Romancing the stone
Renovation projects often come with a very attractive price tag, but how do you know the work needed to make it your dream home won’t end up costing you a fortune? Trevor Morris shares some helpful advice
What to look out for when buying a renovation project to keep costs under control
When peering through an estate agent’s window, flicking through the pages of their catalogue or scrolling through listings online, it is easy to find half a dozen properties that could potentially be the home of your dreams. However, the reality can often prove to be somewhat different when it comes to actually viewing them, and it can quickly become apparent that many of those ‘perfect properties’ are not quite as perfect as you had hoped.
British buyers tend to have a reputation for falling for renovation projects in France, and unless you have unlimited funds to buy something in perfect condition you will probably be looking at a house in need of renovation to some degree.
Most potential buyers have limited experience of buying and renovating a character property, so how can you be sure that your blank canvas is not going to turn into a bottomless money pit? If you have got as far as looking at houses in need of work then you’ve probably already decided that you’re ready for the commitment of time, money, hard work and emotions that go into property renovation. Now is the time to start looking at the bones of the building.
How can you tell that the house is not about to fall down? In general, concrete foundations are relatively rare in French character properties. Most stone houses in the countryside are built without classic foundations. The walls have been excavated down to stable ground and built up using large stones at the base with local mud or clay used as a binding mortar. This type of construction is prone to movement and can absorb climatic changes such as canicules (heat waves), which can shrink soils and crack buildings.
These buildings move with the land and evidence of cracks in facades (especially rendered ones) are not necessarily cause for alarm, and can be corrected cosmetically. Having said that, cracks can also be evidence of serious movement so don’t hesitate to seek professional advice.
It sounds obvious, but stand back, ignore the details and just look at the shape of the building. Does it look right? Do the walls look perpendicular? Is the roof in a reasonably straight line? A wall leaning outwards could be an indication of something more serious happening inside, for example a beam that tied the walls together could have rotted, or a roof beam could have collapsed causing pressures against the wall. A ‘bellied’ wall that bulges out also needs further investigation. It is often a sign that the building has spent some part of its life without a roof, which has allowed rainwater to get into the walls and wash away the binding mortar, making the inner and outer skins part company. This can be extremely costly and dangerous to remedy.
Many old roofs are not completely straight and this is not always a problem. Timber sags with time and this can be part of the charm, but if most of the roof follows a certain shape and then has a significant dip in one place, this probably indicates a failed roof beam and is an indicator of expensive times to come. If things do not look quite right then call in an expert to advise you.
Your best bet is to call in a local reputable builder who will know the local building methods and geography. He should be able to tell you if things are serious or not and what the remedies are, and will also be able to give you a quote ( devis) so that you know what costs will be involved for any repair work needed.
Be wary of houses that are ‘just habitable’. A property that looks charming on a summer’s day with only a couple of old electrical points, rudimentary plumbing and no heating is a completely different proposition when you try to live in it all year round. The habitable house may well need taking back to nothing so that all the services can be renewed, and this can be more expensive than fitting out a shell.
If you think you are going to make changes to the property then be prepared to spend some money. To carry out a decent renovation there is very little middle ground – it is generally either a case of a coat of paint and some light works, or a full renovation. You can’t put new bathrooms on sagging floors or connect new kitchens to outdated plumbing and electrics. A good rule of thumb when making your first estimations is a cost of €1,000 to €1,500 per square metre of habitable surface for full renovation costs. This is a realistic starting point, and you may well be able to bring your project in for less than this amount, but at least you shouldn’t have a nasty surprise.
When looking at ‘renovated’ properties that may need some extra work, you should be asking yourself a number of questions. Did qualified artisans carry out the work? Can any relevant paperwork be provided, such as planning permission, receipts, and a 10-year warranty ( décennale), or did the previous owner do the work? In the case of the latter, ask the owner/seller questions about where they sourced materials and how much experience they have of renovating. If it turns out that the work is not up to standard then you may find that everything has to be ripped out before you can start anew, in which case it would have been cheaper to buy a ruin.
DOES THE PROPERTY WORK FOR YOU?
With the knowledge of renovation costs in your mind, now is the time to take stock. Take a long hard look at the property and think about exactly what you want from it, and see if the two match in any way. If you have a large extended family or groups of friends that you enjoy entertaining, then a two-bedroom cottage with a tiny kitchen is not going to cut the mustard without major works. Anything can be done when it comes to building work, but at a cost. It is always going to be easier and therefore less expensive if you can work with the flow of the building. Putting in an en-suite bathroom is going to be straightforward if it is at the same end of the house as the rest of the plumbing, but likely to be costly if floors have to be dug up to join it to the rest of the plumbing system.
Often we only listen to the advice we want to hear, so it’s worth taking someone neutral along with you to the property and asking them what they think. Once you’ve asked a lot of questions, listened to a lot of advice and given it plenty of thought, you’ll be ready to make a decision. If that decision is to take on a renovation project then strap yourselves in the for the ride – there may be heartache, anguish and tears but you may just be on the road to something wonderful.