Day to DIY life
A week in the life of renovating an apartment in France – Holly Howard reveals the good, the bad and the ugly!
A week in the life of a young couple renovating their Béziers apartment
My husband Alastair and I moved to Béziers in the south of France over two years ago now. On our first ever trip to our little city, we viewed our apartment and pretty much instantly knew it was where we wanted to set up our new life in France. After the first few weeks of cleaning every inch of it and waiting for our piles of boxed belongings to arrive, we started renovating.
Over 24 months in and we’re still at it; in winter when the rain blows through the cracked windowpanes and during the summer months when we wished we’d bought a second fan to angle towards where we’re working. We’ve had some help along the way – from our lovely family, a plasterer who made our dire kitchen walls smooth and a chauffagiste who professionally fitted a log-burner into our fireplace – but mostly, be it after we’ve stopped working for the day or at the weekends, it’s just Alastair and I, plugging away.
Alastair’s top tip for renovating is, when researching materials and advice online, try to do it as much in French as in English, no matter how confusing it is at first, as the recommended products and shops will be ones that you actually have access to.
Saturday and Sunday Yay le week-end! Weekends in the Howard household mean two things. Firstly, a pastry of your choice. Living in France means you have to set some boulangerie boundaries. We try to resist any delights in the week so that on Saturday and Sundays we can enjoy a pain aux raisins, croissant aux amandes or a family favourite, a suisse, accompanied by a cafetiere of coffee.
Secondly, weekends are DIY heavy. We’ve rarely had a weekend in France when we haven’t been renovating and Alastair usually has a tea-stained list of what he hopes to achieve that weekend. We’ve worked out, through trial and error and a few meltdowns, that we work best when Alastair runs the show and delegates work to me. I do a lot of the scoping out, researching and planning of any design elements of the apartment and Alastair is the boss at all things technical. Two years in
and our system works well; we’re still married and haven’t (yet) thrown each other out over our pretty balconies!
Our biggest lesson from renovating so far has been that most things are possible to do yourself if you give them enough time and thought. Equally, there are some jobs that are a real craft and best left to the professionals.
A likely trip at some point during the weekend (hopefully not realising half an hour before it shuts) is to Bricoman. Luckily, in Béziers we have a number of trade merchants within a 10/15-minute drive (POINT.P, Brico Dépôt) and even though we’ll have tried to remember everything the last time we were there, we’ll be sure to do a mad dash at some point on Saturday. Not Sunday, of course… Oh how those of us renovating in France would love Sunday openings!
Other than the weekly Bricoman spendathon, weekends are usually allocated to bigger projects where we can use the two full days off to get our teeth into something.
The hardest part of renovating an apartment is having to carry everything up stairs – in our case two flights of stairs to the second floor. Our apartment block has communal stairs and no lift, so we can only store material in the entrance hall for a day really, and have to make sure we tidy up after ourselves.
I’ll also add the fact that there is nowhere to park. This means that when you’re unloading materials, added to the stress of actually trying to carry them into the apartment block is the fact that you’re blocking the road. Also living in a town centre means that a lot of delivery lorries can’t – and won’t – deliver materials to you.
The latest room we’ve been renovating is our kitchen. It’s the first room you reach from the front door and is fairly square in shape. A
We’ve had some help along the way but mostly it’s just Alastair and I, plugging away
window looks out onto an interior courtyard and the ceiling (before we pulled it all down) is lower than the rest of the apartment.
We couldn’t wait to get started on la cuisine. Whereas the other rooms in the apartment had pretty patterned tiles, beams or long windows to obscure the many other questionable features, the kitchen was just grimy and sad.
The demolition phase started on a Saturday morning, as did putting up the insulated ceiling, taking up the floor tiles and relaying the floor tiles. Sometimes we’ll make the weekend into a three-day affair when there is one big job to do but generally we find anything over three days’ labour too much.
Our proudest renovation moment so far was fitting the insulated kitchen ceiling, just the two of us. We managed to load the hire van with all the plasterboard and metal stud, carry it up two flights of stairs and then fit it upside down on the ceiling, without any injuries or disasters!
Monday evening By no means routine but, if we’ve had a particularly heavy renovation weekend, we might take Monday evening to do some ‘lighter’ renovation jobs like research, ordering materials or making the apartment liveable again for the coming week.
For materials, Alastair will research what he’ll need next and then price matches. France is fairly eye-wateringly expensive for most things compared to the UK so often ordering from Screwfix.eu or Toolstation.fr achieves the best deal.
Also, Lidl and Aldi have become our go-to places during their DIY weeks (you can see what promotions are coming up by going to lidl.fr/fr/nos-offres.htm and aldi.fr/aldi_nos_ offres_4.html). We must have saved hundreds of euros buying our paint there. Again… how we miss UK paint and prices!
My top tip for renovating is to always make sure you’re stocked up on teabags and have a couple of treats stored away for maintaining motivation on long DIY days.
Tuesday to Thursday evenings
It’s really incredible to see how much you can get done during weekday evenings. A two or three-hour stint on a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evening amounts to the same as a full day of work at the weekend.
We’ve found summer is better for weekday work than winter – lighter and less depressing – although during a particularly cold patch last February, we actually looked forward to an evening of DIY to warm ourselves up!
Jobs that we have found worked well in the evenings include: Tile cleaning. This is a depressing job that I had to do when we were relaying quarry tiles in the kitchen. However, if you plug away a little each night, you make a lot of progress by the weekend. Tile laying. Pick an area you know you’ll be able to do in a few hours and this is a feel-good evening job. Wiring. Only works in the summer months as otherwise you’re completely in the dark with the mains switched off! Painting. Again, you want to be able to start and finish the area within an evening sprint, so this worked well when I had to paint our new bedroom shutters as one shutter would take about two hours. Sanding. Whether it’s windows or furniture, sanding is a grubby job that you can go at for a few hours. The build stages. Putting up shelves, building kitchen units and so on are all great evening jobs that don’t need to be finished in one evening.
Friday evening Depending on how the week is going, by Friday we might have just had enough and be wondering what on earth we’re doing all this for!
We may escape to the beach with a takeaway pizza or see friends – or just stay in the zone and carry on with what we’re working on. We usually play this evening by ear!
An evening pause on the newly renovated Place Jean Jaurès in Beziers to keep sane!
Holly and Alastair bought an apartment in Béziers, which is on the River Orb and close to the Mediterranean coast in Hérault
Kitchen renovation day 1: a black and white snap for the album below we started demolition
Relaying quarry tiles in the hallway is a punishing task! Tealights mark the way
Renovation problems for apartments – nowhere to store the bike!
Summer renovation with the fan on full blast
A renovation weekend breakfast when you have no table