Mailbag: Home Improvement, Crooks, and Real Estate Lawsuits in France

It’s been a couple years since I’ve done a Mailbag article. Because so many questions are answered in the comments section of articles or in our Facebook group, I have less and less of a need to do one, but every now and then, I get an email that will be instructive for the general public. This one came earlier this year. The names has been changed and some edits have been made for grammatical consistency.

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Dear Stephen

You probably don’t remember me but a few years ago you helped connect me with someone to help me with financial matters and I appreciated that. Now I have a new even bigger issue that I don’t think will be as easily solved, however. How do I handle a crook contractor who took my money and never finished the house?

I am an American and have been living in Montpellier since 2008. In 2019, I thought I knew the French system enough to build my own house. Wanting to be careful, I bought a plot with a home on it from a real state agency, Malhonnete Immobilier. The project was already underway (the builder and permits were ready) but the previous buyer had given up because they didn’t get a mortgage.

I bought the plot, but when it came the time to sign the building contract, I got a little suspicious because the contractor didn’t have an obvious track record. This is when the immobilier’s general manager took me to see his own house that the same contractor was working on. He assured me that the guy was good and should finish my house in no time.

Well, I signed for the house and even added a pool to the plans. But work started and never finished.

For the past two years I’ve tried to negotiate with the contractor as everyone was saying that it was unlikely that I could get anything done by legal means. I refused to listen and hired lawyers who took my money and promised to get the contractor to finish the work. Two years on, the lawyer suddenly told me that it is a dead end!

In fact, six months ago, I had found out that the contractor had changed the name of his company and modified the registration number for the business purpose, going from general constructions/menuiserie to just menuiserie. He had transferred everything from his old company (Menteur Construction) to a new one (Menuiserie 42) he had established a few years back.

I was the one to inform the lawyer and the Court d’Appel that was in process of checking the “Expertise” what has been done and not done. However, the contractor is still operating in the same office, with the same phone number, same email and same team, doing the same type of work. He still drives expensive cars and has multiple houses. But apparently I only have to wait for the Juge de liquidation to find the money which I am told offers little chance of me getting anything.

The contractor (M. Voleur) when he responds to me, blames the real state agency manager (M. Escroc). Apparently they had a falling out and the agency stopped referring and giving him work, thus he had to close the old company.

I am broke because I have to pay my mortgages, the lawyers, the court, as well as fix the house in order to be able to live in it.

I am desperate. I trusted the French system and I still don’t understand how I have to be one to pay for the contractor’s mismanagement.

At this point, I will welcome any ideas or help! Do you know any good lawyers who can help?

Thank you
Sally

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Dear Sally

I’m terribly sorry to hear about this. If I had not recently read L’Appart, by David Lebovitz, written in 2017 to chronicle the absolutely money-draining remodeling project of his apartment in Paris, I would not really have anything to say to you. But, after having read the more than 300 pages of that book, and knowing what he went through, here are some disheartening things you have to understand:

  • the law in France is not the same as the law in Anglo-Saxon countries
  • the laws in France are biased against the owners of the property
  • the people involved in homes, from the agents to contractors, are known by French society to be generally crooked and untrustworthy
  • you’ve learned the hard and expensive way that the legal route on these matters in France is expensive and in the end, gets you nowhere

My advice would be to cut your losses and figure out another path forward. You need to mentally divorce yourself from the idea that this will be resolved financially, legally, or even morally.

It’s tough to hear, I’m sure, but simply from reading David Lebovitz’s account and reading your details, I can’t think of another conclusion. I do think that the fact that you “refused to listen” to people and hired lawyers instead was your fatal, and very American, way of thinking.

We are not in America, anymore. The fact that after all this experience you end your letter by asking “if I know a good lawyer” makes me wonder…have you even learned from this experience, because you seem to keep going back, thinking you will get a different solution, when the answers are right in your face: the legal route in France regarding home contractors is a dead end!

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Jean Taquet often features stories like this in his newsletter to give a broader perspective and after CCing him on my response to her, he CCed me on his own response.

Dear Sally

I want to make several small comments before I get to the legal issue which in France is totally different from the USA.

The worst horror stories I know about regarding contractors, real-estate agents, and so on happened in the USA. I am not saying that everything regarding this matter is worse in the USA.

All I am saying is that at my level as a professional helping foreigners in France, I have dealt with plenty of awful situations happening in France, and I am aware of similar situations that exist in the USA.

It is absolutely true that the professional ethic benchmark for real-estate agents holding a license is much lower in France than in the USA. The good news is that there are more and more French laws being passed to limit the amount of lying they can do without legal or professional consequences. This said, this applies more to apartment transactions and less to the houses in the countryside.

I was about to buy a house in Burgundy when I discovered in studying the title that half of it was storage space, and a pottery shop which had been totally made over to a living room, bedroom and so on without a building permit and neither the seller nor the real estate agent ever said a thing about it. And we were accused of bad faith when we walked out of the deal because this was not, in his words, a “big deal”!

Now the legal issue.

In the USA, when there is a liability issue with a professional the plaintiff just needs to prove the existence of a damage and to hint that the professional is responsible to put the burden of proof on the professional. This means that the professional has to work hard to get out of this liability.

In France, the system is totally opposite. You as the victim and therefore the plaintiff have to prove “la faute civile” which is defined this way:

1 – prouver l’existence du dommage
2 – prouver l’existence de la faute dommageable
3 – prouver le lien de causalité

This translates to:
1 – proving the existence of a damage i.e., a financial loss
2 – proving the specific wrongdoing that caused the loss
3 – proving the direct and therefore the unique link between the the damage and the wrongdoing

In short you cannot just go to court and state that:

  • these are all the awful things that have happened to me because of the work done on my property and
  • this is the company that is doing the work

What you were hoping for is that the court would sentence them and order damages to be paid to you.

This is the American way not the French one.

This is the extent of what I can help you with. I just thought that explaining this might help you better understand what you are going through.

Kindly
Jean

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It goes without saying that laws around real estate are wildly different in many countries. For example, in Thailand, a foreigner cannot even own property. I hope this Mailbag entry properly cautions Americans and others who have a false perception of how real estate works in France. You’re not in Kansas anymore.

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