27 September 2008

An extra trip to France

In December 2002 we had found a house in France that we wanted to buy, and in January 2003 we were preparing the house in California for sale. Meanwhile, we had asked our notaire — the French legal official who sets up companies and contracts, including real estate deals — for help in creating a Société Civile Iimmobilière for the purchase of the Saint-Aignan house.

Saint-Aignan, February 2003.
The river Cher was overflowing its banks.

In France, an SCI is a real estate holding company. Owners might rent out the houses they own, or they might live in them. In our case, our SCI owns our house and we live in it rent-free. In other words, the SCI is a corporation with no revenues. The owners of the corporation are Walt and I, each with 50% of the company's shares.

A public building in Saint-Aignan

The advantage of founding an SCI is that your property no longer falls under family inheritance laws, which in France are very complex and restrictive. Under those laws, your blood relatives, be they parents, children, or siblings, automatically inherit your property if you die — you have little or no choice in the matter. In our case, for example, I could end up having to rent the house from Walt's siblings after his death, because they would inherit his share under family law. We didn't want that. With the SCI, we can inherit from each other even though we are not officially related to each other.

Repaving the streets of old Saint-Aignan

To set up the SCI, I had to make a trip to France between the time we signed the initial papers to buy the house and the time of the closing. Poor me, right? Well, Walt was still gainfully employed at the time, and I wasn't. And one plane ticket would cost less than two. He stayed in California to watch the dog, continue cleaning up for the sale there, and meet his work obligations. It was early in Febuary 2003. We'd both be in France soon enough if everything went as planned.

Life goes on, despite the construction work

Through the kindness of old friends in Normandy, I had a place to stay while I was in France. I went there and caught up on jet lag for a few days. Then one of my friends and I drove down to Saint-Aignan to see the lawyer and the house. It's a four-hour drive, and it had been snowing nearly every day up there in Normandy, so we didn't know what to expect.

When we got to Saint-Aignan, the weather was beautiful but we found the town's main street all torn up. They were putting down new paving stones, replacing an asphalt street with more authentic materials. We stayed at the Hôtel du Moulin on the banks of the river in Saint-Aignan for one night. It turned out not to be a very comfortable place, and the next day we moved to a more modern hotel over in Montrichard, where the lawyer and our real estate agent had their offices.

The new paving stones were nicer than the old asphalt surface.

It took all of 30 minutes for me to review the papers the lawyer had drawn up and to sign them in his office. He would then send them to the authorities in Blois, who would publish a notice that a new SCI had been created. I had given myself a week to get everything arranged, but it was done in a flash. My friend and I were free to return to Normandy.

At the real estate office, they were kind enough to give me the keys to the house, which was unoccupied, so that I could go look around and show the place to my friend from Normandy. We drove over and let ourselves in. The place was pretty much a mess. It hadn't been lived in for at least two years. There were a lot of dead flies on the window sills, a lot of cobwebs, and miscellaneous pieces of old furniture and even trash scattered here and there. The garage was still full of junk, including a big riding mower.

We opened the shutters and saw that it had started snowing.

We turned on some lights and looked around in the house. I wanted to measure the rooms to see what pieces of the furniture we had in California might fit. Luckily, one bedroom turned out to be big enough to accommodate a king-size bed. The other bedroom was big enough for a double. We had and would ship those items, with their mattresses. We weren't sure about living room furniture.

My friend (who's French) said humidity had obviously damaged some interior walls, and it was true that the wallpaper in all the rooms was in pitiful condition. She said we would need to keep all the windows open for most of the coming summer to let the house breathe and dry out. Well, that turned out to be the summer of the Great Heat Wave, with temperatures in the 90s and even low 100s F. for weeks on end. The house dried out, no problem, and we suffered through it without air-conditioning. We very seldom had more than three days in a row of such hot weather in San Francisco.

Snow at La Renaudière in February 2003.

That particular day in February, at some point we decided to open the shutters on the window in one of the rooms to get more light. And to our surprise, it had started snowing outside. It had been sunny and bright since our arrival in Saint-Aignan 24 hours earlier. Because we never had snow in San Francisco, seeing it fall at La Renaudière was very exciting to me.

When we left the house and drove the 750 yards back down the hill to the highway that runs along the banks of the river Cher, it wasn't snowing down there. It was raining. So I realized our house and hamlet had their own micro-climate — for better or worse.

We had stopped at Chambord and Blois on the way to Saint-Aignan, and the next day we spent a couple of hours at Chenonceaux before we started the drive back to Rouen. I'm not sure if my French friend had ever seen the Loire châteaux before, and seeing them made the trip worth her while.

By the time I got back to San Francisco, it was almost time for the first open house there.


  1. Hey, Ken, just got home from a trip, so I'm catching up on your visit with Jill and Peter and the story of your Big Move. I'm loving every word of it! Thanks for all the details.


  2. Ken, when you say that it would have to be a blood relative to inherit a home... what about in the case of a husband and wife? Does the spouse not inherit the house in full? It would actually be shared, then, by the surviving blood relatives of the deceased spouse and the surviving spouse? That is so unreal! Is that the case?

    When I was in France last, I was taking a course, and one of the mini sessions was a contemporary culture workshop. The young woman leading the workshop (in her late 20s? maybe very early 30s?) was talking about something like this... she was living with a man, and they had a new baby together, and she said that their apartment had to be in his name (though she was paying "rent" to him!), and that, in the case of his death, it would have to go to their little son as owner... so, she would be living there only like as a guest of her son, so to speak. A woman who was part of our group was a French woman in her early 50s, originally from the south of France, who is a professor at Sweetbriar College in Virginia. She told this young woman that she felt quite certain that there was a legal way around this restriction, and that the young woman really needed to look into this further before she just accepted that her name could not be on as part owner of the apartment... here was this young woman just paying "rent" for living there, with ZERO ownership rights or guarantee of anything if their relationship were to end! I guess that SHE needed the kind of legal setup that you and Walt did.

    How did you know to pursue this?

    Great information! Very interesting.


  3. Hi Judy, we found out about creating an SCI from my friend in Rouen, a woman whose family I have known since the early 1970s. She owns three or four apartments in Rouen, is divorced, and knows the ins and outs of real estate ownership and inheritance laws.

    In the case of the young woman you mentioned, I wonder if the PACS (the French "civil union" that gives couples many of the rights and benefits of traditional marriage)would give her inheritance rights. But then maybe she wasn't interested in being "pacsée" or married.

    When we arrived here, we were told that two foreigners couldn't enter into a PACS. Now we are told that that wasn't true.

    It used to be that the wife didn't inherit property from her husband. She got a lifetime right, called usufruit, and the children got actual ownership. I think that changed a few years ago, however, so that the wife does inherit.


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