Au revoir, Normandy, and thanks for the good times

Need some last-minute help moving house? You just have to ask your neighbours, says writer Sally-Ann Voak

27 February 2019
Sally-Ann Voak (in stripes) marks the end of an era with family and friends.
By Sally-Ann Voak

After 28 years of fun, friendship and fabulous fromage, we recently said goodbye to our magical Normandy hideaway.

Despite the tears, eased with copious amounts of champagne, we have left the property – a longère and village épicerie café linked by a neat lawn and pretty orchard – feeling positive.

We are passing on our precious second home, near the Seine-Maritime market town of Neufchâtel-en-Bray, to a couple we know will cherish it.

But back in October when we were given our signing-over date, in November, we panicked: how could two people empty two houses, both stuffed with stuff, without going bonkers? We had just three weeks to do it!

We had decorated the café in true ’Allo ’Allo-style: saucy posters, lace curtains, fin de siècle furnishings, bar, salon and even a little dance hall with tables, chairs and music.

Edith Piaf would have loved it but, not surprisingly, the new owners wanted to renovate and modernise.

The longère and épicerie café linked by a lawn

The cottage had a surfeit of gilt-edged mirrors, lamps, sofas, cabinets, a vast oak table and sideboard, memorabilia from our travels in France and the UK, and yes, more saucy French posters.

After our son, daughter-in-law and grandson had chosen lamps, furniture, pictures, and other items for their own chalet home in Samoëns, we transported our most precious items back to London.

Yet, the weekend before the signing we were still left with a mountain to climb (almost literally – the pile of duvets, cushions, chairs, pots and pans in the café dance hall was nearing ceiling-level).

A friend advised setting up a vide-maison, with advertising posters around the village, but there wasn’t time.

Then, during a tearful Saturday night supper with our neighbour Danielle Lasnel, their son Hervé, granddaughter Anais and her husband Mikael, we mentioned that we would like members of the family to come over and choose some items. We must have looked worried because, the next morning, six members of the Lasnel family turned up, plus three friends, a truck, low-loader, and a couple of dogs.

Danielle’s sons Jacques, Hervé and Bertrand made light work of shifting even the heaviest stuff. Daughter Nenette carted our garden furniture to a new home in their smallholding.

Grandchildren with houses to furnish were delighted with our café-style basket chairs, tables and sofas.

Jacques’ sensible wife Gina refused to tolerate any sloppy sentimentality from the spineless couple of old Britons standing sobbing over their old rubbish.

Courage, mes amis,” she exclaimed. “C’est fini – il faut être pratique! Jettez-le!”

In no time, we had a system going: all rubbish, even Pat’s ancient tools and leftover pots of paint, old carpets and my displays of wilting dried flowers, went into the trailer en route for the déchetterie, and good furniture was labelled – for them or us.

After a two-hour pause for lunch, the hit squad returned, fortified by a gigot of lamb, a tarte normande and several bottles of fine burgundy wine.

How did they do it? And how did they know we needed so much help?

“It is part of the Norman character,” said Pat that evening after we had collapsed on to our one remaining sofa.

He reached for a bottle of calvados and poured two large glasses.

Poor man, he needed it.

He was still recovering from the loss of so many of his precious old tools, rolls of faded wallpaper and rusting reels of cable.

He took a restorative sip and continued: “Their perception, fortitude, quick thinking and strategic planning are legendary: think William the Conqueror, resistance heroes, the strength of our modern-day fishermen and farmers.

“Remember how, when we got stuck in the mud and our farmer mate left his milking shed and rode to our rescue on his tractor?

“We didn’t even have to ask him. He just knew!”

We’re blessed indeed to have met such a brilliant family, watched children grow up, and welcomed into the world Danielle’s three great-grandchildren, all born last year.

Meanwhile, we are passing on our Baillolet home to a couple who share our passion for France and who look forward to learning more about the rich Normandy culture, cuisine and heritage.

Marc, food historian for the royal palaces, journalist (like me!) and lecturer, even plans to make his own cheese and beer. Nicki is a primary school teacher and they have two grown-up children.

