Two days later, our neighbor told us that what we needed was a huissier de justice, which is sort of a cross between a lawyer and a judge. A huissier performs a variety of functions, but in the case of an état des lieux, he goes through the apartment and files an impartial report about the damages, which can then be used in court if, for example, the owners lie about broken windows or missing fixtures. That was exactly what we needed, but since it was Saturday and the état des lieux was on Monday, we were out of luck. I sent off an email anyway, no response. Our only hope was to call them first thing Monday morning, but a friend of ours scoffed at the idea. "It’s not like a doctor who you can call in case of an emergency! You have to make an appointment months in advance!" So then my husband decided that we should at least have witnesses, and invited three friends over for the main event. (One of them, Robert, rents out several apartments, and he marveled at the state of ours: it was spotless, with maybe 8 white patches [holes repaired with spackle] in the light yellow kitchen. [We’d asked the owners for the paint color during the pre-état des lieux, but they claimed not to know, and said we had to paint the whole thing.] Robert said repeatedly that he wished his renters would leave his apartments in such good condition.)
When the buzzer rang, I went to the door and was nearly run over as a woman introducing herself as a huissier (!) strode in, followed by the rental agent, and then the owners, who made a great show of turning their heads away as they marched past me. The huissier introduced herself to my husband and was visibly confused by the presence of three other men, but then got right down to business, dictating notes into a tape recorder as the rental agent shadowed her. Meanwhile, the owners wandered around turning on all the lights, stroking the walls, and looking up at the ceilings every few seconds, as if expecting to see, I don’t know, giant holes, or maybe food stains. They also complained, loudly and repeatedly, about the kitchen and the floors. Monsieur owner made a big fuss about the door handles pointing down instead of to the side,* "maybe that’s how they do it in America!" so I ran to get a screwdriver so that my husband could fix them. Monsieur also managed to drag me into an argument about the doors having been removed in the first place, as if that had somehow irreparably damaged the integrity of the apartment, and also brought up the infamous "dirty water" leak into the downstairs apartment, managing to make it sound like I was the one who tried to get out of fixing it – as if I cared! I didn’t have to pay for it, why would I resist? "Delusional" doesn’t begin to cover this guy’s state of mind.
The huissier asked if we were prepared to pay the final utilities bill, and I asked if it could be deducted from the security deposit. Monsieur owner assured me that the damages were far too severe to be covered by that, at which point I asked the huissier for the official tally of damages. Monsieur started recounting his trumped up list, at which point I told him that I was asking the huissier. He came right up to me and said, "Listen to me!" but the huissier managed to talk over him and he finally backed off. I also asked the huissier about the caution bancaire and she asked for details about that, then recommended that I pay the utilities in order to remove that from the equation, so I did. The owners, however, made it clear that they would be holding onto the caution bancaire until they were reimbursed for all of the "required" repairs.
The huissier then asked for the keys, and we handed her two sets, plus an extra apartment key. On the état des lieux, it said there were three sets plus an extra, but we didn’t have or remember ever having a third set, so the owners gleefully crowed about how now they had to change the locks. When she walked out onto the balcony to record her final notes, Monsieur taunted me: "You’d be better off finding those keys in order to avoid the extra fees, Madame" and I managed to ignore him, though only barely. (In my repeated mental reruns of that particular episode, I am far less dispassionate.)
Monsieur also asked the huissier what he was supposed to do about the fact that people were supposed to move in the next day but couldn’t because of all of the damages. She listened politely and responded noncommittally.
When it was finally over, we all waited in front of the elevator for a moment, as if we were all going to politely ride down together, and I’m certain I’m not the only one who was shell-shocked. The huissier recovered first, and announced she was taking the stairs down, followed closely by the agent, then me, my husband, and our friends.
Voilà – those are the facts as I remember and understand them. Here are a few additional thoughts and assumptions.
First of all, I can’t believe *they* brought a huissier! To me, that says two things: they truly believed that those boxes were hiding a bunch of holes in the wall, and that somehow the removal of the balcony lock and closet doors was permanent, and that, basically, the apartment was trashed and they thought *we* were screwing *them* over! My husband kicking them out probably sealed the deal. And two, these are not "honest" thieves. I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but hear me out. An honest thief is someone who steals from or takes advantage of you, knowing, at least on some level, that what s/he is doing is wrong. But these people believe their own propaganda – they brought in an impartial witness whose presence helped only us. If the huissier hadn’t been there, they could have gotten away with a lot more, but now, they’re SOL. They can’t charge us for the "dirty" floors or any of their other invented damages, because the huissier‘s report is official. I mean sure, they can try to charge us it, but all we have to do is fight back with the truth. They tried to screw us, and ended up screwing themselves. (I also love the fact that they are on the hook for her fee: if we had called her, it would be on us, or if she had asked permission to come in, we’d have to split it, but they clearly told her to walk in like she owned the place, so it’s all on them.)
Second, that line about people moving in the next day? Yeah, not gonna happen. Not only did not one single potential renter visit the apartment during our three-month notice period, but they also adjusted the "for rent" sign to make it more visible as soon as the huissier was gone. And even if it had been true, so what? Firstly, the damages were not that severe – the kitchen needs to be repainted, big deal. And secondly, there’s nothing in the contract or French law that says we, the old renters, are responsible if new renters can’t move in right away. Nice try.
Third, the keys. Yes, the état des lieux says there were three sets, and yes, my husband and I both initialed that page (and the other 12). We’re responsible for them, that’s fine. But for the record, neither of us remembers a third set, which means either we immediately lost it (doubtful) or it was never there in the first place. If we’d had a third set, we would have given it to a neighbor for safekeeping and would never have been locked out on our balcony that time. My theory is that there were 3 sets sitting on a counter, but the owners grabbed one of them right before before leaving. Call me paranoid if you like, but that’s the kind of people they are, and his taunting of me about the keys only confirms it. He’s legitimately allowed to charge us for replacing the locks, but he doesn’t need to because the 3rd set of keys is right there in his pocket.
Fourth, I would love to be a fly on the wall at the huissier‘s office, where she can, presumably, speak freely about our état des lieux to her colleagues. As happy as I was to see her, I felt that her arrival chez nous was rather aggressive, and know that the owners must have filled her head with all kinds of garbage about their loser tenants. I’m not suggesting that her impartiality was in any way compromised, but I’m certain that she arrived believing that the owners were the victims, and left knowing something else entirely.
Finally, there’s no doubt in my mind that the owners are going to hold our caution bancaire hostage and send us a ridiculous bill for all of the supposed damages, but we are going to fight back. The law and the huissier‘s report are on our side, and our money, though locked away, is safe. I’m not going to pay these thieves one cent more than I owe just to get my own money back.
I’ll let you know how it goes.
*They were L-shaped handles, and when pointing to the side, my husband and I were always catching our clothes on them, so we rotated them 90 degrees. It took all of a minute to turn them back.