If you’re wondering what it was like to renovate a house in France, it’s definitely not for the faint-hearted. Our project had more than its fair share of ups and downs. A pandemic, a redundancy and a builder who did a runner. If you fancy trying to renovate a house in France, here’s a few things we learnt along the way.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
Deciding where to buy is obviously extremely important and thankfully for us, it was the easiest part. We had returned to Châtel, in the French Alps, year after year for our skiing holidays. There was nowhere else in the world we would have considered. It felt familiar, we knew a few people in the village and the major selling point was its location.
The ski resort is relatively close to Geneva Airport, the transfer takes just 90-minutes. What’s more, the Portes du Soleil offers 650km of pistes in both France and Switzerland. We planned to run the chalet as a business, so being able to offer a quick airport transfer from Geneva Airport and varied skiing, was a major plus point.
THINK LONG AND HARD BEFORE RENOVATING A HOUSE IN FRANCE
When we first viewed the place, it looked quite dated but it was functional. Although I do remember a rickety old staircase leading to a dark, damp and dingy ground-floor that had more in common with a dungeon than a ski chalet. With zero knowledge of how to renovate a chalet in France, I just thought we could replace the bathrooms and kitchen, stick some wooden beams up, give it a fresh coat of paint and we’d be good to go. Nothing could have prepared me for the next three years. We had no idea we’d pretty much end up rebuilding the entire house.
CHOOSE A BUILDER VERY, VERY CAREFULLY
This is the really, really important bit. Whatever you do, don’t mess this bit up. We were naïve and a bit too eager to part with our cash. We paid a very high price. To cut a painful story short, the first builder in 2018 was plucked straight from an episode of ‘Builders from Hell.’
His business wasn’t registered in France (first red flag) but he said what we wanted to hear. He took our money, started some of the work, then promptly did a runner. We then faced a very unfinished project. Building work that needed to be redone and just two choices. Either start a timely and costly legal battle to get our money back, or focus on finding another builder to take our botched house project on.
Long story short, we learned the hard way. A reputable builder will be officially registered as a business in France (always check they have a SIRET number). They are usually booked up well in advance, maybe up to a year. Despite the fact we paid a high price for work that wasn’t done, things did improve. We found some fantastic builders who were thankfully willing to take the project on. We will be forever grateful to them. Builders aren’t always keen to pick up from where someone else took off. This makes things very tricky once someone else has started and then decides to run off.
CONSIDER A PROJECT MANAGER
With no prior experience, we thought it would be a fabulous idea to renovate a chalet in France, from overseas. It’s not impossible but it certainly added to the stress levels. We planned to visit regularly to check up on the place. This probably would have worked out ok but the year we signed the official renovation contract was early 2020.
I lost my job, borders suddenly shut and we got stuck overseas for six months. We couldn’t get to France and instead had to rely on video calls with the builders. Not ideal. One salary down, we were surrounded by mass redundancies. Life as we knew it came to a rather abrupt stop.
With all that going on, it really didn’t feel appropriate to renovate a chalet. However, we took the risky decision to continue. This was extremely nerve-wracking in the middle of lockdowns and the general covid related chaos going on around the world.
SET YOUR BUDGET AND ADD A FEW ZEROS
There are always unexpected costs that creep into a house renovation. I was ready for this bit, I’ve seen the TV shows. Apart from the pandemic preventing us from seeing the renovations in person, which was a major blow, everything else up until this point had been going pretty well, (apart from the builder who did a runner) so I guess it was only a matter of time.
When we got the call that we ‘might need a bit of steel to reinforce the roof,’ we braced ourselves for the invoice. Then waited for several enormous structural steel girders, to arrive. They were so heavy, they had to be accompanied by a crane. And they’re not cheap either.
I think every tradesman in the village was at our chalet that day to help install the steel. This was essential work and extremely costly. We had decided to extend the top floor into the eaves so we had to reinforce the roof. A home in the mountains has to tolerate tons of snow and provide the occupants with a warm, dry environment. It was a huge unbudgeted cost but obviously not something we could avoid. We also chose to use old wood (vieux bois) for the interior, which does look lovely but in hindsight, if we were to do it all again, we’d probably use it a bit more sparingly.
ALWAYS CHECK THE SMALL PRINT
We were caught out once or twice by failing to double-check our order forms. Obviously, we had a language barrier to contend with but despite our best efforts, we somehow ended up ordering a few tons of bathroom tiles, in the completely wrong colour. I remember one fraught phone video call with my eagle-eyed husband while I was in France alone.
“They’re the wrong colour,” he said. “Hmmm, no they aren’t,” I huffed as I resentfully man handled one, for closer inspection. “Oh.” As I suddenly realised my husband might actually (and annoyingly) be right. “We didn’t want black tiles for the bathrooms, did we…”
I scanned the garden and noticed a few tons of tiles, neatly stacked up outside the house awaiting installation. This was a major setback. The tiles were reordered but nothing happens quickly in France. This meant we lost the tiler, who had to move onto another job, and our new bathrooms were significantly delayed. But at least they would be the right colour…
FOOLS RUSH IN
Before we started the main renovations in 2020, we discovered a damp wall in the basement. The culprit was a faulty drain pipe near the exterior steps. Before he did a runner, the first builder fitted a new drain pipe, without fixing the leak, which was actually underground (second red flag).
