Owning a listed house or a home near a heritage site is a dream for many British buyers, but it comes with responsibilities, explains
Buying and living in a historic home or conservation area
Did you know that in France, even if a village is not listed or in an important heritage site, your property is subject to regulations regarding its exterior? These are defined in the Plan Local d’urbanisme (PLU) which you should consult before undertaking any construction or renovation work.
Available to view at your local mairie, the PLU sets out in detail planning considerations within a town or village and ensures that the overall aspect of the commune is harmonious. You’ll notice, for example, that houses in typical Provençal villages have characteristic orange roof tiles while traditional Breton homes are often built from granite and have slate roofs.
Planning consultant Arthur Cutler, of French Plans, is familiar with the ins and outs of French planning applications, particularly when heritage is involved. “Where there is some form of heritage or protected status, the local planning framework is usually issued in conjunction with other regulations, notably, Zone de Protection du Patrimoine Architectural, Urbain et Paysager (ZPPAUP),” he explains. “These outline specific requirements for buildings which are affected by the regulations, and govern anything from the type and colour of materials to the roof pitch and door and window dimensions.”
Historical homes There are some 43,600 Monuments Historiques across France; a third are residential properties and about half are owned privately. A house may be of interest because of a single element inside, such as a period fireplace or staircase.
A building can be classé Monument Historique (MH) and is therefore a monument of national importance such as the Cathédrale NotreDame-de-strasbourg or Versailles Palace. Other buildings, sometimes small châteaux or manoirs, can be inscrits sur l’inventaire Supplémentaire des Monuments Historiques (ISMH), which means they are of regional or local importance.
For the purpose of this article, I’ll refer to both categories as ‘listed’ properties.
While owning a piece of French history is a source of pride, it comes with its fair share of bureaucracy. The seller of a listed property has to notify the préfet (the state’s representative in
As the owner of a listed property, you have a duty to preserve the heritage of the building and are thus responsible for its upkeep and restoration
a département) of the sale and inform potential buyers before they purchase the property.
As the owner of a listed property, you have a duty to preserve the heritage of the building and are thus responsible for its upkeep and restoration. This can be expensive since you might only be able to use certain materials and any construction will have to conform with requirements set by the Architectes des Bâtiments de France, a body of state planning officials who act as the guardians of France’s architectural heritage. Don’t let this deter you though, as there is plenty of help available.
Properties within 500m of a listed monument, such as an old church, a cemetery, château, bridge, garden or a dolmen, are also subject to construction regulations to preserve the heritage of the site. The protected area is known as a périmètre protégé. Bear in mind that properties that are simply within sight of a Monument Historique are also affected by regulations.
To find out whether your property is located in a périmètre protégé, you can ask the mairie or head to the website of your regional Direction Régionale des Affaires Culturelles (DRAC) – part of the Ministry of Culture.
Consider too the costs of insurance and maintenance, which will be higher than for more recent properties.
Known as sites de patrimoine remarquable, conservation areas are towns, villages or neighbourhoods that are protected for their historical, artistic or archaeological importance. The Plan de Sauvegarde et de Mise en Valeur (PSMV) acts as kind of PLU for these zones.
UNESCO From Chartres Cathedral to the Episcopal City of Albi, France has 39 cultural UNESCO World Heritage sites across the country. This means they have been identified by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) as having cultural, historical, scientific or some other form of significance to humanity and are legally protected by international treaties.
In France, their protection and maintenance falls under the responsibility of a division of the Monuments Historiques programme and with the local DRAC. Each site is protected and new construction is forbidden. In some cases, the surrounding area may also be subject to strict regulation.
Check with the mairie what you can and cannot do if your property is within a Unesco-listed site, such as St-emilion or Vézelay, or if it is in the vicinity of a site like Arles’ Roman and Romanesque monuments.
Plus Beaux Villages de France The association Les Plus Beaux Villages de France was created in 1982 to protect and promote the heritage of some of France’s most beautiful villages. Today, 157 villages spread across 70 departments are members.
To become a Plus Beau Village (PBV), a village should not have more than 2,000 inhabitants, must have at least two listed sites or buildings ( classé or inscrit) and the majority of the council has to be in agreement with the application. Only about one in five applicants succeeds in becoming a PBV.
These scenic villages are therefore small and often quite compact, criss-crossed with narrow, winding streets. Some are set upon a hilltop, by a river or built up against limestone cliffs. All in all, space for parking and land is scarce so you may not find many properties featuring gardens or space for your car. However, if you’re looking for a house in a quiet setting with no land to maintain, you’re in the right place.
