Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Looking for property on the Ile de Ré?

If you love France but have never been to the Ile de Ré then you have missed a trick.  It's a pretty island linked by a bridge to La Rochelle and a favourite haunt of wealthy Parisiennes.  Many of our French friends also like to spend their summer holidays there...despite the fact that it's less than two hours away.

I had the pleasure of meeting Jacqueline & Brian Miller recently and they reminded me how much I like this area known as "the French Hamptons".  They have just joined the FrenchEntrée property finder network and know all the best spots on the island.

If you go to their excellent blog "Ma maison parfait" you can see this post which spills a few of the islands many secrets.  I particularly like this quote:

There are cycle routes throughout the island, miles of sandy beaches and pine forests for when you would prefer a shady place to enjoy a baguette, cheese and a bottle of the local wine. The island has strict planning regulations so the tallest buildings you will find here are lighthouses with the other buildings being mainly white-washed fishermen’s cottages with white, grey or green shutters.

If you'd like to know more about buying property in La Rochelle or on the Ile de Ré then you can contact Jacqueline and Brian here.

Just don't forget to invite me over to share the local wine and baguette in the sunshine....

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

How to buy a vineyard....

There's an excellent article in Country Life this week about how to buy a vineyard, you can read it in full here.

They identify two types of purchase - the full time commercial venture and the hobby.

The choice between commercial and hobby winemaking boils down to how much risk you're willing to take (it's very difficult to make money from a vineyard, warns Jo Leverett of Savills), how much time you have (hobbyists can outsource virtually all production, says Andrew Thomas of Strutt & Parker), and how much money you can spend (equipment and staff costs need to be factored in, among others). It will also dictate which type of property you need to buy.

Some of you may remember that last year I was mandated to find a chateau & vineyard around Bordeaux and I wrote about the difficulty of valuing a vineyard, including this summary:

I have a very good friend who is cellar master at Polignac which is one of the leading brands of Cognac. For ten years he was also the cellar master at one of the leading Bordeaux producers in the Medoc. He tells me that while he is perfectly capable of tasting and testing the existing wine stock he would not be able to give an accurate forecast as to its worth - that's a different job entirely.

Similarly, one of the chateau's that we visited is the former home of one of the world's most famous post impressionist painters. What kind of value does this add to the property?

So, at the end of our lunch we decided that any valuation has to include a combination of balance sheet analysis, collective expertise and comparable evidence...but it's also going to include plenty of shoulder shrugging and a dash of "je ne sais quoi".

With plenty of interest from Russia and Asia as well it seems that country estates, fisheries and vineyards could retain their values as well as any other property sector over the coming years.

Friday, July 15, 2011

EU forces "U turn" on French health ban

So runs the front page headline in the latest issue of The Connexion newspaper. 

The story kicked off back in 2007 when the French government suddenly decided that it no longer wanted to pay for health care for pre-retirement expats from other EU Member States.  This had a huge impact on thousands of people and the resultant media storm was quite some thing.

This weeks U turn means that early retirees will now get access to the CMU although full details still seem unclear.

In an email today staff at The Connexion said:

More details are emerging about how early retirees can regain access to state health cover in France.  The French government has published a circular with guidelines applying to expats who move here before state pension age and are not in work.

It clarifies the different ways in which an inactive EU citizen can legally live in France through French state health insurance "in certain situations".

The circular explains that access to the CMU (couverture maladie universelle) will be studied on a "case by case" basis and applicants will have to satisfy the authorities that they have sufficient income.

France was forced to change its policy of denying state healthcare rights to early retirees after the European Commission intervened. The commission is keeping a close eye on how the new rules are applied.

We will have a full analysis of what the new rules mean in the next issue of The Connexion, out on August 1.

This is not a subject that I'm expert in (nor do I ever want to be as it seems ultra complicated and specialised) but if you think it affects you then the one thing I would say is for goodness sake make sure you seek the advice of a professional.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Conquering the infamous Col du Tourmalet

 "Vous êtes des assassins! Oui, des assassins!'

So said Octave Lapiz when he won the Tour de France in 1910 after staggering up the Tourmalet.