Not very quick to learn, we then found a Jack-of-all-trades, who assured us he would ‘investigate’ the leak. And investigate he did. I can’t knock his promise ‘to get to the bottom of it.’
Armed with a pick axe and a lump hammer, which when combined, equals something like a pneumatic drill. His ‘investigation’ culminated in smashing the stairs to smithereens. It was a complete and utter disaster. The steps were annihilated. There was now a huge hole in the ground which would have swallowed up anyone who attempted to walk past.
With winter fast approaching, he then said something about it being a ‘bit cold’ and did the old vanishing act. My wonderful parents, who are more proficient in DIY than I ever could dream to be, answered our SOS call. They immediately flew to France and spent the weekend in sub zero temperatures, building some excellent temporary wooden stairs to cover the dog’s dinner of an ‘investigation’ that had been left behind.
WELCOME TO FRENCH BUREAUCRACY
Buying a house is fairly easy in comparison to the renovation and dealing with the subsequent paperwork. And Brexit didn’t help. A round of applause to all the British folk, (bonus points awarded to the ones actually inhabiting the EU) who voted “Leave” which swiftly removed their right (and mine) to live in the EU for more than 90 days at a time. Bravo!
For anyone interested, the real estate agent was English and spoke fluent French, he helped liasie with the solicitor or notaire in French. The mortgage lender BNP Parabis was accommodating and always very helpful. Setting up a French bank account did present some issues. We opened an online account quickly with AXA Banque but later opened a better one with Credit Agricole in the village. Life insurance was mandatory in order to get the mortgage, which was provided by MetLife.
Then the fun really started. We discovered the French love a bit of form filling and TAX! If you are considering buying a chalet, the two big taxes you will quickly become accustomed to include: Taxe foncière, which is a land tax and Taxe d’habitation, which is a residence tax. Both are quite pricey and one costs a fair bit more than the other.
It’s worth finding out how much exactly in advance. You will need to pay them both once a year, every year for the foreseeable. Whatever you do, don’t bury your head in the sand, you won’t get away from it so embrace the French red tape from the start. Or do as I did. Get a decent French accountant and outsource all the paperwork and French admin to your other half.
DON’T SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF
We frequently found ourselves having petty domestics in the French equivalent of B&Q. Normally down the door handle aisle or somewhere close to the kitchen sinks. With no prior experience furnishing a house, choosing the fixtures and fittings, nearly tipped me over the edge.
For anyone that isn’t aware, there are approximately eleventy £*cking billion different types of door handles and an equal number of kitchen taps. It was totally overwhelming. “This tap…..?” My husband would ask as we shuffled up and down the aisles, drained of the will to live. “Or this tap?”
My advice would be to visit a chalet your builder has just finished. Ask to take photos of the finer details and just copy them. That’s assuming you like what they’ve done. We had visited many chalets but I never seemed to remember the finer details. I don’t know why I found this so stressful, I just did.
MEMORIES TO LAST A LIFETIME
Deciding to renovate a house in France was expensive and very frustrating most of the time. It cost us more than we ever imagined. I frequently found myself thinking…what the hell have we done?! However, we have now had the chalet for four years. The interior is complete and we had a successful 2022 season operating as a catered chalet.
It’s been an absolute rollercoaster. There were many sleepless nights. Including one in -10 deg c when it was snowing outside. We had to go to bed wearing all our clothes and bobble hats, because we didn’t have any hot water or central heating! Let’s buy a chalet he said, it will be fun….
The positive bit is that we’ve been fortunate to visit France in all seasons. The Alps just amaze me every time. It’s one of the most beautiful places in the world. We’re very happy to call it our second home, just not for more than 90 days at a time…
One of the best things has been sharing holidays with our nearest and dearest. From the seemingly never-ending DIY projects, hiking up and skiing down mountains and bickering our way around French hardware stores. We even managed to drive home after one particulary absurd shopping trip, with not one but two garden sheds, stacked inside our car*. It’s been and continues to be, an absolute blast.
*We once bought two huge garden sheds from a garden centre in Switzerland. We then discovered they didn’t deliver to France! Despite our house being just 30 minutes away! The bemused staff told us to hire a van, from where they didn’t know. They then watched a comical scene unfold. Four barking mad Brits (me, my husband and my parents) set about pulling the sheds out from the boxes and stacking the parts in our hire car. We drove off, with bits of shed poking all over the place, only to return an hour later to repeat the exercise and collect all the parts we couldn’t fit in the first time around.
There’s a part of me that thinks we should have just bought a new build apartment and saved ourselves a shed load, no pun intended, of money and hassle. But as someone said to us around the halfway mark, when I was seriously questioning our sanity: “If it was easy, everyone would do it.” Well it sure as hell has not been easy, but all things considered, I can say it definitely has been worth it.
Still keen to renovate a chalet in France? Do yourself a favour and just click here to rent ours instead.