Pitfalls to avoid when renovating a French property

Pitfalls to avoid when renovating a French property

If you ask the right questions and apply for the correct documents, there is nothing stopping you from completing your dream renovation project in France, says Andrew Allen

For the many people who dream of buying a home in France, frequently the choice is an older, traditional style property because of the charm and character they can possess.

Often this means that some renovation or conversion work will be required which should usually be an enjoyable and trouble-free process. However, there are some pitfalls that potential buyers should be aware of in order to avoid unforeseen problems.


This may seem rather obvious, but it is a good idea to verify estate agents’ details or the vendor’s word that you will be able to convert or renovate your potential purchase in the way that you would like to.

Planning rules are very localised in France, so don’t take it for granted that you will be able to convert or extend a property because someone else close by has done something similar. It may well be that their property is in a different planning zone, even if they are your neighbours.

If you are thinking of establishing a business from your property then this can be particularly important. We had a client who, before purchasing a property, was told that he would be allowed to set up a campsite there. After completing the purchase he asked us to obtain the relevant planning consents. On contacting the local planning department we were informed that no planning consent could be given as the land was not in a planning zone that allowed campsites, even though he had been told otherwise when purchasing the property.


Frequently, the cost of renovating a building is underestimated. It should be remembered that although property prices are generally much lower in France than in the UK, the cost of building and renovating isn’t.

It may sound obvious, but it is important to make sure you have adequate funds available to carry out the work. Renovation costs can easily run away and be higher than expected. Whereas it is fairly easy to gauge new-build costs (currently €1,433 per m2 plus TVA – taxe sur la valeur ajoutée) renovation costs are far more difficult to estimate. Depending on the amount of work required, they can in some cases equal or exceed new-build costs, so always be prepared for the unexpected.

Over the years we have encountered missing foundations, unstable walls and a stream running under a house, among other things. Always make sure your property is adequately insured and remember that the value of your property might decrease during the early stages of renovation as parts of the building are removed or demolished. Also ensure the tradesmen you use have the relevant insurances and guarantees needed to carry out the work.


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Be aware of purchasing property within 100m of a farm as, if you do, it is very difficult to obtain planning consent to convert a non-habitable building, such as a barn or ruin, into habitable use or extend it.

Any change of use for a building, e.g. a barn into a house, requires a permis de construire (full planning consent), and if the total habitable floor area of the property when converted will be over 150m2 then you will need an architect to make the application for you.

At the moment the French authorities are trying to bring domestic drainage systems in all departments up to European norms. So, if you apply for planning permission in an area not on mains drains, you will be asked for a certificate of conformity for your septic tank. If you don’t have this certificate, then as part of your planning application you will also need to submit an application for the installation of a new septic tank.

If your property is listed (classé), within 500m of an historic monument or in a designated national or regional park, there will be restrictions stating if and how you are allowed to make alterations to the property and these can be very strict.

In these cases the planning application process will take longer than usual as applications have to go through the Architectes des Bâtiments de France, a few of whom should be based in the prefecture of each department, to achieve final approval.


If you want to clarify what you will be allowed to do before you commit to buy, then you can ask your estate agent or notaire to apply for a certificat d’urbanisme (le certificat opérationnel). This is a request to perform a specific operation on a building or a piece land, for example, to convert a barn into a house or add an extension etc.

This will take two months and state in writing that you can (or cannot) carry out in principal the work that you would like to do, and this permission can be made a condition of the purchase.

A certificat d’urbanisme constitutes outline planning consent and lasts for 18 months. During this period you should apply for full planning consent if it is required, and any building alterations will be subject to local planning regulations regarding external appearance of the property.

This may all sound a bit daunting, but if you would like to carry out alterations on a property it is always worthwhile asking at your local mairie, they should be able to tell you what the local planning rules are.

Alternatively, you could contact a local architect who should be prepared to discuss your requirements informally, make some initial investigations as to the feasibility of your project and give advice free of charge.

It is not advisable to just go ahead and carry out work without the correct permissions, as although there may be no immediate repercussions, problems will arise when you come to sell the property on and don’t have the correct paperwork.

Having said all this, my overall experience is that by asking the right questions and following the correct rules, anyone should be able to enjoy a beautiful and very special home here in France. n

Andrew Allen runs Allen Architects in Brittany

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