Heritage guardians

Own­ing a listed house or a home near a heritage site is a dream for many Bri­tish buy­ers, but it comes with responsibilities, ex­plains

French Property News - - News - So­phie Gard­ner-roberts

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.

Con­ser­va­tion areas

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

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