Friday, October 28, 2016

How to downsize without becoming a minimalist!

As I have suggested in earlier posts, moving into a smaller property when you approach retirement does not necessarily mean that you have to adopt a spartan life and live out your retirement as a confirmed - or newly converted - minimalist. Downsizing can be a gentle process and can mean occupying no more space than you actually need and enjoying the savings - in cost, time and effort - that can result.

- As I have noted below in my advice about acquiring a (French) property, owning or renting no more space that you practically need saves money (a surplus can be saved, invested or put into your 'just in case' fund); it costs less in heating, lighting and maintenance; costs less to furnish; and offers savings in local taxes, rates, insurance and uitilities.

- Acquiring a smaller space means that you can consider buying rather than renting - if you buy wisely you will invariably get your money back on re-sale, even make a profit. You may be able to pay cash, using the proceeds of your own sale, rather than paying interest on a mortgage. Every case is different and you need to seek professional advice before deciding. 

- Simply giving up the idea of a spare bedroom(s) can help; Many I have seen gradually end up as a junk store, while you can still invite friends and family to visit and enjoy their stay in a rented house or flat - particularly good value outside the main season, and offering a 'breathing space' for both you and your visitors during a long stay.

- In my smallish loft the couch in the living room quickly converts to a double bed (duvets, linen etc are stored below the seating) and is ideal for close friends staying over for a night or two. I also happen to live above a bed-and-breakfast (chambres d'hotes) which offers another convenient alternative.

- When I lived in a studio on the marina I noticed that many boat owners also own a small studio property for visitors, as even a largish boat can become unbearbaly crowded with too many aboard. (When I left I in fact sold my studio to a 'typical' boat owner couple. They also slept 'on land' overnight if the weather was particularly stormy).

- Living in a small space also means that you become automatically tidy. Choosing your new space wisely means that you have ensured there is sufficient space for your (fewer) possessions and your motto can be the well tried 'a place for everything and everything in its place'. It works.

- Among the reasons why I left the marina and moved into a small town were the fact that the marina and adjoining 7 km beach attracted ten times the local population during the high season (principally July and August) and became eerily quiet for the rest of the year. I lived in a typical 'holiday apartment' block of 60 flats, and at most five or six of us lived there all year round (convenient when I was out and about property selling but lonely during quiet periods).

- As a result shopping and other essential services closed outside the season and a lot of journies had to be made by car (which I wanted to get rid of). I had done this  in Central London, hiring as and when needed. Surprisingly cost effective, with a full tank and a clean car when I needed it, and no maintenance!

- Apartments and houses in the heart a typical small French town tend to be cheaper because they invariably lack car their own parking space or a garage. It is possible to use public (paid) parking in the local streets or space in the many private car parks nearby. Property prices rise for just-off-town-centre properties that include parking - and perhaps a garden - and 10 - 15 minutes walk to the town centre.

- I now live in the heart of the historic old town, in a gated pedestrian alley, and surrounded by pedestrian-only streets. Within 5 minutes walk I can reach my bank, the main post office, my doctor and numerous specialist health services like X-rays and blood tests; plus a supermarket and two mini-markets that are open till 8 pm and Sunday mornings, and the daily open market in the town square (and an indoor market next to my bank in early 2017).

- These are just some of the reasons why I chose to move where and when I did. I had a lot of freedom of choice to make my own decisions and your own personal case may be entirely different. As noted above you should seek professional advice for some decisions. I have made mistakes and had a lot of advice from close friends - which I have tried to follow. Honest!

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Thursday, October 27, 2016

Buying or selling - preparing a property for sale

If you are prepating to move here's what you can do to help sell your property - and what buyers are often lookng for - including you......

According to recent research the way houses and apartments are sold has gradually changed over the last decade - owners are now taking more care how to present their home (known as 'house doctoring') and buyers are taking less time to search, viewing fewer properties before deciding, and come armed with a list of 'must-haves' which will define their choice.

