What do expats do about their real estate in the UK? Do they keep a foothold in the old country, or do they – metaphorically – burn their boats? Some say Alexander the Great was the first to burn his boats. Others say it was Cortez: you could spend hours on the web and come up with a dozen different answers. In our case we felt we’d be burning our boats if we sold up when we moved to the Morvan, a beautiful corner of Burgundy, in 2005. I hope our story will prompt other expats to tell theirs.
We decided to keep The Limes, our old farmhouse in Eyke, Suffolk, at least temporarily. Firstly, we wanted to be able to return to Blighty if our move to the Morvan turned out to be a huge mistake.Then there was our affection for the house itself and for the village where we had lived since 1978, raised a family and played an active role in local life. In Suffolk, where so many communities have lost their shops and pubs, Eyke was and is exceptional: a storybook village with a thriving shop, a primary school serving several villages and feeding the local high school, a vibrant church, a convivial pub, a village hall and a playing field. Agatha Christie could have set a whodunnit there, and Joanna Trollope would find ample inspiration for an Aga saga.
And so we left our boats intact. Our divorced goddaughter, Jane, and her three children had been frequent visitors to The Limes since early childhood and were well known in the village. Jane became our tenant at a low rent. In return she kept The Limes warm and lived-in. Monsieur Picy, our French tax inspector, understood our situation and was generous with tax relief on the inevitable maintenance and repair costs, while the Inland Revenue confirmed in writing that we were no longer taxable in the UK.
Meanwhile John and I and our poodle Gussie became part of village life in the Morvan. Our trips to the UK became less and less frequent. We were active in local life. We entertained crowds of friends and relations from the UK and the US, Canada and Poland. We converted the old cottage in our garden into Charity Cottage, a holiday home with all proceeds to Combat Stress, the charity that specialises in the treatment and support of British Armed Forces Veterans who have mental health problems.
Among the most frequent visitors was Robin, one of John’s oldest friends from university days. When Robin had a meeting in Paris he cleverly arranged it to enable him to spend a weekend with us. Jane also visited us whenever she could. Sometimes her visits coincided with Robin’s, and they shared transport.
8 September 2012 marked John’s 70th birthday and our 40th wedding anniversary. Friends and neighbours gathered for a mighty celebration. The house and Charity Cottage were full to bursting point, with a few French-speaking friends billeted on neighbours. Such a party! It was then that Robin and Jane announced their engagement. Robin was 63 and had seemed destined for lifelong bachelorhood. Jane had put her miserable marriage steadfastly behind her and devoted herself to her children. Now she and Robin were a couple. Cue the 95-piece orchestra…
In an ideal world they would have bought The Limes. We do not live in an ideal world. Robin chose a modest bungalow on the outskirts of Ipswich, and John and I had to decide what to do with The Limes. Once again we rejected the burning of our boats, and decided to let our property instead.
As Rosy Rabson I am a jolly, garrulous lady enjoying life in La France Profonde. As Rosy Border I am the series editor and co-author of Pocket Lawyer, a series of law books for non-lawyers. One of the titles is Letting Your Property, which I wrote with solicitor Mark Fairweather. There have been changes in the law since the book was published in 2003, but there is good general advice there, much of it based on my own experience from the days when John and I owned and managed several properties in Suffolk, all bought and paid for.
In my glory days I never considered instructing a letting agent. I lived within a short drive of all my properties and I vetted all the tenants myself and used Mark’s Assured Shorthold Tenancy with my explanatory notes. This time things were different. We were a long way from the action and my knowledge of the law and tax matters was out of date. The potential for expensive mistakes was colossal.
We chose our letting agent with great care. Some are ineffectual and a few are downright dishonest. I myself have brought three rogue letting agents to justice in my time. So I made contact with several local agents after asking around concerning their track record. I studied the paperwork they emailed me, and I arranged for the most promising candidates to inspect The Limes and meet Jane, who emailed me afterwards with her own findings.
The man we eventually instructed sent a long, detailed email and five attachments setting out the service he offered and the things we needed to consider – everything from smoke detectors to liaising with HMRC. He then inspected the property meticulously and emailed photographs of the things that in his opinion needed attention. It was illuminating, if galling, to meet someone who did not view our beloved home through rose-coloured spectacles. Clearly people who will happily buy and do up a ruin will not pay good money to rent even ‘homely and slightly shabby’, They demand Ideal Home.
Well, he knows the market, and we have not visited The Limes for several years. He refused to proceed until he had made his final inspection and ticked off everything on his checklist. His paperwork is perfect, his tenancy agreement is beyond reproach and he has the work ethic: early morning and evening emails are commonplace. A good man. His brochure is superb. I just hope he finds a family who will appreciate our house and our village. And once again our boats will remain unburnt.
The Rabsons’ letting agent is John Raffel, Director of Martin & Co of Stowmarket, Hadleigh and Woodbridge.
The holiday cottage in the Rabsons’ garden has its own website, www.charity-cottage.org.uk which has links to Combat Stress. They are taking bookings for 2014. Every penny goes to Combat Stress, who mention Charity Cottage on their own website, www.combatstress.org.uk