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Cracking Up and Cracking Under Pressure

Volume XXI, Issue 20

A painter painting the poles in Adrian Leeds' apartment white

Last Thursday evening, our building’s co-ownership, known as a “copropriété,” held its annual assembly. They were to discuss two major issues in the building: 1) the structural issues in my apartment and 2) installing an elevator in one of the other stairwells (there are four buildings, four stairwells, surrounding one courtyard).

This is a 17th-century building, meaning that it was built sometime in the 1600s; about 350+ years ago. It’s made of stone and wood framing. The front building on the street (I was once told) was a “twin hôtel particulier”—like what we might call a “semi-detached” where two buildings share one common wall and in this case, share one courtyard and at that time, a garden. Many years later (I have no idea how many), a back building was added with sides to connect it to the front part, hence the four stairwells. My apartment is in the front facing the street and part of the oldest part. It’s on the third floor and at the time it was initially built, these were the servants’ quarters and the top floor. This is evident by the staircase that narrows from the second floor to the third. When the back and side buildings were added (I assume), two levels were added above mine, and therefore my ceiling beams must support two levels overhead.

Two of the connected apartment buildings part of Adrian Leeds' complex, with the courtyard

Looking down the spiraling staircase in the building of Adrian Leeds' apartment in Paris

Two years ago, I came home after having been gone for two weeks to find the bathroom door frame had cracked away from the wall and plaster was on the floor. There had always been a lot of cracking of the walls and ceiling, but as it’s a wood frame building more than 350 years old, I never thought much about it and assumed that came with the territory—until then. Immediately I contacted the “syndic” (building management company) to let them know of the problem and they promptly sent an architect to inspect it.

The severe cracks in the apartment

Monsieur L, the architect, ordered a study to be done by opening the ceiling in various parts of the apartment to inspect the beams. A team came to do just that, gently creating a tent within which to work so as to disturb my furnishings as little as possible. They did a great job, but left the apartment ceiling filled with holes, patched with plastic sheets to cover the unsightly mess. After, teams of inspectors came to determine if the beams in the ceiling were damaged and what the issues were causing the cracking.

The holes in the ceiling to examine the damaged beams

All this took quite a bit of time—nothing in France happens very quickly. Each step of the way was a challenge. Meanwhile, there was no choice but to live with the unsightly mess.

The study showed that the beams were damaged, but what exactly was uncertain, but clearly, they needed to be repaired. The architect employed a structural company to provide an estimate to rebuild the beams and explained that I should plan on vacating my apartment for six to eight months while they do the work, beginning this September, if all goes well.

Now, let’s take a deep breath and imagine what this means. I’ve been living in this apartment since 1997. Like most people, I’ve accumulated a lot of possessions that fill every nook and cranny. I operate a business from the apartment and house an important server and Internet system. It’s Home with a Capital H. Moving out is no easy task and the questions start flying around: Where will I live? How will we undertake such a massive project? What are the real logistics so that life can go on in a normal fashion? How much will this cost? What will be destroyed and what will be replaced? Who will pay for it all? My head was spinning.

This recent assembly was the second to address the issue. Monsieur L. led the first one about six months ago, where the copropriété voted AGAINST doing the work at all. My daughter and I attended and were shocked by their response. The battle was clearly not over!

The architect insisted that living in the apartment like this was dangerous and ordered the structural company to “shore it up” with metal poles throughout. Twenty such poles were installed in both bedrooms, the living room and the entry. They did as good a job as they could to enable all cabinetry to open and be as unobtrusive as possible…but that’s a kind of joke. One pole sits at my left elbow next to me at the desk always reminding me of the dilemma. I call it “my jail.”

Installation of the support poles and white plastic

The poles were a deep red and the ceiling was still covered with ugly plastic. The unsightliness drove me nuts! This was my home, for crying out loud! Thanks to designer Martine di Mattéo’s contractor, the poles were painted white and the ceiling was covered with white panels to make it as livable as possible. Still, it’s a jail…just a prettier jail!

We were told that in order to do the work, every single article must be removed from the closets and cabinets because the dust would be impossible to manage. Anything touching the ceiling would be destroyed—meaning all of the bookshelves in the living room and all of the closets in the bedrooms. All of this custom-built cabinetry would have to be rebuilt. Every light fixture must come out, as would the gas water heater, etc., etc. In effect, the apartment would be stripped down to the bare bones and must be completely rebuilt from scratch. Imagine!

In order to manage such a project, an attorney was employed to determine my rights in this situation and protect me. Anyone in this position would have done the same, and should, as we “don’t know what we don’t know.” He asked me to provide detailed estimates to make the move both in and out, to rent an apartment of equal quality nearby in which I could live, to have the computer system uninstalled, reinstalled in the new apartment, uninstalled and reinstalled in the old apartment. We considered every bit of time, trouble and expense and submitted the estimate to the syndic in preparation for the annual assembly when a vote would be taken.

Tented workspace for examining the ceiling beams

Now imagine the work it takes to amass all the estimates, find an apartment in which to live temporarily* (which we all know takes an Act of God in Paris at this time), and plan for such a monumental task. Anxiety builds around all of the imaginary hurdles one might make. My head was spinning. Until a timeline was confirmed, plans for the future were impossible. Everything was in question.