- Typically buyers spend more time on the internet searching through agency websites and consulting private sales announcements and less time on the actual search, down to actually viewing just two or three properties in many cases. Items on many wish-lists include a preference for modern or older style properties, the latter often defined as 'le charme de l'ancien'. Older houses are seen as more solid and particularly if recently converted will appeal to younger buyers making their first purchase.

- Other popular requirements include:
- a large living room, preferably with an open plan (American) kitchen (rare in older properties unless recently converted)
- separate bedrooms for each child, to include a place to do homework, store books and toys, and convertible to a 'teenage den' in due course
- sufficient space and ceiling height to install a mezzanine
- separate larger bedroom for the parents (chambre/suite parentale) to include its own bath or shower room, and if possible a separate clothes storage area - known as le dressing.
- at least one more WC/shower room
- sufficient storage generally, though this is one of the easiest to remedy (numerous storage solutions offered at DIY centres etc)
- large garage - to include space for a workshop or hobbies, storage of sports or camping gear
- outside space - balcony or terrace, space for pets and children to play, possibly a swimming pool as you move further south
- parquet flooring, tiles acceptable in kitchen or bathroom
- a separate WC is a bonus - especially if it is equipped (rarely in my experience) with a wash-hand basin (to avoid visitors using your bathroom).

- A house or apartment with recent, neutral décor, as well as items from the above wish-list will make the job of selling much easier, provided it is well photographed and presented in the appropriate media. A pleasant location, including nice views, are a bonus though some buyers may compromise on either if the property itself really attracts them.

- Property descriptions to note include 'bon standing' (posh!), 'quartier tranqillle' (quiet neighbourhood), 'tout à l'egout' (connected to main drainage).

- Totally empty properties may be harder to sell as potential buyers find it difficult to visualise the overall space and imagine themselves in place. Leaving curtains hanging can help soften the space.

- Small spaces look better when furnished with a few large pieces of furniture (such as an attractive settee) rather than an abundance of smaller pieces, often advertised as 'designed for small spaces'

- I personally dislike convertible or multi-functional furniture - such as a sofa-bed (canapé) that has to be opened and fitted with sheets, blankets etc every night

- I also have a thing about ceiling (pendant) lights, particularly chandeliers, unless you happen to live in a chateau. They are best used over a table (such as a dining table) or kitchen counter, rather than as general room lighting - which can be harsh.

- Ceiling spotlights are much more subtle, particularly if you can adjust them to highlight interesting features of the property, such as wood beams.  You can do the same with 'mood' lighting, dimmers and 'task' lighting for example in your work area.

- If you are a potential buyer, your wish-list may include some or all of the above, and if these desirable elements are not already in place, you can view the property with an eye to its potential for conversion. This is where you may need to use your imagination. Many properties are on sale because their owners need more space and unless they have de-cluttered the property it will necessarily look small and un-manageable.

- You need to look at potential for shifting walls, taking advantage of large windows, introducing lighter colours (not patterned) on walls, using 'accent colours' to emphasise some features, furnishing with more modern pieces, and generally bringing the property up to modern tastes, either your own or that of a potential buyer.

- You may be depressed by the radical changes necessary to make your home  saleable, but keep in mind that your potential buyers will hopefully be the new owners with carte blanche to do what they want with your former home.

- You can get ideas and inspiration watching French TV programmes hosted by estate agent Stephane Plaza such as "Cherche appartement ou maison" featuring property buyers and "Maison à vendre" about preparing properties for sale.The average spend by vendors in the second programme is normally between 3 and 4 per cent of the asking price.  Both on Channel 6.

* An excellent source for design ideas and photographs of small spaces before and after conversions is the website as well as her book which describes in great details how she goes about converting rundown  properties (in Paris, Lyon, Marseilles)  either for sale or short-term furnished letting. She also provide a consultancy service to clients. Packed with colour photographs and detailed cost breakdowns.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

So you're ready to buy......some guidelines

I was fortunate in finding a job in France where I worked for an estate agency, with ten or twelve agents working from four offices, two of them on the Mediterranean coast, one in a small local town/holiday resort, and the fourth in a small village inland. I moved regularly between the offices and all of us had access to the central database which listed (in real time) some three to four hundred properties with photographs and descriptions, occasional ( frank!) comments by agents or potential buyers, and what stage the property was at - newly signed, frequently visited but no offers, under offer, in process of being sold. Our 'patch' covered a wide area (from Perpignan south to the Spanish border!) and we often drove considerable distances - far more than a typical local estate agent in Britain - sometimes making it impossible to visit more than two or three properties during the course of a morning or afternoon. Properties could be empty and we had the keys (perhaps held in another office) or could still be occupied by the owner/vendors and had to be visited by appointment.

