France, property rental and getting ripped off

This article is all about how you get ripped off when living in rented accomodation in France, how to avoid it and, if it happens, how to fight back.

One important disclaimer up front: I am not a lawyer, and none of this should be taken as formal legal advice. All I will do is relate my experiences and thoughts. And if they give you some ideas or pointers, great, but check with others too!

(parts 2, 3 and 4 are here, here and here)

The game of “Screw the tenant”

While living in France, I’ve lived in three different rented properties. And I’ve known a lot of other people who also live in rented accommodation – everything from tiny studio flats to large villas, the property rental market in France is very active.

The laws regarding property rental as, as you might expect, well developed and designed to protect both landlord and tenant. However the law is one thing, reality is another.

One area, though, which appears to be an entirely routine and predictable battle-ground is the return of the tenant’s deposit (or caution) at the end of the tenancy.

While not wishing to tar all landlords with the same brush, based upon personal experience and many conversations with others, it is almost standard procedure to try and pay the tenant back just as little of that deposit as possible.

The landlord’s standard mechanism for doing that is to show that the property has been damaged in various ways and thus requires repair, the cost to be taken out of the deposit.

The tenant’s standard mechanism for avoiding this is to not pay the rent for the last two or three months (depending upon whether the deposit paid was originally equal to two or three months) and have the landlord instead use the deposit money as the rent.

Should I pay or not?

Well, of course that’s up to you! But you must remember that if you do not pay your rent up until the point of departure, but instead force the landlord to use the deposit instead, you are breaching the terms of your rental agreement (assuming any vaguely normal such agreement) and thus taking a gamble.

On the one hand you make sure that the landlord cannot withhold your deposit, since it’s all gone to pay the rent anyway. That’s good. But in the event of any subsequent legal dispute between you and the landlord, you’ve hardly a leg to stand on: you flagrantly breached the tenancy agreement, which will be greatly frowned upon!

So let us assume that you decide to be a legal and honest tenant, and pay the rental right up until the end. And the landlord then decides to try and rip you off. What happens then? Well, let me relate what happened to me, and how I fought and won!

The état des lieux

First, let us go off on a little diversion about the (in) famous état des lieux. It’s critical to understand what it’s all about, since it is fundamental to the rip-off scheme used on tenants.

The Internet is full of detailed advice on the état des lieux, so you can Google for it yourself… But just to deal with the key concepts as they matter to us here. The purpose of that document is to FULLY detail the state of the property you are renting when you take occupancy. Then again, at the end, to FULLY detail the property’s state. Any differences between the two then becomes subject of debate as to who, if anyone, is responsible for it… And the game thus begins.

I cannot stress enough how important it is to make sure that the état des lieux when you move in is HUGELY detailed. Any defect, however trivial, should be documented. For example, there is a slightly cracked tile in the bathroom. Make sure you document it! Or, three years later, you might end up paying for the ENTIRE bathroom to be re-tiled… So write it down. And when the landlord or agent assures you that such details don’t matter, insist. Believe me, they know full well how important it is. Even from day-one, you will be tempted to lay the foundations for your own downfall later on!

Record not just the obvious defects, but also the general state of things too. If the walls are shabby and obviously have not been painted in 5 years, get it noted. Remind the landlord that such a record dos not oblige him to do anything – it just records how things are. And take some photos too. They need not form a formal part of the état des lieux, but they are very powerful when whipped out 3 years later to show how things were! Oh, and remember and try to “accidentally” include the landlord in one of them also – so when their provenance is questioned you can close that discussion down quickly.

Also remember that you have a period after moving in to add things you did not notice previously. Follow the procedures and get them added before it’s too late.

Finally, if in any doubt, employ someone to do the état des lieux with the landlord on your behalf. Best choice? Pay a property agent not connected with your tenancy. Set a thief to catch a thief, and all that…

The next article in this series will relate my personal experiences in getting ripped off, but also how I used the legal system to fight back.

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