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  • Writer's picture by Rae-Helen

Madame Noire

Updated: Feb 27, 2019

This blog helps explain a rather fascinating real estate option here in France known as "viager" and also a little story to go with it about a neighbour here in France.

I've just returned from a walk from the cottage, pictured above, to the cemetery situated at the top of the village. From here there is a stunning view, when you look back, over the village nestled below. No, I do not have a morbid curiosity for cemeteries, although now and again I like to poke around them. Next to the cemetery is a receptacle where you dispense of your empty bottles and glassware. It's a rather tall bin with a hole just big enough for a bottle which, once thrown in, is assured of being noisily smashed at the bottom. This was my Monday morning mission.

I always feel like I could be arrested for "disturbing the peace" when I do this bottle smashing and that it's terribly inappropriate to disturb the dead in their state of eternal rest. And especially today, as the stillness and absolute solitude and quiet is, well ...deafening. The sun is shining and drenching the village as I pause to look back at it basking in the most glorious light. This light highlights the golden stone work of the Chateau and the cottages, making them appear surreal and rather like a movie set. Don't you agree?

And it IS a movie that has set me thinking once more of the rather curiously and amusing story of Madame Noire.

Madame Noire lived in a house I pass on my way to the cemetery in Berbiguières,-set on a rather large quantity of land. She is no longer alive and the house and land have been transformed into a rather beautiful property. It's the story behind this that I want to share with you.

I was reminded very much of it when I recently watched a movie new to Netflix, when I was in France called " My Old Lady " starring Maggie Smith, Kristen Scott Thomas and Kevin Kline. A 2014 release. I'll watch anything with Maggie Smith in it but I was very intrigued once I realised what the story was about.

You see, France has a peculiar and unique way of buying and selling homes - called Viager - a system based on gambling on how long a seller is likely to live. It promises tantalisingly good, if risky, deals for buyers - and lots of security for the seller.

However, you have to be brave enough to roll your dice and gamble with rather a lot of cash - and carry on doing so for many years, for a viager deal to work out.

It is a contract agreed between two private parties and overseen by a lawyer, notaire or an Expert Viager who will track the deal throughout its lifetime.

Sellers are typically widows, or widowers, who want to cash in on the value of their property in order to get a big lump sum - the bouquet - and a monthly payment from the buyer for the rest of their lives.

The seller remains in the property and the payments are heavily guaranteed.

French viager investors tend to be in their late 40s and early 50s wanting to set themselves up and hopefully get a good deal. The overall payment is calculated according to the age of the seller on a scale set down by French law.

If the seller is 70 years old, for example, the value of the property will be set at about 50%. This is called the valeur occupée or occupied value.

From this the bouquet, typically about 30% of the valeur occupée, must be paid in full at the beginning of the deal. The rest is paid in monthly instalments for the rest of the seller’s life.

However, if the buyer dies before the seller, his children will be obliged to carry on paying the viager if they want to maintain the deal!

And this is exactly what happens to Mathias ( Kevin Kline ) in the movie- My Old Lady. He thinks he is inheriting an apartment in Paris, only to find out that the Owner/Occupier (Maggie Smith) is still alive and well and that he in fact, has taken on his father's debt.

It might appear quite a fantastic scenario as a plot for a movie but it is still quite a legal transaction today and very much in practice!

Madame Noire is an example of a " Viager " contract struck in our village of Berbiguieres, that did not go the way of the buyer. You see, Madame Noire, although she appeared old and frail, lived and lived and lived!

Each time there was a rumour of someone's death in the village, the Owner would look hopefully at his son and ask " Madame Noire? " to which the answer was always NO.

It was widely known that he would attend funerals muttering " Why not Madame Noire, why not Madame Noire?" The story continues. Not only did she receive a lump sum... the bouquet, but Madame Noire received her monthly instalments for years and eventually outlived her buyer. His son is the owner now, but even he had to wait for Madame Noire to pass away at the ripe old age of 100 before he could occupy the house and land and begin work on it.

It still makes me chuckle to think about it but I know who's had the last laugh!

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