New or old?

Whether you’re looking for a renovation project or a brand new home, Mayenne has it all, reports Caroline Lakey

Mayenne, in the north-west of France is popular both with British second homebuyers and those looking to make a permanent move. The area is rural and boasts low property prices, yet has a variety of reliable, quick transport connections to the UK, and easy access to Paris, the Loire Valley, Brittany and many other popular parts of France.

There is a wide range of property on offer locally and yes, it is still a buyers’ market, with more properties available than there are potential purchasers chasing them. This has been particularly true since the spring. The French media has decided that the recession is over, and as the sun has come out, not only has the grass begun to grow, but new For Sale signs have come into bloom locally.

Those who had been waiting to sell their properties seem to have decided that the time has come to get on with it. The result is an even wider choice of properties, which is great if you’re looking to buy. The downside though, is that you can have too much of a good thing – there are so many properties available that it is really essential to organise your search.

Obviously, you could buy a home that’s ready to move into, and plenty has been written on that subject in the past. However, if you really want to put your own stamp on a property, there are two paths you can take. Firstly, you can buy a property in need of renovation, which can mean anything from a barn without a door to a house that was the owner’s pride and joy 30 years ago, but is still stuck in the 1970s.

Alternatively, why not consider the preferred route of many French homeowners, by buying a plot and having a house built for you – or for the really brave, building it yourself? Both options allow you to optimise your home’s energy efficiency through your design and material choices.

If you take energy-efficiency to its limits by building a passive’ home, you could be looking at zero heating bills. That sounds attractive today, but as fossil fuel prices rise in the future, it could be a godsend.

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Renovation option

Firstly, let’s consider the renovation option. Old houses in this area ooze character, and bringing them back to their former glory, with all mod cons added in, can feel almost like a crusade. Many people buying property locally are completely committed to a traditional stone house and could not contemplate a modern-style building.

Old buildings can be real bargains, especially in the current market. Although it may be a wreck, you could buy a house to restore for a price that is approximately equal to, or sometimes even below, the market value of the land surrounding it. Small cottages for complete restoration, with land, start from around €20,000. These buildings have the potential to become compact homes with perhaps two bedrooms, and habitable space of around 80-100m�.

A barn for conversion will cost from €35,000, depending, of course, on the state of the building, the amount of land and the location. If you choose your barn wisely, it can become a stunning family home, often with scope for four to five bedrooms and 150-200m� of habitable space.

It’s very difficult to give average renovation prices, as so much depends on the state of the existing building, what you intend to do with it, and how much of the work you are prepared and competent enough to take on yourself.

You often hear €1,000 per square metre given as a guide price, but in my experience this is such a sweeping generalisation that it means nothing. If you’re having professionals renovate your house to a high standard, with a complete new roof, underfloor heating, top-quality insulation and a wood pellet boiler, you may find yourself looking at half as much again.

If you’re a DIY expert, and you can do everything but the really technical work yourself, you could do it for half that amount, or perhaps even less.

One danger with a renovation is that the cost can spiral out of control. Before you buy, it is essential to get estimates for the work you envisage. Ensure that estimates provided by owners or agents tally with your vision of the final results before you rely on them. If their estimate was for the basics and you’re after five-star quality, you could be in for a nasty shock.

As you plan your purchase and renovation project, bear in mind the local housing market. Many people have had their fingers burnt by pouring money into a large barn to create a sumptuous family home, only to find when they come to sell it that the local housing market just can’t support a price that reflects their investment.

Starting afresh

The majority of French buyers prefer to buy a plot of land and have a house built. The main advantage of this option, and one that certainly cannot be denied, is the opportunity to design your own house.

Who hasn’t, at some time or other, wished that they could move the bathroom, make the lounge just a bit bigger or squeeze in a utility room? When you have your own house built, it’s completely up to you. As ever, there is a caveat, and it’s the usual one – it all depends on budget.

Yes, there are ready-to-decorate three-bedroom bungalows available at a bargain €80,000, but at that price you will get to choose a standard house, and any changes will be extra. As you move further up the range of prices, you increase your options, and can start really designing something for yourself – with a technical expert looking over your shoulder, of course.

One method of reducing costs is to buy your house as a kit and put it together – yes it can be done, but it’s not for the faint-hearted!

The first step towards your new house is finding a plot of land. There are plots for sale from estate agents and property developers, and also from town councils and occasionally private individuals.

Choosing your plot of land is a whole separate subject, but do be aware, especially with plots on estates, that there may be limitations on the materials you can use and the style of your new house. Town councils often sell plots of land at reasonable prices. If you buy a plot on an estate, it will generally be serviced (viabilis�), i.e. have the water, electricity and perhaps other services laid on. If not, ensure you allow for these costs. All plots require a town-planning certificate (certificat d’urbanisme) confirming that a house can be built on the plot.

The price of serviced plots in Mayenne varies wildly, from a record €6/m� recently in a village in north-west Mayenne, to €60/m� in Mayenne town, and even more in Laval. Note that land sold by developers may be tied’, meaning that you can only have your house built by a designated company.

To have a house built, most people contact a construction company. There are a large number of these, and they market hard. Don’t hesitate to get a wide variety of quotes, and ensure that you understand exactly what each one includes.

Only deal with reputable companies; the consequences of having a house built (or more likely not built!) by a cowboy company are unthinkable. For a house with habitable space of over 170m�, plans legally have to be drawn up or validated by an architect.

Enormous variety

There is an enormous variety of houses available, from traditional bungalows and villas to avant garde houses and log cabins. Obviously, it may be difficult to get planning permission in Mayenne for a Proven�al villa or a Californian ranch, although this depends on the town council concerned.

Low energy consumption homes are being given a major push in France at the moment, and if plans show that your house will protect the environment, you will find obtaining permission far easier.

The decision between renovating an old house and having a new one built is a very personal one. You may find that your decision is influenced by availability – perhaps you just can’t find a house for sale in that fantastic little village, but there are plots of land. Alternatively, if you’re looking for a quiet place to retire, a lively new estate filled with young families may not be ideal, and you may be better with a renovation project.

Whatever your decision, there is an enormous amount of choice available, and a huge amount of research to be done to figure out what’s best for you. If you feel you need some assistance, there are a number of independent property finders who will be more than happy to help you with your search.

Caroline Lakey is a registered property finder based in Mayenne

Tel: 0033 (0)2 72 28 06 42

www.frenchentree.com/mayenne-property-finder