American-born Belinda Mullinix, now 60, had been looking to open a restaurant in Brittany when she was introduced to a British accountant who took her to see a property in the Morbihan department.
The 20 to 30 seat restaurant, bar and chambre d'hôtes with a long bar and a rent price of just €500 a month seemed the right fit. Although she had her doubts, she was persuaded to take a leap of faith.
Her accountant convinced her it was fine to open the business without the correct paperwork or a contract with the British landlord, telling her it was normal in France.
But when the fake kitchen ceiling literally fell in on her, followed by the ceiling in the dining room, she realised she had been the victim of a con. Her life then began to fall apart.
She says she lost over €20,000, but it wasn't just the financial cost that hit her hard.
“I lost everything. I lost my health. I became diabetic, addicted to alcohol and suffered from depression,” she tells The Local.
“I had two daughters aged six and eight years old and I basically had a nervous breakdown.I lost my relationship with my partner. I couldn't take care of my children and I can't tell you how upsetting that was to me.”
Belinda Mullinix (pictured in centre below with her two daughters) believes the accountant, the property owner and the barmaid who sued her for lost wages, who were all British expats, were all in on the stitch-up.
For Helen Wood, the impact of falling victim to a rogue tradesman was similarly distressing.
“I felt so guilty. I was heartbroken and it still upsets me,” says Helen, who lost over €11,000. “We had worked so hard for that money. And it was like someone had held us up at gunpoint and stolen our life savings.”
“There was anger and embarrassment. I thought I had done the right thing and I was ashamed of what had happened.”
Helen, 53, and her husband Jim, 62, had bought their dream property in the Charente for when they retired after a life working in the UK.
The house hadn't been lived in for 50 years so needed electrics and two new ceilings which they employed an expat builder to carry out after getting three different quotes.
“We went down to the house and he talked us through it and he seemed to know what he was talking about,” said Helen.
The couple carried out what they believed to be the necessary checks before agreeing to hand over half of the money up front. They checked the builder's insurance, his Siret registration number and contacted the two previous customers he had given as references.
Months later they travelled to France from the UK again, having been told the job had been completed.
“The house was an absolute mess,” says Helen. “We had arrived with our three year-old grandson and there was live wires sticking out of the floor and the ceilings had not been touched. The house was not fit to live in.”
The picturesque Charente is popular with expats. Photo: Patrick Janicek
Repeated calls to the builder were met with excuse after excuse.
They now couldn't afford to fix the mistakes and were told their insurance would not cover the costs.
Helen and Jim Wood soon became aware that the same rogue builder had left a trail of victims behind him.
The Local spoke to another one of those victims who asked not to be named.
She says she lost €44,000 after employing the man to build new house in the Vendee that she had hoped to sell. But after years of waiting for it to be finished, she was told it needed to be torn down because it was so badly constructed.
“It still makes me sick. The money was from my retirement and I was going to sell the house to pay for my son's education. I feel so guilty I can't help now. My life has been on hold I've suffered constant stress and panic attacks
“He is a professional conman. He's clever and he knows it,” she said. “I thought I'm such a stupid idiot to fall for this but then I see there are so many other victims.”
Sally Coppack and her husband, who live in the Deux-Sevres department are also victims of a cowboy builder, who had been recommended by a friend.
The couple paid him €12,000 for an extension to their house. The builder walked off the job after 6 weeks and left behind an “hideous eyesore” of a structure that was deemed unsafe and needs to be pulled down (see photo below).
“When the expert informed us that the building would have to be taken down, the builder did not even apologise, or show any sign of remorse,” she said.
Coppack and her husband have spent another €7,000 on legal fees as they pursue the builder through the French courts.
She is determined not to give up.
“We will need to find additional money but this person has been getting away with it because no one has taken him to court,” she said. “We will do our utmost to stop him from doing this to other people.”
Despite the horror stories there are no doubt many bonafide expat tradesmen, accountants, financial advisers around France who will do the job they are paid to do. And there will also no doubt be stories of people having been conned, perhaps in different ways, by French builders.
But why are there so many stories of expats being conned by other expats?
One key factor is the language.
“The reason why most of us us fall into these traps is because we don't have the required level of French language to understand all the technical building terms,” says Sally Coppack.
“We end up going towards a UK builder because it's reassuring and because we can make ourselves understood.”
American Belinda Mullinix adds: “People trust more what they can understand and tend to be more wary of people they don't understand.”
People drop their guard
In other words people tend to develop exaggerated caution towards locals and drop their guard when it comes to dealing with those from their own country.
The fact people are setting up home in a foreign country can lead them to place too much trust in the expat builder they are about to hand money over to.
Customers might then ignore the necessary checks on insurance or Siret registration numbers and even forgo checking out the references.
Sally Coppack said the fact her builder was the father of a friend, or now ex-friend, meant they were less inclined to do the kind of thorough check they would have done if they had never met the person or if they'd been in the UK.
Expats are 'vulnerable'
But many expats are perhaps simply not aware of the checks that they could carry out on a builder or the steps that need to be taken.
Micala Wilkins, from Artisan Central, an online directory of France-based expat tradespeople who are”pre-checked, highly skilled artisans”, says “expats are vulnerable and that makes them rich pickings. There are certain people who will prey on them.”
But she also stresses there is an onus on the customers to take the right steps.
“Often it feels like some have left their common sense behind in the UK,” she said. “People need to do their homework.”
The lifelong dream of settling in France often clouds their good judgement and makes people rush into decisions.
'DIY fan turned master tradesman'
But while some builders may intend to rip people off in the worst sense of the word – there are stories of roof tiles being placed far apart, cheap and nasty windows being fitted when the customer expected velux – other tradesmen simply take on jobs they cannot fulfill.
Many of the problems stem from people moving to France and realising their best chance of earning a living is by being a plumber, electrician or a builder for other expats even though they don't have the necessary experience or qualifications.
“Maybe they've done a bit of DIY at home and they get the ferry over and all of a sudden they are a master tradesman,” says Wilkins. Tradespeople often take on jobs they don't have the capacity to carry out.
Often these builders build up relations by carrying out jobs that are within their capability before trying to convince customers to trust them with a bigger project.
“I had had previous dealing with him and it was all fine, but it was very much DIY kind of stuff, not building a new house,” said the woman from near Niort, Deux-Sevres, who lost €44, 000 on a new build.
Quote too good to be true
The attractiveness of the quotes also tempts many expats to take risks.
Helen Wood was offered a price of €11,500 for the electrics and two ceilings to be fixed, whereas a French builder quoted €27,000.
Often the mistake is made when people initially buy the house and don't budget enough for any renovations or work that needs to be done.
“The phrase 'if it sounds too good to be true it probably is' still haunts me,” said one victim.
There also seems to be little people can do to stop these crooks from re-offending as many note that they often simply up sticks and move to another area of France once their reputation has been tarnished in one department. Although some don't even feel the need to move.
'Something we have to learn from'
“He's still advertising his services in the local magazine,” said Sally Coppack, whose dream extension turned to a nightmare. “Our solicitor basically told us there's nothing we can do to stop him.”
And there are knock-on effects .”The sad thing is now you lose trust in everyone,” says Helen Wood
“I wouldn't employ an English builder in France anymore. I know there are many trustworthy ones and I know some French builders will rip you off but the people like the person we employed ruin it for everyone.”
But the victims face a daily challenge to keep the dream life in France on track.
“It's something we have had to learn from. We won't get that money back,” says Helen Wood. “But we still love the house and we still love France.”