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Renovation - has anyone bought a property and renovated


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Hello all

What a great forum this is [:D]

I'm toying with the idea of buying a small place (no idea which region yet), but would like a bit of a project.  Not looking for something that's totally fallen down, but something which I can get my teeth into.  I'm not a builder so please bear that in mind.

Is there anyone on here who's purchased a place to renovate and if so would you be prepared to tell me more about it.  What unexpected problems did you encounter, how long is it or has it taken you, what were your circumstances.  I appreciate that some won't want to chat on an open forum about it, but will be happy to give my email address.

Many thanks in anticipation.

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Hi and welcome to the forum.

This is a subject that comes up fairly often, have a search in the archives and you'll find lots of expieriances, both good and bad.

Bottom line(s)? 

  • It costs more and takes longer that you could possibly imagine. 
  • Cheaper to build new than renovate.
  • Rule of thumb - 1000 Euros per sq metre (a bit less if DIY, more if not)

Having said that, if you have fallen in love with a place and have the resources, go for it.


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What: house (2 bed) with stable and barn

How long: 5 years and counting - but the end may be in sight

How much: proably twice what was budgetted and counting.  Total expenditure is probably more than the property is worth today on the open market but I do have exactly what I wanted.  I have no desire or intention to sell. It was never part of the equation. 

1000/metre square given above is a good estimate for what I would term standard fitments, if you want soemthing more upmarket then budget more.

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Welcome Foxtrot,

If it's a holiday home you will need time and lots of it. Our house was, and is, by no means a wreck - just a slightly tired 200 year old stone house last renovated about 30 years ago. Everything more or less worked when we bought it, the electrics weren't up to date but reasonable, the roof was more or less sound and so on - I'm sure you get the drift.

After 4 years of holidays / breaks in France, say 22 - 26 weeks in all, we've just about sealed the building and barns from the weather - got new and/or repaired roofs, sorted out windows, doors and shutters. We've got a new shower room now so we can think about stripping out the old bathroom and spending a year on that project. Then we can start properly on the interior. The trouble is that the fosse is now playing up a bit and fixing it will be a priority. That will set the grand project back a while.

I said (promised even) that we'd get a smart swimming pool installed by 2006, but it'll most likely be by 2016.

We do most of the simpler stuff ourselves - it takes so long to get builders in to do work we've found that money isn't too much of a problem - we just can't get to spend it on them quick enough. It took nearly 2 years from the signed devis stage until the roofers finally turned up with about 4 days notice.

I reckon we've got maybe 10 years to go before we get it all nearly right !

Still it's an enjoyable project and beats lying on the beach.

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It took about 7 years of me 7 weeks a year and Isabel 4 weeks a year to complete


We had the French doors knocked through and the roof done professionally. I used to go on holiday mentally exhausted and physically as fresh as a daisy and return mentally renewed and physically wrecked.  Working by yourself is pretty miserable and unless your partner is 100% on side and understands what is involved I would not even start. You can do a job down to a budget, quickly, or to good quality you cannot do all three. Every time I cost renovations of a stone house or a barn conversion I reach the conclusion that a new build to the same quality is easier quicker and far less expensive. If you decide to let your heart rule make sure you choose something of a reasonable size. I would suggest under 110 square metres for a second home. I have seen scores of British people seduced by huge houses, which also means huge bills and huge time frame to complete. If you start with a wreck build the further upstairs bedroom and a bathroom first. You then have somewhere to wash, cook and at a pinch retreat. I kept a spreadsheet of the house with measurements and also a materials list for the next part of the project and used to have a Saturday in Calais or Bolougne buying items for the next stage before I started. Choose somewhere you like not just somewhere which is cheap. With say 12 man weeks a year, one room a year is good progress on renovating a wreck.

Best of luck whatever you decide. 
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We're on track to spend about what the property cost on the renovation. It was liveable before but needed re-wiring, plastering, re-tiling (roof and bathrooms), new boiler and decoration throughout. This is certainly more than I thought. We've used artisans throughout. I also thought it would take about six months. It's taken 18 months and still the decoration to do!

Good french is vital. Mine was OKish for a general conversation but technical vocab needed much improvement.

I've found co-ordinating (from the UK) the different artisans a nightmare. Keeping them on site also almost impossible. They arrive three days before I visit and seem to disappear the day after I leave! I wish I'd employed a general entreprise to manage all the subcontract bits for me, even if this would have probably cost more - but all the local ones seemed busy on new builds and didn't seem very interested in a renovation, albeit quite a big one (400M2).

