Working as a Caretaker in Provence Our Experiences
Finding work is one of the primary causes of concern for expats. What makes it even more challenging in this region, is that much of that work is given by word-of-mouth. Establishing a few contacts before the move helps enormously unless you have time (and savings) to build up some contacts while you’re here. Which is the route we took in our decision to move to Cotignac from the Netherlands in March 2014.
DIY & Maintenance
With our flooring business and DIY-project experience on our own home, we quickly found work doing smaller handyman jobs that local tradesmen didn’t have time for or interest in. Helping Stephen and Jeany Cronk get their new Mirabeau Wine boutique in the village centre ready for opening in June led to us working with them most days of the week.
We also met Anne Helene and Vidar, a lovely Norwegian couple, whose manor in the heart of Cotignac was in need of some TLC. The home named “Lou Marronie” sports around 50 shutters, some of them are 2.5 metres tall! I accepted the behemoth task of sanding/painting several layers onto each shutter for one day a week over the winter period. It was a great experience. Marcel managed the other maintenance tasks that needed doing.
When their existing house manager decided to retire in 2015, we agreed to take care of the manor. Then in 2016 we also took on a couple of other houses for a couple of years, but as our commitments with Mirabeau changed, we relinquished those ones. And now that we’re focusing on our online business, NetNomads, we’ve handed over the reins to another very capable person … also by word-of-mouth.
Being a caretaker is a lovely way of working in Provence, with many advantages and some downsides that need to be considered. Some positions offer live-in guardianship, where rent is exchanged for maintenance, while other properties are used primarily for summer rentals. This article is focussed on rental properties, based on our 5-year experience, in the hope of steering newbies to the business, and to the region, in the right direction.
Easter is normally busy, but the season typically runs from June – September, with few visitors in the winter months, during which time maintenance on the property is carried out. If the caretakers are handy with tools, they can do the maintenance themselves, or organise local tradesmen to perform the work.
Role of a Caretaker on Rental Properties
Each property has different needs, but common tasks include:
- Managing expectations of homeowners
- Coordinating the local team (cleaners, gardeners, pool service, tradesmen)
- Establishing relationships with neighbours, especially noise-related issues
- Welcoming guests, offering local insights and managing their expectations
- Troubleshooting and being on standby 24×7 while guests are on the property
- Supervising the changeover day, normally on Saturdays
- Handling house maintenance & repairs
- Bookkeeping & administration
This part of a caretaker’s role is perhaps the most delicate. Let’s begin with the renters. In most cases, they have saved up their time and energy to enjoy this week (or two) to escape the seriousness of their working lives. They’re looking for freedom, fun, adventure, relaxation… and that the property matches their expectations. Any issues need to be dealt with swiftly and efficiently to not interrupt their precious holiday time.
Then we consider the neighbours and local rhythms. In Provence, it’s customary to rise early, get in a full morning before the heat of the day and then enjoy a leisurely lunch (main meal of the day) followed by a siesta, followed by an active afternoon and then early evening aperos (lighter meal/snacks to accompany one’s pastis or a glass of rosé). Going to bed around 10-11 pm is normal, and sound levels need to be adjusted accordingly.
Rhythms for holiday-makers are very different. Starting on arrival at the property, there is often a drink or two in the village around 6 pm, followed by dinner around 9 pm and then the partying starts, often ending past midnight and creeping into the early hours of the morning. Sleeping off late nights, they arise around 11 am only to discover the shops are closed when they’re ready for the village.
If your holiday home is in a village, the noise carries. A LOT. Result? Very unhappy locals. For the renters, it’s one week out of the year. For the locals, it’s every week for the entire season. Together with the owners, we emphasized how important it was to respect the noise levels and requested the renters try out the local rhythms instead. If there is going to be a party, advising neighbours beforehand goes without saying.
Caretakers also need to juggle the expectations of owners and local teams. If you’re lucky, the owners have an excellent appreciation for what people do, while others focus on profitability and constantly look for shortcuts (that end up being more expensive). Budgets are very important, so understand everyone’s requirements. Tip: it’s easier getting work if you are registered as a ‘micro-entreprise’ and can give the owners an invoice at the end of the month, which is usually tax-deductible in their country of residence.
Being on standby doesn’t get discussed much but is something that affects caretakers enormously. Many owners think you only need to be on call during the changeover day, but if something goes wrong with the house or one of the guests, you need to be available at short notice to help them resolve the issue. After a fab rosé festival, we were called out at 1 am as some guests had locked themselves out of the house.
Your Local Team
A big challenge to newbies in Provence is building an excellent team that works well together, communicates clearly, and has each other’s interests at heart. Most locals have grown up with each other, and often have (strong) preferences regarding team members. Being able to communicate in French is extremely important. Fluency is an advantage, but you’ll be able to get by as long as you can understand and be understood!
Treating everyone with equal respect is essential. In other cultures, people who work manually are often looked down upon. Don’t try that with a French person if you’d like to be successful! I love this way of thinking and believe we should all be like this, all the time. We absolutely loved working with our Lou Marronie team and tears were shed on leaving! Those relationships were an absolute highlight of our caretaker time in this gorgeous village.
Full Time or Part Time Work?
There are very successful holiday home rental businesses that have multiple properties on their books. These are a combination of owners and agencies with excellent teams in place.
With multiple houses, meet-and-greets can be very stressful as they normally happen on Saturdays. Guests don’t always show up when they say they will, and unexpected traffic jams or strikes can derange the best-laid plans. The good workaround includes having a safety key deposit box that allows guests to check in on arrival, and the caretaker arrives later the same day or early the next day. How many houses you’d look after depends on your circumstances.
There are downsides, of course, like any profession. You’re always on – constantly ‘on-call’ for an emergency opening of a pool deck. Grumpy neighbours need ‘people skills’ in their own ‘language’ – this can take time… Artisans or tradesmen don’t turn up as promised to get the heating repaired. Which means the guests are not amused… All of which is surmountable and a good old challenge. However, during the season, there are no weekends off! And bear in mind that it is predominantly seasonal work – four/five months a year. If you’re not into DIY, repairs and painting during the offseason the work is part-time. This, too, affects how long you may be willing to remain in the business depending on income.
On the positive – if you are willing to get stuck in and do the less glamorous jobs and are eager to embrace the local cultures you will have a big advantage purely because you speak the international holiday language. If you can gain the trust and respect of the French people (especially in the countryside) and try really hard to brush up your skills in the native tongue then being a caretaker can be a great way of life. You meet people from all corners, professions and ideologies. You contribute to their enjoyment of the villa, the village and the surrounding area. You’re actively involved in presenting a property to its best potential. You’re a troubleshooter, locksmith, local guide and the hero at ten pm during a lightning storm!
We were delighted and felt very honoured to be the guardians of one of Cotignac’s secret gems. It’s fabulous being part of the local economy and getting to know the French way. We loved welcoming people from all around the world and sharing what we love about this little corner of paradise. Often we provided tips and suggestions from an ‘insider’s perspective’ is a lovely incentive to further explore the region. If you’re a ‘people person’, love a challenge and get satisfaction from helping people – take the plunge!
Lou Marronie (website)
5 Rue St. Sebastien