Double your budget and make friends with the mayor – top tips on French renovations

Double your budget and make friends with the mayor - top tips on French renovations
Dream home or a renovation nightmare?
For many buying a beautiful old property deep in the French countryside and renovating it is the dream, but there are many pitfalls for unwary first-timers. Here readers of The Local share what they have learned.

Dodgy builders, ever expanding budgets and obscure planning laws, we asked our readers who have completed successful renovations about the one thing they wish they had known when they started their project.


What attracts many people to buying in France is that properties, especially older ones, can be surprisingly cheap, with many properties on the market for well under €100,000. But if you're doing a renovation the cost of buying the building in the first place is only the starting point, and you will also need enough money left over to do the works.

And if you are not experienced in building or renovation projects, it's easy to be caught out by unexpected costs, particularly as building materials in France are often more expensive than in the UK.

Richard Eakin, who has a home in Feyance in Provence, said: “Be realistic about your budget, especially if you are going to require professional help. It usually costs 40 percent more than you expect, and always allow for the unexpected.

“Set expectations around timescales – it always takes longer than you expect, especially if you are not doing the work yourself.

“Pre-agree payment stages during the construction process and don't pay in full until everything is complete and satisfactory. If you are unhappy with anything at any stage make sure it is highlighted and discussed to avoid any surprises at completion.

“Have a sensible contingency budget circa 10 percent of total cost.”

While John Harris, who has a home in Brittany, advises: “Have an adequate reserve budget. You WILL underestimate costs and time scale.”

John-Albert Marlow, who has a property in Deux-Sevres in the south west, said: “Check – is the building structurally sound? If not, it can prove to be very expensive.”

The other thing that can have a serious knock-on effect on your budget – especially if you are not able to live in the property while the renovation is ongoing – is the timescale.

Many people find that a renovation they thought would take six months ends up taking years to complete.

Paul Holmes, who has a property in Bujaleuf in Haut Vienne said: “Being in short supply, good tradespeople tend to be booked up with jobs months or even years in advance so don't expect to be 'living the dream' for at least six months from the date of purchase completion.”

Maggie Parkinson, who has a house in Hoessegor, near Bayonne, added: “Expect the costs to double – at least!

“Expect the worst – we had to completely redo the plumbing, all the way to the street, despite assurances from the previous owner that it was fine.

“Turns out the pipes to the street were sloping backwards, which explained that peculiarly 'French drain' smell! We have since found out that this is actually a not uncommon problem.”

READ ALSO How to convert a rustic barn into your dream home

Planning laws and building permits

Just as in any country, France has planning restrictions on what you can and cannot do, especially if the building you are renovating is old.

Some of the rules change from region to region, while some rules only apply to specific buildings, for example if you are in a conservation area or within sight of a church you may find the rules are more strict.

If you are making any major structural changes, extending the property or making changes to the facade, you will need a déclaration préalable – essentially French planning permission. But in certain circumstances other, even quite minor, changes will also need permission so it is important to check the rules specific to your area.

John Counsell, an architect who has a property in Jura, advised: “Find out if there are any local specialist planning controls, for example in the Jura and similar regions there is the Loi Montagne (mountain law) which extends to controls on roof pitches and external materials.

“The local regulations also control the depths of foundations and the like.”

Sallie Trout, who lives in the Charente, added: “Are you near an old church? If so, you'll need a permit for anything visible.”

Paul Holmes added: “Alterations to buildings within 500 metres of a listed building require approval from the 'ancient monuments' planners – these are different from the usual planning authorities and applications take between three and six months before receiving a decision.

“This applies to increasing the size of a property or changing the look of its facade – including the colours of external shutters.”

While Maggie Parkinson of Hossegor said: “Tourist areas may not allow building work in the summer months. We ran afoul of this when the neighbours called the police!”

READ ALSO Seven things to know before you buy a property in France

Role of the mayor

The easiest way to make sure you don't get on the wrong side of local planning rules, building permits and work regulations is to enlist the help of the local mayor.

The role of mayor of a French village or commune is unique to France and foreigners often don't realise how much power a local mayor wields. The mayor's role makes him or her the head of the municipal council, the commune's main magistrate and the judicial police officer.

They are also generally very knowledgeable about local rules and regulations and the permissions and permits you will need before you get started. Most mayors are also local people so they will have an interest in keeping their village alive and thriving so can make valuable allies.

Paul Holmes said: “Check with the mayor's office before you start, consult with a local architect or well-established local builder, ask plenty of questions and make sure everyone fully understands what you are trying to achieve and the level of permission required.

“This all takes time and lots of paperwork.”

John-Albert Marlow, who has a home in Deux-Sevres in the south west, said: “Have a visit to your local Mairie. The people there are usually helpful if you do not exhibit a 'know-all' attitude.”

Elizabet Prosser, also in the Charente, added: “Talk to your mayor before you buy. He will clue you in.”

READ ALSO What exactly does the village mayor do?


Depending on your level of DIY/skills you may be needing a lot or only a little help with your renovation, but it is likely that most people will be employing tradespeople at some point, especially for the more specialist jobs like plumbing and electrical work.

And some of the worst renovation horror stories involve unskilled or downright dodgy tradespeople.

So how to ensure you pick the right person for the job?

Our readers all concurred that getting multiple quotes, using word-of-mouth recommendations and checking previous work done by the person was the key to getting good quality work done.

Many people also advised checking the all-important Siret number.

The Siret is basically a business registration number that allows you to check the person is registered in their trade. Make sure you check not only that they have a number, but that it is for the relevant profession – so you don't end up employing someone registered as a plumber to do electrical works.

And if a tradesman is good it is likely they will also be busy, so be prepared to wait.

Paul Holmes advised: “Expect to wait between six months to a year or in some areas even longer before securing trades people on site.

“If you are not using an architect make sure your French language skills are sufficient or the tradespeople speak English.

“Make sure the tradespeople are licensed and insured and that you see the documents and that they are valid – unfortunately people do lie! Also get a minimum of three checkable references from previous independent/unrelated customers.

“Speak to them about their experience/level of satisfaction with the work done and any problems which arose. Estate agents are a good starting point in identifying trades people as are the classified advertisement sections in English-language publications. The Marie will have lists of local trades people.”

Richard Eakin advised: “We have found the best sources to be via the following, recommendations from neighbours, estate agents, town hall and referrals from local shops/businesses etc.

“Don't fall into the trap of finding one tradesman that you like and get on well with, always get at least one alternative quote no matter how nice they are and always haggle!”

Andrew Woodhead, who has a property in Bourgogne, said: “Look around the area at recently finished building work, stonework, brickwork, rendering, plumbing etc and enquire as to the person who's carried it out, ask for recommendations and make sure the builder or trade is registered.”

And the advice that came up time and again was to use your local contacts.

Gregory Long, who lives in Paris, said: “Ask your gardienne, or other parents at your child's school. For me, my notaire was a great source of information.”

If your French is not up to the demands of long technical discussions with builders you may prefer to go for a fellow English-speaker. But beware – just because someone speaks the same language as you does not mean you should not subject them to the same level of checking as anyone else.


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