Monday, November 30, 2009

Backstory 1

My friend Bill suggests that we need to fill in the backstory.  He is right.  But backstory is kind of hard to fill in on a blog, because you wind up with time running in two different directions.  Blogs want to be about today, with today's post pushed down by tomorrow's.  Telling the backstory starting from the beginning, the reader will get everything in the wrong order. 

Anyway, we have always been francophiles.  C. (my wife, cam on her posts) spent a chunk of her childhood in Paris when her father was assigned to run a subsidiary of the auto company he worked for.  C was maybe 10 at the time.  They lived in a huge apartment on Avenue Bosquet in the 7eme.  Safe to say it was a peak period in C's life.  In those days, anyway, even a preteen could have the run of the city.  C. always describes it as a wonderful and free place to grow up.  She speaks near-perfect French (she wouldn't say so, but she does).  Natives listen to her and after a while get a quizzical look and ask if she is Swiss or something.  She knows the city like the back of her hand, the buses and the metro, collects restaurants and hotels as a hobby, remembers every one she has ever set foot in.

My parents lived in Paris after the war.  I think I was conceived there.  They put me in French class when I was a kid, though come to think of it we never went there as a family.  Didn't have the money, I guess.  Anyway I speak passable French myself though I am far from fluent, and have always felt an attraction to the culture, especially the food and wine.  C and I have traveled to France as often as we could over the years, taken the kids a few times, went on a wonderful trip back to Paris with my mother just a little while before she died.  So we always thought about the possibility of buying something there.

We almost did it in the Spring of 2006.  We decided to work with what is called a "chasseur," or a hunter.  Chasseurs are informal real-estate agents, they scan the market for apartments and communicate with foreign buyers, helping them through the process of finding, purchasing, and closing.  More about that later.  In fact we wound up putting an offer down on an apartment in the 17th arrondissement on the border of the eighth.  One of the oddities of the French real estate system is that you can put an offer on an apartment that freezes the seller, but which you can withdraw for seven days with no penalty.  That makes it easy to put an offer down, and easy for a chasseur to pressure you to put an offer down.  Just go ahead, you can always withdraw it.  It was a nice apartment, but we weren't ready, and hadn't really thought through our finances, so we ended up withdrawing it.  We wound up terminating our arrangement with the chasseurs also.  They were good in a lot of ways:  they were aggressive and energetic, and knew the market very well.  But they were only interested in apartments on the right bank, and mostly within a couple of parts of the right bank.  And the operators of the company, the aggressive and energetic ones, were very aggressive and energetic, they ended up driving us a little nuts, and were prone to pressuring us to buy something, quickly.  Chasseurs are working for a percentage of your purchase, and they don't get paid until you buy, so it is always tempting for them to put the squeeze on you to get something done.  Anyway, we weren't ready and put it aside for a while.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Show and Tell

Elated showing and telling about the apartment. Friends and family are excited but I'm afraid I'm getting boring since it's all I think or talk about. We got an email from Christian, the architect, saying that he will meet with the contractor early next week to begin renovations. What if buying the apartment was the easy part?

Friday, November 27, 2009

The French Way of Doing Business

The many frustrations of the last week have me thinking about the French way of conducting themselves.  The last week had a happy ending, but we were stressed and angry a lot of the time.  In some sense that's crazy, because basically what we are doing is signing up long-term for conducting business in France with the French, both as we try now to renovate and rent the apartment and in the long haul.  We are doing this because we love France, yet we spend half of our time complaining about the French.  What's that about?

There are all the stereotypes of the French, and they are kind of true.  They take long lunches and many holidays.  They don't answer emails.  They do no work on the weekend.  The French know this and are proud of it, they see it as the raison-d'etre of the whole system.  And that is in large part what we Americans are attracted to in France, it's a way out of the the 24/7 fast-food hurry-up rat-race that we spend too much time caught up in. 

But there is more to it than that.  The French are no different than anyone else when they conduct business:  they want to get a good deal for themselves, they compete for dominance, they press an advantage when they have one.  They just do it differently than we do.  Americans compete directly.  If a business transaction is competitive we will openly try to dominate each other, be the biggest force in the room, and intimidate our opponents.  The French ideal is never to act like you are trying to negotiate a business deal.  Instead you are elaborately polite and formal, even as you are maneuvering the situation you your advantage.

