Monday, November 28, 2016

House Hunting in Rural France

The Tuesday post has become the Monday post so it spreads them out a little more!  "Pierre" also knows about the blog now and disliked his nickname, so I have his permission to use his real name, which is Alexis.😊

I started my house/apartment hunting with a pretty optimistic wish list.  I wanted a place that was in, or very near, the town I work in BUT still had an easy spot to park my car, 2 bedrooms, space for a small dining room (since having friends for dinner is a big thing here), at least 70 m2, NO yard, plenty of natural light and didn't look like it was last renovated when France still had a monarchy.😲

From my time here earlier in the year, I was already over the first big shock with rentals in France - most of them do not include appliances.  And I mean ANY appliances, so you're providing your fridge, oven (although some have a gas cook top and most have a vent), washing machine, dishwasher, etc. (and this assumes there is space and connections for these appliances - dishwasher connections are a rarity).

The second shock came when I started looking at ads.  You have to actually confirm that the place has kitchen and bathroom cupboards!  Since the owner has to maintain whatever is included, you may find that they've simply removed them all, as well as curtains and light fixtures.  Unless a prior tenant left theirs behind, you might be supplying them.  Originally, I added "must have cabinets" to my list, but after seeing some of the poor quality or mismatched cabinets installed, I started changing my mind.  What finally took "must have cabinets" off my list was seeing furnished photos of an apartment and realizing that you can purchase nice free-standing cabinets easily - no installation required!  Below is the kitchen of my new house - note the lack of appliances and cabinets - conveniently, this means I can select a nice stove of my choosing, without squeezing it into a tiny cutout, and I have room for a full American-sized fridge/freezer combo.

Since my primary criteria originally was to find a place near work, and I'd found almost nothing online "by owner," PB recommended that I contact an agency.  I had my next shock in regards to French renting - they often use an agent and the TENANT also pays a fee of several hundred Euro!  I wasn't thrilled about this, but went to a local bilingual agency.  Unfortunately, they told me the house I'd asked about was being repaired and they had nothing else in the area that met my criteria.  I was a little unhappy that they didn't tell me this BEFORE the appointment.  They did find three places in the same town that Alexis and L’américaine live in though, so I headed to the other office a few days later.  The first townhouse had a "workshop" on the first floor with the flat on the second floor, but unfortunately, the workshop had actually been a former pet clinic and still smelled vaguely of wet dog.  It also looked very clinical.  The upstairs space had been divided up into two bedrooms and an office, so the living room was far too small for my couches and no hope of any sort of dining room.

The second house had a large kitchen that could have held a small dining room table and the living room was plenty large (with tile), so I was hopeful until I saw the bedrooms.  They had uneven floors with really bad linoleum!  I know carpet is not common here, but typically there are hardwoods, good laminates or tile.  The rent was low enough (€350) that, after seeing a few other places, this house remained a back-up option.  Ultimately, the house I chose had bad linoleum in the guest room and office also - time to invest in a nice area rug for the guest room!

The third listing that I really liked ALSO turned out to "need repairs" and the estimated completion date wasn't until February!  The exterior and interior pictures were gorgeous, so I was quite disappointed.  Since the agency route hadn't worked out, I went back to looking at ads myself, but expanded my criteria to include the towns 20 minutes North and South, plus with a small yard.

I used my limited French to contact owners, some of whom called me back in response (before I learned to only provide my e-mail)!  Fortunately, PB was willing to patiently listen to the handful of voicemails and confirm that I understood correctly or tell me what I hadn't understood.  In one case, he returned the call for me, joking that he was now a very expensive secretary. 😊  I was able to make arrangements in this manner to view an apartment near work and two in a neighboring town early last week.  One of them asked for a guarantor (co-signer) despite my income level and CDI (permanent contract) because they'd had a problem with a past tenant.  PB didn't think I'd have any luck finding a guarantor, but Alexis very kindly offered to do it.  It's a strange, strange world when a college student with an internship could be a co-signer for an accounting manager (welcome to France)!  Fortunately, I didn't have to take Alexis up on that because I told the owners that I understood their situation since I'd been a landlord in the US before.  Apparently that helped because they decided that they'd make an exception for me if I paid a two month deposit (which I later learned is not actually legal in France).

I think this will be the master bedroom, after the owners replace the carpet with new flooring.

Before I even made it to any of my new visits, I learned the apartment in town was only for people who qualified for some level of public assistance, which is apparently the majority of French people (hence the reason this wasn't pointed out to me); however, with a US-comparable salary for a Controller, I clearly don't qualify.  I did find an additional apartment to see in Ruffec though, so I had three new options.

