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Living in France: How to avoid being conned by rogue tradesmen

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Living in France: How to avoid being conned by rogue tradesmen
Illustration Photo: AFP
13:01 CEST+02:00
Many people have had their dream move to France left in ruins after being conned out of their savings by incompetent or crooked builders or other tradespeple. Here are some tips for what you can do to avoid it.

Stories abound in France of foreign residents being ripped off by rogue traders.

And the ones that stand out are of those who have been ripped off by fellow expats whether due to incompetence or basic swindling or a mixture of both. It happens all too often and the victims are often left without their hard-earned life savings.

There are of course many expat tradesmen who are bonafide and highly capable and the reality is you could be ripped off by anyone in France, locals too.

The problem of rogue builders is one that French authorities and the country's legal system have seemingly struggled to stamp out which means the onus is on the customer to do what they can to avoid being the victim of incompetence or blatant theft.

Victims often talk about feelings of shame, embarrassment and guilt after being ripped off, but often they did many of the right things.

However, there are certain things, many in fact, that you can do to help minimize the chances and weed out those rogue builders who have left a trail of victims in their wake around France and make it harder for the good ones.

Plan and get your budget right

Many of those who end up losing their money are those who have just bought a house in France and need urgent work doing on it.

But often they spend too much on the house they have fallen in love with and don't leave enough for the subsequent renovations.

This forces them to look at cheaper quotes, which are often, although not always, given by builders who are not qualified to do the job but desperate for work. So include cost of renovations when you set your budget for your house.

The Devis 

The devis is the all important estimate or quote that a builder will give you for the job you want them to carry out, whether it's an extension or electrics or roof repair.

For a start, always get at least three.

Sally Coppack, from Deux Sevres who lost €12,000 to a builder who walked off the job after making a mess of their planned extension says: "I would advise people to get an itemized devis. It should state exactly what work needs to be done and what materials will be bought."

This is what the French government website says about a "devis": "The estimate of the proposed works by the professional is considered from a legal point of view as a contract offer. As such, it strongly engages the professional in a very precise manner regarding the scope of work, their cost, the expected deadlines."

The devis should also carry evidence that the builder has the correct registration number, known as a Siret, and the appropriate level of insurance for the job they are being paid to do (more on this to follow).

READ ALSO: How foreigners in France fall victim to being conned by other expats

Is it too cheap?

It's not just the detail on the devis that the customer needs to take into account but also the amount.

Micala Wilkins from the Artisan Central, an online directory of "pre-checked, highly skilled" expat artisans based in France says : "Many in France baulk at prices and services here - too expensive, out of my budget then choose Tom, Dick or Harry, who talks a good talk at a lot cheaper price. Only to find out at a later date they have been royally ripped off."

Don't do it 'on the black'

A spokesperson for estate agent Leggett Immobilier advised: "One of the silver linings around the cloud of French bureaucracy is that artisans need to be fully qualified and are well controlled, both in terms of training and invoicing. 

"Obviously there are still incidents of rogue traders and, if you decide to pay cash and pay your builders on the black market, then you forego your consumer protection rights."

References

Helen Wood, who along with her husband Jim lost €11,500 to a builder who failed to carry out ceiling repairs and botched the instillation of electrics, had, like many others, asked for references for his previous customers.

"Another victim of this man was given the same references, she later found out that both of them were his friends," says Helen.

She now says what she really should have done was gone there to visit them and check the work they have done in person and check it matches the paperwork.
 
Have they done the job before?
 
But also check that the work your tradesman has done previously is similar to what you want done.
 
There's no use speaking to someone who has had a new patio laid down or a new shed built when you are about to pay them to build a new house or extension.
 
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.
 
Recommendations
 
Perhaps even better than references are recommendations. 
 
If you don't know any, then one option is to ask on the many expat Facebook groups that exist and see what names keep cropping up. Or even better ask around your local village. 
 
But as Sally Coppack can attest to, recommendations, even from friends are not always a foolproof way to avoid being ripped off. You'll still need to carry out the adequate checks.
 
A spokesperson for estate agent Leggett Immobilier told The Local:  "Our advice is to always try and use artisans who have been recommended to you, make sure you get a quote in advance and try to get 2-3 quotes so that you can compare like with like."
 
'Homework' and research
 
But it's also a question of taking the time to make sure you have the right person for the job.
 