The seller of our apartment, Monsieur L., is a perfect example.  He drove us crazy throughout the process.  When the architect needed to get into the apartment to draw up some plans, he refused again and again.  But he didn't exactly refuse, he would just reply politely that he was "too busy" that week, that he couldn't get away from work and that his wife was busy with their child.  I'm not sure what he really wanted, the truth is I don't think he wanted anything, he was just establishing his dominance in the business relationship.  The deal had been done, we had signed the offer, and in so doing we had not required him to grant us a certain amount of access to the apartment.  An American would have just said that, maybe even asked to be compensated for the inconvenience, and if that seemed obnoxious, so be it.  Monsieur L had this small advantage, and the way he enjoyed it was to act as if his French lifestyle were just more important than ours, or the Notaire's, or C's, or the architect's.  He wanted deference.  He and our Flathunter representative C. wound up despising each other because they were in direct conflict throughout the process, even though it was always unspoken.  He would stand her up for appointments, she would misrepresent or half-represent what he had said when she spoke to us. 

The Notaires all play the same game.  They are treated like aristocrats, referred to as Maitre, or Master.  Our Notaire, Maitre F has an elegant, fancy office and a refined, polished manner.  It is like speaking to the head of the board of directors of a bank.  They defend this status by not answering your phone calls, by refusing (without ever saying so) to provide details about the money you are spending.  In a system that has gone half socialist, in which it must be next to impossible to get rich, status becomes the currency people are trading. 

I think if we had never done anything, the closing would have eventually taken place.  Monsieur L and Maitre F would have completed the status dance they were working through.  Monsieur L's own Notaire was in the mix, as was C and the higher ups at Flathunter who could never be bothered to communicate with us at all.  Sooner or later the pecking order would have been worked out, and everyone would have sat down and signed and felt good about it.  Gone to lunch and had a glass of wine.  We have the same thing here, but it is a matter of everyone getting along after they have yelled at each other and gotten angry, then everyone agrees not to take it personally and move it on.  Instead the French engage in subtle put-downs while they circle each other, then when everything has  been sorted out, they settle and move on.

We broke into the system by getting angry, and I don't feel sorry about it.  It was amazing, really.  After weeks and weeks of nothing happening, or one person after another not doing quite what they were supposed to do (not because they screwed up, but because they were too busy) all of a sudden everyone started scurrying around to get the thing done.  I think we took the fun out of it.  I don't doubt that they found our email angry boorish, our constant worrying (like when no one knew where our money was) pointless and neurotic.  Ah, those Americans, they must say, what's the matter with them that they have to get so angry?  But business is business, so they deal with us.  When I wrote L., the mortgage broker, to thank her and express mt relief that the deal was finally done, I joked about how no one had emailed us to tell us that the signing had actually been scheduled.  She wrote back three words:  Vive la difference.

We closed!

The signatures were obtained as scheduled at 330 Wednesday.  I got the email from C. on my cell phone while shopping for Thanksgiving.  C. was at work.  So we did it.... next step, renovations.

In which we get angry

Yesterday was another low point.  We had been told that the closing was scheduled for 11:00 Paris time, there was no email when we got out of bed in the morning.  After a while we tried calling C, the Flathunter representative in Paris, but no answer.  Then, at 8:15, we received this email:

In fact, I just had Mr L. on the phone, saying they were not available to sign during the day this week, because they were working ... They are waiting for a procuration form from their notaire. Then, they have to re-send it to him, properly signed.
I didn't have the feeling the L. were in a hurry, saying the signature was postponed twice because of your funds not being arrived in time ...
It seems this signature will not occur before the end of the week, this time because of the sellers not making themselves available.

I'll let you know, as soon as the notaires give us a final date of closing.
We'll try to hurry everyone as much as we can !

With kind regards,

So now what?  No closing today, no closing scheduled, nothing more than a "try to hurry everyone," which is completely hopeless.  We were frustrated and angry.  What makes it difficult is that there is no one to call for any details.  C. never knows anything.  The Notaires don't answer their phone.  For all we could tell, the situation could go on forever.  We had no way of knowing what the seller's intentions were.  Or the Notaire could decide that our fees went up again.  Or something we had signed for the bank could go out of date.

