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Top ten tips for moving to France

Sunday 5 December 2004, by Helena Frith Powell

When I moved to France I spoke no French, knew little about the county I was moving to and had no guarantee of an income. Looking back on it, I must have been deranged. Any number of things could have gone horribly wrong. After four years here I decided to write the sort of book I wish I had read before we moved out.

A book with lots of practical information about moving to France and living here, but also stories that make it less of a chore to read. I wanted to write something that was accessible and informative, which would help people to avoid the mistakes I made. Would I do it differently if I did it again? You bet. Here are ten top tips for a successful move:

1. Accessibility
If you are not going to move to France full time you need to think seriously about how you are going to get backwards and forwards, as well as how your tenants are going to get to your house if you’re thinking of letting it out. Beware of buying a property close to a small airport where only one discount airline operates. What happens if it goes bust? Try to find somewhere with several options. The ideal is a mixture of a small airport, the TGV and an international airport not more than an hour’s drive away. Being in the middle of nowhere is all very lovely, but not when it’s a fifteen hour car journey from London.

2. Visit the Mairie
Before you buy, go the local mayor’s office and ask questions about the property and surrounding area. You do not want to arrive with all your belongings three months later to find a wind farm in your back garden. There will be plans of the house and countryside around which will show if the land is constructible or not and the mayor’s office will also be aware of any major projects in the pipeline. They are not, however, under any legal obligation to tell you, so you may want to ask around as well. In the countryside, wind farms and rubbish dumps (déchetterie) are the main worries, along with major roads and airports of course.

3. Paperwork
Photocopy every bit of official-looking paper you have at least ten times before you move. Get copies of your birth certificate with your parents on it as well (I am not joking). Get marriage certificates, national health cards and birth certificates for you and your children translated by an officially approved translator (you can get a list from the French consulate). I found in my struggle to get onto the French system that shoving bits of stamped and official looking paper under people’s noses worked better than anything else.

4. Education
You will need to decide before you move whether you want your children to go into the French or the international system. The French system is very academic and extremely tough for children who have no French to integrate into. Teachers I have spoken to say it takes about three terms for a child of around 8 with no French to acclimatise. The upside is that the educational levels are high, discipline is generally speaking excellent and it is free. If you are going to go for the state system then check out the school in your area before you decide to buy. According to a French teacher friend of mine, you should avoid those in the ZEPs (zone d’éducation prioritaire). They are usually in suburbs and have a lot of problem children. The French ’private’ sector is also an option. The French private schools are state subsidised and great value. They tend to be religious schools and the main difference is that the teachers don’t go on strike as much as the state schools. There are also around 30 international schools in France, some of which offer an English curriculum. These are expensive; usually around €10,000 in fees and €6,000 on top of that if you want your children to board or live with host families.

5. Location
By this I don’t just mean where in the France, I mean the position of the house as well. If you love the evening sun and go to sleep imagining you and your friends enjoying a glass of wine on the terrace bathed in balmy evening sunlight, then make sure the terrace gets the evening sun. Also look carefully at the position of the pool (or proposed pool). Does that get the sun all day long?

6. What will you do?
Do not assume that because you have a successful career back home, you will be able to replicate it in France. In most instances your UK qualifications will not be valid, even if you speak fluent French and have a job, such as teaching, that is transferable. If you want to set up your own business, you have the French bureaucracy to deal with and remember that growth will be limited due to the punishing social charges here. If you employ anyone you will pay half their salary again in social security contributions and tax. If you have come out to semi-retire and live off the income of a gite then you need to be sure you have a good business plan. There are now five gites for every person looking. If as a couple you were both used to working full time you might find it a bit of a shock seeing so much of each other. "I am so fed up with him hanging around the house, I am trying to encourage him to build a garden shed," writes a reader who has moved to Limousin with her husband, a former London cabbie.

7. Culture and Lifestyle
If you are moving from Islington to deepest Mayenne, be realistic. How will you cope with having to drive for 40 minutes to the supermarket? There is no equivalent of Upper Street. Eating out will be followed by a long drive home. Are you happy to watch George Clooney in French? In the provinces they dub everything. Maybe you should consider living at least close to a reasonably cosmopolitan city? People tend to get carried away by the dream of living in splendid isolation, but don’t realise how terrifyingly lonely it can be. Especially if the locals are not friendly. Pick somewhere that is used to foreigners, such as Provence.

8. Legal Advice
When we bought our house here we used the same lawyer as the vendors. This is common practice but is not very sensible. If you have a problem with the purchase you will need independent legal advice. You should also beware of agents offering legal advice packages, they are costly and I have had countless letters of complaints about them. "There are reported cases of lawyers deliberately ignoring or failing to investigate matters which could adversely affect the best interests of the buyer," says Stephen Smith of Stephen Smith (France) Ltd. "Hence the need to instruct totally independent bilingual lawyers who do not rely on estate agents for their living."  

9. Integration
Learning French is an obvious tip. But it is amazing how many people don’t bother. There is an increased animosity towards Brits that just point and shout, so get your phrase books out and make an effort. I have heard a few terms of endearments recently to add to les rosbifs. Les goddams and les ****-offs. I think the fact that a lot of Brits come over expecting some sort of colonial lifestyle has a lot to do with the growing resentment.

10. Tax
There is nothing quite as complicated as the French tax system, so you need to find out what applies for your specific circumstances. There are several tax specialists and lawyers that can help you, such as Russell Cooke, Blevins Franks and Stephen Smith (France) Ltd. However, there are a few tips you should be aware of. For example, in most cases, when you sell your house in the UK, once you are a resident in France, you will not have to pay capital gains tax on it.

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More France Please We’re British
Helena Frith Powell’s new book for would be French residents.

Helena Frith Powell’s More France Please, We’re British (£9.99) is published by Gibson Square and can be ordered from Amazon by clicking here

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