But I gradually got to know the area and the wide variety of properties for sale, and what buyers were generally looking for, and what was feasible or not. There are over three hundred posts on this blog, identified by subject, relating to property buying and selling,  but I will try and summarise here some of the most important tips I learnt on the job.

- Allow yourself plenty of time and do not arrange too many appointments with competing estate agents or private sellers so that you have to cut short some visits. Many vendors sign multiple mandates and you may find yourself being taken to a property you have already visited.

- Be prepared to change your mind - I have met buyers who were looking for a village house who ended up buying an apartment on the beach.

- Be realistic about what you can afford. Vendors are hoping for the best price, often based on what they want to buy next, and are often unwilling to come down in price. If a property is over your budget, move on.

- Do not buy a property that is larger than you need (see earlier posts for reasons why)

- Choose your location carefully and re-visit if possible at different times. The quiet village may be overrun with tourists at weekends and during the holiday season

- If you are looking at apartments, ground floors are often cheaper, regarded as having less light, more noise, comparative lack of security.

- Older apartment buildings with no lift may mean that climbing to the third floor and above may be difficult for you as you get older.

- Check the neighbours - state of cars parked, quality of curtains at the windows, state of the 'common parts' of a building or street, though note that the French can be surpisingly casual about the state of their building which can conceal a luxurious apartment. Also for potential disburances - a school, bar, factory, main road etc close by.

- Get familiar with sizes: 20 to 30 sq metres generally mean a studio (single room) possibly with a sleeping alcove; 30 to 40 sq metres may mean two rooms; 40 sq metres and above mean larger living areas and more bedrooms (reckon each bedroom at 15 sq meters minimim). Don't forget that as apartments or houses get larger corridors occupy valuable space. As a rough conversion guide 1 sq metre is just under 11 sq feet or 1.2 sq yards.

- Note French classifications of property - an F1 means one room (usually including kitchen but with separate bathroom or shower, plus WC): F2 means two 'living rooms' plus kitchen and bath; F3 means three living rooms plus kitchen and bath, and so on.

- Note also that a mezzanine is not counted as habitable space (for taxes etc) nor are any parts of a room where the ceiling height is less than 1.8 metres, for exaple in an attic room with sloping ceilings. These spaces however make excellent storage areas and mezzanines can be ideal for bedrooms, an office or additional storage.

- You should also note that smaller properties when calculated per square metre can seem more expensive than larger properties. This is because a small apartment or studio - say, 30 sq m - includes a kitchen and bathroom as well as the living areas, whereas an additional 30 sq m in a larger property could be just another living or sleeping area or even space takend up by a corridor (adding comparatively little to the overall price).

- It is relatively inexpensive for a developer to add extra space at little cost and give it an attractive title such as a 'library', 'games room', 'guest bedroom' etc to inflate the sale price.

- A terrace or balcony adds to the price particularly if it is a reasonable size (to sit outside, share your breakfast!) and has a nice view.

- I found many buyers insisting on one or more 'spare bedrooms' which in my experience lie empty most of the time and end up accumulating spare belongings or junk which you could get rid of.

- Check the state of the equipment - electrical, plumbing, kitchen appliances, bathroom fittings etc - which may need serious modernisation or being brough up to current norms. The French tend not to have a formal survey done but there are several English chartered surveyors operating in France, catering for the British market.