Carol had to go to work.  Then, C. finally called us back.  She was full of polite French generalities.  C. has actually been one of the more effective players in this drama, she did a good job in the apartment finding phase, but now she is only doing this job because she was forced into the role when H., the english-speaking director of the company, left for school in Barcelona.  She is in over her head, not really up to the job of negotiating among the seller, the Notaires, the banks, etc.  She compensates by smoothing things over with generalities and euphemisms.

Anyway, I lost it, and started yelling at her.  Why can't they just once do what they say they are going to do when they say they are going to do it?  Why does she keep letting the seller jerk us around like this?  I instruct her to call the seller and tell him that we were closing by 5:00 Wednesday or the deal is off.

We had no idea what the consequences would be of pulling out of the deal at this point, but I meant it.  We would certainly lose some if not all of our considerable deposit.  But it felt good, and C. seemed to rise to the bait, saying yes, she would call the seller and tell him.

Shortly after, my wife C. came home on a work break.  We were both pretty worked up at this point, so we sat down and wrote out an angry email to everyone:  the mortgage broker, the banker, both Notaires, everyone at Flathunter and the seller.  We repeated our threat in bold letters:  This closing will happen by 5:00 Wednesday or it won't happen at all.

We succeeded in stirring things up.  We got a couple of emails that some of the chiefs at Flathunter, who have never once contacted us through this whole process, were emailing the Notaires, probably trying to find out if we were serious.  Then, while I was at work that afternoon, our Notaire called me in my office, with a long, broken-English attempt at an explanation of what was going on.  We had heard from C. that the seller could not get away from work; the Notaire said he was away on vacation for the week.  Why didn't anyone know?  The Notaire's recommendation was that if they did not sign  by Wednesday, instead of withdrawing at considerable risk to our money, we should petition to appoint a "bailiff" who would have the power to force the sellers to sign, or perhaps to return our money if it came to that.  Appointment of a bailiff would cost us 200 euros.  I told him to hold off while we waited to see if anything came of our threat.

Then, at 10:15 that night (4 AM in Paris) we got an email from the seller, a six-screener in flowery, formal French.  He was furious, blamed all the delays on us, and all the inconveniences along the way (to be described if and when all this slows down) on C., whom he obviously disliked.  Although he referred to our threat to withdraw as "blackmail" and ridiculed us for being willing to throw away our deposit, it seemed that he said that he had obtained a power of attorney that would allow his Notaire to sign for him to sign on Wednesday.

So we go to bed.  When we get up in the morning, we had an email from the seller that a closing had been scheduled for 330 Wednesday.  Yes!  Now, all we needed was confirmation from our side, but of course, no one emailed.  Later that morning I sent around an email telling them of the message from the seller, could any of them confirm the meeting?  Finally, L the mortgage broker wrote back, copying me on some emails among the Notaires scheduling the closing for 330 Wednesday.  Why wouldn't they tell us?  No reason, and as it turned out, as the day went by confirmations arrived from C and the notaires.

So it ain't over yet, but right now it looks as though getting angry worked.  It's supposed to happen at 330, 930 US, and it is hard for me to see what could possibly go wrong this time.  We'll see.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Image Gallery

Here is a gallery of pictures of our apartment

First, here is a rough layout drawn by our friend Philippe.

Next is the outside of the building. We are on the very top floor, right where the picture gets cut off....

The entranceway. The little elevator is right against the stairway.

The stairway. Not sure what the ladder is doing there.

The front hallway, with our friends Sandy and Steve. The sellers had a lot of big heavy furniture everywhere.

The view from the master bedroom window.

The unreconstructed kitchen.

The master bedroom without the seller's stuff.

The second bedroom. Floor is being replaced, but we are definitely keeping the paint job.

Living room. Imagine with wood floors and white walls.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Desperate email from across the cultural divide

I sent the following this morning. No one is going to answer it. Unbelievable.

Good Morning, everyone. Maitre P., thank you for the revised statement. Unfortunately, it still contains no information whatsoever about why the closing amount increased by 640 euros. We still require an adequate explanation. Also, please inform us at your earliest opportunity of the scheduling of the closing.

I hope it doesn't seem as though we are being difficult or stubborn about this charge. All I can say is that to our American sensibilities, the idea that a significant charge would be added to closing costs without explanation simply makes no sense.

