Buying A House In France (Part 6)

4th House Visit

It was the first week of February. We had been actively searching for a house to buy since the start of the year. However, we had only visited three houses so far. Our calls to real estate agents, hoping to make appointments to visit houses, were fruitless: either the houses had already been sold by the time we called for house visits or the real estate agents were too busy (and rude) to return our calls. 

Knock! Knock! Any House For Sale?

On the first Saturday of February, we decided to knock on the doors of the agents and to catch them unaware. Perhaps an impromptu visit might get us more houses to visit. However, I was also slightly apprehensive that our approach–not making an appointment–might not sit well with the French. I have always find that taking initiative or being proactive is a trait admirable; however, my impression of the French is that they might find such quality socially inappropriate, as if we are intruding upon their private space. 

Since it seemed increasingly impossible to get a house in Orsay with our budget, we decided to broaden our search to Palaiseau, a bigger town 4km northeast of Orsay.  Even though the two towns are only a few kilometres apart, the ambiences in these two towns are vastly different. The population in Palaiseau is younger and perhaps that explains why the town is more bustling than Orsay (restaurants and markets are open on Sundays unlike those in Orsay). However, it has less greenery than Orsay and it takes us a longer time to access the woods.

Anyway, the first agency we popped into did not throw us out after we announced our presence without a rendezvous. However, they did not have time for us that day and they promised to call us back, after taking down our contact details and search criteria. Well, as of today, they still have not called us back.

Light At The End Of The Tunnel

A spark of light at the end of the tunnel in which we had been fumbling for the past six weeks. 

We were lucky with the second visit at O, a national real estate franchise. A mid-thirties old man, who seemed to be the owner of the firm, looked happy to see us. I was in sales before, and I understood that sales people are always glad to have walk-ins, regardless how busy they are. A walk-in means a potential client.  Hence, I am always amazed at the attitude of some French salespeople who treat clients as intruders. 

After noting our search criteria, the agent stated that he had two houses that might interest us, and both houses could be shown to us that day. The first house was already listed on the popular seloger.com, but not the second one. Excitement crept up on us when the agent revealed that we could view two houses in one go. At that moment, we could see a spark of light at the end of the dark, house-search tunnel in which we had been fumbling for the past six weeks. 

Massy does not fulfill our search criteria of a greener and more rustic environment.

Unfortunately, our excitement was soon halved after the agent showed us the photos and shared with us more details of the first house. The first house was in Massy, 2km away from Palaiseau, a town much bigger than Orsay and Palaiseau, and more urbanised. Since a greener and more rustic environment was one of our house search criteria, moving to Massy was a no-go for us. 

Our Dream House...?

The second house, located in Palaiseau, had yet to be listed on the market. Not being on the market yet meant that we would have a higher chance of our offer being accepted by the seller, given the current ‘demand more than supply‘ property market.

Pluses

One of the perks of the Palaiseau house was the location. It sat on the banks of Yvette river and  (which passed through Orsay too) we could easily access the river through a small gate in the garden. In addition, it was five minutes walking distance away from both the train station and the town centre. 

This 120m² two-storey house had three bedrooms (smallish though) with space big enough in the attic to build two more if we decided to renovate the attic. Another plus was the abundance of natural light that flooded through the big bay windows in the living room, which overlooked the Yvette river. And, it had a chimney to boot. Last but not least, a studio with a separate entrance was annexed to the back of the house. We could rent the studio out, perhaps to a student, to get an extra source of income. Like what the agent kept telling us as he gave us the grand tour of the house, there was grand potentiel in this house.

Minuses

The drawbacks. Firstly, we did not like the fact that the house was situated right in front of a relatively busy road. Other than the potential noise, we would likely cause a little bouchon (traffic jam) when we slowed down to drive through the front gate to reach our garage. Secondly, a small public parking was just next to the house, separated by hedges. We did not like the idea of Tom, Dick, or Harry peeping at us through the hedges. Thirdly, the location was quite far away from the nearest woods where we could do our trail runs. 

Then, there was the potential total cost. The asking price was within our budget but there was still some work to be done on our part to turn the ‘grand potentiel’ of the house to reality. Some of the work needed to be done included a total makeover of the attic so as to turn it into additional rooms, the studio renovation (it looked shabby now), enlargement of the bedrooms, partial demolition of the wall that separated the living room and the stairway so as to bring more light to the house.

