From Survival to Success in the City of Light! Part II
Note: Today’s Nouvellettre® is Part II of a synopsis of 28 years of life in France…so take your time, or break it into bits to digest it easier! Last week was Part I, so if you want to catch up, click here.
My desire to be at the beach didn’t stop with the Paris Plage apartment. Paris can get awfully depressing after many months of gray and rain. When spring finally rolls around, we’re all nuts from the lack of sunshine. I wanted a respite. Nice on the Côte d’Azur fit the bill.
It seemed like a good idea to buy an apartment in the seaside city that I could use from time to time, rent short-term to generate revenue, and eventually to become a retirement home. But also, it was a way of expanding our business to another part of France. Nice had a small, but budding American community, but it seemed disjointed. I wanted to help that along. Business in the area clearly had potential, but that meant being on the ground to develop it—another reason to have a home there.
At the time I had no idea if I’d enjoy spending time in Nice or not, but that beautiful aqua water of the Baie des Anges was awfully enticing, not to mention the 300 days a year of sunshine the tourist board promoted. I had visited Nice several times looking for properties to purchase over the years, but didn’t have a “me” to help me find it there! I was on my own with the agencies and I was coming up short…until I came upon an apartment in the Carré d’Or district on one of the city’s most popular pedestrian streets, south-facing with three floor-to-ceiling windows/doors. It was a large studio with the potential of being a one-bedroom on the third floor of an old, classic Niçois building with no lift. That didn’t matter—I was used to the stairs and didn’t think twice about it. In fact, I had a “coup de coeur” and again, didn’t have a “me” to point out all the negative aspects of the property.
The lending bank, BPI, came through for me once again. The bank’s appraiser, who I had come to know over the years, appraised the Paris Plage for three times what I had paid for it, rendering me another equity release loan (my 5th!)—enough to pay for the Nice apartment 100 percent. This is what I call “free money!”
By the autumn of 2011, the apartment was mine and complete renovation got started.
I called the apartment “Le Matisse,” changed it to a one-bedroom by adding an atelier-style wall between the bedroom and living room. That change enlarged the bath so I could have a big bathtub, and decorated it “to the nines” with Martine’s help in “Matissien” style, preparing it for future vacation rentals. In the midst of the renovations of Le Matisse, we discovered that the toilet was not a “real” one connected to sewage pipes, but a “sani-broyeur” macerating toilet that uses the smaller kitchen and bath piping and needs a special pump and electrical connection. In effect, if the toilet is not functioning, I could consider the apartment just a “large closet!” In France, a hidden defect of this kind, non-disclosed by the seller, is called a “vice caché” and deserves legal action…which I took.
The lawsuit against the seller went on for the next eight years. I won the first battle; they appealed; I won the appeal and the court decreed a financial settlement. The amount of the settlement was barely enough to cover the legal fees, much less the reduced value of the property…since now it was deemed a “large closet”(25 percent less!) The seller was a “Marchand de Bien” or property developer, who cleverly shut down his company and its accounts so that no money was available for the settlement. That forced me into further litigation and negotiation to achieve any compensation at all.
Lawsuits in France are very different from those in the U.S. French courts take their sweet time. The lawyers are so busy just deciphering the law that they have no ability to think outside the proverbial box and be aggressive. Each side prepares its arguments and counterarguments to the point of no return. It’s frustrating and expensive, but one’s only choice is to have patience and keep writing checks to the lawyers and the courts. That’s what I did. Le Matisse was getting more expensive by the moment, but I still loved it. So did the first guest of Le Matisse, who was not me, but a rental client, who inaugurated it. We’ve been bonded over that ever since.
The good news was that the rentals of all three apartments (Le Provençal, Paris Plage and Le Matisse) were covering the mortgages of all five properties , including my Paris home and New York where Erica was living. I was laughing all the way to the bank, as were our clients who had purchased their own “pied-à-terres” to use part of the year and rent the rest of the year. Our rental business was humming along, but we knew the future might be different, so we took one day at a time watching closely how the city was going to handle the rental laws.
The bad news was that 2013 turned into a very unlucky year. Both the IRS and the French FISC (equivalent to the IRS) decided to audit me for different reasons. The IRS wanted to know if money they refunded as a result of amended returns I had submitted earlier was justified. That’s how they operate. It’s normal for them to first hand over the refund, then issue an audit.