With kind regards and bon weekend,

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A reminder about why we are doing this

Quiet day on the no closing front. The money finally arrived in the Notaire's account this morning. That leaves us short only the mysterious 640 euro increase that the Notaire announced a couple of days ago, but has so far not been able to explain. After a few phone calls and emails this morning, Maitre P finally sent a "statement" of the new costs, but it was no more than a couple of numbers on a piece of official-looking stationary. The bottom line has increased by the requisite 640 euros, but there was no explanation of why the amount increased. They really don't think of it as our business.

I'm tired and don't have the energy to write a whole lot, so let's get a picture in there. Here is the master bedroom. At least the seller seems to have the apartment nice and clean. And here is our little kitchen:

... and that is our view of the Eiffel Tower in the background. My wife C. would want me to say that we are redoing the kitchen and taking out that ugly tile.

I'll just put in one more nice thing about the apartment while I'm at it. It's just a block away from the Grenelle Market, a wonderful outdoor market that is open on Wednesdays and Sundays. In the other direction it is just a block from the Place Dupleix, a beautiful quiet little square.

Closing is probably going to be on Monday, but I guess it still could happen tomorrow. We need to get going because our renovation is supposed to get started, under the supervision of our architect, Monsieur P. Another long story, I'll get to it tomorrow.

Here is a picture of the Grenelle Market

Still No Closing

Yesterday was a rough day. We expected to close at 2:00 Paris time, 8:00 in the morning here. But when we got up at 6:00 and checked our email, we found two problems:

1) The money that had been transferred from our bank to the bank of the Notaire last Thursday still had not arrived, and no one knew where it was. I am leaving dollar amounts out of this account, but it is a lot of money, say 20% of what one might expect to pay for an apartment in Paris.

2) The Notaire let us know that the wrong amount of money was being transferred. He said we had "made a mistake" and 640 more euros were required.

Let's start with (1). We had been through a whole crazy mess last week trying to get enough dollars transferred from our bank account in the US to our bank in France so there would be enough money to transfer to the Notaire for closing. We finally had to do a direct bank transfer at a lousy exchange rate, but it got there, and our French banker, A., assured us that the money would now get to the Notaire on time. My last email to her explicitly said that I was counting on her to transfer the funds early enough to get them there for the closing on Monday.

So where is the money? No one knows. A. tells us it has definitely been transferred out of our account, and should be with the Notaire. Our mortgage broker, L., tells us the same. But on the rare occasions when they will communicate with us, the Notaires assure us that the money is not there. L. does some research, and discovers that the name to which the funds were transferred is actually the name of the first Notaire to whom we were assigned at the firm, a Maitre L., who since left, needless to say with no notice to us. I have to get to the whole story with the Notaire at some point in the future, but like so many other players in this story he simply disappeared, and we didn't find out why until we started asking why our emails weren't getting answered, or were getting answered even less than they usually are. Oh, Matire L., left the firm some time ago, we were told with that infuriating tone that it is foolish of us even to care about such unimportant matters.

For the first time yesterday morning, we started to get scared. Where was our money? Could it have been mistakenly directed to the departed Maitre L., who would now be sunning himself on a beach somewhere? We started to envision what it would be like to have to go to the police or a lawyer to try to recover our money if it really disappeared. Our helpers, A. at the bank and L. the mortgage broker, started to sound worried, for the first time. The Notaires ignored all pleas for help. L. asked for the phone number of their bank, and they replied that they didn't know.

Finally, late in the afternoon, L. managed to speak to the accountant at the Notaire, a Monsieur H. He provided bank details, and it turns out that a new bank transfer system has just been initiated in Europe, and this system takes three days to move funds across the street. The money should be there tomorrow, today as I write this, although it is still not there. But here is the question: Why did no one tell us about this? Again and again, we are locked in interactions with people who are nice and seem competent, who then utterly screw up some routine transaction, always with no apology and no looking back. This time it appears to have been the banker, A. She promised us that the money would be there on time, then sent it by some transfer system that is known to take three days, and to this moment has never said, Oh, sorry about that, it's a new system. In fact, just as with every screw-up we have encountered, there is always a post-hoc suggestion that the whole thing is really our fault, because we did not realize that it would take three days. Well, you know, money transfers take time, there is a new system in Europe. Well then why the f*#& didn't you tell us last week! By then it is too late, everyone has gone to lunch. Here is the system: when something goes wrong, you first blame the person who has been wronged, then disappear for a while, then refuse to talk about it any more, because it is old business, and a new screw up has arisen. Kind of like the Bush administration. The money still isn't there, although right now I at least sort of believe that it is going to make it.

