Home and dry

In the second of our three-part series, Catherine Cooper and her husband start turning their new property in France into a dream family home

One of the first things we did once the house was ours was look for an architect. While the house was, in theory, habitable, it would need a lot of work to make it into the house of our dreams, or even somewhere vaguely comfortable to live in. In addition, we wanted to convert part of the house into two g�tes, and that would require drawings and planning permission. We had decided that rather than move to France to oversee the work, we would carry on working in the UK and employ an architect to project manage in our absence.

While Alex and I both speak French, we are far from fluent and felt that it would be easier to deal with an English-speaking architect. We found a few from the small ads in magazines and got a couple to come over and see the house.

They were very different people and we ummed and ahhed quite a lot before deciding on one, basically because he seemed to have more experience with our kind of project. Both of them said at our initial meeting that the work we had planned would take at least 18 months and would cost around €300,000 (�268,504).

The cost was around twice what we’d budgeted for and 18 months was much longer than we’d planned. I had really hoped we could move before Toby started primary school – that clearly wasn’t going to happen.

Still, we were very pleased with ourselves for employing an architect; we wouldn’t end up like the people we saw on the property shows such as No Going Back, running over time and over budget, we said. How very wrong we were.

It all started quite promisingly, after a false start in which we were sent plans that included a total of nine bathrooms throughout the three properties we were planning, we sent our own draft plans over for the architect to work from. When planning permission was applied for it turned out that as the house was originally two dwellings, we wouldn’t be allowed to turn it into three, so we decided to have one large g�te instead of two small ones. It is important to note this isn’t always the case – for our house it was due to it originally being a farm. Planning laws vary widely from area to area.

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We signed off the plans a few months later, and after that we waited. And waited. And waited. I would periodically email or ring the architect and complain, but his answer was always that all the builders in our area were very busy and they couldn’t find any which were available. It was extremely frustrating.

Meanwhile, I started to look at schools in the area we were moving to. I found out that my options would basically be the local village school, or a private school in the local town of Pamiers. A private school in France is not the same thing as a private school in the UK – teachers are paid by the state so fees are around €30 (�26.85) per month – and we wanted to look at both options.

Private schoolThe village school was small and quite sweet but by this time Toby had already started at a large London primary and the larger, private school in town seemed more like what he was used to. We also liked the feel of the school and found the headteacher very welcoming. I worried a little about whether we would better integrate into the village by choosing the village school but at the end of the day decided that we should choose the school we felt was best for the children.

Eventually, in March 2008, work on the house started. We wanted to move as soon as possible so the plan was that they would get the smaller, less ramshackle part of the house – planned as the g�te – ready for us to move into and we would live there while the main part of the house was worked on. We were told the g�te part would, definitely be ready by July’.

We put our house in London on the market just as the papers and news programmes were starting to fill up with stories about a looming recession and crashing house prices. We dropped the price, and then dropped it again.

July came and went, our house in London wasn’t sold and the work had barely started on the house in France. Periodically we went out for a weekend to visit and inspect the work – some aspects we were delighted with, others we weren’t but on the whole it was coming along, albeit slowly, and we were pretty pleased with how it was going.

In September 2008, we finally got a reasonable offer on our house in London and accepted it. Work was still continuing in France but we set our move date as 2 January 2009 and told the architect the house must be ready by then. Suddenly it all felt very real. I told Toby’s school that he would be leaving and Livi wouldn’t be taking up the place she had been offered for January.

Despite having wanted to make this move for years, suddenly I felt very emotional about it. I had been in London for 15 years. We had lived in our current house, the only one the children had ever known, for 7 years, and it felt like there was a lot to leave behind. We had a lot of friends in the area and Toby was doing well at school. Every Christmas concert and Nativity play had me in floods of tears, as did our leaving party and seeing all our belongings packed up into boxes. But at the same time, it was also very exciting.