The French FISC, however, was a different story. To this day, I believe that an unhappy short-term tenant who was a tax attorney, touted as the “meanest tax attorney in California,” decided to take revenge on us for the dusty stairwell of the apartment his wife rented (without him, to get away from him, I imagine) while there was construction taking place in the building. We call that “denouncement.”
The cost of the international tax attorney handling the U.S. audit was very expensive. I flew to Los Angeles with boxes of files and spent days going through documents with their accountants, but it was worth it as the IRS refunded even more money as a result.
The audit by the FISC lasted two years and was torturous. We endlessly provided documents and attended meetings in their offices, sometimes in extreme heat. Advice on how to structure the business that had been given me by my French advisors was basically bad and wrong. My lawyers were bad, too. So far, I haven’t found a French lawyer I like. It’s always the same story. They are so busy just deciphering the law that they mostly just lay down and let the law roll right over them, flattening them and their clients in the process.
This brings me to the point: do you know the difference between English Law and Napoleonic Code?: Napoleonic code = “Everything which is not allowed is forbidden.” English law = “Everything which is not forbidden is allowed.” I could write a book just about this. Once I learned this and understood what it meant in real terms, every culture clash I ever experienced became perfectly clear as to why I was having it! This is an important lesson you should take to heart if and when you live in France.
I’ll never forget sitting with three French auditors and my two lawyers, while the auditors stared me down. Here I was, an American woman, doing business in France, and making money. They hated me and they couldn’t wait to sink their teeth into me big time. They did. They tried every trick. The lawyers told me not to fight them because I couldn’t win—to play dead and pay the bill. It was a really big bill. If I paid it, I might have to declare bankruptcy.
Just at that moment, I got a call from Brian Dunhill of Dunhill Financial in Brussels (he’s since moved his offices to London). He had been referred to me by Moneycorp Currency Specialists because he wanted to increase his Paris business and I had the potential clients. I said to him, “I happen to need a financial advisor! If you can fix my problems, then I’ll be happy to help you.” And he did.
Brian Dunhill is one of those people who pivoted my life in the right direction. He cleverly found a way of taking a line of credit based on my assets to pay the tax bill, leaving me free to stay in business. I am forever indebted to him for his brilliance and as a result he has been instrumental in our success, as well as for many of our clients with whom he now works.
Getting “clean” with the French government meant getting licensed to practice real estate in France. After conferring with three attorneys over the past years, it was clearly impossible for me personally to be licensed because of my inequivalent level of education to French standards, the lack of employment by a licensed agency (as in “none”), and my still lowish level of French in order to take courses. Just as fate has it, following that organic path, a young American man already in the rental business contacted me to sell a property of his to our American market. He just happened to have the ability to get the proper license and was willing to partner with me. That summer, Parler France Properties SARL was born.
On December 6th, after having a very upsetting meeting with a French tax attorney who told me I should also report five years of back TVA (sales tax) that would surely put us completely under, I came home to greet a friend staying in my apartment. I poured healthy glasses of wine. Just as I was taking that first sip, I got a call from a neighbor that there was smoke in the stairwell and we were to leave immediately!
We grabbed our coats and nothing else, headed down the stairwell in complete darkness and smoke. My friend slipped on the stairs along the way. We held our breaths and ran out to the street. The flames from the machine shop on the ground level were coming up fast and the smoke was billowing up past my apartment’s windows. I became insane with fear…fear of the loss of all of my belongings, my art collection and valuables, my beloved apartment…and on top of it, everything I had worked so hard to achieve. I don’t believe I have ever been in such an emotional state in my life.
The apartment survived the fire, as did I, but one might agree—these were trying times. (Read the entire story)
Ann Hidalgo took office as the Mayor of Paris that year. Little did we know then what a disaster she would turn out to be for business.
Ann Hildalgo appointed a registered Communist to head the Housing Department. With him, the city got more aggressive by the moment against short-term rentals while establishing rent control, all in the interest of reducing the housing shortage. That meant that even long-term rentals weren’t going to be very profitable. It was turning into a lose-lose proposition.
One day, an agent from the city housing office knocked on my door to inquire about my rental apartments. According to the document she flashed in my face, she had the right to inspect my property without a warrant. Once again I consulted an attorney and once again, got that passive answer to just comply without a fight and without seeking a work-around or solution. Brian stepped in and recommended selling both Le Provençal and Paris Plage to amass enough cash that would generate a line of credit to pay the tax bill and shut down the rentals so the city wouldn’t prosecute.
