Renovating a Property in France
Given the enormous range of rural properties available they come with varying levels of renovation required. Obviously the extent of renovation required is reflected in the price and it will be for each individual to decide what they feel comfortable taking on.
For us the farmhouse we bought had not been lived in for 5 to 10 years and the previous occupant lived there until she was in her eighties having spent her entire adult life in the property. In order to keep heating costs down she more or less lived in one downstairs room. This room was around 20 square foot and had an old range on one wall which provided the heat and cooking facilities. Off this central room were 3 unused bedrooms a WC and a small bathroom. All were in poor condition with the bathroom having the most horrific dark green tropical palm patterned wallpaper you could imagine that went up the walls and across the ceiling!
There was an upstairs to the farmhouse but no internal staircase, access was via a set metal stairs that were on the outside at the gable end. The upstairs seemed to have been used for drying onions and garlic and although very large was totally unconverted.
The interior of the farmhouse could have easily put us off. It seemed dark and was a collection of badly decorated small rooms off the main large room. However, the property as a whole was in a superb location sitting on top of a hill with one other farm nearby and wide reaching views all the way to Limoges, some 20 miles away.
We knew that if we could sacrifice a couple of the downstairs bedrooms to open it up and convert the upstairs to replace the lost bedrooms we would be onto a winner.
We originally viewed the property in October and finally completed in March the following year, it could have happened sooner than that if we had wanted it to but we were in the process of selling and downsizing in the UK to free up the cash to buy it so it took us a little longer than usual to complete the purchase.
In March when travelled across to sign for the property we booked two weeks leave and planned to start doing some small jobs such as painting the outside and generally just tidying it up. What we end up doing was two weeks of hard physical labour.
The ceilings were completely flat, covered in painted hardboard and looked awful. We decided to take some of the hardboard down to see what it was covering and were delighted to find huge solid oak beams. What started as an exercise to see what was underneath turned into 3 days of taking the ceilings down throughout the farmhouse. As the hardboard had been nailed across the beams it had created a two foot cavity between it and the underside of the floorboards above. Over the decades the old lady had lived in the property this had become a fantastic habitat for mice. We discovered this when pulling down the first sheet of hardboard and which deposited piles of seed and nut husks on us.
Once we had taken all the hardboard down we could see that the way the beam ran the wall on the left for the two bedrooms was none load bearing. To use an 80s phrase 'it was hammer time', sledge hammer time to be exact! There is clearly something in the human psyche that means we enjoy knocking things down, and taking the walls out to open up what was once 3 rooms and making one massive space was great fun. The walls were made of any old piece of timber they had laying about placed upright between the floor and the beam above and nailed in position. These were then covered with smaller lathe type lengths of woods and then packed with mud and straw? Not exactly up to today's building regulations but they had probably been there for over 100 years, or longer, given the build date for the farm was 1700 and something.
When you take out walls and take down ceilings it creates a huge amount of waste and being new to France we had no idea if we could hire a skip or how to go about it. We learned later that most people in France use their local dechetterie, which is the french equivalent of a municipal waste disposal site. We sorted the wood we could save to chop up and use in the wood burning stove we would eventually get but were still left with plaster and other debris. Luckily at the end of the adjoining barn was an open roofed area that we planned to convert to an outdoor kitchen which had a sunken floor that we would need to build it up. This became our repository for this waste material.
After the ceilings and walls had been removed we were left with a large open space with several windows that made the new room much lighter and the huge beams we had revealed look terrific, although a lot darker than we would want and we later got them sand blasted so there were not as dark.
By the end of our first two weeks in France on what was supposed to be a holiday we were exhausted and ready to go back to work for a rest! We knew that neither of us were handy enough to complete the renovation works and that if we tried to complete them ourselves it would take forever given we still worked and lived in the UK. That meant we had to bring in professionals to help.
This can be very daunting, being in another country, not having a fantastic command of the language and being unsure how to find the workmen, not to mention then managing the project from the UK.
However, we were fortunate to have made friends in the area we bought the farm and through them were put in touch with a couple of english builders who now lived in France. This seemed a lot easier to us than trying to engage local French artisans. We had been told these were often expensive and unreliable in terms of the dates given to complete the works. In France if you accept a quote for work from someone they have a year to complete the work and often work to their time frame and not yours. If you choose to bring someone else in to do the work having already accepted a quote somewhere else you might be legally bound to pay something to the original workmen you accepted the quote from. So beware!
Of the names we were passed we found an english plumber, an electrician, and a carpenter and general builder.
When we bought the farm the english agents had also offered to put us in touch with builders and we could have used their contacts to similarly find english expat builders.
There are a couple of things I would recommend you do when engaging any expat builder in France. Firstly, go by recommendation if you can. If you can't then ask them to put you in touch with previous customers and make sure you find out what they thought of the quality of work etc. most would even let you visit to see their completed renovations for yourself.
The second thing is to make sure the workmen is registered in France to pay tax and has a siret number. Their business card should also include a french landline and ideally an address. We were stung by a plumber who seemed on the surface very helpful and trustworthy but despite us asking was never able to give a proper quote and instead told us afterwards what he was charging, which was far higher than we expected and we realised we had been far too trusting. It also came to light that he was not registered to work in France. This is quite a big deal as both us and this individual could have been fined by the French authorities and I believe the fines can be as much a 30,000 euros so a very significant sum.
Having opened up the downstairs rooms we had to decided how we would convert them and eventually the upstairs too. At the time friends in the UK were remodelling their upstairs and had used some architectural software they had downloaded from the internet. Seeing how simple the software was to use and how good it was we also dived in a bought a copy here is a link to their site:
Home Designer below is a picture of the our plan for the downstairs and an image the software produced.
We used the software in a basic form just to see how to space things but you can use it to give you an exact replica of your vision. For example we didn't spend the time to change the colours on the interior rendering on the image above or put the ceiling beams in etc. but if you have the time you can change everything shown to exactly reflect your furniture and fittings.
Using this software and the plans it produced was a great help when making sure the tradesmen completing the renovation work for us understood what what we wanted.
Between March and our visit again in July we identified that the beams that held up the floor downstairs were in a very bad state. This meant that we needed to remove the majority of the floors and replace all the timbers and put in new floors. This cost about 8000 euros and was something we had not budgeted for. It was essential we completed this though as the other works could not start until it was done.
As the new floor was being laid we asked both the electrician and the plumber to liaise with the carpenter to complete their works so they would be hidden under the new floor. As all three were english they liaised between themselves on timings and it all worked perfectly.
When we returned in September we had arranged for the furniture we had in storage from downsizing to be taken over to France. Again we used a recommendation from a friend and arranged for another expat who now ran a removal business between England and France to collect and take across our furniture. When we initially downsized in the UK we asked the firm we used to quote for taking the surplus furniture we could not fit into our smaller house across to France and were quoted £5000! We ended up paying £1800 through this friend of a friend. With some of our furniture we could start to play house in September and it started to feel like a home.
We wanted the kitchen installed by the following March when our next trip was planned and so started to look for a kitchen in France at stores such as Leroy Merlin, Ikea and Castorama. We found that they were expensive and were not quite what we wanted. So when we returned home we did a similar exercise in the UK and ended up buying one from Wickes and asking the same guy who had moved our furniture to take it across to France for us a a part load on his next trip. This saved us circa £3000 on what we would have paid in France for the kitchen even with the cost of transporting it to France.
We still have a considerable way to go before we complete the farm to the point we move out but seeing further progress on the property each time we visit it is incredibly satisfying and makes the continued grind of work feel more worthwhile as it continues to pay for the renovations.