"People need to do their homework," says Wilkins from Artisan Central.
 
Many newly arrived expats are under pressure to get the job done as they are in a rush to move into their new home. But picking the wrong builder is worse than waiting a couple more weeks or months to find the right one.
 
If you have the name of a builder then do a search on the web. Talk to people in Facebook groups. The chances are someone out there will be a previous customer.
 
Language
 
Even if you are opting for an English-speaking builder it's worth learning some of the technical language and terminology of the building trade so you know what your potential contractor is talking about when they talk you through the job.
 
Research local regulations
 
Sally Coppack only realised after her extension had been botched that because they lived in a seismic zone all doors an windows had to have extra structural supports.
 
Her builder claimed he had included them but when officials checked the extension it was clear the extra support had not been included. That was just one of the reasons why the structure now has to be pulled down (see below).
 
 
The Siret number
 
You also need to check the Siret number, which is basically a business registration number that all tradespeople should have.
 
But it's not just checking they have a number, you need to check they have a number that applies to what they say they can do.
 
"You'll hear some of them say 'I'm siretted', but what does that mean," says Artisan Central's Wilkins. "It's no use them having a Siret number for being a translator, if they are a builder."
 
You should be able to check the Siret number given to you by your builder with the local "Chambre de Metier et de l'artisanat".
 
There's no harm in calling them with the name of the person you are about to employ and asking them if they are registered and whether they have any information on them, good or bad.
 
Again, even if they registered it doesn't mean the builder is bonafide and many of the tradespeople whose names came up when we talked to victims were registered with the CMA. But Artisan Central's Wilkins says things are improving.
 
"Over the last couple of years the whole set-up of registration into certain business activities has led to much tighter control: SPI courses, qualifications and experience having to be proven, appropriate insurance aligned with the registered activities and no work until Siret number given," she says.
 
Insurance
 
The same goes for insurance. All tradespeople in France need to be covered by the "Décennale" insurance, but customers need to check that the insurance is the right one to cover the job they are going to carry out.
 
In other words it's no use them being covered for plumbing jobs when you are paying them to change the electrics in your new house.
 
The "devis" or estimate you get from the builder or plumber should have details of their insurance on it.
 
Wilkins says Artisan Central have had to reject many traders from their directory for insurance issues.
 
"You notice with a lot of the ones who don't cut the mustard that they are not insured for what they do."
 
Get help from someone who speaks French
 
As we covered in this article about victim's tales, one factor that contributes to people opting to choose unqualified expat builders is their lack of French language ability, especially when it comes to the technical terms.
 
But there are options to get around this.
 
Helen Wood wishes she had employed an interpreter saying it would have saved money in the long run.
 
Employing a "hand-holding service", in other words someone who specializes in offering relocation help to new arrivals, to make a few phone calls might save you money in the long run.
 
Photo: Isabell Schulz
 
Keep your wits about you
 
But sometimes avoiding getting ripped off is simply a matter of being aware and wary. 
 
"Sometimes you get the impression that people leave their common sense on the UK side before they get on the ferry.
 
"Customers need to ask the right questions", says Wilkins "and not be scared to do so."
 
Do you only stick with French builders?
 
For many who have had their fingers burned by a fellow expat the answer is simple.
 
"I have a friend who is thinking of moving to the Charente," says Helen Wood "and she asks me what would I say to her about not getting ripped off? And I just said "don't go with an expat builder".
 
For Wilkins that kind of reaction is "understandable".
 
"A lot of people who have had their fingers burned end up relying on French traders."
 
But as Artisan Central can account for there are many trustworthy expat tradespeople who can be relied upon and there are also some French traders ready to take advantage of vulnerable new arrivals.
 
"The problem is everyone is tarred with the same brush. But it means those who do things professionally and correctly have to make an extra effort."
 
Wilkins says those trustworthy traders could also do more to stand out from the cowboys. Even if it's creating a website, with a link to the local Chambre de Metiers who potential customers can contact to check out if they are bonafide.
 
"They need to put themselves out there and be ready to give customers all the information they might need," she said.
 
Just don't take the risk
 
There's always an element of risk employing someone you have never had work for you before but one phrase should rule your decision-making or you might live to regret, like the woman who lost €44,000 on a botched new build.
 
"The phrase 'if it's too good to be true it probably is' still haunts me," she says.
 
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