I think it was about the time that the waft of ‘eaux d’egouts (sewage) assailed me in the ‘salon’ (sittingroom) as I was relaxing after dinner that I conceded that, as beautiful as they were, the period features of our appartment were being overwhelmed somewhat by an outdated plumbing system. The problem was that it wasn’t just the unbearable smell of sewage that I had to contend with, but also the dysfunctional kitchen. Had I really ‘rented a ruin’? It was certainly begining to feel that way.
It started with a minor irritation, the back burner of the hob refused to light. If we were lucky, pushing on the starter button for a duration of 7 minutes would result in a success, and finally the carrots could boil at the same time as the potatoes without having to resort to a daft pan juggling process of ‘five minutes boiling’ ‘swap’ ‘five minutes boiling’ over a twenty minute period.
A few weeks into the rental, I noticed that if I started the dish-washer at the same time as the washing-machine or the oven, the apartment was plunged into complete darkness. This involved a very inconvenient proceedure of feeling through the darkness to turn off one electrical appliance, and then the arduous task of moving the ladders, ironingboards and assortment of supermarket carrierbags out of the way to find the fusebox, at the same time accompanied by shreaks of anguish and irritation from the kids whose ‘unsaved’ computer games had just switched off and were going to necessitate at least another thirty minutes of troll battling to win back all the gold bullion that had, until that minute, already been won.
Finally, a fortnight before christmas, in a blinding flash, the cooker fused the switchboard in the middle of cooking the dinner, never to work again.
I took pen to paper….
In general, in France the locataire (tenant) is very well protected. But, unlike in England, the tenant has more obligations towards the ‘demure’ (home) that he rents, to keep it in good condition, and to take responsibility for the repair and upkeep of the dwelling. A dripping tap? Large windows and no curtains? A broken doorbell? A broken shower screen? No question of contacting the owner. These are all firmly in the domain of the tenant. While the French tenant has a protected tenancy for three years, the English tenant is protected only for one. This means that the mind-set of the French tenant is one of viewing his rental property almost as his own. He can decorate it as he sees fit, but if the mains drainage blocks, it is his duty to pay for the unblocking. If the plumbing system springs a leak, as in our case, the mains water underground at the bottom of the garden, the responsibility lies with the tenant. Except for one case, the French tenant pays for repairs, no matter whether to the kitchen appliances, the drainage, or to the letterbox which passing drunks tore down in a haze of alcohol the night before. And the case in question – Vetuste.
If, as a tenant in France you are fortunate enough to be able to claim ‘vetuste’, a useful little word meaning ‘old and worn out and beyond its life expectancy’ you can once more turn the obligation of repair and replacement back to the landlord. Or at least you should be able to, as long as you have a reasonable landlord.
Our first meeting with the agent dealing with our rental apartment should have been adequate warning. Despite clutching the computer print-out of the advertisement, the agent raised the monthly rent by 200€, and when we waved the piece of paper at him, he declared
“Ce n’est pas Bagdad”.
We later discovered he followed this trick with every propective tenant, and has just managed to swindle the ‘Procurer General de Rouen’ who moves into the first floor next week in the same manner. At the moment, the Procurer General is none the wiser….it won’t take long, we share the same soil vent pipe after all!
Our second meeting with the agent reinforced the concept that our agent, a ‘Hussier de Justice’ (bailif) on rue Jean Lecanuet was a crook. This time clutching the tenancy contract for an apartment and garage, we followed him into the court yard of our new apartment building and asked which was to be our garage. When he turned and matter of factly announced that there wasn’t one, despite having prepared and signed the papers only half an hour earlier, our fears were confirmed.
It won’t take much effort to realise that getting the rusted soil vent pipe (canalisation des eaux d’egouts) replaced, or a new cooker would be a mammoth undertaking.
My first letter on the subject was written a year and a half ago, and thereafter at regular intervals by ‘lettre recommandé avec avis de reception’ (recorded delivery and including a handy response slip indicating it had arrived). The hussier ignored all correspondence.
It took water damage to the wall of the neighbour below for the agent to finally acknowledge there was a problem. This was six months ago. Today I have a rather fetching toilet, where all the wallpaper has been removed, revealing a blackened mildewed and crumbling wall surface, and sporting a ‘lovely’ smell of damp. However, what the hussier had not counted on was my rather obstinant and tenacious approach. Secretly, I rather feel I should have chosen a different vocation. Being an architect is good for detecting problems in buildings, but being a lawyer is so much more effective at getting resolutions!
It was my neighbour who first pointed me in the general direction of ADIL, (Agence départmentale d’Information sur le Logement) a ‘Maison de Droit’ (legal advisor) specialising in free legal advice for tenants. Unluckily for our landlord, I am one of those obsessive types that likes to photograph, record and file any snippit which might come in handy later. My drainage system and cooker were no exception. Clutching my file, I entered the ADIL offices with all the evidence I had been able to muster, and was rewarded by the advisors agreement that the landlord was indeed violating his obligations.
Armed with the back-up from the ADIL offices, I then contacted the manufacturers of all the kitchen appliances in my kitchen – but this time, in response to having been made to wait by the landlord 18 months, I didn’t just stop at the cooker. My researches were rewarded by responses from the manufacturer that the cooker, the fridge and the freezer were in fact manufactered in 1980, the fridge and the freezer no longer ran on permitted refrigeration gasses and there was no dispute on the fact that the appliances were all in a state of vetuste.
I presented the dossier to the Hussier with an implied threat of legal action, enjoying being sure of my rights and playing him on the same ‘field’.
Last week the landlord called with a plumbing specialist. He frowned at the state of the toilet walls, and listened miserably to the plumber ‘oooh and ahh’ over the condition of the cast iron and lead pipe work. He nodded disagreably at the cooker, the fridge and the freezer and assured me that a ‘cuisiniste’ (kitchen specialist) would be around in the next few days. And then in a last desperate attempt to take the upper hand, stared meaningfully at my ‘system automatique d’arrossage’ (automatic windowbox watering system) and barked:
“C’est interdit, Madame” he said
“That’ll have to go”.
Though between you and me, I’m pretty sure that automatic window-box watering systems are not mentioned in the contract.
I wonder what ADIL will have to say about that!