It's a ridiculously hard climb as, at 2115m, it's the highest road in the central Pyrenees and the most famous mountain in the history of "Le Tour".

So it's hard to explain why, last Saturday, I set off from Lourdes on my tatty old mountain bike to tackle this monster.  Accompanied by a group of friends who had cycled with me down from Bordeaux I had no idea what was in store.

The previous night we had all talked about the need to be mentally strong .  One of our party asked how much - on a scale of 1 to 10 - we "wanted it".

My companions all said 10 without hesitation but I gave it a half-hearted 6.  The truth is that I'd achieved my objective already (getting half fit and reaching the Pyrenees in the first place).

We left Lourdes along a stupidly pretty cycle track with the mountains in the distance.  By the time we reached the foot of the Tourmalet in Luz St Sauveur I was already sweating hard. 

Just the 19km's to go then at an average slope of 7.5%.

Two of our party shot off - these were the serious cyclists on proper road bikes who wanted to beat the clock.

This left Paddy and I.  We have been friends since meeting up at Portsmouth Poly in 1981 and he's the strongest guy I know - both physically & mentally.

My old bike is a disgrace, but his is worse.  Better still he was dressed for a swift jaunt along the side of the river Charente.  Every cyclist we saw (and there were plenty of them) was slim, wiry and dressed head to toe in Lycra, with matching helmets, gloves and backpacks stuffed with energy bars.

Paddy was in his football shorts and tee shirt (which he took off halfway up declaring the 33 degree heat as "getting warm") - his pockets would have carried some kind of sustenance if they hadn't had holes in them.

I surely would have quit halfway up but for the fact that he'd cycle ahead for a few minutes then turn and come back down the mountain for a chat and some encouraging words.

Three quarters of the way up and I'd run out of water and steam was coming from my ears.  I collapsed in the shade of a tree and confirmed that I was ready to die. 

"Don't be stupid" said Paddy and he cycled off to fill up my water bottle from a mountain stream, what's more he was whistling when he came back....damn him.

Three km's from the top and Chris arrived with the back up car to say that the others had reached the top and were cheering us on.  How can you quit when you have friends like this?

So.... I picked up my broken, 6'2", fifteen stone, body and re-mounted my bike. 

"Oh yeah" chortled Chris "They told me to tell you that it gets steeper at the end, up to 10.2% for the last 500 metres".


The rest is a blur....pretty much the only thing I remember is the photographer at the top of the mountain who almost fell off the edge when he clocked Paddy coming up, still whistling, in third gear and looking for the world as if he could do it again without breaking sweat.

There's a big monument at the top and there were a hundred or so people milling around.  A few came over to examine our decrepit old bikes and my father-in-law (who has been training me for the last year) shed a discrete tear or two, while simultaneously trying to revive me.

It was, without doubt, the biggest achievement of my life.  My thanks go to David Battersby, Chris Stacey, Steve Heywood-Jones and Paddy McMahon - it was an honour to share this moment with you.

“Endurance is one of the most difficult disciplines, but it is to the one who endures that the final victory comes.”

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Living in (or moving to) France - some tax tips to consider

French taxation policies seem to dominate headlines at home and abroad lately.  Thankfully President Sarkozy has scrapped his daft idea of taxing second homes but nobody really knows what he will come up with next.

Meanwhile there are certain steps you can take to minimise liability.

The team at FrenchEntrée have put together a whole host of useful articles and briefing papers in their tax zone and I've taken the liberty of recreating this article by the excellent Duncan Camppbell of Siddalls.

Tax tips for UK residents moving to France:

1. Before you leave, make sure you complete the Inland Revenue Form P85 to inform them of the date you leave the UK. They will finalise your tax affairs.

2. Obtain a forecast from the Department of Work and Pensions of your entitlement to a state pension and if you need to make additional class 3 contributions to obtain your full entitlement. Note, however, that anyone retiring after 2010 may get a surprise. The qualification for a maximum pension reduces from 40 years full NI contributions to 30 years. Do not overpay!

