French property: Invest and watch it pour in…

Published in the Daily Telegraph, 18Aug2007

Une vraie catastrophe at his French bolthole proves costly for James Trollope

A bolthole in the sun. Sounds perfect. Go there when the whim takes you; let it out for the rest of the time. The rent will cover the running costs, the property will rise in value and, if you don't decide to retire there, you can always sell when the time is right.

It is the sort of investment that should make you sleep better at night. Until the phone rings at the crack of dawn and you are assaulted by a tirade of incomprehensible babble.

"Who on earth is that?" says Natalie, my partner, in the semi-darkness.

"It's Jeannette, from France," I mumble, cupping the phone. "Something about exploding horses running amok in the cottage." It turns out she's not talking about les chevaux, but le chauffe-eau (water heater) which has, indeed, exploded. It's 6am on a Saturday, the kids are screaming and I have a list of clients queuing to make the 1,000-mile journey to holiday in my cottage in Roussillon in the south of France. My flooded cottage. That smart foreign investment doesn't look quite so clever now.

In nearly a decade of owning two cottages, I've had a few other problems. A washing machine breakdown; a power cut; an irate Scotsman demanding the immediate expulsion of some bees from the roof terrace… but this is the first full-blown emergency.

My neighbour, Jeannette, is calling it une vraie catastrophe. Considering the distance between myself and the disaster, I feel utterly powerless until I remember Adrian. Thank God for Adrian! He converted the cottage from a farm building before selling it to me and has always been on hand to carry out repairs. Then I remember he's on holiday in Sicily. The impulse to crawl back under the duvet becomes overwhelming.

After a severe pep talk from Natalie and several cups of black coffee, I contact Bernard who, as the owner of the only other gîtes in the village, is a competitor as well as friend. When he emails me some pictures, the full extent of the damage becomes clear: sodden carpets, an ugly tidemark, bedroom debris on the lower terrace.

The stricken heater (also featured in Bernard's jolly snapshot portfolio) fills up automatically from the mains, so, from the moment it started leaking, water gushed continuously over the ground floor. By the time Jeannette cut the supply, about 10,000 litres had made its way into the house.

Much of it disappeared into a large, disused wine vat which I had forgotten was under the basement bedroom floor. Mercifully, only the lowest level of the three-storey building is affected. Bernard, who estimates it will take at least three weeks to dry out, tells me that a friend of his, Olivier, would be willing to do the repairs.

But what about my clients? For them, a refund is no good as they will have already booked flights, rented cars and taken time off work. What they need -urgently - is alternative accommodation.

I search my records in vain for a telephone number for my next guests, a couple from Looe, in Cornwall. Perhaps they are no longer in the country. After a trawl through the electoral roll, I manage to contact their neighbour who, with extreme reluctance, divulges their number.

Luckily, my other cottage is free and Caroline and Ian, who couldn't have been more sympathetic, are, with the offer of a small discount, willing to transfer there.

Fixing up Jeremy and Gillian, who have booked the following two weeks, may not be so easy. My other house isn't available then. In fact, the only neighbourhood vacancy is at a friend's house, with a pool, which normally costs four times as much. Generously, he says I can have the house for the same money, with the pool as an optional extra. Jeremy and Gillian rather like the idea of an upgrade and don't mind paying more for the pool.

So far, I've lost £600 in rent but what, if anything, will my insurance cover? It takes me a frantic 40 minutes to locate the original documents, which date back to 1994 when I bought the house. In France, many insurance companies have agents in almost every community but looking through my records I see that my agent retired, passing on my account to a colleague. There's no contact number for him, but after a morning on the internet, I track down the area's head of claims, Charles Guilhem, who will arrange for an expert to visit the property.

M Guilhem also spells out the terms of my policy, which covers the consequences but not the cause of the incident. In other words, I will have to pay for a new water heater but will be reimbursed for the flood damage.

By now, it's clear that I will have to fly to France to furnish the bedroom and ensure that the house is rentable once more. My losses are adding up. The plumber charges £500 for installing the replacement heater and my trip to France will cost about £400. A total of £1,500 when you include the lost rent.

Once in France, I discover that my little disaster zone has become the village attraction. All my neighbours have taken the tour which isn't as bad as I feared. Olivier has repaired the floor and warm sunshine is drying out the bedroom.

My 8am meeting with the local insurance expert, Jean-Marc Satger, goes well. He even compliments my French, with its burgeoning insurance and plumbing vocabulary.

Within a few days of my return to Sussex, I receive a letter informing me that a very reasonable insurance settlement has been paid into my account.

In true Gallic style, I spot that they have renamed my home town. Seafood sounds so much nicer than Seaford.

Details of James Trollope's house, now fully restored, can be found on

French disaster-speak
Couper l'eau Turn off water (Why didn't I think of that?)
Dégâts des eaux Water damage (likely if you forget the above)
Contrat d'assurance habitation House insurance. (Where is it?)
Déclaration de sinistre Details for insurers, who will open a 'dossier' (Let the fun begin)
Règlement de sinistre Payment. (If you're lucky)
Je suis dans la merde I'm in a bit of a pickle
Je cherche un plombier à bas prix I'm looking for a cheap plumber. (Dream on)
C'est entièrement de ma faute It's all my fault
Je suis désolé I'm gutted
Je suis au fond du trou et je sais plus faire I'm at my wits' end
Faisons table nette Let's start from scratch/start again
Merde! Bother!