Real life in Brittany: from derelict farmhouse to successful B&B
PUBLISHED: 14:43 09 January 2015 | UPDATED: 16:14 15 December 2015
Having bought a derelict townhouse in the Breton village of Huelgoat, Jenny and John Lovett tell the story of how they transformed their home into a successful B&B
We can’t believe we have now been in France for two years; the memories of living in the tent while we waited for the house sale to go through are becoming a distant memory.
One of the things I am most grateful for is my blog. It was like keeping an online diary with photographs of the renovation from start to finish, because as we look at the B&B now, even we cannot believe how far we have come.
It is hard to remember the joy of installing our first electric light or the sheer excitement of having an indoor toilet, and being able to walk on the floors rather than balancing on joists and jumping across the holes in order to go upstairs.
We have learnt so much during this project. When we arrived in France we could not speak the language, and while I am still not fluent I am improving daily. I can have simple conversations with neighbours and I have been able to register the business, sort out our health cover, take bookings over the telephone and complete planning permissions with the local mairie: all big milestones and each one a new achievement. When you get to our age you don’t expect to be able to start a whole new life and experience the joy of achieving so much you have never done before.
We have also learnt from our mistakes, one of which was planning permission. We did not realise that we were required to apply for permission to change the windows, even though our windows were rotten and we were replacing like with like. We still had to go through the planning permission process and wait two months for the agreement – not good in the middle of a cold winter.
Our biggest tip is to always check what you require permission for. As we live in a national park, everything requires planning permission and if you don’t obtain it, you will have to remove the work you have completed.
This can even include simple things such as changing the colour of your external doors or window shutters. This may sound like bureaucracy gone crazy, but it does ensure that the villages remain in keeping and prevents unsightly renovations.
Another thing that took us by surprise was the feeling of anticlimax. Once we had finished the renovation and we had a website it was a case of sitting and waiting. After working seven days a week on the renovation, to suddenly stop and have time to ourselves was quite a shock to the system. Nobody talks about this aspect of a renovation, and we expected to be overjoyed at the completion of the project, but the feelings of anticlimax can be slightly overwhelming. Luckily, this emotion doesn’t last long as the workload is replaced by marketing and being busy in other ways.
Even though we have a great website we still had to wait for the bookings and we realised that we would never make enough money from the B&B alone. We live in a touristy location but the summer season is relatively short and there are other well-established B&Bs in the area.
There was no point in competing with others like for like so we had to offer something else, and try to find a niche market to make sure that we earned enough money to stay, or had a complementary income.
This was our biggest learning curve. No matter how beautiful your B&B is, unless it is big or in an exclusive area, it really is not going to earn you a living wage in France, so you have to be able to offer something extra.
This is when we decided to offer holiday packages; we are now in the process of arranging honeymoon packages to exploit the romanticism of the enchanted forest, photography packages with a professional photographer and house-buying packages where we can use our expertise and experience to help others through the property buying process.
However, in France there are very strict laws about property services and to ensure that we stay on the right side of them, I have become an agent for a estate agency. This will give us the secondary income we require and also allow us to provide a fantastic service to househunters that come to stay.
This can raise a problem for the dynamics in a relationship, as another aspect that has to be kept in mind on a project like this is the change in roles and responsibilities. John had taken the lead for so long on the renovation and had taken on so much responsibility, but now he has finished his role is very different. I am spending more time on the computer, marketing and working on the estate agent side while John is now responsible for the room cleans and changeovers.
This is a major shift in our roles since we have been in France, but luckily it does not cause friction for us as John is enjoying the downtime and I am enjoying doing what I am good at, even though I did become an expert at scrubbing down old wood.
When we opened we chose not to have an opening night and instead invited two people to be our first guests. This couple were our very first visitors when we bought the house and have since gone on to take our website photographs, and one of them will be the photographer on our photography package. It seemed the most fitting thank you for them to be our first official guests, and the champagne flowed that night.
We opened the B&B in May and the bookings came but not as quickly as we had hoped, and it was at this point that we had to decide whether to use one of the large hotel booking agents. This is a big decision as the commission levels can be quite high, but being realistic it is a choice between possible empty rooms or being full.
We are amazed by how successful we have been in our first season. We have had to turn people away and the rooms were fully booked during July and August. We’re just hoping that they will stay that way now that we’ve moved into the winter, but that is where our packages should help to fill the rooms.
Initially it is a very strange feeling running a B&B, but once you get over the shock of having people in your home it is a fantastic experience. Where else do you get to speak to people from around the world with such different life experiences? We decided to not have an early check-out and as such we have chatted to many of our guests over a leisurely breakfast. This is something that all guests have appreciated and is one of the ways we are different from the other B&Bs in the area.
Many of the guests stand out for different reasons and we will remember them all, but one couple in particular will always be remembered as there was a marriage proposal during their stay. We were so touched to think that our little B&B and village were part of this moment, and we were honoured that they chose here for one of the most important days in their lives.
The big question is, would we change anything? The answer is no! This has been such an amazing journey and we have achieved everything we set out to do.
Might we do it again? Well as strange as it sounds, we do miss the initial excitement of watching a building grow and of restoring something so neglected to its former glory. I am constantly looking at properties as they come on to the market and if the right one comes along, you just never know.