I’ve been renovating my farm house in Pas de Calais on and off for 14 years. 99% of the work has been done between myself and my husband, the only exception being when we first bought the house and hired a builder to make some sagging and enormous wooden beams safe. It was a disaster, the work was shoddy and unfit for purpose. We had to re-do it ourselves. Ultimately it was a good thing, because it led us to make a decision to do everything ourselves. With 21 rooms to renovate, including some with dirt floors, it’s been a real labour of love.
There’s only been one other time we had professional help. A huge hailstone storm hit our village. The hailstones were the size of cricket balls and pretty much every roof in the village was destroyed. As our insurance covered the main building roof, we had professional roofers in. The outbuildings weren’t covered so we did their roofs ourselves.
We invested in tools, books and time watching YouTube tutorials. We also went on short courses for the work that we felt needed prior practice – from plumbing to brick laying.
Over the years we’ve met, interviewed and helped many expats in France with their renovation requirements and there are 5 key things we’ve learned.
Builders in France
Don’t just hire a builder because he’s British and can talk the same language as you – it doesn’t make them professional or even good. Be aware that there are cowboy builders in France as there are in the UK – both French and British.
Consider using an architect for planning permission
Hire an architect if you want to get your planning permission resolved in a timely manner. We tried to go it alone, after 18 months of constantly redrawing the plans and visiting the Department of Planning, the mayor’s secretary took pity on us. She told us to appoint an architect to fill the in the forms and do the drawings – 5 days later planning permission was confirmed. This may not be the same everywhere but if you’re going through the same pain we did, it might help.
Check building supplies prices
Wood is expensive in France (and big sheets of MDF seem impossible to find). This can considerably add to the cost of renovating, so work out your costs based on French prices, not what you’re used to in the UK. Be aware that electrical fittings and plumbing fittings are different in France from the UK. Some things are cheaper in the UK than in France and vice versa. It pays to do your homework and check prices. It’s easy to have goods delivered from online buying these days so you can maximise savings this way. Even companies like Screwfix deliver to France.
Notaires are not like UK conveyancing solicitors. I was shocked to discover that multiple extensions to my house had not been approved or documented. This was despite the notaire signing off on it. The out of date paperwork created an administrative nightmare when we wanted planning permission. Now, I may have just been unlucky but, I’d recommend you ask for a cadastral plan from the notaire or town hall and check that what’s on that bit of paper reflects the reality. If it’s not right, get the seller to arrange to get it updated before you buy if you can. If you go via an estate agent – ask them to check as well.
Book in advance
Specialist workmen like those who fit fires, plumbers, electricians etc. are often in high demand. Book them in advance as soon as you know you have a requirement to avoid delays.
Janine Marsh is the author of My Good Life France: In Pursuit of the Rural Dream