Our First Year as Property Managers
by Amanda Givans (LBV Lot et Garonne nord - Dordogne sud)
[Wavell and Amanda Givans came to France in the spring of 2012 as franchisees of Les Bons Voisins Property Management. This is the story of their first year.]
Phew! Peace at last to start this article It's 10.30 a.m. on a sunny spring day, and my other half, Wavell, has just roared (puttered?) off down the lane with our trusty Peugeot van and trailer full of our mowers and gardening gear. He's off to a new job clearing a badly overgrown garden, which we'll be tackling together over the next few days.
The morning so far has been as follows:
Finalised planning the day/week of work and other tasks with Wavell, had a shower while he walked the dog, made the bed, fed the cat and dog, sat in the sun with a cup of tea (!), checked and swept our pool, made breakfast, put washing on, washed up and put dishwasher on, made Wavell's picnic lunch, sent and received several client emails, took a phone call, checked when our delivery of tea and goodies is due from the UK (today!), interfered in Wavell's loading process... chatted briefly to a French neighbour and finally sat down to write this.
Today I have been given special dispensation to swap gardening work for home-based tasks, including our first tax return which is due in two weeks and needs to be completed in hard copy this first time. A bit scary! On 10th May 2013 we had been a registered auto-entreprise for exactly one year. What a transition it has been!
Looking back to a year and a half ago, the patterns and pressures of our lives were very different. I was a clinician/manager in the NHS in East London, and Wavell was a Police Officer in the Met. We were both out of the house by 6.45 am every day, making separate lengthy commutes to long stressful days at work, so we were apart between 11-13 hours a day. Now we enjoy (well, most of the time!) 24 hours a day together, and treasure the occasional few hours we have apart to do our own thing. How times have changed!
We have been involved with LBV for nearly three years. Because Wavell had a definite retirement date - and was experiencing some mild anxiety about having something to fill his days and add to his pension - we started looking at options for work quite early on. We had wondered about working for ourselves, so considered various franchise opportunities because neither of us had run a business before. We already had our holiday home in Segalas, in the Lot et Garonne departement in Aquitaine, and came across an LBV Franchise advert in a booklet about living and working in France. Suddenly moving to France permanently and working together was a possibility!
Several phone calls later we went to meet Sally at the 'A Place in the Sun' exhibition in February 2011. We then visited her in Brittany the following June and met other franchisees. We were lucky enough to spend a 'day in the life of an LBV-er' with Sally during that visit, seeing a variety of gites and houses. It was pretty true to life as there was a violent storm while we were there, and genuine house checks needed to be completed while negotiating winds, rain and branches across the roads. The minutiae, pains and pleasures of property management were really brought home to us. Talking it over, we felt that we could enjoy the total change of life the role would bring, living our lives working mainly outside in the fresh air and sunshine (we live in the sunny South West of France).
Fast forward over the boring bits... our LBV webpage was up a few months prior to our planned move in the summer 2012, and we already had three strong prospects as new clients. This put some pressure on our start up date as we didn't want to lose those clients (we didn't and they're still with us!). So it was decided, slightly against my own preference, that we'd move out here earlier than planned, in March 2012, in order for me to start the business on my own in time to help those clients from Easter onwards. Then Wavell would retire in July and would move here t join me when the UK house was sold.
Somewhat to my surprise, this actually worked out well, although it was by turns exhilarating (my longest lone drive in France, going to an unknown area to meet our first potential clients!), lonely (for obvious reasons), exhausting (both from enjoying my own family and friends who supportively visited, and from my first paid physical work ever) and terrifying (new life, new country, new business...). Sally was amazingly supportive throughout all these teething troubles, and shared highs and lows with us as we adapted.
We secured a sale on the UK house with relative ease, and Wavell visited me and our newly adopted cat 'Puss' for a few days every four weeks. Just before he moved out 'definitivement' at the end of July, we adopted a young rescue dog, 'Cookie'. Our little family was finally complete and all together!
There are many good things about our new life. No more commuting on hot smelly trains/buses/tubes. Instead, we bowl along country lanes admiring the changing seasons in this gentle landscape. We enjoy working in the gardens together (a novelty for us, and not without occasional discord, but we've worked it out!) and the fresh air and exercise is great. The dog loves it too, but her racing around madly, investigating hedges, rolling in dead frogs or lying in the shade, is quite honestly of only limited help to us. She does at least now reliably come when called and can sit on command...
We also love exploring different places when visiting prospects and clients - we've found some lovely spots and seen some gorgeous sights which we would never have done without LBV. Simple pleasures include sharing a picnic lunch with the dog, admiring our own progress in a garden, our clients' appreciation for jobs well done, a full fridge of 'goodies' left behind by guests, watching a freshly cleaned pool sparkle in the sun ... and getting paid!
So when does the ultra-professional team that is 'Les Bons Voisins of Lot et Garonne' become 'Les Blagues Véritables'?!* When we procrastinate and/or don't organise ourselves as well as we should, or when the changeable spring weather makes a mockery of any plans! How silly do you feel when you've expected several days of sunshine courtesy of the local weather forecast, only to find that the day you planned to tackle a big initial grass cut dawns too wet to cut it? Never mind 'too posh to push', even in the sunny south we're often too 'mouille to mow'!**
And even when we do arrive at that new client's garden, all ready to tackle the first cut with our super-duper Iseki ride-on mower (Wavell will be delighted to discuss all technical details with any and all wishing to discuss his new baby), things can go wrong. For example, we have since found that the mower works better right side up!
The other thing which can trip you up is quoting for work. We lost a big prospect a few weeks back, which would have paid 9,000 - 10,000 Euros/year income for garden/pool work only and no changeovers. It was a tricky sloped garden and we spent a long time working out costs, and even bought our current Iseki mower from their previous gardener so we could be sure we could cope with it. Then the prospective client decided to use a more local French guy instead of us. We had good feedback on our quote ... it just wasn't to be. The experience and the equipment won't go to waste, of course. In fact we've already landed the gardening job I mentioned at the beginning, which we couldn't have done without the Iseki mower. Neighbours are amused when they see our 'monster' on the trailer when they know we personally have only a 200 sq m garden and pool ...
We're doing alright, I think. Although we have not put in anything like the amount of local marketing we were advised to do, we have been lucky enough to have a steady trickle of prospects find us, mainly through the LBV website, Anglo Info, and the English Spoken website, as well as one prospect through seeing our sign-written van in the Intermarche car park!
We have a mixed portfolio of second homes and lettings, and some of our work was 'admin only' last year. One of the lettings is a gorgeous 8-bedroom manoir with lovely grounds, which is pretty lucrative. Our Saturdays during summer are likely to be rammed - we have just found out that there is probably only one Saturday without the pressure of changeovers in the whole of this summer from the end of May to mid-September. This will be our first properly busy summer.
As a new business which has been allowed to grow gently and has been registered for just one year, I think we are set fair for a good year in year two!
So what does the future hold for the Givans family in Lot et Garonne?
Certainly there will be more of the same, but also the opportunity to offer our clients the full range of LBV services within our region - so watch this space for more info on that!
We have enjoyed being part of LBV both personally and professionally. They (we?) are a great group of people. We've had fun, we've worked hard (and expect to work harder), and we've enjoyed plenty of support and opportunities. Life is, after all, what you make it!
To be continued...
* The true jokes
** Too wet to mow