Renovating your French home

Renovating your own home can be a very satisfying process for a lot of people but does need to be carefully planned in advance.

As you‘ll see from this web site there are a lot of affordable projects awaiting in this area for the budding builder/ DIY er. These properties can be changed into fantastic homes some requiring very little work whereas others will require a considerable time and possibly considerable financial investment.

 If you do plan to renovate a property then it is important to think the process through prior to purchasing or even making an offer. Be honest with yourself and your capabilities. Try to get as much information on the costs and what’s involved before making a financial commitment.

Research before buying

In France detailed building surveys aren’t always carried out as standard practice. Legally, however, the vendors must provide you with a DPE survey which will tell you if the house has asbestos or lead in it, termites and other wood boring insects, if the electrics conform and will provide you with the property's energy rating.

Following some simple rules will also help you to reach the right decision:-
•    Know your budget and remember to include all costs and a contingency.
•    Don't buy on impulse – properties in France rarely go the next day – so come back and have another look.
•    Take notes, photographs even a video so you can compare properties later.
•    Check there is a supply of electricity and that this supply is adequate. Look at the condition and age or wiring. A rewire for a 3 bedroom house averages around 5000 Euros.
•    Check the plumbing, hot water and that the house is on mains water.
•    Check if the house is on mains drains or connected to a 'fosse septic' (septic tank). The local mayor’s office should be able to confirm if a house is on mains drains. The seller should provide a certificate that the fosse septic is up to standards.
•    Check the copy of the 'cadastre' (land registry) and confirm the property and land corresponds with the reference numbers of the property/land you are buying.
•    If you’re planning to convert/ extend or perhaps even build something new – check you that you will be able to get permissions.
•    Check that the roof is in good condition, the ridgeline is straight and roof timbers are sound.
•    Check for damp and signs of rot within all structural timbers and roof battens.
•    Don’t ignore any structural issue – even the untrained eye can spot cracks, bulges, sagging etc. If there is anything you’re not sure of get it checked out. Don’t rely on the owners assurances.
•    If in doubt seek advice.

Once armed with this information you should have a clear idea of the real costs of renovating your home. This can be used in negotiations especially if you feel the seller hasn’t accounted for some of the remedial works
Building Work

Once you have the keys for your new property the work can start in earnest.  Be realistic with what you can and can’t tackle yourself. You may be happy doing most the work yourself but if you are planning on selling later think seriously whether your DIY will have a detrimental effect on the resale value. You won’t be able to offset your own labour costs against any future capital gains tax. Often buyers will be asked for insurance backed guarantees known in France as the "decennial" insurance for work carried out. This is particularly the case with large works such as masonry, roof works, electricity and plumbing.  To be covered by "decenial" insurance you’ll need to use a fully French registered artisan.

A sensible approach for many people tackling renovations is to get local trades people (artisans) to carry out the specialist work such as electrical work, plumbing work, reroofs etc. And tackle the more general building work themselves.

In France the general builder doesn’t exist to the same extent as in the UK. French artisans are generally specialist in one trade such as plumbing, electrics, roofing, carpentry, masonry, etc. So if you decide to use local French artisans for a multi-trade project then you’ll need to be prepared to work with a few separate individuals or companies.
A lot of English have settled in the area, however, there seems to be a disproportionately large number of English builders so be warned! Most of the English builders you come across will be good honest trades’ men, many with a building background from the UK. However, there are a lot of rogues about and horror stories are quite a common occurrence. Whether choosing a French or English builder get references. Just because they speak your language don’t be fooled! Ask for copies of insurances, references and if possible go and visit one of their current jobs. A good builder will have nothing to hide.

As a starting point use one of the following links to confirm whether a builder is registered or not.

Once you have found some suitable artisans or builders get them to produce a quotation (devis) detailing costs, an idea of duration and when payments will be required. Always wherever possible pay by cheque. That way you always have proof of payments. Generally French artisans will ask for a deposit before they start the work. This is normal practice and it can be as much as 30% of the value of the work. Do carry out your checks and get a written devis before handing over any money.  

In France most works that affect the aspect of the exterior of a building is subject to a simple planning application. This is called a “demande de travaux” and this is a relatively simple form that needs completing prior to commencing the works. It is sent to the local mayor’s office for approval and generally returned signed and approved or approved with reservations within 3 months.

A "demande de travaux" would be used for changing windows, fitting veluxes, fitting a new door way, re-pointing the exterior, renewing a roof. It is also necessary for some interior works such as removing a load bearing wall.  More complicated work such as an extension, loft conversion, barn conversion; etc., would be subject to a “permis de construire” which is more like the English planning permission system. In this case a form needs to be completed with more detailed drawings and plans. Often this is done with the help of an architect.

Make your local mayor your friend. It’s he who will make a lot the decisions locally as to whether you can or can’t do something. If you are unsure if something needs any sort of planning consent your local mayor should be your first port of call.

There are a great many advantages in renovating your own home. Apart from the obvious cost savings you’ll be able to make on labour you will be able to design and build the project to suit your requirements.  It can be a long hard process but the rewards if the project is managed well are well worth while.

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