GUIDE TO UTILITIES
Once you’ve moved in, you’ll need to sign up to utility providers as well as make sure insurance and taxes are in place. Kate McNally reveals how to get connected to all the essential services
Cover story Connecting your French home to the essential services
Almost as soon as you take the first sip of champagne to celebrate the successful purchase of your new home in France, you will need to start thinking about putting your house in order. Insurance, water, heating, telephone… there’s a lot to set in motion, and you will of course require plenty of photocopies, and even more patience.
Let’s take a look at the most important things to put in place – the ones that make the difference between a house and a home.
THE ESSENTIALS INSURANCE
For homeowners in France, it’s not obligatory to have house insurance unless you live in a co-owned property. However, it is advisable if you want to be covered for any potential damage. There are several insurance companies offering assurance habitation, and in most cases it also includes a civil responsibility insurance ( assurance de responsabilité civile) that covers the homeowner, spouse/partner and children, as well as an insurance for your children required by schools ( assurance scolaire). So, all in all, it’s worth getting.
In contrast, tenants in rented property are required by law to take out home insurance in order to be able to cover any potential damages to the property.
As a house owner, you will receive an annual demand to pay taxe foncière, effectively similar to the old UK system of paying house rates. You don’t need to register; the notaire will notify the local authority when you buy a house and you will be liable for this tax from the following year (as of 1 January). In some cases, you may be asked by the house seller to contribute to the current year’s tax. The demand is sent either by post or by email, usually towards the end of the year. You can ask to pay over three months, or set up a monthly payment in advance if you want to avoid a hefty bill just before or after Christmas!
Next up is the taxe d’habitation, paid by the person or persons living in the house. This tax is calculated according to the size of the house, amenities, household revenues and the number of children; it also includes a statutory audio-visual fee. Monies collected are used to fund local services such as schools, social services and sports facilities – in this way it is similar to the UK’s council tax.
Again, the bill is sent direct by post or email in the autumn. There is a 10% increase for late payment of both these taxes, so keep an eye on the ‘pay by’ date.
THE NECESSARY UTILITIES ELECTRICITY
In general, it doesn’t get much more critical than electricity. Heating, charging mobile devices, making a cup of tea – so many of life’s rudimentary necessities require an electric current.
As usual, it pays to do your homework on the providers to see which offer the best price for your needs. The French electricity market was opened up to competition in 2007 (previously national company EDF held the monopoly), and there are currently nine other companies to choose from. EDF is now a listed company – though the French state remains the primary shareholder – and continues to hold the lion’s share of customers, with around 90% sticking with the devil they know to date. Their decision could be down to loyalty, laziness or conservatism, because in fact many of the newcomers undercut both EDF’s stateregulated tariffs and its optional prices. (EDF is the only company allowed to offer a regulated fixed price, tarif réglementé.) Many of the other providers use the regulated tariff as a benchmark for changes to their own variable rate, but also to highlight the difference in their own prices, which they are free to set.
Although EDF is keeping competitors at bay for the moment, the tide is definitely turning. Engie (formerly known as state gas supplier GDF Suez) has made significant inroads, no doubt managing to woo a number of existing gas customers over to a total energy package. (It’s basically tit for tat, as EDF has similarly ventured into the gas side of the energy market.) Similarly, Direct Énergie, has infiltrated the open French energy market, both in electricity and gas, seducing customers with cheaper prices, attractive contract terms, plus discounts for introducing friends to their service.
There are also companies positioning themselves in the green energy camp – notably Planète Oui, Enercoop and énergem – also either offering cheaper prices or similar prices but with a commitment to investment in renewable energies. These players are popular with ecologists and others concerned with protecting the environment.
Don’t worry too much if you choose the wrong provider and discover you could have a better deal elsewhere, as you can change from one provider to another, without penalty, at any time.
It’s pretty much the same situation for gas. The open market is now well established and you should shop around for the best deal. Engie, together with fellow historic gas supplier ELD (a collection of local gas providers), has lost market share to the new or ‘alternative’ providers, as they are called in France, led by Direct Énergie and Italian gas giant Eni.
Prices include a cost for network maintenance (this tariff is set by the government) and a cost for the gas consumed (set by the provider). Only Engie is authorised to offer the state-regulated tariff; all other providers set their own prices.
Customers for both gas and electricity can opt for a fixed price or variable price (the latter changes in line with the tarif reglémenté). It is worth noting that both (i.e. also the fixed price) are subject to changes in the tax applied. Again, customers are free to switch providers at any time, even if they have a fixed contract in place.
The mairie, or a local collective, is responsible for both fresh water supply and sanitisation services in each community, and either they finance and manage this themselves or, as is more often the case, they contract it out to the private sector. Either way, you, as the end user, don’t have a choice of supplier.
So, when you move into your house, ask at the mairie who is responsible for the water supply, and set up a contract in your name either with the mairie or their chosen private water supplier. Veolia (the former national water supplier), SUEZ, Saur and SOGEDO are the four largest water providers in France.
The local municipality decides the price of water in your community, even if the service is contracted out. In this case, some municipalities simply approve the tariffs suggested by the providers, while others bargain effectively for lower prices. Bills are divided into three costs – water distribution, sanitisation services and taxes. In general, water supply is metered, with the average annual bill totting up to around €460 for a consumption of 120m3 (according to the Institut National de la Consommation).
If you’ve bought a house in a very rural area, you may not be connected to the commune’s water network. In this case, make a request to be connected as France is committed to hooking up the rural communities. That said, it’s a good idea to check the situation before purchase, because the authorities are also keen to ensure all homes have a sewage system that meets environmental standards, and the cost of modernising your septic tank, should it insist, could set you back a few thousand euros.
Orange (formerly France Télécom) owns the national telephone grid and dominates the fixed-line telephone market in France. The company announced plans early last year to phase out the original fixed-line network over the next 10 years, in similar fashion to the phasing out of analogue television. So, around a third of fixed-line users – those who don’t access the line via a Livebox – will have to move across to (and subscribe to) an internetbased telephone service.
Although Orange is the main player, it has three strong competitors who similarly offer customers the pick of fixed, mobile, internet and TV packages. Free has made significant in-roads, with an aggressive cut-price marketing strategy. SFR is the second largest operator in France, with Bouygues Telecom completing the line-up.
To decide which operator is best for you, you’ll need to go online to compare their various packages ( forfaits). Basically it works the same way as in the UK. Work out your usage (or desired usage) for each of the services included and choose a package. While you may be locked into a contract for a fixed period preventing you from switching operators before the contract expires, you can normally change from one package to another when you like. So keep an eye on your bills to be sure there isn’t a different option better suited to your needs.