Coping with the French Artisan

… or English one for that matter because an ever increasing number of “foreign” professionals are setting up business in our lovely area of France.

Now before I receive a deluge of complaints letters, I must stress that I am a litigation lawyer and so tend to see only the bad artisans. I have no doubt that there are numerous reliable, honest and hard-working ones – they, unfortunately, never seem to cross my path.

There is no golden rule which will enable you to have a harmonious relationship with your artisan. My experience has shown me that there are however some guidelines to avoid the most obvious pitfalls.

Choosing your Artisan

Obviously recommendations from friends are the best way – although not failsafe because an artisan can do a perfect job for one client, and botch it up for the next. You could also ask the advice of people you know in your village / town – the mayor, school-teacher, even your local doctor depending on the relationship you have with him/her.

If somebody else is having similar work done in the village, why not knock on their door to ask whether they are satisfied with their artisan. You wouldn’t mind if somebody took that initiative with you – so why should they? You’d only be taking up a couple of minutes of their time (and might get invited in for an aperitif if you time things right).

People tend to come out of the woodwork when it’s too late. A client who was having difficulties with his artisan told his doctor. The doctor’s reply was “well I could have told you he was no good if you’d asked me first”. Make sure you do the asking first.

Ask for (several) estimates (“devis”) and beware of the devis that is far cheaper than the others. Beware as well of the artisan who is a little too insistent. Good artisans often have their order books full for 3 to 6 months, you’d be better off waiting a couple of months rather than being in too much of a hurry.

Foolish though this may sound – make sure your artisan is a bonafide artisan. 
An artisan must either be registered with the “chamber des metiers” (if he operates as a sole trader) or with the Commercial Court (“Tribunal de Commerce”) if he operates as a company. In both cases, the artisan will have a registration number. You are perfectly entitled to ask to see evidence of registration.

Information on companies can be consulted on the Commercial Courts’ official website or on an unofficial site I find both sites very helpful. They provide general information about companies (address, share capital, name of directors) plus a summary of the company accounts for the past couple of years. They also indicate whether or not a company is in receivership.

Do not work with people who are not registered and/or ask for cash payments.

I am not unaware that there is a thriving “black” economy in France, however working with someone who is not registered is basically a penal offence, which could, in extreme cases, result in criminal prosecution and/or a large fine.

The practice of “daubing people in” is not uncommon in France. A viscous neighbour or disgruntled fellow artisan may take it upon themselves to inform the local police/tax authorities that they have seen Mr Dupont working up on your roof for the past 6 weeks even though he’s supposed to be retired. At best this will lead to you being interviewed by the local police and, at worst, to criminal proceedings.

Hiring students or inviting friends / acquaintances from the UK to spend time helping you renovate the house for free board and lodging would also be considered a criminal offence (you would be employing people illegally, and not paying the statutory social security charges and VAT).

Then, of course, if Monsieur Dupont falls off your roof and is seriously injured, you may end up paying a large sum of money to him if he was not covered by the French social security system whilst working for you.

Employment legislation is extremely strict in France and it is very difficult to get around it. My advice, therefore, is don’t try to. You should also check your artisan has the correct insurance coverage. He should have : professional liability (responsabilité civile professionnelle) for any damage that is caused to third parties, 10-year guarantee for the most important construction work (eg roof / walls) (garantie décennale), 2-year insurance for fixtures and fittings (eg gutters) (garantie biennale).

Ask to see his insurance policy and make sure that he is covered for the work to be done. He may be covered for laying tiles on your roof, but not for redoing your bathroom.

I think it’s only normal to ask to see these documents and an honest artisan will not mind complying with your request.

Working with your Artisan

The consumer code (“code de la consommation”) says that the professional must inform the consumer about the “main characteristics” of the work, prior to starting the job (i.e. the consumer should be told cost of man hours and material). This is basically done via the drafting of a “devis”.

The “devis” becomes binding once you have signed it. An artisan will normally ask for a 30 % upfront payment to cover the cost of materials. You should either pay the rest when the job is done, or put in place a system of stage payments. Try to avoid paying more than the work actually completed. If your artisan starts hassling you for more money than you think is owed, this may mean that he has cash flow problems, which is never a good thing. If he goes into liquidation, you will probably find it very difficult to get that money back.