We also used an Architect, whom I was very disappointed with. We're now 3 times over his estimate of a budget and he seemed very slow and unresponsive!

So, it's taken far longer, cost far more and been far more taxing for me than I expected. It'll be lovely when completed though - even if I'll be very poor!



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"Nothing ever gets done on time or within budget"[:-))]

Seriously folks. We have had a residence secondaire here now for 17 years. We did not go for a wreck but a reasonable habitable dwelling which we do things to when time and money permit. TIME is the biggest problem: French Artisans work on a very long time horizon .....[Www][Www][geek]



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We are in the third year of what we anticipated to be a 5-year project and are still on schedule and within our 25K budget.

We are renovating a small village house into a 3-bedroom holiday home in southwest France near the Spanish border. It has not been lived in since 1970. It had a reasonably sound roof (some repairs needed), no floors upstairs no windows in the rear and an earth floor downstairs. No bathroom, kitchen plumbing or electrics but had mains supplies and a drain pipe along with resident bats, stray cats, and scorpions. Most of the internal walls needed repair. It has a small garden and a first floor terrace.  We are doing virtually all the work ourselves. We paid someone to lay concrete (too much like hard work on my own as my better half made is abundantly clear she was not up to mixing 25 tons of concrete), replace some roof tiles and fix a leak in a flat roof (discovered a leak on the last day of our visit after laying a pine floor upstairs), and point a stone wall (mind numbingly boring and well worth what we paid) 

We get over about 8 times a year for between 3 days to 3 weeks at time. I am an electrician by trade and have some experience in the building game in the UK  (particularly in the art of botching and fudging [:)] ) The experience obviously helps but methods, materials and motivation are all different in France. 

If we ever do it again - and we plan to - we would be more aware of a few potential pitfalls next time.

  • The cost of travel far exceeds the cost of materials, and is the often same as employing a builder for a week
  • We are a 3-hour drive (round trip) to our nearest full range DIY store. Our next project will be much closer. We have to allow a full day for a trip to the DIY store. They close between 12 and 2pm. It can take well over an hour find what you are looking for and then work out what you are actually buying. You can't just buy a bag of plaster, a tap connector or a can of varnish. For example, how do you ask a French sales assistant for a can of cellulose thinners and a 30 milliamp residual current device with 32 amp overload protection? Spending a whole day in the DIY store on a 4 day visit makes a big difference to what we can achieve. 
  • By far the cheapest supplier is Brico Depot but they tend to sell at the lower quality end of the range so you have to be careful what you are buying.  
  • A Brico Depot catalogue is our bible. It helps us budget and plan from the UK, it gives pictures for things with what they are called - words that cannot be found in any dictionary. They won't send one, you have to pick them up in person. They seem to be published in spring and have none left by the start of summer.  
  • French building materials often bear little resemblance to those we use in the UK. Things are not always obvious (for example, metric size PER plumbing pipe uses fittings measured in inches, Concrete 'breeze' blocks need to be placed the right way up ... I could go on... )
  • Rental car companies do not like us using their brand new Ford Focus as a builder's wagon. We cannot clean up a split bag of cement without them noticing and charging valeting to my credit card. We drive down once a year with a van or trailer (the trailer now lives there) and stock up with things like plasterboard, sand, gravel, timber etc. 
  • Everyone seems to have a different opinion on what we must do, what we can do and the way we should do it. All we can do is take it all on board and do what we think is best for us. It's a risk and we may have to undo some work and do it again, but that's all part of the fun.
  • We have had to be flexible with our plans and aspirations. Nothing original in the house is straight, horizontal or vertical. No two walls meet each other or floors or ceilings at 90 degrees. 'off the shelf' ready made things designed to be fitted against walls like staircases, fire places, kitchen units, bathroom suites, shower cubicles even beds and flatpack furniture do not fit without major adaptation. Deciding the best way to run floor tiles takes longer than actually laying them.  
  • The property we bought already had a mains water supply, mains drains, and electricity. We are ever so pleased about this and our next project would have to be something very special to be considered if it did not have them.
  • Our property is within the planning zone of the village church.  We have had to jump through flaming hoops to get the planning application through to convert a doorway into a window. Our village does, however, have a British person employed by the commune under 'entant cordial'  to assist the British with French bureaucracy. This has really helped. We hate our candyfloss pink painted walls but they’re staying pink because I've jumped through enough hoops already.  
  • The village community - particularly our nearest neighbours are delightful. They are friendly, helpful and patient with our appalling command of the French language. When we said to our neighbours that we were worried that we may be unwelcome as foreigners, let alone invading Brits, they replied that had we been Spanish German or Parisian, we would have already known about it. Our neighbour cuts the grass, forwards our mail, lets the meter reader in, and even leaves us bread, milk and something for breakfast if we're arriving on a late flight.

