Ringing the changes
Are you ready to be converted? Former religious, agricultural and academic buildings can make unique homes in France, as Karen Tait discovers
For many British buyers, only an older French character property will do but if you’re looking for a real wow factor, why not consider a property that was never originally intended to be lived in?
Barns with cathedral ceilings, vast beams and floor-to-ceiling glazing… churches or chapels with stained glass windows… mills complete with the old workings and a peaceful river setting… old schoolhouses with large classrooms that are perfect for open-plan living… quirky pigeonniers… this is the stuff of dreams, whether already converted or offering all the promise of a ‘Grand Design’ project.
“Owning an agricultural or commercial property can be a unique experience,” says Helen Robinson of agency Bordeaux & Beyond ( bordeauxbeyond.co.uk). “Barn conversions are ideal for large families, with double-height ceilings and vast reception spaces to accommodate everyone, plus attractive exposed beams and stonework. They often come with sizeable plots of land too.”
Ready to move into While the buying process for these kinds of buildings is the same for other properties in France, there are various considerations you need to bear in mind, however.
If you’re buying a converted property, the main thing is to check that all the correct planning permission was obtained when the work was done, including change of use.
“Make sure that any work that is required to be covered by a 10-year guarantee has been carried out by French-registered companies, who are insured to carry out the work that has been invoiced for,” says Robert Welton of Bel Air Homes ( properties-brittany.com).
“A property that’s not correctly covered is a risky investment; reselling can be difficult within 10 years of the work being carried out.”
There are practical considerations too. “Lots of barn conversions are large with doubleheight ceilings and exposed stone walls, so take running costs into consideration, especially heating,” says Helen Robinson.
“If you’re buying a church or a property with a religious past, are there any graves? If so, you are usually unable to move them and there may be visitation rights for surviving family members,” she adds.
If living in a converted church, chapel or other religious building with all those beautiful decorative features is your idea of heaven, you should check that any properties you view have been deconsecrated.
Watermills come with some disadvantages as well as the many benefits provided by the setting and character features. “If you love nature and old stone, this is the place for you!” says Anna-caroline Thibout of Sextant Properties ( sextantproperties.com). “But the presence of water nearby can create humidity and cool the house. If it is surrounded by water and humidity has damaged the foundations, work may be needed.
“There may also be flood risks, especially in winter, while when it is very hot the mud in the water can give off unpleasant odours. Mills are generally in valleys, so check the orientation in case the sun is hidden by the hills.”
Converted railway stations and signal boxes also come up for sale surprisingly frequently, especially after a railway line closes. “They often become a country path for walkers and cyclists,” comments Steve Gilham of Alliance ( alliancefrenchproperty.com). “So in these instances the railway company sells off the buildings.”
Don’t get carried away For those creating their own home, barns are particularly attractive. “There’s a great choice in France with some brilliant renovation opportunities that you could only dream of affording in the UK,” comments Rhona Marshall of barnsetc.co.uk.
“A barn is a blank canvas so take your time during planning to work out exactly what you and your family want from your new home, right down to where you will need plugs for wall-mounted televisions. Spending time getting the plans right will save you money during the conversion. And my second piece of advice is simply this: embrace the space!”
FPN’S architect columnist Neil Vesma agrees. “Converted spaces can provide light and air and volume that a traditional house does not, and are also better suited to a funky contemporary style for that wow factor. Many people go for a large living/dining/kitchen space, but be aware that the larger the volume, the more echoey the room will be.
“Take advantage of the views,” he adds. “Have a covered terrace to protect you from the hottest and wettest weather, and keep all the bedrooms separate from the daytime spaces to avoid any late-night arguments between generations.”
Helen Robinson warns buyers not to get too carried away by the vast agricultural properties on offer. “Converting these unusual properties offers the chance to create a tailormade space
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A barn is a blank canvas so take your time to work out exactly what you want from your new home
Fancy a project? This mill in Dordogne is for sale at €97,000