To be honest, the house at its current state was liveable, and most of the additional work we wanted to do was ‘optional’. However, a part of the asking price of any old house is also attributable to the option of realising the house potential. If work is not done to renovate the house, a part of the asking price paid is wasted. As such, considering the modifications that we would like to make would put a substantial hole in our pocket.

Lastly, after the renovation, the house would be just too big for the two of us. 

Buy or Not Buy

Based on the above analysis, an experienced house buyer might have placed the house onto his “No” list. Apart from the features of the house, the experienced buyer might also think twice about the situation under which the house sold.

The house was occupied by an old lady until she had to move to a nursing home (seemed to be a very common reason why houses are sold in France) recently. Her children (a son and a daughter) were overseeing the sale. At the time of our visit, the house was not officially up for sale and it seemed that the sellers were still talking to different agents, without appointing any yet. We noted that the process was certainly in the early stages, so early that the sellers had yet decided on a selling price. However, it seemed that the various agents had already determined the market value. Per the O agent, if we were to make an offer, we should offer at the average market value that had been estimated by a few other real estate agents.

Apart from the potential total cost, we believed the pluses outweighed the minuses regarding the house. We also thought of renovating the house in various stages over a period of time, instead of a one-time renovation, if the costs were way over our budget. In our mind, as we toured the house, we could already imagine how the house would look like after the renovation, how our meal scenes would be as we sat either in the garden or the dining room overlooking Yvette, what we would do we with extra rooms under the roof…

Any lingering doubts were pushed to the back of our minds when we considered our dire situation: needed to find a house soon since we had just sold our apartment, house demand was greater than supply, and no replies from various real estate agents that we contacted. In addition, we thought that good fortune had finally come for way since we managed to view a house before it was listed on the market. 

Offer To Buy

After spending the rest of the Saturday discussing and re-discussing the house, examining the project from various angles, we decided to offer for the Palaiseau house. The price we would offer was the price claimed by our agent to be the average market value. Knowing that there would not be any house visits the following day since it was a Sunday (thus no risk of potential house bidders), we gave ourselves a night to lower our adrenaline rush before contacting the agent.

Before transmitting our offer to the O agent, we made the most of our weekly Sunday morning run to run from Orsay to Palaiseau to checkout the house and its neighbourhood. Nothing egregious about the house or its surroundings struck us during our once-over. When we returned from the run, we texted our agent, rather than bother him with a phone call since it was Sunday.

The Wait

Perhaps we were hoping too much. After all the adrenaline rush accumulated from taking the decision, we were hoping for a quick, or even immediate response from the agent. A quick call back, or even just a text, saying that he got our message and that he would get back to us soon. Any indication that he had received our message. It was only a few hours later that he texted back, briefing saying that he would call us later in the evening to teach us how to draft an offer d’achat, an offer statement.

We waited, and we waited. Telling ourselves that we were too impatient. That it was a Sunday and we should be glad that at least the agent replied to our text. That at least he promised to call us back later that day. That the French value family life more than work, even if they were in sales. Coming from Asia and having been in sales before, I was quick to note that it we were in Asia, the salesperson would call us back the moment he received our text. I guess that I am still cannot get used to how things are done, how people behave in France even after spending five years in this country.

Guess what. The O agent did not call us back despite his promise. He only called us back at the end of Monday evening. He explained to us he could not call us back earlier as his son was suffering from a stomach flu the day before. Yes, we could definitely understand that family was more important that work. But a short text from him to explain his circumstances would suffice, instead of keeping us waiting for one and a half day. 

Since it was our first offer d’achat, we thought it was a complicated letter with the usual convoluted archaic French business formulation.  In the end, it was just a two-sentence letter stating that we wanted to buy that house at that price, and we would finance the purchase the cost with a bank loan and our personal savings. We could have easily find a template of the internet. So, we sent him the letter right after he called us on Monday evening, shortly before 7pm.

The Wait Continues

It was only on Wednesday evening, two days later, before the O agent told us that one of the sellers (the son) accepted our offer. It seemed that neither the son nor the O agent could get hold of the sister, the other seller. A 50%-acceptance was useless. We needed a 100% assurance that we got a house. 

Other than the delay in getting an answer from the sellers, we also did not appreciate the almost non-existent communication from the agent during this period. It might just be mere 48 hours, yet the waiting period without any updates from the agent was a torture for both Silviu and I. 