After having the children it's the best and most rewarding thing we have ever done. We check Ryan air for cheap flights all the time and have even visited for just 2 nights (£60 for 2 return flights and £30 car hire). We are doing it on a very tight budget and are spending what we would otherwise spend on holidays and a pension top-up. My wife got a toilet and 10 sheets of plasterboard for her birthday this year, I think I'm getting some wall tiles and a sink unit. If we can't afford to buy materials at any particular time for one job we will do something else. There's always pointing, painting or plastering needed. There's no real pressure. At the end of the visit we tidy up, shut the door and catch the flight home until next time. Unless the job involves something time or weather critical we don't have to finish by a deadline because we don't have to live there. There have been times we thought we may have bitten more than we could chew and there are a few things that, with hindsight, we would have done a different way, but we are well over the top of the mountain and it's all downhill from now on. After 3 years we are both still eager to get back there. I wouldn't have spent over an hour typing this if I wasn't.

Go for it. You can umm and ahh 'till the cows come home and providing you are not burning bridges to do it you can always back track. Contact a few estate agents in the area you fancy, tell them what you are looking for at 90% of your absolute maximum budget, organise your flight and hotel/pension and ask them for 4 or 5 viewings per day of what they think fits your bill. We saw about 12 properties over 4 days with 5 different estate agents with the original intention of just looking at the sort of thing that was available. We saw a lot of rubbish and a lot of properties the agents wanted to off load, some were better than others, but within 2 days of getting home we were placing an offer on one.

Sorry, this has turned out to be rather long...

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Yes Misty, Long but very informative.

We have had our place for just over 2 years now, with another 2 to wait until the final move. I am in absolute agreement with Misty regarding the utilities. Being time limited, we have been able to stay at our place whilst 'pottering' with small projects and getting to know the neighbours and the systems because we have utilities and a roof!  The loo is an outside 'privee' and the shower room (yes aren't we posh!) is in the garage. The location may be a factor depending on how much you love or hate traveling; Whether you need to go by road with materials or happy to fly and buy on arrival. My biggest piece of advise, if you decide to buy, is make a list of necessities before you look - those you need first - do you want to stay in the place you buy immediately or are you happy to pay to stay nearby? How much actual work are you honestly prepared to do yourself? etc. And be realistic with the budget. Remember, there are still bills and taxes to pay on a holiday home.  Also, you mention you are not sure on a region. Decide on that first and you may be half way there. The advise above re not buying too big is also excellent. It can all get a bit overwhelming, especially buying materials.

All in all, we love it - even during winter when we have to contemplate in a cold brick privee!

The Living France web site/mag has been invaluable to us for legal questions and advise from buying onwards.

Enjoy and go for it.

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Our first house took just over a year, we used local artisans who were good but very expensive compaired to the UK,  we bought an old stone house that had been renovated but was a little bit rough round the edges and had been lived in up until recently. The lessons we learn't are

  • Don't pay for someone elses renovation work unless it's 100% to your taste, it will be cheaper to do it from scratch to your own
  • If its allegedly habitable don't assume it is, re fosse, electric, damp proofing, land drains, all these jobs have to be done to a high standard or your wasting your money, it mean't there was nothing left in the pot for the pool for us. Another big expense was central heating, stone house are cold and take a lot of heating up and are often a lot cooler than the outside temperture we were told that electric radiators would be enough for a second home but if you want to use it out of season and keep it aired central heating is the way to go
  • If using artisans, no matter how good they need supervising, if there's 2 ways of doing something sods law means it will be done the way you didn't want it doing.
  • Using one firm to do everything is expensive and time consuming, it seems easier but if you've the management skills to organise different groups of people to work at the same time on different asspects of the job at the same time it helps speed things up.  Getting an inexpensive odd job person to work alongside you can help save a small fortune.

Having said all that we really enjoyed renovating our house in the Gers and were very pleased with the results and sold reasonably quickly so we must have done something right , we must have as we are about to start another project more than twice the size! But the biggest lesson we learn't was to get the area right, only view houses that meet your criteria, for us it was less than an hour to a major city, less than half an hour to the coast be in a historic area in a village with commerce, only view houses that meet that and you can't be seduced by beautiful views or pretty houses. I have met a lot of people who have got that wrong and are living to regret it all be it in a beautiful home.

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