I cried, literally…and resisted—especially selling my beloved Paris Plage, which was to be my retirement haven. It was a tough pill to swallow. But, he was right, even though I joke to this day that I’ll never forgive him! I ran one Nouvellettre® to sell them both and within 10 minutes, they were both spoken for. My niece wanted to buy Le Provençal, so I was happy to keep it in the family. La Paris Plage was purchased by an American woman who called and said, “I’ll pay cash at full price.” I couldn’t say no. Both apartments left my nest that year, mixed with both sadness and relief.
Slowly, but surely, I was building a team of property consultants and resources in Nice. Business there was blossoming. The team in Paris was solid. I desperately needed an assistant to help manage the day-to-day tasks. Patty Sadauskas, who moved to Paris on a whim much like myself, answered a small notice in the PS of a Nouvellettre®. She joined the team the day after she arrived in Paris, something she never dreamed would happen. She’s been my right arm ever since, but now lives full time in Nice…quite happily.
2016 – 2018
The company was humming along with its own trials, tribulations and rewards. The rentals were becoming more and more difficult and waning. We outsourced the work to other agencies to manage the properties and get them off our plate so we could concentrate on the property consultation and sales that were growing.
The ordeal with the sani-broyeur toilet in Nice reared its ugly head once again when the neighbors below me on the second floor filed a lawsuit against me to install a real toilet. Seriously? Out came the lawyers and the checkbooks…again. What’s really nuts about the situation is that when I submitted a plumber’s assessment at the annual assembly meeting to use the stairwell to run sewage pipes to the outside drains (the only viable way to plumb it), these same neighbors denied me!
This saga continues to this day; the courts have delayed the procedures due to Covid-19 confinement and other reasons. Why these neighbors are harassing me is still beyond my comprehension, but I have a clue that somehow I offended them many years earlier by not following French “politesse” to the letter. They are lawyers, members of the Nice city council and wield a lot of power with the officials and the judges. I fear I am in a no-win situation as I plead with them over and over again, “Just tell me what I can do to fix this and I will!”
Just recently, they had the gall to blackmail me by suggesting that if I pay more towards the proposed elevator, they will grant me permission to plumb the toilet! I was shocked!
None of this has stopped me from loving Nice more and more with each stay. The city was making important improvements and it was passing up Paris as a great place to live—beautiful weather, clean and green streets, a progressive mayor and a whole host of reasons to spend more time there. The 2016 terrorist attack on the Promenade des Anglais left Le Matisse vacant of renters, but left me the time to enjoy the summer there. That was the first of all the future summers I would spend in Nice, and I gave up the rentals entirely.
Let’s not forget that Donald Trump was elected in 2016. When that happened, I started the process to get my French citizenship…just in case! Like the memoir, it’s been in the drawer waiting to be rediscovered. I hope with the help of Daniel Tostado it can finally happen next year !
It had been 10 years since our last Fractional Ownership project, but the concept presented itself again with a very special 18 square meter apartment in one of the oldest buildings in the city, dating back to the 14th century, on rue François Miron. Everyone knows it—the tour buses stop there to get a glimpse of the two buildings with exposed timbers, now combined to be one building. The apartment was in beautiful condition, but Martine and I decided to give it a face-lift and offered it on the market with 13 four-week shares. We called it “Ma Maison Miron.” While tiny, it was missing nothing and offered total luxury, even for its small size. The shares sold within hours of our announcing them.
This was a new beginning for many more Fractional Ownership properties to come.
This is the year that for many seemed to have not existed. On March 17th, strict confinement kept me glued to the Paris apartment with no chance of spending time in Nice. We couldn’t leave our abodes for more than one hour and go no further than one kilometer. It was a period of reflection and ended up feeling like a kind of necessary retreat. I cooked at home for the first time in many years, exercised daily, and became as healthy as possible. While nothing was happening business-wise (apartment visits were impossible), I had the time to devote to finishing the company’s new website that I had started five years earlier, now with a third developer.
The first developer I paid dearly for and wasted every penny as they didn’t have a clue how to create a website for our complicated business. The second developer really tried hard, but failed again, wasting even more money. The third developer worked like a charm. With marketing guru Lisa Anselmo project managing it and Janet Hoover of Create Launch Grow Design at the helm of the development, by November of 2020 we had a new and well-functioning website.
