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

Living France - - Contents - Trevor Mor­ris is the owner of Trevor Mor­ris Ren­o­va­tion in south-west France trevor­mor­ris­ren­o­va­

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.


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.

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