- Note that if you are buying an apartment in a co-ownership, the documentation you receive will include a 'diagnostic' report including any works done or proposed for the building itself, and decided at the annual meeting of the co-owners. You will contribute to these expenditures in proportion to the size of your apartment, as you own a percentage of the building itself as well as the outright ownership of your apartment. You will of course be able to vote at the AGM once you become a co-owner.

- Check access of light and the orientation of the property. South facing means sun all day - nice if you have a living room with a terrace or balcony, not so welcome if the bedrooms are on the sunny side......

- Do not be afraid of a 'mixed neighbourhood' (quartier mixte) - class is not a major issue for many French and generally you smile and/or shake hands with everyone.

- Finally, do not 'fall in love' with the owner, the neighbours you meet during your visit, the estate need to be tough when you come to negotiating to buy (though this is best left to the agent).

Good luck with your search!

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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Preparing for retirement (3)

Is now the time to downsize?

Estate agents are often accused of trying to sell their clients, both French and British, the largest house they can afford, and during the years I have spent advising potential property buyers, I have often asked the question '(why) do you need all this space?' before going to explain about local taxes, the costs of maintenance of a large house and garden - and a swimming pool - and will the owners really want to be facing all this in ten or twenty years time. So as a confirmed minimalist I offer my take on the question of downsizing: is now the time?

- The 'tiny house movement' seems to have taken root in, of all places, the United States which can hardly be described as lacking space, except of course in or close to sought-after urban areas such as New York or San Francisco. But even here there is a movement towards creating small studios and apartments, popular with young singles and couples, who want what the city has to offer, as well as those seeking the wide, open spaces where they can build their own home in a converted trailer or using re-cycled shipping containers. For a broad view of what's going on I recommend you look at a website called  and its series of informative videos.

Aside from these extremes, if you are thinking of buying a retirement property in France for occasional or (eventually) permanent use such as retirement, I offer the following guidelines.

- Every square metre cost money in rates, taxes and other charges; to heat, light, decorate and furnish; to maintain and keep tidy - including a large garden and swimming pool. These tasks may become more burdensome as you get older. Many people find in practice that the 'spare bedroom for visitors' rarely gets used and becomes a junk room. It can be cheaper to accommodate your visiting family and friends in an apartment or hotel close by, with plenty of choice and low prices outside the season.

- Buying small enables you to pay cash, perhaps the proceeds of an earlier sale - say, a two-bed apartment on the coast that more than pays for a slightly smaller apartment or (village) house in a less 'sought after' area inland. The extra cash can be put into your savings account as a contribution towards your healthcare or other unforeseen expesnses - and who knows the final outcome of Brexit?

- If you are hesitating about selling 'the family home' to pay for your move, note that most traditional larger homes are not what younger buyers are seeking without extensive renovation. They tend to lack the modern open-plan kithcen or 'parental suite' (large bedrooom with its own bath or shower plus a dressing room) demand by today's young couples. Your family home may also not be where younger buyers wish to live and could be losing value as you grow older. For examples see the French TV programmes 'Cherche appartement ou maison'  or 'Maison à vendre'  on Channel 6.

- Buying an apartment in a co-ownership complex such as a block of flats invariably involves additional monthly charges which can be high if the complex includes a lift, resident concierge, parking space, grounds, a pool or other amenities. There will be additional calls as needed for lift maintenance or outside painting (ravalement) voted periodically by the co-owners (you will have your vote at the annual general meeting but these additional costs may come as a nasty shock).

- In the town where I live there are attractive small studio apartments facing the park and town centre selling for as little 35 to 40 thousand euros - but with monthly charges for heating, hot water, lift etc that may be several hundred euros per month extra! You need to check these before committing to buy as well as any predicted future works to which you will be obliged to contribute. This type of apartment may be difficult to sell in the future.

- In my own case I bought a top (third) floor mini-loft in a building with just four co-owners (two of whom own the first and second floors which are run as a b&b (chambres d'hote). We have no official syndic (committee of co-owners) but decide on expenses as we go along. We have recently made the front door more secure and updated the entryphones. Parts of the building date back to the 17th century so I take the view it will probably last my lifetime! I contrbute towards the insurance of the building as well as (separately) for my own apartment.

