Renovating a property in France


Balancing ambition and ability is crucial, but a renovation project can be hugely rewarding. Vicky Leigh charts the process and highlights the potential pitfalls

There’s something about a neglected property in need of a lot of TLC that appeals to British buyers. Their ability to look at what many would consider to be a lost cause and see an idyllic French bolthole in its place is second to none. While some may consider this to be a view seen only through rose-tinted spectacles, this positive vision has paid dividends for many buyers over the years, who have successfully transformed a tumbledown ruin into a comfortable home.

Of course, it is advisable to approach renovation projects with caution even if you are brimming with enthusiasm, and to be realistic about just how much work you are willing to take on. Rebuilding an entire property is a world away from one that requires little more than a lick of paint.

We’ve all watched the myriad television programmes covering the experiences of those who have embarked on varying degrees of renovation projects, and they don’t all have a happy ending. Even those that do are often fraught with problems along the way.

If you don’t know one end of a paintbrush from the other then perhaps it’s not wise to take on the challenge of renovating a property alone. While you might be perfectly � l’aise buying a baguette at the boulangerie, your French vocabulary might not necessarily include specialist building terms, so this is worth taking into consideration.

There are plenty of experts who do have the necessary skills to help you achieve your dream, and sometimes it’s best to leave things to the professionals. Even if your DIY skills are up to scratch and you’re raring to go, when it comes to getting stuck into the hard graft, it’s still wise to have the support of those who are experts in the renovating field. Exploring the aisles at your local Monsieur Bricolage may well be your idea of the perfect day out, but there’s plenty more you’ll need to know to make a success of your renovation project as well as pitfalls to be aware of.

Permissions required

Whatever changes you wish to make to your property, it is wise to seek approval from the mairie before you begin. There are different levels of planning consent in France, and these are applicable depending on the changes you wish to make. The first step towards finding out what is likely to be allowed is to seek a certificat d’urbanisme, which equates to an outline planning permission. If this is granted you will then be required to submit the appropriate detailed permission before you begin building.

In France there are four different detailed building permissions for four different types of development:

l D�claration pr�alable is required for small building works such as putting in a new window opening, installing a swimming pool or creating an extension of up to 40m2, as from March of this year.

l Permis de construire is for larger extensions, converting barns and outbuildings to habitable living space, or building a detached garage or workshop.

l Permis d’am�nager is for large developments such as campsites or golf courses, and use of an architect is compulsory.

l Permis de d�molir is for developments which involve knocking a building, or part of a building, down.

While at first glance this may all seem a little daunting, there are companies who specialise in providing assistance to guide you through the maze of planning requirements. Such help could also be invaluable if your language skills aren’t quite up to the challenge of going it alone. One such company is Brittany-based French Plans, which has more than 20 years of experience in France and covers the whole country. “We offer a fully bilingual service so if your technical French is limited we can help with and advise on the procedures for your project,” says owner Arthur Cutler. “We offer a free initial consultation, and can also prepare architectural drawings and planning dossiers.”

Using an architect

If the floor space of your finished building will be 170m2 or less then you can choose whether to use an architect or not. However, if on completion the floor space will exceed 170m2 you are required by law to use an architect for your application for a permis de construire. He or she must be registered with the Ordre des Architectes, the professional body that governs all architects working in France. There is an architect-finding section on its website to help you locate one in your area.

An architect can be appointed in one of three ways: to work with you solely to design the layout of the renovation and make the necessary applications for approval; to continue on to detail and specify the works for tenders, leaving you to manage the project yourself; or to stay on and manage the project on your behalf.

Before you select your architect you might also want to consult the Conseil d’Architecture d’Urbanisme et de l’Environnement (CAUE) which offers a useful and free planning and architectural advice service. The CAUE is a federated body established by the government to provide advice to local councils, public officials and private applicants in matters of planning and architecture.