That only brings us back to problem (2). Before everyone realized that the money for the closing wasn't getting there at all, we had the email from A. telling us that the Notaire, Matire P. had informed her that we were sending the incorrect amount of money, we owed 640 additional euros. We have every single email we receive from everyone, and the last email we have from the Notaire, sent November 3, had the lesser amount on it. L. the mortage broker has that amount, she is very detail oriented, and assures us that it must be some kind of mistake.

Well, OK, what is the extra 640 for? No one will tell us. As of this morning we have been begging Maitre P. for a full 24 hours to send us a revised statement of closing costs so we can see what we are being charged for. He has ignored our requests. Either he doesn't respond at all, the usual strategy, or responds about something else and simply doesn't mention the the new costs. L. has spoken to him, and suggest that he insists that he already sent us a new statement. That's BS, but fine, let's say we lost the new statement, and are humbly requesting a new copy. Could they please send us one? So far, nothing.

Our concern is that this new money is some kind of late fee to compensate either the Notaire or the seller for the delay that occurred on Monday when the lending bank "forgot" (the actual word they used) to transfer their funds to the Notaire for the closing. When I spoke to L. that day, I kept insisting that I didn't not want to be charged a late fee for this error, which was clearly not our fault. As usual, L. was appalled that I would even suggest such a thing. A late fee! Why would they charge for a bank error? Why would I worry about such a trivial and outlandish possibility?

Well, still no explanation. What's funny about this, is that we have still not heard from the owner of the apartment, Mr. L. (It will take me months to explain all of the players in this. I am just trying to be patient and keep writing.) Mr. L. has been a pain in the butt at every stage of this process, and has to be in a hurry to get the closing done so he can close on the apartment he is buying. Mr. L is not a patient man. Why isn't he complaining? Our guess is that the 640 is a payment to him to compensate him for the delay in the closing. It would explain why no one wants to explain it to us.

What do we do? By now, L, the broker, has changed her tune. Just pay it, she tells us. You are spending all this money on an apartment, why make an issue out of a relatively small amount of money like 640 euros? They have done this to us again and again. The Notaires are the worst, because unlike the rest of the players, they have no great stake in gettnig the deal done. What do they care? If we don't want to pay the 640 it's no skin off their ass, we can do whatever we want.

So I just emailed A. and told her to go ahead and transfer the money. That doesn't commit us to actually paying it, but if this transfer is going to take another three days we really need to get things rolling. But what do we do if it is a late fee charged to us? There is absolutely no recourse, and when things like this happen all of the people who are supposed to be helping us turn on us, because none of them get paid until we sign on the bottom line. So everyone will tell us the same thing: just pay it. Sure it's unfair, but what can you do, it's the French way. It will be, pay the damn 640 euros, or back out of the deal and lose the considerable, like 10% of the total cost, that we have already put down.

Still no emails from anyone. By the time the day gets rolling, everything in France has already shut down.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

First Post

Tomorrow my wife C. and I are closing on a two bedroom apartment on rue d'Ouessant in Paris. That is, I hope we are closing, we were supposed to close yesterday, but a few hours before the appointed hour the latest in a long string of mishaps occurred. We received an email from our Notaire, Maitre F., that he had just been informed that the bank had "forgotten" to transfer the funds from our mortgage into the account. Forgot? Banks forget things?

Anyway, the purchase of our apartment, on Rue d'Ouessant, is the end of a long, long process of looking for an apartment, the start of hopefully a somewhat shorter process of renovating an apartment, and a prelude to another long process of owning it, renting it, spending time in it and someday retiring in it. Over the next few weeks I will both tell the story of the ownership and renovation, and try to catch up on the long series of ups and downs that we have already had.

I am trying to add a google map of the location... didn't work the first time. Let's try it again. Add image.... Paste in link to map.... Says it's uploading... Nothing happens. Hmm.

View Larger Map

Ah, there, that worked, just had to load the html code from google maps. The apartment is in the fifteenth arrondissement, close to the Eiffel Tower. Another map:

View Larger Map

More soon.