Renovating in France

There’s nothing quite as satisfying as bringing an old property back to its former glory. Hannah Durrant goes back to basics for would-be renovators

How many of us dream of a home in France? We scan the estate agents’ shop windows, whether on holiday or in front of the computer with a nice cup of tea, and imagine ourselves revelling in the French way of life. We find an abundance of beautiful old properties ready for renovation and relatively cheap. We sketch out a few calculations on the back of a napkin as we sip a perfectly chilled glass of wine and allow ourselves to dream some more. If you are thinking of turning that dream into reality, here are a few essentials to help get you started.

Purse strings

A quick survey of clients and friends who have done their own renovations came up with the number one tip: set yourselves a budget. No surprises there, I hear you say. Yet many people find that their project goes way over the original budget. Most advise that you work out your budget then add a contingency fund of around 20%. Alternatively, Paul Fowle – who has renovated numerous old properties and is now putting the finishing touches to a Knights Templar property in Dordogne – recommends multiplying the property price by three so your charming ruin at €50,000 could cost you €150,000 to renovate.

If you live in the UK and have no experience of building projects, the most sensible thing would be to employ an architect or project manager. This will add another 5% to your budget but could save you a lot more.

Choose wisely

Once you know how much you have to spend, where you want to buy and what you want from your property, it is time to look for your potential dream home. There is no shortage of suitable properties in France but be very wary of falling into the trap of buying something too big, unless you have unlimited means. It may be tempting that “just another €30,000” could make the difference between a large house and a small ch�teau. However, not only is it likely to gobble up all your resources but unless you can make it pay, then living in it could be beyond your means. Cut your dreams to fit your cloth and find a property that will give you what you need, and which is definitely not a millstone around your neck.

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Before you buy, visit the local mairie and check the development plans. You need to make sure that your idea of a dream home fits into these, so ask lots of questions. Is it in a development area? If not, you may not be able to extend it as part of your renovation. Is it near a monument historique? If it is within 500m of one, your renovation plans will need to be approved by B�timents de France, which oversees the equivalent of listed buildings in the UK. They could put restrictions on what materials you can use and on the external appearance of your property.

If you plan to convert an old agricultural barn, make sure it has a valid certificat d’urbanisme (CU), which includes a changement de destination from grange to habitation. My partner Louis and I bought our barn in 2007, unaware that it was still classified as a grange en cours de r�novation even though the previous owner had converted part of the property into living space. Fortunately for us, a change of use was granted as part of our permis de construire (building permit). However, it could have been another story if the maire had not approved of the project or if it was not on land marked for development.

The CU is planning permission in principle but it doesn’t guarantee that a permis de construire will be granted. It is simply a nod in the right direction. If there is no CU at all, request a certificat d’information g�n�ral to find out the current status of the building before buying.

When you visit the property, check the timbers and tiles for rot. Cracks in the thick stone walls are often not as serious as they look. If you plan to put in a first floor, make sure there is enough head height without needing to excavate below the walls. If you feel out of your depth, you could do worse than to ask an architect to visit the property with you and check the paperwork before you buy.

Tim Harris, of Tim Harris Architects, near Carcassonne, is forthright on this point. “Clients often get in touch with me when they come up against a problem and realise that they are not going to be able to create the home they dreamed of,” he says. “Even if they choose to manage the rest of the project on their own, taking the advice of an architect just before purchasing could save people many thousands later on.”

Get permission to build

Now that you have found your perfect renovation project, it’s time for the real work to begin. First, you are going to need a permis de construire, unless you plan to change neither the external appearance nor the use of the building. It is up to you to check that you have all the right permits.

The good news is that in France the renovation of old properties is welcomed. If your property will be under 170m� floor area when finished, you can put the application in yourself. For anything over this, an architect must sign off the plans. A benefit of this is that you receive the advice of an architect at the planning stage, which will help to get your permis de construire. Applications are submitted to the mairie, who send them to the planning department, the DDE (Direction D�partementale de l’Equipement). If your application needs to go to B�timents de France as well, it may take six months to process rather than the usual two.

Find the right artisans

In France artisans tend to specialise rather than being ‘general builders’ and they are registered and insured accordingly. You may need a roofer, a carpenter, a plumber and an electrician to work on your project.

While you are dealing with the planning process, begin your search for the right people. Start with your mairie who will have details of artisans in your area. Employing them will win you brownie points in the community but make sure that you ask around for customer satisfaction. If they are reputable and good at their work then people in your commune will be happy to recommend them and to show you work the artisans have done on their own renovations. Aside from the essential legal checks, word of mouth is your most valuable guide.

You should consider dommages ouvrages (DO) insurance to cover the works. There is no penalty for not having DO but in practice it is advisable. All of your artisans must have responsabilit� civile d�cennale (RCD) insurance, which covers their work for 10 years from completion. However, it can take a long time to apportion artisans’ responsibility for any mistakes and this is where DO insurance kicks in. It is an unlimited policy that covers completion of your project while the insurance companies battle it out.

Building traditions

Before you start, take time to learn a little about building techniques. One reason to make the most of French artisans’ skills is that they do know the way things are built locally. For example, in northern Dordogne most old buildings are built from mud and stone walls with a timber roof frame. Many people would automatically install a damp course and use cement-based mortar to repair and point the stone walls. However, cement-based mortars will trap moisture and can crack. As most of the old buildings here are not on solid foundations, they move. They need the ‘give’ that traditional lime mortar offers.

Whichever area of France you choose to buy in, you can be sure there will be similar instances of local building know-how.

You are now prepared and have done your research. All you need are good artisans and materials and you are ready to renovate! LF

Hannah Durrant and her partner Louis Maw run an oak timber-framing business ad have renovated their property since moving to Dordogne in 2011.