A few home truths about renovations gone wrong

We speak to three sets of people about how their renovation dreams quickly turned to nightmares and look at ways you can avoid it happening to you

With countless derelict properties and ‘fixer-uppers’ on the market in France, it is tempting to take on a renovation project - but what happens when things do not go to plan? Not all disasters can be avoided but you can minimise the risk through proper checks before buying so any problems are identified and taken into account when setting your offer or laying a budget for works.

Standard Inspections

When selling a property, the estate agent should supply a dossier technique containing the following information:

  • An electrical survey, if the installation is more than 15 years old
  • An asbestos inspection, if planning permission for the prop­erty was given before July 1, 1997
  • A sewerage report, since 2011, all properties not connected into the public sewage system must be inspected by the Service Public d’Assainissement Non Collectif (Spanc)
  • A lead report, if the property was built before January 1, 1949
  • A DPE report (diagnostic energy performance), on the energy and resource usage, but this may not be very relevant if doing a full renovation
  • A risk report – since June 1, 2006, vendors must declare if the property is in a zone at risk of flooding, or faces other environmental or mining-related issues. (This can be checked at the mairie or préfecture).

Planning and Preparation

If you are buying a property to renovate, contact artisans/professionals for quotations (devis) to help ensure you have the budget to see the project through – but keep a reserve.

Always check prior work and the reputation of artisans, speak to former customers and check their Siret number and insurance. It is important to enlist specialist tradespeople for roofs or structural work to ensure that such works are carried out properly and safely.

For more details, visit www.anil.org

Reducing Your Risk

If you are undertaking major work, or want to ensure your property has no hidden defects, it is advisable to engage an independent surveyor.

Unlike the UK, where ‘chartered surveyor’ is a recognised term, building surveyors have various titles in France. An expert immobilier can value your property, but to get a more detailed analysis of the structure of your property and to identify potential problems you need an expert structure or expert bâtiment.

Surveyors may belong to various professional bodies, such as the Rics and Fnaim but it is not mandatory they register with such organisations.

John Marshall, a chartered surveyor based in southern France, recommends carefully checking the technical education, experience and insurance of a potential surveyor: “They need to have professional indemnity insurance responsabilité civile professionnelle to guarantee their assessment for six years. You must also check their qualifications and Siret number to ensure they are properly qualified and registered in France.”

'Everything was falling into a sinkhole'

Mary Burger with her three children
Mary Burger lost her husband to cancer in 2007, while they were renovating their home

Mary Burger, Normandy

When Mary and Roy Burger moved into their house in 2000 it had just one habitable room with a log fire, but had two barns alongside.

Mary, from Holland, said Roy had owned it for 10 years, and had used it just for holidays as a place to sleep.

But by 2003 they had twins, Eric and Susan, and baby John, and despite starting to convert a barn and put in stairs, a shower and bedroom upstairs it was no longer suitable.

Worse was to come. “Roy began to get sick and was diagnosed with cancer. He died in 2007.”

Roy had only a British will, so his estate was split using French law, so three-quarters of the house went to the three children who cannot consent to a sale until they are 18.

Mary Burger's experience has left her wary of French builders
Mary Burger's experience has left her wary of French builders

Now a single mother, and unable to sell to buy a more suitable property, Mary decided to use local builders recommended by a friend.

However, she said: “The ‘previous work’ they’d shown me hadn’t been done by the them at all. Their work was terrible and took ages. We lived in a mobile home in the garden for two years.

“Worse, when they finally finished I couldn’t believe it: uneven concrete floors, plasterboard glued to walls, a secondhand boiler instead of new, electric wiring that gets hot when we switch too much on and a new fosse, but when it was inspected, every­thing was just going into a sinkhole.”

Out of €50,000 spent, Mary got just €7,000 back through the courts. She now employs one person to help with jobs and is wary of firms of builders. “If I could sell I would and I’d buy a modern, new-build where everything works,” she said.

Heatpump failed

A failed heatpump left Martin and Jane Appel shivering in -20C temperatures
A failed heatpump left Martin and Jane Appel shivering in -20C temperatures

Martin and Jane Appel, near Bergerac

Martin and Jane Appel never planned to retire abroad but, while staying with a friend in Bergerac in 2008, they fell in love with a property.

“We found a house in a hamlet near Bergerac and were smitten although it was almost a ruin,” said Jane, 65. “It had several barns, plus a hectare of land and cost €130,000.”

Unfortunately, when in 2009 they sold their house in Norfolk to fund the renovation, their intended budget was slashed by a quarter due to the drop in property prices. “We had to change some of our plans as a result,” said Jane.

Then, the couple faced a new setback. “We’d had a heat­pump, linked to underfloor heating, installed in the summer 2011,” added Jane.

“But in February 2012, it malfunctioned. Temperatures were minus 20 and our beautifully laid floors were frozen.

“Even with an insurance pay­out, we lost two years of hard work and €16,000 of potential holiday-­letting income.”

Builder Martin, 66, also suffered ill­ health as a consequence: “While lifting an upright, a beam fell and crushed my knee,” he said. “I also lost a significant amount of my eyesight afterwards, due to a haemorrhage behind one of my eyes, something that can be caused by stress and heavy lifting.”

The setbacks almost caused them to leave France altogether but they stayed and have now almost finished the renovation and are running holiday gites. “Now, we’re happy - it’s worked out, in the end,” said Jane.

Our €300 bill became €9,000

Connecting their dream home to the electricity grid cost Margaret and Melvin Heath a fortune
Connecting their dream home to the electricity grid cost Margaret and Melvin Heath a fortune

Margaret and Melvin Heath, Deux-Sèvres

When Margaret and Melvin Heath moved to France in January 2012 they had to live in tents with Margaret’s three older children.

The renovation dream that turned into a nightmare
The renovation dream that turned into a nightmare

Seduced by a TV programme shown during dismal weather, they had decided in 2011 they wanted to get away from Melvin’s Welsh cottage and headed to explore France. There they fell head over heels for Deux-Sèvres. “It just felt right,” said Mar­gar­et, a horticulturist.

The couple got married and moved to the house, a derelict 15th-century watermill. Antiques dealer Melvin, 54, said: “It hadn’t been lived in for decades and had never had electricity or bathrooms. Upstairs was nothing but rotten floorboards.”

They decided to do all the work, while running an online antiques business to generate income.

It was when they attempted to have the site connected to electricity that things went wrong. “Before coming, we spoke to EDF who quoted €300 but we found power was supplied by another firm, who quoted €9,000.

“We hadn’t worked for months and simply didn’t have the money.

“We would cycle to the library to use the internet to work and I’d cook what I could in a garden fire pit, growing vegetables and even foraging in hedges.

“We were given help once the children’s school realised how they were having to live. But we had to move into a rented flat. It was awful.”

However, three years on, the mill is coming on with two bedrooms nearly ready. But Mel needs a digger to move earth to test for a cesspit. Margaret said: “Hopefully, we’ll be living in our dream home soon!”

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