South Park Self

une maison dans la campagne

Jean Dufy, Maison dans la campagne There's been an email reply sitting on my desktop for over a week, my incomplete response to an email from a French house agent: it consists entirely of the quoted email and "Chère madame" typed above it. Beyond that, my invention has clearly run out, stymied by the need not only to construct an entire email in the French language, but to do so in response to a whole sheaf of French property documents and agents' agreements also in French, of the most labyrinthine and bureaucratic kind. I should have found a new agent for my house six months ago; the current one, who wants out, keeps sending me increasingly plaintive emails asking when I'll do this. Unfortunately, the giant mound of translation between me and the object is simply making me tired and avoidant, so there the whole thing sits. French bureaucracy is a thing of terror and awe, and its documents even more so. They render me wibbly and ineffectual, and there are several large ones sitting in my in-tray untranslated because they scare me.

While the house itself is quite happily tenanted and ticking over putting not much rent into my French bank account every month, that money isn't mine; it's owed to my dad's cousin, who loaned my dad money in the last few years of his life, and whom my dad explicitly wanted us to repay. I'd say that if the house remains tenanted for another three years or so and doesn't require any major repairs in that time, I'll clear the debt, but so far the house has only cost me - I haven't seen a scrap of the rent.

The result of all this exhaustion in contemplating the whole thing is that my current impulse is to have done with it all and sell the house - regretfully, because my dad wanted me to have it and a lot of his work went into it, but firmly. It won't give me enough money to buy property here, unfortunately: it's an old house in a depressed agricultural area, and lacks mod cons like central heating and double-glazing. It's actually a moot point whether it'll even sell - I hold out hope, though, from the agent's report that a neighbour expressed an interest in it.

However, another scared Zimbabwean corner of my being is going "oh noes what if SA explodes? A house in France would be a Refuge and a Foothold!" The thing is, on balance, I don't actually think SA is going to pull a Zimbabwe. And if it does and I still have a house in France, all that will mean is that my option is to have a possible option of living rurally in French - as in, speaking the language daily - on no income, which is frankly an even more exhausting prospect.

So my question to you, witterers, many of whom are intelligent people-of-the-world with a firm grasp on geo-political ramifications - do you think I'm stupid to want to sell? Answer on as many sides of the paper as you want.
  • Current Mood: confused confused
I think you're right, worry is really the main issue right now. I'm still not 100% functional after all the illness last year, and the whole French wrestle makes me ridiculously tired. There's also a horrible feeling of insecurity, being so far away from it, and so at sea in the French system - I rely very heavily on the agent, which is probably another reason behind my reluctance to find someone new. The tiredness will improve as my health improves. The distance-administration worry won't.
3 years of not getting rent will go by quite fast. And who knows? You might just decide to go and live there for a while one day and write books or similar. Do you need our friend Claire to translate stuff for you? I know you've met her.
I think people are awfully sentimental about Owning Property. There's a completely unfounded idea that it's a safe investment; in actual fact of course it's not only as vulnerable to market movements as anything else, but also terrifyingly illiquid.

There's a case to be made for holding Property, certainly, but mostly if it's somewhere you actually live or want to live. In this case? By all means, sell. Hard to see the benefit in keeping it.
I'm in the "sell" camp. You can pay off the cousin quicker and use the money for something more relevant. I don't think sentiments are a good reason to hold on to non-performing assets. You don't need an expensive decaying house to remember your dad.
My browser seems to be having difficulty with others' comments, so apologies if I just parrot what others have said. Sorry also for the slightly long reply.

It seems to me you're faced with a decision that has four elements.

One, the house was your father's and you're reluctant to dispose of something that was clearly important to him. In this respect the house is a little bit like other family heirlooms, such as a gold ring or fine pocket-watch. If you do sell the house, you could use some of the money to buy yourself something of high quality that will last, and which would fulfill this function to some extent.

Two, owning property certainly provides a safe haven. This feeling - that property is a Refuge - is not just a Zim thing. Many cultures have it, particularly Anglo cultures. I feel the same way. The house is therefore a kind of safety blanket.
OTOH, I agree that ZA seems unlikely to go the way of Zimbabwe any time soon. And if it does, and you need to leave, your best bet is to find work at a good university rather than taking refuge in deepest France. To which I add that French law almost certainly won't allow you to simply turf out your tenants, even if you felt a need to.

Three, there is the question of complexity. You're dealing with estate agents, in France, who speak in French. Any communication or transaction related to the house is therefore likely to take much more effort than 'normal'. All the more so, given the joys of French bureaucracy (I lived in Belgium for years, which copied the French system, and I emerged feeling I have a Masters in Bureaucratic Kung Fu, just by living there). On the other hand, once the present issues are sorted out and things are ticking over, I presume that there won't be much to deal with.

Four, the big issue is of assets. A house has value, even an old one, and you have debts on your father's behalf. This more than anything else speaks for selling the house.
But then you're left with nothing, or at most a small 'profit'. At the moment it is returning an income, which is slowly repaying debt.

If it were me, I would seriously consider the following conservative course of action:
* Not sell now unless I received a very good offer
* Wade through the complexity of French bureaucracy and see how much of a hassle the house is on an ongoing basis, once the current issues are sorted
* Put the house on the market only once the debt were (nearly) fully cleared, thus increasing my inheritance and improving the chance of seeing a return on my own investment of time and effort.

That is a risk, of course: if the house needs major repairs, you'd take longer to clear the debt (do you pay monthly, or are you intending to transfer a lump sum?).

What does your father's cousin think?

Finally, I throw one more item to consider, though I don't think it should be much of a factor in your decision.
Economists have been muttering for some time about the likelihood of significant inflation in the Euro-Zone, because of all this 'Euro-saving' money sloshing around. That speaks for either completing a house sale and repaying debt as soon as possible, or else minimising your Euro-denominated cash and maximising your illiquid assets there.
A friend who lives in Brussels is worried enough about the spectre of inflation that she has reversed her long-standing opposition to property ownership and is looking for a place to buy.