After receiving the 50%-acceptance on Wednesday evening, we received no further updates from the O agent, neither did we obtain the additional information on the house we requested. For instance, we asked for the Dossier de Diagnostic Technique (DDT), the obligatory surveys and reports that a seller must provide before a sale could be completed. The DDT protects a buyer from any hidden defects in the property. With the DDT, we could have a better idea of how much work needed to be done on the house. Even if the agent did not have updates for us, he could have drop us a short text or a call to let us know the status, instead of letting us fret over his silence. 

It was another two days later, on Friday, before the agent got back to us with the acceptance from the sister.

The minuses have now outweighed the pluses.

Buy Or Not Buy Continues

Time to Reconsider

We made the decision to buy the house on a Sunday afternoon and it took until Friday, five days after we transmitted our decision to the agent, before we got a confirmation over the phone from the agent that our offer was accepted. It was not even an official, written confirmation. 

It seemed that we were the only ones doing all the chasing: chasing for sellers’ acceptance, chasing for updates from the agent, chasing for an official confirmation from the sellers, chasing for the DDT. In the five days, various thoughts ran across our minds: maybe the DDT was so bad that the sellers were trying to stall us so as to fix some of the problems; maybe the agent was trying to use our standing offer to bait his other clients into upping their offers; maybe the sellers decided not to give the selling mandate to our agent; maybe there was a family dispute between the brother and the sister and they could not agree on the house sale etc. 

Having been given the time to cool our heels, we also reconsidered the minuses of the house, examined them with a magnifying glass, and the lingering doubts turned to potential catastrophes. We blamed ourselves for being too caught up with the anxiety of not finding a house and thus settling for the first OK house, for being inexperienced buyers, for being gullible…

The five-day wait made us realised that our situation was fraught with uncertainty and we could not put all the eggs on this house. Every day of waiting meant that time wasted that could be used to find our ultimate dream house. After the first few days of waiting, we returned to our active house search. Through LF agent, the agent who helped us sell our apartment a few weeks before, and we secured two house visits for the following Saturday morning. 

Final Decision

In the end, we decided to give up the house. We called the O agent on Saturday afternoon, and then sent him a written retraction offer. 

The main reason why we chose not to go ahead with the purchase was our mental exhaustion. We did not want to spend any more time speculating what went on in the minds of the sellers and the O agent. We did not want to continue in the state of limbo over the house. As of Saturday, we were still unsure whether the sellers actually accepted our offer since we had not receive any written communication from them. Moreover, the two houses (our 5th and 6th house visits) we saw on Saturday morning also helped us to firm up our decision. The two visits reassured us that we still had a decent chance to secure our dream house.  

Keeping a customer updated is part of customer service.

Customer Service

Though we decided not to proceed with the transaction, Silviu felt extremely bad about reneging on our offer. He felt bad that the agent could not make his commission.  

For me, on one hand, I too felt sorry that he could not earn his commission. On the other hand, I treated the whole episode as a business transaction. Having worked in sales in my previous life, I know how important customer service is. One should always keep the clients updated, even if there are no significant changes in situation. In our case, even if the sellers have not provided information to the O agent, he should just drop us a short text or a quick call to put our minds at rest.

Besides in any business transaction, it’s not uncommon for clients changing their minds in the last minute. I used to have clients who got cold feet for one reason or another. It was a disappointment as usually these clients were the ones who demonstrated great enthusiasm right from the start

Strike when the iron is hot.

Strike When The Iron Is Hot

Back then, I was taught to ‘Strike when the iron is hot’ so as to close the deals. It’s best to engage with the client immediately when the client shows any signs of interest. When a client has too much time on his hands, it is very likely that he will overthink his decision, get cold feet, and eventually not sign on the dotted line. This is exactly what happened to us. Silviu and I were ready to kick off the buying process and to sign the purchase agreement, yet we were left cooling our heels. It was also because we had time on our hands that we contacted the LF agent for more house visits. 

Objectively, I believe that the agent lost his commission for not engaging us when we were ready to commit. We compared the O agent with the LF agent who helped us to sell our apartment a few weeks before—it was a completely different type of customer service. His response time was short. Immediately after the interested buyers left our apartment after the visit, he brought them back to his office to have a debrief. The moment they showed their interest in buying, he called us and then dropped by our apartment within the hour. Both the buyers and us got the written confirmation on the same day, within hours.

Our Search Continues...

With no house in our pocket, we were thrown back into the market for buying house. 

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