like mad!

‘I think I’ll give the agent a call and see if he can tell us anything’, I told Colin over breakfast. Spookily, no more than 5 minutes later the phone rang. It was the agent for the mill. After the usual pleasantries he got round to the petit problème that had arisen. Gulp! Heart sinks to boots.

Apparently, it had come to light that the land which comes with the mill also includes a half share of the small slip road which runs from the road down to our front gate (offending bit of land shown above), the neighbouring house owning the other half. As this hadn’t been included in the presale contract, le compromise de vente, he was going to have to send us an addendum and revised plan cadastral, land registry map, to sign and return. Phew!

But wait! Because we’re talking about a rural property here, all sales have to be passed under the nose of SAFER, Société d’aménagement foncier et d’établissement rural.  This government agency has the right of first purchase on most rural property that comes onto the market in France. The mill and gardens had already gone through this TWO MONTH(!) process but as the slip road had not been included in the original documentation, the notaire would have to resubmit. We wouldn’t be able to complete until the end of November!

If we had to complete on La Tourelle mid October and then wait until the end of November to complete on the mill, it raised a whole host of problems. Where would we store all our stuff for a month? I didn’t have any more leave to take – how could I get more time off work to go back to France a second time?

Keep calm, Ella. Think!

I decided to call the agent dealing with the sale of La Tourelle. Maybe he could suggest something.

Now, these two agents are good friends and often work together, but what a difference between them! Gérard is a charming, laid-back Frenchman who is completely happy to go with the flow of the lumbering French bureaucratic machine. Chris on the other hand is an expat from Essex, who has lived and worked in France for years and never quite reconciled himself to the French attitude to business and customer service. Don’t get me wrong – I admire the French refusal to let work dominate their life, but sometimes it can be so FRUSTRATING! Especially when I’m on the receiving end!

Chris immediately put my mind at rest. Yes, SAFER had two months to make a decision and, yes, they usually took their full two month quota, but for a payment of 100€ we could access their ‘express’ service. Chris had already agreed with Gérard to split the cost between them and get things moving.

So why hadn’t Gérard told me about this ‘express’ service? (Gallic shrug) Qui sait? Who knows?

Suffice to say that Gérard emailed today to say that he’d seen the notaire and we were all set to sign on the 20th October.

Blood pressure levels gradually returning to normal.