I can imagine them raising the roof of the old café with their first party. Edith Piaf would be delighted again.

Sally-Ann in London with the ‘party bike’ that husband Pat has owned since he was 16 and saved from the déchetterie

As for the neighbours – we will be friends for life. No, we didn’t charge them for our stuff; instead, they gave us enough wine, foie gras, cheese and pain d’épice to last well into 2019.

Pat did save one precious item from the déchetterie: the bike he was given for his 16th birthday and which he rode tandem with Danielle’s late husband Jean around the dance floor during a riotous party.

We plan to hang baskets of geraniums on its handlebars as a reminder of our beloved France in our very English garden.

So, despite those tears… a happy ending!

10 rules for a calm sale – and remember it can take a very long time

Independent property advisor Tim Sage organised the Voaks sale with Leggett Immobilier.  A resident in France for 20 years, he covers the whole of the north east from Le Havre to Belgium and down to Paris. His current portfolio is around 120 homes. Here are his 10 tips for sellers:

1. Putting it on the market: February is good but don’t hold your breath!

Spring is a marketing favourite – good weather and the best time for outside photos. The drawback, as Sally-Ann and Pat found, is that in a fairly slow market it might take a long time to find a buyer. In their case it took nearly two years. The process of completion is lengthy: usually around three months or more.

In rural areas, under the droit de préemption first right of refusal rule, the notaire has to offer the property to the commune and to the local agricultural organisation (they have two months to reply). Our highest numbers of sales are completed in October, November and December. August is not a great month for completion as many notaires are on holiday! February or March can give you a long window to work things out, update any important documents and clear up. But be aware that it could go on until Christmas, or beyond!

2. Renovation properties usually take longer to sell

These properties are still selling but pricing is crucial. Buyers will have done their research. It’s no good saying a €30,000 project will be worth €120,000 when the work is done and asking €120,000. Even if, like Sally-Ann and Pat, you did wonders with the property when you bought it, fashions change and you may not have noticed deterioration.

3. Holiday home-owners have more problems

Selling a property is an ongoing process so if you are only able to visit occasionally after the initial “tarting up” of the property, you need to pop over more for regular cleaning or hire a local company to do it for you. In rural areas, dust builds up fast and passing tractors create mud and muck.

You must get all your paperwork, safety checks and fosse septique certificate in place before you start. Make sure you have fun when you visit and don’t strip out precious stuff too soon. It is still your home.

4. No signage

It’s obviously not a good idea to tell the world that a maison secondaire is à vendre. It will only advertise the fact that it is empty to passers-by who may be looking for an opportunity. Sadly, break-ins occur everywhere.

5. Brexit will be a factor– whatever happens

However it pans out, Britons will not be as trusted in future and, in or out, the titre de séjour will be required for any British buyers. The good news for sellers is that lots of Britons are, again, becoming interested in having a French escape.

6 Watch the local news

For maison secondaire owners, news of strikes, demos and how they affect your own area is crucial for your own sanity. If time is limited, you don’t want to get stuck on the motorway. Sally-Ann and Pat cancelled two ferry bookings but P&O changed their bookings without surcharges.

7. Getting rid of stuff

Vide maison events only work with advance publicity and good helpers. A local brocante takes more effort, but it might get a better response. Definitely ask the neighbours!

8. Farewell party?

Much as you love the locals, once word gets out, a big bash could be a problem. You don’t want your house wrecked or set on fire (it has happened!). It is probably best, if you want to mark the occasion, to have a small farewell with close friends, or go out to a restaurant. Remember that you are leaving, so don’t worry about offending the odd person.

9. Be patient

If the process is dragging along, consider dropping the price (ask your agent’s advice) and remember that the slow pace of things is what attracted you to the French rural lifestyle in the first place.

10. Saying goodbye

After signing the documents, it is customary to offer a convivial drink to your buyers. Don’t invite them to call or email if anything goes wrong. They will work it out!  Sally-Ann and Pat left a noticeboard in the kitchen with useful numbers, addresses, and contacts. They then hugged Baillolet’s mayor, kissed all the neighbours and drove off to a hotel for a blissful evening with no washing up, worries or cleaning!

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