I am fortunate enough to have a lot of people around me who can help. Martine was essential in providing estimates to do all the reconstruction work. A past client of ours was kind enough to hold her beautiful nearby two-bedroom apartment for me to rent at a fair price, in accordance with the city rent control regulations. An assistant managed the details of the project to alleviate this new mountain of work.

This second assembly was the key to my future. May 11th was set. A massive document consisting of 232 pages was issued to all the owners including the plans for the structural work as well as all of my estimates. My daughter attended with me as did my attorney and an associate of his. We knew this meeting was a pivotal moment.

Now, I know you’re dying to hear the outcome, as was I. I was nervous, as you can imagine. The room was filled with the owners of the building most of whom I had known for all these years. The four of us walked in a bit late and they had to rearrange the seating to make room for us.

The meeting for my part alone went on for 2.5 hours. It began with a bang and ended with a bang. From the moment the “discussion” opened, the yelling started, targeted at ME. They had received the estimates we had presented in advance and came ready to battle. They clearly thought I was taking “advantage” of the opportunity to live the “high” life while the work was being done and to have my apartment renovated at their cost. They had no sympathy whatsoever for my situation and didn’t see that I was entitled to any compensation. They argued over the tiniest of points as if that would make a big difference. How could I possibly ask for so much rent money? One gentleman couldn’t understand why I didn’t just go live with relatives! One woman thought I should move to another district where it was less expensive. Why on earth would I need a technician to move my computer equipment? And why would they want to rebuild my custom-made cabinetry that would all be destroyed during the structural reconstruction? Why hadn’t I made a claim with my homeowner insurance to cover all this expense?

My attorney did what French attorneys do—he quietly tried to defend me. They likely were pissed off that I even had a lawyer there, but what did they expect? He just shook his head as if nothing could be done, but let them blow off their steam. The syndic sat there letting everyone continue as if he were not in charge of the meeting. It was a three-ring circus and I was in the center ring being trampled by the elephants.

I tried to explain that I was advised that the insurance would not cover this kind of claim because it wasn’t a leak from the neighbor, but a structural problem that was the fault of the building. I asked my neighbor who owns the apartment next to mine how much she rents it out for. She quickly answered an amount not too much less than what I was asking, which was an amount authorized by the city rent control website. The yelling continued and I was the target. No one was controlling the meeting, nor the yelling and that’s when I blew a gasket.

In my American “let’s be bold” way, I stood up and said loudly, “Stop there! I apologize that I will say this in English because I cannot say what I have to say in French.” The room went silent for the first time. Then I proceeded to explain the situation: I had lived in this apartment 26 years. I worked from the apartment and had special equipment to manage the business. Every single tiny little thing in it had to move out including the plants. My entire life was going to be upset and my apartment was going to be destroyed. This was not my fault and it’s not what I wanted. And most important, there was not a single extra penny built-in to which I was not entitled.

My daughter spoke up in French to further explain what this was like from our point of view. They barely allowed her to speak. They were angry, but so were we.

In the end, they voted to do the work, but they voted against any compensation for me! I was left holding the bag to pursue an insurance claim and revise the estimates to something more palatable. It was estimated to begin the work in February after our move-out in January 2024.

I was shaken to the bones, but it was fascinating from a cultural point of view. Not one person offered any idea to negotiate so that we could reduce the expense for everyone. What they saw in black and white on paper is what they took as the gospel. There was no thinking outside the proverbial box. And they had no sympathy whatsoever for my situation—that was clear.

We left immediately following the tirades, once the vote was completed, and was berated by one neighbor for even doing that—since it seemed to them that all I cared about was what concerned me and not the rest of the building. Well, for the moment she got that right…but did she really think I could stand staying another minute after I had been turned to toast? Where was the humanity in it?

So, that’s where it stands for now. Ultimately some of the costs of my move will be compensated either by insurance, or by the copropriété or by both, and the rest at my expense. There is no doubt that this will be a continuing battle. Either way, I will be the loser of time, money and stress.

But, there is no choice. I have to see this through. Meanwhile, we are living in our jail, the neighbors now see me as their enemy and during the time I’m living elsewhere as the work takes place, they will have to put up with the noise and dust of the construction.

My client who has generously offered up her apartment to which I can move has agreed to hold it for me, but can’t beyond the 2024 Olympics, so we’ll have to do whatever we can to speed up the work so I can move back home in time. That may be yet another challenge.

“C’est la vie en France!” (That’s life in France)

*Note: a rental of less than one year for someone not needing the apartment for business or education does not fit within the current rental laws. I swear this is true!

A bientôt,

Adrian Leeds in the courtyard of her apartment building in ParisAdrian Leeds
The Adrian Leeds Group®

P.S. This tirade is not intended on discouraging you from making a purchase in France. Such a story could happen to any property owner, but there is no question that older buildings with such integrity come with a price. In all honesty, I wouldn’t trade this challenge for a lesser cause. To maintain a 17th-century building is very important and I am playing an important role in that. I bear the burden of maintaining its strength to exist for many more years to come. So, if the neighbors don’t see the sacrifice I am making, then so be it. It’s their loss, but all of our gain.

P.P.S. Have you registered for our Expats in France Quarterly Financial Forum yet? It’s coming up June 7th! Details and registration are on our website. Sign up today!


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