Moving to France


- Credit: Archant

Mary Hall shares some practical tips and advice for when you move into your new French home


- Credit: Archant

When you buy a house that’s ready to move into, rather than a wreck to renovate, there’s still a lot to check out, especially if it’s your first purchase in France. Nothing’s ever quite the same as it is in your own country.

If you’re lucky, the vendor will have left you some indication of how everything works – but maybe not.

Before you get plunged into darkness or water floods the cellar make sure you know where the main trip switch (disjoncteur) is, and where to turn the water off with the tap on the consumer side of the meter. Tomorrow you can tackle the rest.

1) Electricity

Familiarise yourself with your main trip switch and your consumer unit (tableau électrique), so that you can cut the power fully or partially for safety when doing electrical work.

French houses are wired using a point to point electrical pattern rather than the loop (ring main) that is used in the UK. The system in France involves a series of spurs running from a distribution box. Most of these can support several sockets and fittings, but large household appliances such as washing machines, hot water tanks and dishwashers must have their own individual spur.

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The tableau should have all the circuits identified by pictograms or words, but if not you can work out your own by simply turning things on and off in sequence and seeing what’s what.

Common sense is all that’s needed, not a degree in electrical engineering. If it’s a big old property you may discover several consumer boards in odd places – but luckily these days all this should be itemised on the electrics diagnostic report you’ll have seen when you bought the property.

Check your meter, and how to read it. There’s an explanation in English at

Be aware that in rural areas violent storms can wreak havoc with sensitive devices such as computers, modems and cordless phones unless you have adequate surge protection incorporated in your electrical system. Most of us simply unplug everything when a bad storm threatens. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

2) Water

Your house may be dead simple, with a stopcock by the meter and no other controls. On the other hand, you might find yourself with a plethora of self-draining taps (purges), taps to turn off outside taps and a water softener to learn about.

You may also have a rainwater recuperation system for watering, or even the rights to pump water from an adjoining river.

Track them all down, make sure you know what’s what and if family, friends or paying guests are going to use the property, write down clear instructions and label the taps if necessary. Far better to have a ‘DO NOT TOUCH THIS TAP’ sign than risk a flood.

3) Foul drainage

If you’re on mains drainage (tout- à-l’égout) you normally don’t have anything to worry about. However, it’s not that rare, especially in old village properties, to find only part of the house actually hooked up to the mains, and the rest of the waste disappearing (illegally) into an old pit or soakaway.

The controls in the old days weren’t so hot, and although when the mains were installed everyone was required to connect up, not everybody did exactly what they should.

If you’ve got a non-mains system you’ll have seen the inspector’s report early on in the purchase process, and it should be clear where everything is. Make sure you understand how the system works and what not to flush down the loo.

Any improvements specified in the report to bring the system up to standard have to be done within a year of completion of purchase. There’s no need to panic, you won’t get sent to jail if you run out of time, so you can unpack before you get the workmen in.

4) Heating AND air conditioning

These appliances can be complicated, so it’s to be hoped that the vendors left you some instructions. If in doubt, call an engineer to advise you, then write down the rules.

If it’s a second home, check what you need to do for frost protection when you’re not there. Most systems incorporate a hors gel function, which turns itself on when things get frosty (so long as the electricity has been left on and hasn’t tripped out).

Woodburner flues and open-fire chimneys need sweeping, so either learn to do it yourself or ask around for the name of the local ramoneur (chimney sweep).

5) Pool

Running a swimming pool isn’t that complicated but it does require a basic understanding of physics and chemistry. I can hear your sharp intakes of breath from here, but it’s true.

Clean pool water is achieved by the correct balance of water flow through your pump and filters (that’s the physics) and the treatment of the water by chlorine or other means to remove harmful bacteria (there’s the chemistry). You can learn how to run a simple pool in a couple of hours if the right person explains it to you. Learning to overwinter your pool and reopen it in the summer will take longer.

If you have never owned a pool before, it’s best to admit your ignorance and seek professional advice. This doesn’t have to cost a fortune, but it can if you get taken for a ride by the wrong people.

If your new house is a second home, one of your first priorities will be to find someone to care for it while you are away, as pools do not look after themselves for weeks at a time.

Automatic functions still need checking, filters need cleaning, and if the power trips the swimming pool will stop running and within a couple of days your sparkling water can turn into pea- green soup.

Mary Hall is a chartered surveyor

Tel: 0033 (0)5 65 24 66 46