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Hard work but totally worth it: 6 successful French property renovations

It's physically exhausting, expensive and complicated - but readers of The Local say that renovating a French property is all worth it in the end.

Hard work but totally worth it: 6 successful French property renovations
(Photo: Milivoj Kuhar / Unsplash)

Renovating a property in France is not for the faint-hearted, and it’s all-too easy to get bogged down in frustrating bureaucracy. 

But if you get it right, it’s a great way to get a bargain property and adapt it to your needs and tastes.

We spoke to readers who had successfully renovated a French property, and if you’re in the middle of a project, you might find their responses quite cheering

“We made mistakes about the paperwork attached to renovating in France and rules and regulations are quite onerous especially if your French isn’t fluent,” said Peter McNulty.  

The family lived for two years in a caravan, after buying two old stone barns near Cahuzac-sur-Vère, Tarn, 18 years ago. Overall, they spent 10 years transforming the buildings into two small houses for a total cost of €90,000 – including the cost of a small swimming pool.

But, he said: “It was a lot of fun doing it and we would certainly recommend it to anyone who is not afraid of hard work and is prepared to try anything. It is not rocket science!”

READ ALSO The ‘cheap’ way to get a second-home in France

Mick Tranter agreed – even after what he described as “18 years of continual (incredibly) hard work so far and we are not finished yet” on their “old, huge stone building” in Dordogne.

He said: “We have lived a life we could never have imagined and learned a huge variety of new skills but could never have anticipated the effort (both physical and emotional), costs and complications involved in what has been a daunting task. 

“Renovation gives you an enormous sense of satisfaction and creates a home which suits your personal tastes.”

He added: “We would not have missed the experience for the world, but being 20 years older we would never attempt anything on the same scale again. 

“Anybody thinking of renovating [needs] to be realistic about what they expect to achieve at the end of the project, whether it will still meet their needs and what they are able to invest physically and financially as both will far exceed your expectations. 

“Most importantly, unlike the UK, you are unlikely to make any money from such a project in France even if you budget very carefully and do most of the work yourself. 

“Basically – go for it, what can possibly go wrong?!”

READ ALSO ‘What I wish I’d known before I moved abroad’

Julia Frey, who describes herself as a “survivor” of four top-to-bottom property renovations in Paris, and who is about to embark on a fifth, warned: “If you don’t speak French or hire someone to be your intermediary, you’re as vulnerable as if you were senile.” 

She advised: “Always get a licensed architect with 10 years insurance and both sign off on the contract. Buy extra personal maitre d’ouvrage insurance on your household insurance in case the remodel somehow endangers the building.”

US citizen Bruce Schluter agreed, having bought a property in Paris the day before the first lockdown, and trying to co-ordinate a refurbishment from the other side of the Atlantic: “A good architect is essential, especially if you are not expert in the French way of doing things!

“A renovation allows you to have things just the way you would like instead of having to live with someone else’s idea of how things should be.” 

His property was finally ready shortly before France reopened its doors to travellers from the US.

“We are ecstatic with a the results,” he said.

READ ALSO EXPLAINED: Time-frame for buying and selling property in France

Banker Mike Gloyne and wife Louise have renovated properties in Haute-Savoie and the Dordogne while holding down full-time jobs. They would do it all again, despite administrative and personal issues.

“Everything takes longer and costs more,” he warned. “But we took a lot of personal pride in what we achieved – and also learnt new skills that I didn’t have before I started.

The couple turned accidental renovators when they found a doer-upper in a town near the Franco-Swiss border just over a decade ago. “We knew nothing about the French regulations and the rules we’d have to follow, so it was a bit of a scary proposition to begin with,” he said.

“From a budget and a time perspective, but we had some fairly significant issues. Dealing with the local mairie was painful. We had to go do a déclaration préalable, the paperwork we needed to do to make changes to the house. We didn’t need a building permit, as such, because we were only changing small aspects of the facade.

“It was a fairly straightforward process – but to get the mairie to approve it was extremely difficult. Even after we had followed what they wanted, to the letter, in terms of the colour of the tiles, the colour of the shutters, they then complained to us that, despite the fact they said to us we could paint the external walls white, the white we had used wasn’t the white they had in mind.”

READ ALSO Revealed: The ‘hidden’ extra costs when buying property in France

He said that, at one point, the police were called following a complaint the couple had employed English workers as opposed to local artisans to do the work. “The people we were using were from the UK, but they were registered in France,” he said. “It put a negative spin on the whole thing.”

A second builder sub-contracted work to another team, who took three times longer to do the work than had been planned, and who were often working on other projects elsewhere. To make matters worse, “The quality of work they did was substandard,” he said, explaining that another contractor brought in to fit the kitchen could not do his job because the walls weren’t straight, while shoddy plumbing work needed to be redone.

Surprisingly, despite these problems, it hasn’t put off the couple. Another project in southwest France  – that first experience “had made us more determined,” Mike said – that they plan to run as a gite business was going much better. “It was a completely different experience, and we’ve loved it. It just goes to show it’s not the same everywhere.”

He concluded: “I think, overall, if you’re someone who has a passion for this sort of thing, you’ll get a lot out of it. It’s almost like a labour of love and if you think of it in those terms, then it makes sense. There’s something special about being able to leave your footprint on something in that way. But everything that we’ve been through to get there has been painful.”

Susan Sturman said that renovating a property in France only makes sense if you plan to stay there “in the long term”. She said they expect to stay at their apartment in the 18th arrondissement of Paris “for the rest of our lives”. 

READ ALSO French property: How planning permission rules change in 2022

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For members


Garant: How the French guarantor system works for property rental

If you're looking to rent an apartment in a larger city in France, you're likely to see announcements that require a 'garant'. Here is what you need to know about finding a guarantor in France.