When the job is complete, you will be asked to sign the acceptance document “reception”. If you are satisfied with the work you will sign the reception document with no reserves “sans reserves”, if you think some things still need to be sorted out, you will sign with reserves “avec reserves” and the artisan should proceed to rectify the problems fairly swiftly.

The insurance will only kick in once the reception is complete. Until that time, it is up to the artisan to rectify any faulty workmanship.

The 10-year and 2-year insurance covers latent defects (“vices cachés”), ie faults that were not visible at the time of reception but revealed themselves at a later date.

If you are confronted with “vices cachés”, you must send a recorded delivery letter to the artisan telling him about the vices and inviting him to contact his insurance company. Under French law, you must act swiftly as soon as the vices become apparent (basically within a year of discovery).

If Things Go Wrong…

Under French law you cannot withhold monies that you agreed to pay even if you are dissatisfied with your artisan.

You basically either have to agree that the two of you can’t work together any more, come to an agreement about the money and both sign a document to that effect, or you have to pay him and then sue him (and his insurance company) in order to obtain damages.

That’s the theory. In practice, people do withhold payment and find that they are taken to Court by the artisan. If the artisan does initiate court proceedings to obtain payment of outstanding sums, you will have the opportunity of presenting your defence (e.g.. the work was so badly done that in fact, it’s going to cost you twice as much to have it put right).

A court procedure will invariably involve the appointment of an “expert” who will visit the property, establish the defects and attribute liabilities. You should not have any remedial work done by another artisan until the court appointed expert has drafted his/her report.

Unfortunately the procedure can be long and expensive. The person who requests the appointment of the expert (more often than not the consumer) has to pay the expert’s fees up front – you will be reimbursed if the Court finds in your favour. Expert’s fees for construction problems start at 2000 euro, but are more likely to come to 4,000 to 6,000 Euro. You also need to add your legal fees to this.

In most cases, however, it is worth going through this procedure if the work is dissatisfactory and if the artisan had the correct insurance in place.

You should always reply to your artisan in the same format as he uses, i.e. if he writes you a recorded delivery letter stating “you owe me 1,000 Euro”, you should reply via a recorded delivery letter indicating why you are not paying him. Remain polite, this exchange of correspondence will probably be produced in Court.

Do not ignore letters from your artisan. If the artisan writes to you requesting payment and you do not reply, Courts have sometimes interpreted this silence as an implicit acknowledgement that you do owe the money.

To avoid litigation, you can always try mediation. Your local court (Tribunal d’Instance) should provide you with a list of mediators that may be able to help.

And finally ….

Do not be bullied by your artisan. Do not let him intimidate you with comments such as “you know nothing about French law”, or “the Mayor of this village happens to be a personal friend of mine” (honestly the Mayor has more important things to do than get involved with your dispute).

Here are some of my anecdotes…

A client’s wife was told by the artisan “you don’t know what an honest day’s work is – the only work you’ve ever done has been out on the streets!”.

Another disgruntled artisan sent his mother-in-law to my client’s house where she proceeded to batter the windows and scream like a banshee until she was given a cheque.

Another client suspects that their artisan wrote abusive graffiti on their garage door one night.

Although my anecdotes might seem humorous now, I don’t doubt that they were very distressing at the time.

Other clients have told me that their artisan has physically threatened them by pushing and shoving them.

If any of the above happen, you should go straight to the local police and either make a “main courante” (a statement indicating what has happened) or a “plainte” (a more formal statement that will give rise to a police enquiry).

The police do not always react, but they might convene the artisan for an interview which should quieten him down. And even if the police don’t react, the artisan might get wind that you have consulted them, which should have the same effect.

To conclude: I’ve just reread my guidelines and they do read like a book of doom – however, they are only guidelines and don’t forget many people have established a happy and harmonious relationship with their artisan and are more than satisfied with the work done.

Bright Avocats

To simplify the drafting of this document I have presumed that the artisan is male.

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