The moment we launched it, our business took off like never before. All those people sitting at home, surfing the Web looking at properties and dreaming of France began to contact us to help them buy properties…sight unseen.
We came out of hiding while the Covid-19 pandemic was getting under control and were busier than we’ve ever been. Zoom webinars were “de rigueur” and we were doing them right and left, some with more than 500 people! This was a new and different way of meeting with clients, potential clients, friends and family, and loving every minute of connecting in a kind of virtual in-person way. I was getting booked daily for consultations (and am still doing them almost daily, now booked well into November).
Clients were happy to buy properties based on our recommendations, completely sight unseen. We were working even harder to ensure they made a good purchase, and no one was complaining. While the short-term rental business was losing ground rapidly, the consultation side of the business was taking off like wildfire. Americans were fed up with the political situation and confinement and wanted out! They still do.
The young American man with whom I had partnered turned out to be a Frenchman in American clothing—much like the wolf hiding behind the sheepskin. To describe him, we would say, “Il est plus Francois que le roi” (He is more French than the king) because his thinking is more like the French than American. We rarely could see eye-to-eye on even the simplest of matters. I felt restricted to move forward and take the business to new heights.
As luck would have it, I discovered someone else who had the real estate license and willing to partner with me, so I “divorced” Partner #1 and took on a new one—this time a Frenchman in French clothing, and not so kingly. No divorce is fun, and this one was no different, but he walked away with the company and I walked away with what was due me at the time. Then, I created a new French company with Partner #2: Adrian Leeds Group France SARL. He gave me complete freedom to do what I want…as long as the business kept coming in.
This year was particularly busy with new Fractional Ownership projects —three on our plates to launch as of January 2022: “La Lanterne du Marais” (one-bedroom) and “Les Balcons Saint-Paul” (two-bedroom) in Paris, and “La Belle Terrasse” in Villefranche-sur-Mer with sea view). During the summer of 2021, when the agreements to purchase all three properties were completed, I knew we were in for one helluva roller coaster ride. All three needed complete renovation and that meant a ton of work, but all three sold out in a very short time and all three were ready for occupancy as promised in January of 2022.
This brings us to today. Fractional Ownership properties are in demand. We launched another one in Paris in the summer—”Le Charles V” (one-bedroom). In the works are two more in Nice with usage starting in January 2023: “Le Palais du Soleil” (two-bedroom) and “Le Jardin de la Promenade” (studio on the sea). Le Palais du Soleil sold out in five days! Le Jardin de la Promenade will be promoted later this month or early November, so stay tuned for that.
Let’s face it. With the rate of exchange at parity or even less, there aren’t too many excuses for not investing at this time. That’s a big reason for our current success, which has nothing to do with us, but we’re all happy about the opportunity.
When you read this, I will have already celebrated my 70th birthday—the age I promised myself I would retire. But clearly, that’s not in the cards for now. In fact, it’s likely I may never retire, at least not completely like most normal people. My mother started her working career at the age of 70 when my father died and she worked as a legal secretary. She was 88 years old when Hurricane Katrina forced the office to close and she decided to call it a day. But she still woke up every day, got dressed as if she was off to something special, kept her hair colored and her nails polished and swore that was the secret to her longevity. She died two months before her 98th birthday by just sitting on her bed and closing her eyes. We should all be so lucky.
I intend to take her sage advice and stay as active as I can, while I can. And as long as I’m helping so many people realize their dreams to live and/or invest in France, it’s a good reason to keep putting one foot in front of the other in the right direction. (Besides, my team would kill me if I did retire!)
A la prochaine…
The Adrian Leeds Group®
Adrian with her mother, Gertrude Beerman, in 1994 in Paris and in New Orleans in 2017 just before she passed away
P.S. I am traveling this week in Colombia, South America and to New Orleans for a family occasion. Stay tuned for a report in next Monday’s Nouvellettre®!
P.P.S. Part I and Part II of my story came out of preparation for speaking at our October’s Après-Midi. If you missed the report from last Tuesday’s event, you can read it and view the video on our website.
To all of you who attended last Tuesday’s Après-Midi and to all of you who sent birthday wishes, I send you a very warm and sincere thank you! I cannot begin to express my appreciation for your participation and devotion to our mission to improve all of our lives by including France in our futures…or to those who already have it in your present moment. With lots of love…Adrian