Finally, some of my friends have commented on buying a third floor apartment in a building with no lift, but I am inspired by the 95 year old mother of a dear friend of mine who lives in a terrace house in Brighton and says climbing up and down stairs several times a day keeps her fit and out of hospital.....

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Monday, October 24, 2016

Ready for retirement (2) ?

Choosing where to live

One of the major decisions you will have to make as you approach retirement is choosing where you want to live. The main options are staying where you are or moving to the 'dream location' you have fancied all your life - in the countryside, on the coast, perhaps even moving abroad. There are advantages and potential pitfalls in either and it pays - financially and emotionally - to take your time before commiting yourself to one choice or another. And if possible have a 'Plan B' just in case.....

Staying in your present home can offer a number of advantages, including retaining and maintaining your existing circle of family and friends, many of the latter former work colleagues as well as those from the golf club, your local tennis, squash, walking or fishing partners - to say nothing of the 'usual crowd' in your local pub. You may not want to break these ties but if, for example, your family have moved away from the area, you may have to sacrifice some in order to move closer to your family.

If you own your own home and the mortgage is paid off, almost invariably you are sitting on an asset that has increased in value which you could sell (and possibly 'downsize') whether you decide to stay in the area or move. If you check the post below you will note that in the many commuter towns surrounding Paris (and it's same for many urban conurbations) the typical seller is frequently a post-war baby boomer who earned a good salary when jobs were secure and saw their property steadily rise in value. It is the many people in this situation who are selling up and moving 'south to the sun'  and contributing to the population growth in areas such as Languedoc-Roussillon and the Mediterranean coast where properties are cheaper and plentiful - as younger residents move north or to the capital in search of work!

Note however that a change from city life if you are used to it, to the coast or countryside, can come as a bit of a shock. In my experience as a property adviser, often to British people thinking of moving to the area, it is only fair to remind them that many small villages 'close down' as soon as it gets dark and may lack amenities such as a bar or bistro, local shops, post office, bank or medical services. You may have to plan on using your car even on short trips or to the local town - though local bus services are good and include the 1 Euro bus regardless of distance.

One of the (many) advantages of living in the country however and buying a property with a garden is that you can (learn how to) plant vegetables and enjoy fresh food in season at minimal cost. Failing this, many local producers are now selling direct from their smallholdings and you can find them by asking your neighbours or as you drive around. There is also a slow but increasing organic (bio) movement in France, the subject of several  recentTV programmes and books.  In addition to direct organic producer/sellers and established specialist 'health food' shops,  virtually all the major supermarkets are stocking more bio products and prices are starting to come down.  

Some French country areas have become especially popular with the British and other 'foreigners' including the well-known Dordogne region, as Brits tend to attract more Brits! If you are struggling to learn French this may be your ideal environment.

Sadly not every new arrival manages to survive and in my fifteen years here (in L-R) I have seen a number of clients/friends who decided to sell-up and move back to Britain. Among the reasons were struggling with the French language, not being able to 'integrate' with the locals, boredom with small town life, illness that needed attention from the (free) NHS (I shall be writing about French healthcare in a later post), missing family and friends and local surroundings, and in one or two cases the death of a partner. Added to which those of us living permanently here and cannot or do not wish to move are facing the uncertainties of Brexit.........

To end on a positive note, there are of course 300,000 British living permanently (the majority retired or approaching) in France, an estimated million-plus in Spain - not forgetting of course the 400,000 French living in Britain.

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Sunday, October 23, 2016

Ready for retirement? (1)

Most of us spend years looking forward to retirement, while for others it can be a living hell! The optimists dream of an end to the 9 to 5 life, daily commuting to and from work, being a wage slave and supporting the lifestyle of a boss they do not like........all that in exchange for endless lazy days at home, pursuing hobbies and other lifelong interests, and a holiday that seems to go on for ever.

The reality problaby lies somewhere in between these dreams and now officially 'retired' for over fifteen years and having looked at many studies and discussions on the subject, as well as talking to others, here's a selection of what I have learnt (in no particular order!). You can check out numerous books and websites offering information and advice.