3. Consider taking any tax free cash commutation from your pensions whilst a UK resident. Since the start of 2011 lump sums taken from a UK pension scheme are taxable in France.

4. The tax benefits of holding stocks & shares ISAs and cash ISAs will no longer be available to you once you are French resident. You should therefore consider realising any gains, free of UK income or capital gains tax, before you make your move. There are re-investment options available through other deposit and investment products which are more tax-efficient for French residents.

5. There is no substitute for taking advice from qualified advisers who are regulated in the UK by the Financial Services Authority and are familiar with taxation and investments in France and the EU. This is to ensure you are taking advantage of all windows of opportunity, i.e. maximising your French IHT exemption limits whilst still a UK resident.

Tax Tips for UK tax residents in France:

1. On becoming a French tax resident it is your responsibility to make yourself known to the tax authorities and to declare fully your income, capital gains and wealth. Once you have made your first return they should automatically send you a form in future years.

2. Ensure you each top up to the maximum your tax free accounts which are Livret A (€15,300) and a Livret de Développement Durable account (€6,000).

3. Take steps to keep your taxable income to the minimum by placing surplus funds in tax efficient investments. Investment income is liable to income tax, social charges and if you do not qualify may also be liable to contributions to the French healthcare system.

4. French inheritance tax may not be as bad as you fear. The allowances for assets passing to children may be lower than the UK but so are the rates. There are ways of reducing and possibly removing any liability to French gifts tax and inheritance tax on assets passing to children.

5. "Do as the French do". They take active and sensible steps to avoid unnecessary taxation. Seek advice from persons authorized in France who have access to a variety of solutions and not just one product.

Like anything else in life you should take professional advice - it will save you time and money and give you peace of mind.

Monday, July 04, 2011

From Bordeaux to the Pyrenees - cycling through SW France

As regular readers will know four friends and I have spent the last few days in the summer sunshine, cycling down through SW France from the centre of Bordeaux to the dizzy heights of the Pyrenees.

In itself this isn't an especially great achievement - particularly as there's a few hundred people spending the next month covering far greater distances at a much higher speed in pursuit of a single yellow jersey.

However, I'd be grateful if you could make some allowance for the fact that we're not really cycling afficionados, or even halfway fit...we just fancied a challenge for my forthcoming 50th birthday.

We set off on Wednesday from the centre of Bordeaux and took the excellent cycle track "Route Roger Lapebie" to get us into the countryside before turning south to the famous town of Cadillac.

The next couple of days took us down through Mont de Marsan and on to Lourdes.  En route we found a whole host of outstanding bars & cafes serving some seriously good food.  We also had a rather childish (but fun) game where we'd sprint for all the town signs that we happened upon.

On the second day we somehow found ourselves entangled with three local riders, beautifully bedecked in club colours and bowling along at high speed.

We tagged on to the back of them and, of course, eventually came across a sign.  With about 400 metres to go I pulled out of the peloton, went round the three lycra clad locals and made a mad dash for the line.

To say that these young guns were not happy to be overtaken by a chunky, middle aged man on a thirty year old mountain bike is a gross understatement.

With a roar of "merde alors" the three of them set off after me, closely followed by two of our party who also wanted the glory of our "stage win".

This meant that six of us were line abreast, roaring down a country lane, with the three locals bewildered as to what was going on but going hell for leather as they feared their pride was under attack.

As it happens I was soon over-run and it was my father-in-law who grabbed the glory....we skidded to a halt at the first cafe and left the three club cyclists scratching their heads as to what had just happened, while pedalling furiously in case we tried to catch up with them again.

The countryside through Aquitaine and the Midi Pyrenees was glorious with a wonderful contrast between the blazing yellow of the sunflowers and the succulent green vines.

On Saturday morning we set off from Lourdes for the infamous Col du Tourmalet, all 2115 metres of it.

It was such an adventure that I'm going to write a separate post about it but suffice to say that we weren't disappointed by the challenge it posed.

All in all it was a terrific way to celebrate my 50th and it only re-emphasised to me what a wonderful country France is and how many hidden gems there are in even the tiniest villages.