Six days after my husband was despatched for Nigeria, and one month since the family manoevred its way through the shock of his sudden facial surgery, the upheaval an obligatory move of house, and the minor ailments of flu, the water board made my day by sending me a water bill for 2,439 euros!
Since at the best of times, countering this kind of demand takes resourcefulness, energy and skill, it will not come as any suprise that fighting such a financial claim in a foriegn language has taken up the best part of my waking hours!
For anyone finding themselves in a similar situation there are a few words of advice I should like to give:
Firstly, if you own the property you are absolutely responsible for any water consumption or loss from the minute it passes the meter in the manhole. Secondly, if you are renting a property, you are absolutely responsible for any water consumption or loss from the minute it passes the meter in the manhole. If you cannot spot the difference, it is because there isn’t one! Once you rent a house, you must take absolute responsibility for it in exactly the same way you would if you were the owner!
Secondly, If you take out Assurance d’Habitation be warned, this policy does not cover you for ‘dégâts d’eau’ (water damage), or loss if it occurs outside the fabric of the building. In other words, a leak within the house will be covered, so long as you have the words “garentit contre dégâts d’eau” physically worded on the certificate; if not there is no protection internally either! The word on the street is that it is not possible to insure against external leaks of water and burst pipes in France.
As the situation passed with us, we discovered there had been a huge leak from the mains water supply to our rented house three days after the end of our rental contract. However, because the contract terminated on the 31st December, and therefore on New Years Eve, neither the landlord nor the estate agent were prepared to come out to to the “étât de lieu” (a check of the inventory and inspection of the property, and reading of meters). Our error was not to read the meters on the date itself, but to leave them the three days until the ‘étât de lieu’ was arranged. In light of what we later discovered, it is unlikely they would have believed us anyway! But since we were suffering badly from the after effects of surgery (my husband) and flu (myself), what could possibly happen in three days?
At the lifting of the manhole cover, it was quite impossible to read the meter. The manhole was full to the brim, but unobligingly, had not flowed out onto the driveway of garden to give a clue as to what lay beneath! The landlord at that point took responsibility for reporting the leak to the water board and the ensueing meter reading. This took a further 2 days, and therefore 5 days and 780 cubic meters of water had run between the end of our contract and the final reparation of the pipe.
If I have learnt one thing, it is this – once you discover a problem, gather together all the detail, note it down in a letter form strongly arguing your case and post to everyone with the slightest bit of relevence to the situation by recorded delivery, “courier recommandé avec avis de reception”.
The second point to take note of is that a phone call to the interested party – in our case the waterboard, is not enough. The content of the conversation must be again carefully noted in letter format and sent recorded delivery. In my case I failed to follow up my initial conversation in which I requested that the “prelevement” (direct debit) be cancelled pending an investigation and despite assurances by the phone operator, this was never done! It was only by sheer luck that I discovered that the prelevement was still active on my account, and should that ever have gone through my case would have been irrevocably lost.
Interesting fact number three is that the banks are remarkably well set up to offer an ‘Opposition de Prelevement’ with computer generated certificates to that effect. Mine was obligingly set with the next possible date for presentation of this prelevement being the 31 December 2050. Do not assume that the water board will take this lightly. Having sent off another letter outlining that I had done this and my reasons for the oposition by recorded delivery, I promptly received a demand for payment within 48 hours and the threat of court action. Had I not have had the lucky chance to have moved to an apartment with water included in the charges, the bank clerk advised me that my water supply would have been cut off within a month!
Shortly afterwards I received another letter from the waterboard with a form to fill out to plead my case, with a deadline sufficiently short so that there would not be time to send it by recorded mail which takes marginally longer than a standard letter. Wised up by this point I took it by hand to the water board and watch over the secretary while she logged it into the system.
A chance meeting with my bank manager clarified that I was entitled to free legal advice, which I took the oportunity of taking, although there was no bilingual service, the scope of the conversation was clear enough to establish that the Locataire,(tenant) is responsible for leaks during their tenancy, as mentioned above. Should I have further need of advice I shall not hesitate to use it as it was clear impartial legal information as regards to my rights and obligations, and hugely necessary to have that on tap when negotiating within a foriegn judicial system.
While waiting for my dossier to be investigated I struck upon the most crucial aspect of all. It is not WHAT you know, but WHO you know! One of my son’s friend’s mothers worked for a waterboard, albeit for a different district, but she took my copy of my dossier with her to work with her, and between her and her colleagues managed to determine that by the end of the day that my waterbill had been annulled and the bill vastly reduced. At the time of writing, I do not know the level of this reduction, and I still have a couple of tricks up my sleeve, involving the Marie (town hall) being one of them.
If I could leave you with a final piece of advice, do not be defeated by what at first appears to be an impossible battle, paperwork and contacts are the name of the game – the final outcome for me? Only time will tell!
It is just the best news to everyone concerned that I have had a huge success with the water board. I have just received my new replacement water bill. I have to pay the grand total of 88 euros, a reduction of 2351.13 euros. If I can give anyone the encouragement that with perceverence and a methodical approach, despite all the odds (and they were heavily stacked against us) one can succeed. Good luck to anyone else out there battling against beaurocracy and sheer bad luck!