Practical information: buying and renovating a property in France
Angela Wood and her partner Dirk-Karel de Geus bought a semi-ruined château in Gers and transformed it into a cancer retreat. They tell us about how they went about buying a property and undertaking renovation work
How did you find your property?
We did a lot of browsing on websites. In the holidays we visited different places to see what they were like. In the winter of 2010, Dirk browsed estate agents’ websites on a nightly basis and Château Puyssentut popped up, and it looked like it fitted the bill.
What were your criteria for a property?
We had a specific list of criteria: we wanted a large house that we could turn into the retreat (minimum 800m²) and a place for us to live that was separate, but close, to the main property (a dépendance). One of the things that made the property attractive is that included in the parcel of land is a ruined house that has a building permit (and electricity), which is about 300 metres away from the château. We also wanted a studio space for doing workshops and yoga.
The main house has a wing, which was habitable when we bought it. At the time, Bella was three and Asha was one, so it was great to be able to move straight away, while we renovated the house.
We overspent massively on the château renovation because we had to pay for numerous health and safety features that we hadn’t counted on, so now there’s no money left to do up the ruin. But you never know, there might be a possibility to do it one day! There are some walls more or less standing, but it would be a case of starting from scratch. This would be exciting because we could reclaim some of the stone and build something more modern. I really love the juxtaposition of old materials and new design.
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How did you find the process of buying the property?
It was fraught. The sellers loved the château – they’d started the renovations and taken it from being almost a complete ruin to being a building that stood for itself. They weren’t going to let go of it easily.
We came up against a huge amount of red tape. Organising the mortgage and bank account required determination and perseverance. It was nail-biting – there were times when we thought we wouldn’t get a mortgage in time and the owners would put the property back on the market.
When we were trying to arrange the mortgage from Holland, there were some communication issues between the banks so although they had agreed a mortgage for us, it was retracted because we weren’t informed. So we had to reapply for a mortgage – starting from scratch with the clock ticking was fraught, but if you want something you’ll do it.
If you’re moving to France you need the patience of a saint and you need to be a bit bull-headed at the same time. It was a jubilant day when we signed!
How did you find a local builder to do the renovation work?
We used a local networking scheme called Soho Solo (www.soho-solo.com), which attracts young and middle-aged professional expats to the area. Gers has a very sparse and ageing population so there is an effort to encourage entrepreneurs to the area. We found a really good local well-established builder, via Soho Solo, who took on the job of project manager for us. We’ve used all local people.
How did you find the process of getting planning permission for the work?
It was very touch and go, and you bite your nails waiting to hear whether you’ve got it or not. We appeared to have been given permission because we’d passed a certain time limit which means it’s accepted, but two to three weeks later, we received a letter saying we still hadn’t been given planning permission.
What role did the maire have?
We’ve been careful to make sure we’ve involved the maire in everything we’re doing. Luckily, we’re blessed with a very supportive maire who is very open to helping people move to the area. Getting the permission to start the renovations and turn the property into the retreat basically came down to a decision by the departmental head in Auch. Our maire wasn’t the decision-maker, but if we hadn’t had his support it wouldn’t have even been considered at the departmental level.