My visit to Ruffec started off disastrous.  The first place I saw had plenty of space, but the bedrooms were oddly shaped, the prior tenants were smokers and there was black mold growing on the ceiling.  Just no.  The next place was an apartment that looked lovely from the outside (for rural France anyway) and when I first walked in, I was thrilled!  Old hardwoods, easy to park on the street in front, plenty of space, plenty of light!  The bathtub looked ancient, but there was a bathtub!  And a bidet, but whatever.  The kitchen was nice, even if the cupboards didn't match.  We then entered the master bedroom, which was also great . . . until I realized that the other door in the master bedroom led to the 2nd bedroom.  Strange, but not a deal-breaker until I learned that it was the only way into the 2nd bedroom because the other door opened into the hall and was permanently locked.  I guess this is great if you have a baby, but not so great as a guest room!  Initially, I didn't want the space that came with a 3 bedroom place, but I was starting to realize that I needed a dining area in France (dinners with friends being common) and having my photography equipment, monitor and filing cabinets in their own space would be nice. The house I ultimately picked has 3 smaller rooms, so my office is a separate space from the guest room . . . and has a view of an old part of town that I really enjoy!

The last apartment was a large one above a shop.  It looked really lovely in the photos and it did not disappoint in person!  It was by far my favorite interior and was the place where I realized the cabinets in the photos weren't included and were free-standing.  There were two primary problems with the apartment: the only toilet was down a narrow set of stairs and the bedrooms were upstairs - not that I wake up often to use the restroom, but when I do, I don't want to stumble down a set of stairs, AND it was on a main city street with only timed street parking.  Within a couple of blocks, there were parking options, but on a rainy winter night, I'm not keen on hauling groceries a couple of blocks.  Worse, I'll need to visit Ikea (pronounced "EE-kay-uh" here, not "Eye-key-ah, like at home) for furniture and I can't imagine trying to haul all of that stuff for two blocks, then up narrow stairs.  Even though it is timed parking, I was glad I'd parked once and just walked to all three places because the parking was basically full . . . and the typical European parallel parking, where you have to wedge your car in and may need to use bumpers.  This is one of the reasons I ended up choosing the house that I did - I have a garage and my guests can park in my driveway, next to my kitchen window or in a free city lot that's just to the left behind my house.
I was pretty disillusioned at this point!  I hadn't seen anything that really jumped out at me as the right place, although the last apartment was really nice inside.  I decided that I'd take another look at the ads to see if anything new had popped up and, fortunately, some had!  I was able to make two new appointments right away (with the help of PB).

The first apartment was perfect!  It was painted with gorgeous contrast walls, very near the center of Ruffec (but with easy street parking right in front) and three bedrooms.  The only downside was that the roof sloped on two of the rooms, so the layout wasn't great, but it was certainly workable.  Unfortunately, I learned the property was also qualified for government assistance, so I couldn't rent it (same with two other nice apartments I saw advertised in my town).

Some of the villages and towns in the region butt up against each other and there are three cities combined that I was considering to be "in the city where I work."  The last house was in this area - closer to work, but further from the actual center of Civray (restaurants and markets).  The only other preference on my list that it didn't meet was "no yard."  While it might sound strange to prefer no yard, I work long hours and travel a lot on the weekends, so I don't really have time for a yard (and I'm allergic to grass anyway).  Fortunately, the yard appears to have been poorly cared for before, so I can essentially start from scratch.  Since the landlords have to give a minimum 3 year lease here (I can move before that), I might hire someone to turn it into a low-maintenance garden area with NO grass (since there's virtually none now).  Seems like a good investment to turn my yard into something I'll enjoy for three years!  Plus, now that I have it, and with Sundays pretty dead in the countryside, the idea of doing a little gardening is kind of appealing.

I had been concerned that people might not want to pick an American to rent to since I barely speak French, but apparently I spoke enough, or at least understood enough, that I was chosen to rent the house.  I was a little unsure after my first viewing because my impression had been that things were a little dated, but the owners are working on it and, when I returned during the day with natural light, everything looked really nice!  There's a ton of natural light due to large windows and French doors, so I'm pretty happy with my choice.  

I still have to complete the "inventory" (aka move-in walk-through) and sign my contract, which will all be in French.  Alexis will be back in his hometown for the next couple of weeks, so I asked PB if he was willing to help.  It seemed a little "above and beyond," so I was really happy when he said yes, as long as it was a weekday.  We have a pretty good working relationship, so I teased him about his lack of dedication to his employees since he wouldn't stay in the local area on the weekend just to help me.  He basically told me that he likes me, but he doesn't like me THAT much. 😀  To be fair, he's from a larger town and thinks that we work in the middle of nowhere!  He's commented several times on the fact that he can't imagine why I want to live here or how I find anything to do on weekends!

In honor of Thanksgiving in the US, last weekend was a big food weekend!  Alexis came over to my house for my first three-course French dinner (with aperitif), then a group of us went to a food festival in a neighboring town.  More on this in my next blog!

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