“I still find it as exciting as ever to see skilled craftsmen transform a paper drawing into a living, breathing building,” says architect and FPN columnist Neil Vesma. “It’s a long process but the transformation can be breathtaking all the way through. I enjoy a challenge, and the magnificent 14th-century manor house renovation we completed last year was both demanding and stimulating. However, my favourite job was more modest,” he continues. “Charles and Marie-France’s conversion involved turning a small Dordogne barn into a suite of rooms filled with character, light and warmth. They love it, and we remain good friends to this day.”

Professional assistance

Martin Keating runs the All Services Building Co-operative based in Poitou-Charentes, which brings together registered French and English tradesmen offering a range of building services. Having renovated numerous properties in France for clients he has the following words of advice: “Draw up detailed and precise plans for your project, whether you are drawing them yourself or using an architect. Visit the mayor’s office to find out what you can and can’t do. They will advise you as to what they will grant permission on, and you should allow plenty of time for it being granted as it can be a lengthy procedure. Get at least three devis (quotes) and set aside at least 10% as a contingency fund.”

For owners who are unable to oversee the work themselves he also says that a good builder can manage the project for you: “As long as there are good lines of communication, mobile numbers for emergencies and regular updates from the builder it is not necessary for the owner to be on site. Progress reports and photographs can be emailed and a friendly neighbour could visit the site for reassurance.”

Should problems arise with the work later on, you have no recourse under French law if you have appointed an unregistered builder. Thus you should always ensure that they have a SIRET number, as this verifies their registration. They should also have d�cennale insurance, which gives you a guarantee of workmanship for up to 10 years depending on the work carried out, while responsabilit� civile insurance provides cover in case of accidental damage caused to the property by the builder during the course of the renovation works. Before work starts on your property you should arrange to take out an assurance dommage-ouvrage insurance policy, which can be costly but protects you against any defects.

There are savings to be made when it comes to VAT, as the rate on renovations is just 7% instead of the standard 19.6%. All routine repair and maintenance work to a property is eligible for the reduced rate, as are works of renovation or improvement. It is important to keep all receipts for building work carried out so that these costs can be set against the perceived ‘gain’ on the resale of the property for French capital gains tax.

A system of grant aid for home improvement is also available through the government housing agency Agence Nationale pour l’Am�lioration de l’Habitat (ANAH). Although grant assistance is available throughout France it is subject to means testing, there are maximum limits on the level of the grant and there can be slight variations between the departments.

Louis Maw and Hannah Durrant moved to Dordogne in 2011 and established their timber-frame business Charpentes Louis Maw. Louis, who has been timber-framing for more than 12 years in the UK, is currently working on a barn conversion project in Beaumont-du-P�rigord for an English client. At the same time he and Hannah are working on the conversion of their own barn into a living and working space. “We chose a barn conversion rather than a house renovation as it offers the advantage of a beautiful existing building with a blank canvas in terms of the interior layout,” says Hannah.

Louis has the following advice for buyers who are tempted to take on a barn conversion: “It is worth having a close look at the general condition of the charpente (roof trusses, rafters etc) because if it is badly rotten it will need replacing. If you are planning to put in a first floor, check the total roof height and the charpente structure to make sure that it will allow headroom. Next, consider whether the stone walls are strong enough to support the load of a first floor. If the walls are only supporting a roof structure, or perhaps not even that, they may not be strong enough to support a first floor, particularly if you plan on creating large openings in the stonework for windows and doors.”

Louis and Hannah are getting around this issue in their own conversion project by building a timber-framed interior structure that will take the weight of the first floor. This spreads the load over the floor area and avoids the need for expensive shoring up of the foundations. It will also create a very attractive interior space, which will lead out onto an oak-framed terrace at first floor level.

Whether you’re keen to breathe new life into an unloved property or have decided that you’d prefer to have the hard work done for you, the selection of properties overleaf should provide a taster of what lies in store. n

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