3 ways to make your French property support your lifestyle

PUBLISHED: 12:31 12 June 2015 | UPDATED: 14:00 09 September 2015

A farmhouse and barns converted into classic car storage!

A farmhouse and barns converted into classic car storage!

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How can you make your French home support the lifestyle you love while you stick to doing what you love? Sam Bottomley investigates

Many young retirees and families are now finding themselves without healthcare in France – having previously benefitted from the S1 certificate from the Department for Work and Pensions, which has now expired – and are faced with a gap of several years until their state pension kicks in. If this applies to you, you may wonder what you can do to access healthcare in the intervening time.

One way is to convert part of your existing property into a business premises and establish yourself as a micro-entrepreneur (the new name for an auto-entrepreneur), but there are restrictions on this business set-up as it is designed for a relatively low turnover. There are myriad types of business status in France so I would suggest you seek professional advice before you set one up.

Aside from the obvious option of setting up a chambres d’hôtes or converting a barn to use as a gîte, there are other ways to earn a living from your property depending on your budget and skill set. You may be part of the new wave of families wanting to escape the rat race and bring their children up in a rural environment where they remain children for longer, so earning an income is of paramount importance. Whatever your circumstances, a key priority is to find a way into the excellent healthcare system in France.

Many of us have redundant outbuildings attached to our main property. It may be worth getting a quote for turning your dusty, cobweb-ridden barn into a source of income to help bridge the gap, just until you can enjoy your retirement under the umbrella of the coveted carte vitale.

While many people have the idea of buying a property and converting outhouses into gîtes, you need a very special property, an excellent website and a unique selling point to ensure bookings, and the season is generally short. Three couples have combined their experience with their hobbies to create businesses in the south-west of France.

1. CLASSIC CAR STORAGE, HAUTE-VIENNE

Cara and Greg Samways decided to move to France when they required a drastic lifestyle change due to Greg’s health. After he was diagnosed with a serious heart condition the couple wanted to slow their pace of life, although, happily, the diagnosis was not as grim as they initially thought.

The couple arrived with a well-prepared plan: they wanted their business to revolve around their passion for classic cars, initially focusing on self-drive packages and classic car hire for holidaymakers. Very quickly the costs of insuring the vehicles became prohibitive so, with the help of their accountant, they rethought their business model and decided to concentrate on classic car storage. With a clear idea of their needs, it was easy to quickly disregard many properties they viewed and, after looking at no less than 50 houses over two years, they finally found their ideal home. It needed total renovation but, as Cara said, “the location and surroundings were right and it was absolutely the right property for us”.

Cara and Greg had concentrated their search within a 30-mile radius of an airport, as their clients typically fly in to collect their cars which are kept in secure barns. Initially, the couple relied on costly advertising but, eight years on, word of mouth ensures they receive plenty of repeat business. Over the years the business has evolved as they have always been aware of the need to be flexible; for a time they even supplied wedding cars and recently they have started supplying Millers Oils, promoting them through French car clubs. Language has been a challenge, with Cara having to quickly grasp technical motoring terms as most of their clients are French. “Luckily, we made the right decision in choosing our premises as it fits perfectly with our business while still providing room to expand,” she explains.

2. ART GALLERY, CHARENTE-MARITIME

Also seeking a change of lifestyle, Anne Bosset and her husband Brian moved to France 16 years ago after holidaying there. They came without clear ideas for earning an income but as Anne is an artist, it seemed sensible to open a gallery. They needed a shop front plus accommodation in a bustling town, with access to airports and good weather. Their search led them to Charente-Maritime, a département that seemed to fulfil their needs. Initially, agents seemed hell-bent on showing them properties suitable for chambres d’hôtes as they were convinced this was the only solution for British buyers. A fairly fruitless search ensued, viewing countless pretty but inappropriate properties.

By pure chance, Anne and her husband came across the picturesque town of St-Savinien and, in Anne’s words, “pretty much fell in love at first sight” with the shop in the high street. The basics were there, it didn’t need any costly renovation and the location was perfect. There followed an adventure, starting with a compulsory three-day course on running a business in France – essential as it helped them to legally register the gallery. At the time the course was free, provided by the Chambre des Métiers, and Anne also received good advice from her local mairie. The course covered the installation of a credit card machine, obtaining a SIRET number (your business registration number, which has to be quoted in all correspondence), how to pay your tax and how to access the health system.

The key element of the gallery’s success was the accommodation behind the shop, for which there was no rent to pay and, of course, no commuting costs. The gallery is busy during the summer when tourists flock to the pretty town, but winters can be quiet; living behind the shop allowed the Bossets to be present as and when a customer came. In hindsight, Anne feels they may have been better off buying in a larger town – such as Saintes, which is busy year round – rather than having to rely on seasonal clientele.

Depending on the type of business you are establishing you will need to contact different organisations – those setting up sales and services usually go to the Chambre de Commerce, while artisans visit the Chambre des Métiers. Some businesses cross over, so they need to be registered with both organisations. Artisans are obliged to take a five-day course costing around €245 and business registration costs €87. Another category known as profession libérale is for professionals in industries such as architecture and translation. The amount of social charges you pay varies across the different categories.

3. BAKERY, CHARENTE-MARITIME

Fiona and Mark started the property search for their gîte business dream in Vendée before switching to Charente-Maritime. They wanted to find a property with enough space for gîtes as well as an adjacent flat area of land to enable their guests to fly model aircrafts. However, when the sale of their UK property unexpectedly fell through, they had to think of another business idea to tide them over while their house was resold. “We just wanted a house with four walls and a roof which could be lived in!” laughs Fiona. As Mark is a baker, they decided to use this expertise to create a business, but needed outbuildings to convert into a professional kitchen. Initially, Mark started the business alone as Fiona continued to work in the UK. He baked cakes, pies and pasties, and became increasingly popular with both French and British customers at the local markets.

The minimum legal requirements for a professional kitchen in France are the same as in all other EU countries: correct refrigeration and easily cleanable work surfaces, floors and walls, and equipment that meets EU hygiene regulations. Workers are required to wear appropriate clothing and footwear in the kitchen, and should hold a high-level hygiene certificate. There is EU legislation to be adhered to regarding the food itself and kitchens are regularly checked by inspectors.

Having registered with the Chambre des Métiers and applied for a carte de commerçant ambulant which gave them the right to trade at markets, Fiona and Mark went on the five-day course. They needed to set up third-party liability business insurance as well as special insurance for any vehicle used for business purposes, and they pay an annual subscription to the Chambre des Métiers, along with professional taxes and social charges.

When Fiona arrived in France, the couple decided to concentrate on the food business as they felt it would be difficult to run gîtes at the same time. They sold their products at different markets as well as wholesale, working six days a week. More recently they have had the opportunity to take over a pork business from a friend who retired and they converted another small outbuilding to keep this going. When asked if he enjoys living and working in France, Mark says, “Some days I’m glad, some days I have total frustration with the whole French system! You will never make a fortune trading in France but what the heck: we keep trying and our customers seem to appreciate all that we do.”

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