Garant: How the French guarantor system works for property rental

Renting in large cities in France – particularly in Paris – is a known challenge for foreigners, especially new arrivals. In the countryside, it’s a bit easier, with less competition properties, but in the big cities compiling your dossier and landing the right place can be a challenge.

One of the biggest surprises for many people is that most landlords ask for a guarantor (garant) in order to sign a lease for an apartment. It is not a legal requirement, but in competitive real estate markets, it certainly feels like one.

Though asking for a garant might feel a bit juvenile, it is quite common, and applies to a lot more people than you might realise. Here is what you need to know:

Who typically needs a guarantor?

The most common group to need guarantors are students. However, if you are a foreigner who is not employed with a CDI (indefinite contract) and if you do not make over three times your monthly rent, you will likely need a guarantor as well.

If you don’t collect your income in France (or if you don’t have an income) you will need a guarantor.

You will also likely need one if you are still in the probationary period of your CDI, or if you cannot show three months worth of pay stubs from your job yet (even if you pay meets the three times a month requirement). If you do have a CDI, you could ask your employer to sign you an attestation d’employeur which verifies your monthly income. 

If your income is not steady or consistent (perhaps you are a freelancer). Typically, if you use an agency during the leasing process, they will require a guarantor, especially if any of these conditions apply to you. 

It is worth noting that showing bank statements typically do not suffice – landlords are looking for proof of ongoing income, not savings.

Who can count as a guarantor?

The guarantor should be a third party, such as a parent or close relative who agrees to pay your rent if you fail to pay.

This person must fulfil all the requirements outlined above (ie earning more than three times your rent with an indefinite contract).

The other tricky part is that this person must work and live in France, and usually it’s best that they are French themselves.

However, this can pose a problem for foreigners who might not know anyone that fits that description, so thankfully there are some other options fill this requirement, like taking out a caution bancaire or using an online agency. We explained the ins-and-outs of these bellow.

What does my guarantor need to show?

The guarantor needs to put together a dossier of documents including;

  • Proof of identification (a passport or French ID card)
  • Proof of residence that is less than three months old (eg utility bills).
  • Most recent tax returns
  • Employment contract and typically three months worth of payslips
  • If they earn money via real estate, they must also provide documentation for this
  • If the person in question is retired, they must provide proof of pension (again, this must exceed your monthly rent threefold). 

So, what if I don’t have a French person who can be my guarantor? There are a few options for you:

Use an online service

There are two main online services that can act as guarantors for foreigners in France.

The first is Visale, which is accessible primarily to foreign students.

This is a programme offered via the French state through “Action Logement” and it covers up to three years of unpaid rent. You must be between 18 and 30 years old to apply, and you must hold a long-stay visa (VLS-TS) – either a student visa or a ‘talent’ one.

For students who are already citizens of a European Union country, then simply presenting a student card and a valid passport will be sufficient. It can be applied to private housing and student residences, but it is ultimately up to the landlord as to whether they will accept a tenant who uses Visale as their guarantor. The main benefit to Visale is that it is free for the user.

Visale does come with some restrictions, however. Your rent (including charges) cannot exceed €1,500 in Paris, and €1,300 in the rest of the country. In addition, the lease must be for a primary residence, and your rent should not exceed 50 percent of your total income.

Another option is GarantMe, a paid online website that can also serve as an official guarantor.

Landlords might actually prefer this service over a physical guarantor who might refuse to pay or for whatever reason not have the funds to do so. The benefit to GarantMe is that they accept a wider range of tenants for their service, but the downside is that there is a fee. The minimum payment (per year) is €150, but the fee is normally 3.5 percent of the annual rent (including charges) and it renews automatically.

The nice thing about GarantMe, is that in order to apply for the service, you basically need to create a full dossier that will be identical to what you’ll need for your apartment search anyways.

Take out a Caution Bancaire

Basically, a caution bancaire is a bank guarantee, and typically its a bit more of a last resort option because it is quite restrictive for the tenant. It involves blocking off a large sum of money to be used to pay rent if you fail to do so.

Depending on the landlord (and the bank), they might ask you to block between six months worth of rent to sometimes up to two years. This would be used as guarantee during the duration of your lease, but it takes a bit of administrative coordination and obviously requires a large sum of liquid funds.

Sometimes activating a bank guarantee can take a few weeks, and for foreigners, of course, this would require already having a French bank account. There can also be fees, depending on the bank, for using a caution bancaire, and simply closing of caution bancaire account in itself can involve fees.

The other downside to this is that not all landlords will accept it, which is why this option might be best served as a last resort.

Attempt to find an apartment that does not require a garant

This is quite difficult in Paris (and other large cities around France). It is possible sometimes if you stick to foreigner-oriented sites like NY Habitat or Paris Attitude. Another possible loophole could be to see if your insurance plan offers coverage of unpaid rent. This is quite uncommon, but could be a possible option. If you rent specifically particulier-à-particulier (meaning you do not use an agency at all) you might be able to negotiate with the landlord, or if you have a sub-lease you might not need to show proof of a guarantor.

Ultimately, however, in most cases when renting in France’s large cities, you’ll likely need a guarantor.

What should I be aware of when it comes to guarantor websites?

As mentioned previously, Visale is only for people in the 18-30 age group, so unfortunately it does not apply to everyone. It is also intended for lower income people or students, so if you are a high earner you might be rejected.

Regarding using a website like GarantMe, beware that they will charge you every year – it is not a one time fee. This will be deducted from the card you put on the site and the only way to cancel the charge will be to show proof that you have moved out (i.e. an état des lieux or letter releasing you from the obligation signed from your landlord)