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Let France's second-home owners visit empty properties

OPINION: Reader Mary Heaton suggests that allowing the owners of second homes in France to visit unoccupied properties for vital maintenance could be regarded as a controlled form of tourism as the coronavirus restrictions are eased.

She writes:
France has 3.4million second homes, according to the national statistics agency INSEE.

This represents 10% of the housing stock in the country.

Owners who split their home time between two destinations can view their 'second' house or apartment as their main home at any one time of the year. These part-time residents in France have been a recent focus of media coverage.

During this lockdown period, second-home owners have had to stay at home. Anyone ‘caught’ in their second French home at the time of lockdown, was advised to return to their primary residence immediately or stay in the second property for the duration. Moving between locations has made headlines with fines and orders to return home, imposed.

As summer and the easing of coronavirus restrictions approaches for France and other EU countries there has been an appreciation of solidarity but also caution about how the release from lockdown is carefully scaled back. How is France going to control movement and distancing while letting go of the restrictions? France does not want the masses moving to the beach.

There has been clarity over mass gatherings – none until mid-July at the earliest. Schools are the immediate focus as are businesses and retail. However, UK/EU travel to France is not on the priority list just yet. Current lockdown rules: ‘do not travel to second homes’.

But it may be time to see second homes as an essential trip as owners now may need essential access. Is this an opportunity for ‘controlled tourism’?

Access for essential maintenance and insurance reasons

For those owners living outside France, it may have been many months since they have been in the country. Some spend the spring-summer-autumn season and would have been due to return over Easter – so that's a potential six months or more without access.

Others are restricted to school holidays – February, then Easter and summer. Essential maintenance and repairs are often organised for these times.

Main homes have probably never seen so much TLC and maintenance. The same cannot be said of unoccupied second homes. Over time, unknown problems will arise which can escalate to potentially costly repairs when access to the home is finally granted.

House insurance is an essential requirement for homes and policy responsibilities such as the property not being in an empty state for long durations or maintenance tasks such as chimney cleaning could all be compromised with the continued lack of access.

Access for tax reasons

For non-residents of France but second home owners, both taxes foncière and d'habitation are mandatory on these properties – both paid by the owners if they are used by the owners and no other tenants. As restrictions are lifted in France, UK and Ireland, it is concerning that, as indirect taxpayers in France, these owners do not have clarity on when they will have permission to travel.

The rules for refunds of flights and holidays are clear – however second home owners don’t anticipate any property tax refunds.

Is it possible that consideration of travel could be afforded to second home owners, when the easing of restrictions begins and that it is available to those living elsewhere in France and also coming from other EU countries? 

These are tax-paying part-time residents – clearly not tourists. They don’t pay a tourist tax to be in their homes. So, although they may travel from Dublin or Dover, they could be allowed a ‘priority pass’ to travel before tourism returns.

Access for ‘controlled tourism,’ economic and health reasons

Having the luxury or necessity of a second home is just that, another home. Some may be a holiday villa by the sea, with a pool. Some may be an apartment in a small village for peace and quiet and remote working.

Either way, a second home goes beyond tax or residency classification. It is about behaviour. Second home owners are not like normal tourists – they are living in a community and are involved in that community.

It may be an anglophone network or the local village clubs and associations. They know the rules of the area and typical tourist exploration trips are not a priority. Therefore, could second homes become an early opportunity for controlling tourism this year in France as opposed to a restricting it?

  • Access to a second home by EU or French-based residents is a controlled movement of people who are already on the French government register, which makes tracing easier if needed. It is also easier for a second home owner to self-isolate if needed.
  • Visiting a second home is often a long-term stay, particularly during the summer – which again helps restrict movement. Short-term tourists often focus on many events or activities in a few days. Second home owners arrive and stay – even more likely this year, if they’ve already been prevented so far.
  • It could also inject a level of new expenditure and population numbers, without overcrowding the streets or over-using resources. If restaurants or cultural sites were to reopen there would be controlled visits. And if they continued to remain closed that this of course is not an issue for second home owners.
  • International and domestic travel is more controlled if second home owners are phased-in first - there could be more social distancing on planes, boats, less in queues at airports or for car hire and for police checks. In addition, second home owners have a pre-existing knowledge of the travel route, airport operations etc. They are not applying a ‘tourist’ mentality but are going home. 
  • It could increase more outdoor space in urban centres such as Paris, while still abiding by some rules in the second home area?

Part-time residents are more likely to accept government controls as they would want to protect their neighbours and have a longer-term perspective on their home and the area.

  • Could it be an option for second home residents to be tracked with an app on their phones, or have them register with the mairie when they arrive, if tracing is the new normal?
  • Prior to travel and for checkpoints an additional line on the current travel attestation could be included, allowing for movement to this second home address?
  • Mandatory travel, medical insurance and EHIC card?

There is a logic, perhaps a legal right - and maybe even a lockdown benefit - to allowing access second homes earlier in the deconfinement phases.

Health is clearly the main priority now but government planning may see the relevance of these homes. Times are grave but countries are recognising the steps needed to try a new normal in order that we can ‘live with the virus’ and economies can recover.

Second home access is becoming a potential essential trip, maybe even an entitlement once deconfinement is in place and could become part of the solution of opening up the French business and tourist economy in a more measured and controlled way?

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