Part Deux: Fixer-Upper in the French Countryside – 9 Lessons I’ve Learned After 5 Years of Renovating

Hi There! This is the audio adaptation of my this blogpost where I recount my thrilling journey of renovating a house in the picturesque French countryside

Renovation projects are no small affair. By design, they are difficult and can become daunting and financially draining if difficulties arise. This was certainly the case for me and Nick three years ago, when we decided, after 8 months of considerable stress, to pause working on the house, regroup and take time to understand how remodelling projects are carried out in our region.

Over the past five years, I have gathered a great deal of knowledge about the process. If you are about to embark on your own renovation journey in the French countryside, this article may provide you with the tools and knowledge needed to navigate the terrain. As a first-time renovator, it is likely that you will be required to take on multiple roles, such as interior designer, project manager, and financial planner. With the right preparation and understanding, however, you can make the experience both manageable and successful. Here are the key points of my learning and experience:

1 – Low Property Prices Signify High Renovation Costs:

Property prices can be as low as 30,000 euros in some parts of France. However, it is important to realise that many of these properties are usually in dire need of repair to make them habitable. Major works like a new roof, insulation, double glazed windows, electric rewiring, and plumbing, will all need to be included when considering the total cost of the property. Plus, labor expenses are likely to be high for artisans – tradespeople – must pay high social security contributions. My advice? Forecast your budget by collecting written, detailed estimates from registered tradespeople and companies. Also, prepare a generous financial buffer for contingencies that may arise during the repair process. There will be many.

Our renovation project
2 – How The Right Mindset Can Aid in Overcoming Stress and Frustration:

Consider this experience as a journey of exploration that tests one’s ability to adapt in each new situation. In France, things move at a slow pace, as skilled tradespeople are highly sought after and can refuse jobs. Before projects begin, they often take weeks to be estimated and months to start. Additionally, holidays are taken seriously and businesses strictly adhere to set working hours. When I began my own journey, I initially hoped to complete the first remodeling phase in six months. However, five years on, we still have not completed it. To set realistic expectations in the French context, it is essential to consider an appropriate timeline and show patience, perseverance, and flexibility in the face of potential roadblocks. Although it may seem like the universe is conspiring against you, rest assured, everything will eventually work out – just at a much slower pace than you’d like.

From The New Yorker
3 – Exploring The Architectural Wonders of France is a Journey of Inspiration:

I have always been fascinated with French country architecture, and it has helped shape my taste and style. The breathtaking locations like the Brittany coast, the Loire châteaux, and the many historic town centers are amazing places to behold. Even the more humble, secluded villages have something unique to offer, if you take the time to look and admire. Every house, grand or small, can be a great source of inspiration if you look carefully and observe your surroundings. There is so much beauty to be found in the different shapes, sizes, and styles of French architecture, and I am truly grateful to be able to explore and appreciate them.

4 – It Takes Time to Bring a Design Vision to Maturity:

We all have different approaches to creating our own design vision. Inspiration, research, visualization, and drawing are my four steps for crafting my design project. It requires time to reflect and fully understand each step, especially during the initial stages. By practicing and fine-tuning this process, I am now able to clearly communicate my design vision to tradespeople, avoid any potential misunderstandings and, most importantly, maintain control over the project. Having clear objectives is the key to making any decision-making process easier and more manageable.

5 – How Hand Drawing and Taping Can Help You Unleash Your Unique Vision:

As an interior designer enthusiast, I rely on hand drawing and painter’s tape to help me bring design ideas quickly and accurately to life. Drawing by hand allows me to have greater control and flexibility, sparking my creativity and forming a strong connection with the project. It also provides an extra level of accuracy and makes it easy to explain the design to tradespeople. Painter’s tape is also a great tool, as it can be used to mark walls, measure distances, and outline furniture placement.

Ah yes, my drawings… they are definitely not professional. In fact, when I first began, they almost looked like they were drawn by a toddler-like creature! But after a few hours of practice, I can at least say I have achieved an acceptable level.

6 – The Importance of Planning Permits to Achieve Compliancy:  

Almost any kind of remodeling work, especially when it changes the outside appearance of the property such as painting the house façade, changing the appearance of the roof, and adding new dormant widows, requires a planning permit in France. Checking with the local mairie – town hall – for the current regulations is always important, as they can be complex. Taking the time to understand and complete the paperwork is essential and speaking French can also be beneficial when it comes to these matters, helping to ensure that any communication with local authorities goes smoothly and the renovation project is completed without delay. Generally, the French administrative system can be complex, long-winded, and deeply embedded in everyday life. However, by being patient and persistent, one can go a long way.

7 – How to Find and Hire Reliable Tradespeople:

Finding reliable tradespeople in France can often be challenging, especially if you are trying to hire someone to work in a remote village. In most cases, French tradespeople are reluctant to travel more than 20 minutes away from their workshops. However, there are exceptions – for example, the carpenter I hired, through the DIY store Leroy Merlin, had an atelier located an hour away from our village. Additionally, tradespeople often have multiple jobs lined up for months at a time, which may delay the start of your project. Although this is the norm, there are some rare occasions when the process is sped up – I was able to hire a qualified roofer near me in just two days during the winter of 2021. Networking with your local community is a great way to find a reliable tradesperson. They prefer to work with those they know, so it’s best to use your network of local neighbors, shops and the town hall for quality, experienced service. 

Overall, my experiences with French and British tradespeople have been good. Some of them are true artists – they are called ‘artisans’ for a reason, so the result, in the end, is often worth the wait. 

8 – Mistakes can (and will) happen:

Renovations can be tricky, and mistakes can be costly. This has been the case in my own experience, with a costly roof window needing to be changed, and floor tiles that didn’t match my bathroom style. To avoid such mistakes, it is always important to plan carefully and to take samples to save time and money. Even with the best preparation, however, mistakes can happen, and when they do, it is important to be kind to yourself. Taking the time to reflect on what can be done differently in the future, can help to avoid repeating the same mistakes.

9 – Life in The French Countryside Can Take Some Time To Get Used To:

Living in this rural part of the world was a big shift for me. After coming from a bustling metropolis, it took some getting used to the quiet atmosphere. Most shops are closed during lunch and on Sundays, and streets seem deserted even by 4 pm. Professional opportunities for my field of expertise are almost non-existent and seem to be geared towards blue collar jobs. Fortunately, I can generate an income by working remotely. To balance the peaceful calm of the countryside, I stay active by exploring the Brittany coastline and seek the excitement of city life by traveling regularly to Paris and abroad. This experience is wholly my own and I’ve grown to appreciate the slower pace of life here while still finding ways to stay connected with the outside world.

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