The PLU will be stricter than in normal French villages and you should consult your local mairie; for example, you’ll have to think of things such as not having electric shutters or any visible electric wires on the outside walls.
Protecting and perfecting The restoration of listed buildings is strictly controlled by the Ministry of Culture since some of them, particularly Monuments Historiques, have to be restored to their original state, sometimes using period materials.
Prior to starting any work, you will need to ask the DRAC and the préfet for permission. They will start a process of consultation with
the Architectes des Bâtiments de France. The regional préfet has six months to refuse or grant permission but if the ministry decides to weigh in, the delay can be extended to 12 months.
You will need to hire the services of an architect, preferably a specialist architecte du patrimoine, who will supervise the work throughout, and a registered builder of your choice.
Building specialist Arthur Cutler explains: “Prior to undertaking any works on a listed building, it is essential to obtain authorisation through one form of planning application or another. As a rule, this will be a demande de permis de construire, even where under normal circumstances, a simpler déclaration préalable would suffice.
“Although the precise requirements will vary
The Monument Historique logo is inspired by the labyrinth in Reims cathedral
from property to property, it is best to remember that any change to the external appearance of a listed building cannot be undertaken without permission.”
Arthur remembers a case when a property owner wanted to fit new shutters to the windows on his house in the Loire and the authorities insisted on them being painted ‘ochre-brown’ – the traditional colour in the local area for exterior elements such as shutters. On another occasion, the planning permission for the renovation of a very old listed building in a town in the Mayenne department was subject to retaining the existing staircase and fireplace, even though the staircase was in very poor condition. “The windows were also in a ruinous state and could only be replaced with single glazed units with thin, heritage-style glass,” he remembers. “Under these circumstances, thermal values become very much a side issue and listing requirements take priority over all others.”
It pays to seek help with specialist companies such as French Plans since they can navigate the French bureaucracy and ensure all regulations are taken into account.
Financing a project
Grants are available to help with restoration or ongoing maintenance works for listed houses or properties located within heritage sites. These subventions can come from the state or from regional levels. You can also claim back expenses and receive tax rebates. Certain renovation costs are 100% deductible against tax, as well as the costs of opening to the public.
Other costs, such as caretaking or works not eligible for grants, are also 100% deductible if the building is open to the public for visits or as holiday accommodation. Each case is different, so you should seek advice for your specific case either at the DRAC or with private organisations.
Vieilles Maisons de France (VMF), an association aiming to protect French heritage, provides advice and support for owners of old homes. Philippe Toussaint, president of the association, explains that the VMF foundation has helped save hundreds of crumbling buildings. “We see people who have bought a home in a frankly terrible state but who want to save it,” he explains.
“We can help them, for example, by launching crowdfunding campaigns to raise the necessary funds. And if an owner wants to restore their old farmhouse in the middle of Sarthe, they can find the representative for Vieilles Maisons Françaises in that département and they will help and advise them.”
Philippe explains that VMF also helps owners with other things such as applying for tax exemptions or even obtaining the VMF’S own label, ‘Patrimoine Historique’, for their property. You can apply to get your property listed but it is a lengthy process. “We can help owners who wish to open up their property to the public,” he says. “Before we start protecting it, our heritage should be known above all.”
Sharing the love
These protected sites attract many visitors keen to discover France’s architectural heritage so settling in a PBV or in a UNESCO site is a good move if you are thinking of starting a holiday rental business or a B&B. “These heritage sites are ideal for setting up high-end, luxury B&BS,” says Johanna Jaggs, an estate agent at Beaux Villages. “You’ll find that rooms at around €200 a night is standard in locations such as St-emilion.”
While properties might be at a premium because of the location, by setting up a B&B you can expect good return on investment because of the high demand for tourist accommodation.
Cate Carnduff has worked in the Plus Beau Village of St-jean-de-côle for 14 years as an estate agent for Agence Immobilière Herman de Graaf and explains that these locations are subject to the comings and goings of second home owners and holidaymakers.
“The tourists usually start to arrive around Easter; this is when restaurants open up their doors and hopefully their parasols to announce another season,” she says. “Summer brings the sounds of children, busier alleyways and the opening of all the maisons secondaires.”
With careful planning, there’s no reason why you can’t turn the dream of owning an old French property into a reality. Although the bureaucracy may seem testing, buying a listed home or a property in a conservation area is also hugely rewarding. You’ll be proud to live in a beautiful, preserved and unspoilt setting which is steeped in history.
The basilica of Vézelay, in Burgundy, is a UNESCO World Heritage building
The UNESCO listing of St-emilion makes it a sought-after location
Rochefort-en-terre is one of Brittany’s Plus Beaux Villages
The Plus Beau Village of St-jean de Côle