How the system works and how to work the system

Basket case?  Get the builders in!Finding a good tradesman in France isn’t usually a problem. Artisans have to have a qualification in their chosen trade to be able to register their business and, generally speaking, the standard is very good. It is a rarity to hear of shoddy work or broken contracts. The eternal problem is, much to many a house owners’ frustration, finding somebody to do the work quickly. It helps to understand how the building trade functions so that you can comprehend why your builder will take a long lunch hour and disappear at midday on a Friday.

The building trade is still booming in the Lot and Quercy region and this is reflected in the delays given by local businesses. Ask somebody in May for an estimate for your leaky roof and you will almost certainly be spending a winter emptying buckets of rainwater. It is expensive to set up a company in France and very costly to employ somebody due to the social system here. A Company will pay out about 60% of its profit in obligatory social security and pension contributions and employing somebody will cost roughly double their salary every month.

For these reasons you will find that most tradesmen work alone, with a limited amount of hours they can physically do or are willing to declare as their social contributions are based on a percentage of their earnings and income tax is high. You will often come across tradesmen who work under the structure of a microentreprise. This system was set up to stem the growing black economy in France. Tradesmen who earn under a certain threshold can take advantage of this system that costs them a lot less in social contributions than setting up a company. These tradesmen do not charge VAT (TVA in French), which can mean up to a 20% saving on your bill. As they cannot claim back VAT either, if any materials are bought you will be billed directly – also meaning that they cannot make a profit on the mark up of these, but you will not profit from the special, reduced artisan’s price that a company could get.

If you decide to go through a larger company with several employees, you may have more chance of getting your work done quicker. Although you have to pay VAT on any work done, another government drive to stop the black economy means that most home improvement or repair work is eligible for a reduced rate of 10% if your house has been built for two years or more. In this case, when given your bill, you will be asked to fill in a small form with your name, address and whether you are the owner or tenant. Often this will already have been filled in for you and you will just have to sign at the bottom.

So, what is the best way of finding that elusive builder or plumber? As is often the case, it is not what you know but who you know. Your Estate Agent can be an invaluable source of recommendations. The kinder agents may even give the tradesman a call for you and help you jump the queue. If a local agent always recommends a particular tradesman, the tradesman will usually appreciate this fact and look after the clients sent to him by the agent. It is also worthwhile to ask neighbours or even your local baker or café owner.

Although people always like to have several quotes, it will be difficult to get more than a couple to quote for the same job. If there is a quote vastly cheaper than another, check first that the materials quoted for aren’t inferior and look over the estimate carefully to make sure that you have been quoted for exactly the same job. If there is still a large discrepancy, be wary of the cheaper quote. Artisans are very busy and do not need to fight for jobs. You may want to ask yourself this person is so keen to get the job?

Once you have decided on which tradesmen to go with, you should sign and date the estimate and send it back to him to accept it. It can be very useful to ask for a written date and duration of the work to be done, but once you have accepted the estimate the tradesman is legally bound to complete the work. For this reason, you should not change your mind half way through and get someone else to complete the work – the artisan can still claim the job as his.

The good news is that the bill presented to you cannot in anyway differ to the estimates that have been given to and signed by you. Any modifications must entail a separate estimate, once again accepted by you by signing and dating it. Do check for the occasional clause in an estimate (e.g. ‘quote for digging out swimming pool UNLESS bedrock is found’) – but any changes or extra costs should be discussed with you previously.

You will find that most French tradesman will work conscientiously and with much skill. They will usually start early in the morning and do not have the continuous tea breaks so beloved of our UK equivalents. Understand that they want a two-hour lunch break to refuel for the afternoon or a long weekend to spend with their family – after all, isn’t that wonderful lifestyle part of the reason that you want a house in France?

&copyLiz Wright 2005

Liz has helped many English people to buy and renovate property in France. She works with Agence Immobilier Quercy Immo as well as providing translating and project management services. Liz can be contacted by email.

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