- Some of us seem programmed to enjoy retirement while others are not, and how much you enjoy or hate retirement will depend on you. Even if you are reasonably well off financially and in good health, comfortably settled with your partner, close to family and friends - you have some of the ingredients that can contribute a happy retirement. Hobbies and interests that you always enjoyed outside work can help, and part of your retirement plan could be to develop these interests, teach or work with others, learn more about your hobby or interest(s), earn a degree or other qualification.

- If all or some of the above do not apply to you - you live alone, are short of money, miss your old job and the daily contact it gave you, did not develop outside interests or a sport - then retirement can be more difficult. At worst you may feel rejected by society, 'on the scrap heap' at 60 or younger, and no idea of how you are going to spend hours, days, months, years of 'freedom'. In my own case being sellf-employed virtually all my life and being forced to leave Central London when my apartment was literally snatched from under my feet (see previous entry 'My story') and I had to totally re-think my future.

- 'Any decision is better than no decision' is the first of my three guiding principles in life, and with all this time on your hands it is easy to put off making decisions. My advice is to act - talk to friends to the extent of boring them, look at books and websites, find out the facts rather than speculate on what 'might be', Explore the options. All these wil help you reach the right decision - and quickly.

- 'Never look back' - the second of my guiding principles. Yes, I wish I had saved more, bought a property instead of renting, found more clients who paid good money (though I always seemed to be working pretty hard!), planned for the future instead of not thinking about it, sorted out my healthcare etc etc. What's done is done - or not done! - and there is no sense in looking back.

'It seemed like a good idea at the time' - which brings me to the third of my guiding princples. If you find yourself looking back or convincing yourself you made a bad decision, best not to dwell on it for too long......

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Friday, October 21, 2016

Brexit - looking ahead to two years of uncertainty

My own story

There are many reasons why the British decide to live permanently in France but in my own case the move was totally accidental and due to circumstances beyond my control.

I was living and working (as a writer, consultant, part-time university lecturer) in Central London, in a block of flats run by a not-for-profit trust, with an agreement with the local council, owners of the freehold, until 2034. Having just reached by 65th birthday and received my State pension forecast after 40 years of freelancing, I was happily looking forward to continuing to work much as before - more or less for the rest of my life. It was a nice prospect.

Unfortunately my dream was shattered when the council announced that the block had been acquired by American investors and that rents would be brought in line with market prices for Central the end they were on-average tripled and my one-bed apartment I later found now cost around £1000 per month, three times more than I had been paying for it. The news came as a terrible shock to me and the two thousand-plus tenants, many of whom had lived there since the complex was built in the 1930's. I had been there just 30 years but it had become part of my way of life.

Various meetings were held and rumours abounded - about being 're-housed' by the local council - but I decided I had better prepare a survival plan - which eventually led to my move to southern France. Curiously one of my lecturer colleagues at one of the universities where I taught had just decided to buy a small apartment located on a strip of Mediterranea coast - right next to the Pyrenees and border with Spain - for less than 20,000 euros (it was just before the switchover from French francs and property prices were still quoted in francs).

I had visited France often but did not know the area and I jumped at the idea of joining him on his next visit to view his new apartment. And check out the possibilities for working and surviving there, as he also - for different reasons - was fed up with big city life and looking for an alternative.

I was immediately taken by the area - and the property prices - and after several false starts, my friend ended up teaching at the local university (he now runs a bed-and-breakfast with a French partner) and I worked with a local French estate agency and continued freelancing for some of my former UK-based clients.

That was 15 years ago (I arrived in January 2002). Over the years property prices went up, as did the value of my property, and after a couple of moves I recently 'down-sized' to a small third floor studio in the centre of the nearest town, as I got older, work got scarcer and I started having to face the usual health problems. But I survived.........until we had the annoucement of Brexit.

As a result, this blog which until now has been mainly about living, working and buying property in France I have decided will now also be more oriented towards survival in France and all the problems associated with it. I hope over the months it will help others finding themselves in a similar situation.