To save money, we had asked the builders to do the main structural work, put in windows and doors and bathrooms and then Alex would put in a kitchen, sand the numerous beams and decorate. Because the house still wasn’t going to be habitable when we arrived, we rented a g�te for 5 weeks through someone I had met’ on an internet message board.

In some ways this worked very well, our hosts were English-speaking, friendly and very helpful, lived next door and had children ours could play with. But it was a 45-minute commute to the children’s school and an hour to our house where Alex would work long days getting the kitchen built and endlessly sanding beams.

Settling in The first few weeks were exhausting. The children both cried on their first day at school (although not quite as much as me) but after that, they settled in very quickly. Doing homework every night after a long nine-to-five day and having to learn poems in a strange language were particularly tiring for Toby. I found the long drive back after school, getting the fire lit in a freezing cold house, getting the kids fed and bathed as well as fitting in homework before their bedtime a daily struggle.

We hired a car for the first week and quickly bought two for ourselves, meantime discovering that second-hand cars are very expensive in France. While Alex worked on the house, I continued my work as a freelance journalist at the kitchen table alongside signing us up to the health system (surprisingly straightforward as long as you have all the right pieces of paper), sorting out a phone line and broadband (also easier than I had expected) and registering with a doctor (very simple).

There were silly things I had to get used to, such as going to the supermarket again. Back in London, I had done almost all my shopping online and could easily nip out to the shops for anything I had forgotten. Living more rurally it took me several weeks to get used to shopping in larger quantities so I didn’t end up going to the supermarket every other day. I missed being able to get a takeaway delivered when I was tired, and although I love cooking I missed being able to buy ready meals to heat up in the oven now and again. I missed my friends, English TV and being able to have easy conversations at the school gate with people who had the same cultural references as me.

I also found it very hard not knowing where anything was, and not always having the language skills to ask. I remember one day, when the school was having a cake sale and I felt I should show willing and make some, almost being reduced to tears in the supermarket because I couldn’t find paper cake cases and had no idea how to ask for them.

But it was also a very exciting time – at the weekends we went out and saw the countryside and went skiing. We enjoyed the legendary large and very reasonably priced French lunches – once we had found where the decent restaurants were. The 5 weeks in the g�te flew by, Alex was still sanding beams and the house was still too dusty and dirty to move into; our furniture was still in one huge pile under dust sheets in the living room.

I went onto a holiday lettings website to find another local g�te to move into. Again it belonged to an English family with children. They had bought a huge barn which they were converting into eight houses and, as well as being really nice people, they were an invaluable source of building contacts and advice and have remained good friends ever since.

Finally, at the end of February, we moved into our own house. The kitchen wasn’t finished, there was still an old trailer in the barn that we weren’t quite sure who owned and the house was very dusty and grimy but we were in, and it was home. Things I wish I'd known

It would probably have been cheaper, easier and quicker to come out to France, rent a property and project manage it ourselves during the building work rather than appointing an architect/project manager.Your children will probably settle in much more easily than you. I spent far too much time worrying about them totally unnecessarily before the move.The old adage, renovation will take twice as long as you expect and cost twice as much’ is pretty spot-on.However much you look forward to the move, it will still be a wrench when you go.Unless you speak French with skill and confidence and are very familiar with French culture, you may initially find being in a French-speaking environment much more isolating than you expect.

Things to do

Get quotes from several removals companies. Check if they can keep your belongings in storage if you will need this facility and how much it will cost.Declutter. There is no point taking lots of stuff across the Channel only to chuck it away when you get there.Get online and try to meet’ people in your area. This can be invaluable both for advice and for a fledgling social life. Try regional sections of the Living France forum: www.livingfrance.comIntroduce yourself at the mairie – it is your starting point for local information.Make sure you have your E106, E121 or similar and both originals and several photocopies of everyone’s passport and birth certificates, marriage certificate if you have one, proof of address in France and RIBs (a piece of paper showing your bank details). You will need these to sign up for almost everything once you arrive and you don’t want them packed away in a filing cabinet in storage somewhere!