Pre-planning a renovation project

The Acte de Vente has been signed and you can’t wait to get to grips with the renovation work. The majority of French properties purchased by British buyers are built of stone and the majority of renovation works are actually aménagements (conversions) of combles or greniers (attics) or caves attenantes (adjoining barns). If you are about to convert a building previously used for agricultural or non-habitable use, you will need a permis de construire. Or if you are aiming to convert the attic into a couple of extra bedrooms, you will probably need to submit a déclaration de travaux. These formalities will be explained in more detail in a future article.

There is nothing to stop you doing the preparatory clearance work prior to these consents being received, as long as you don’t knock any new openings into walls or roofs.

Good preparation is the key to a successful renovation. You need to draw up a specification of the works required and then put them into an order of batting. If you are doing all the work yourself, the order of work is sequential. But if you are intending to do some of the work yourself and leave certain aspects (e.g. roofing and electricity) to local artisans, some of it can be concurrent.

Even the most experienced DIY enthusiast might balk at the thought of a French electrical installation. But as ring mains are not permitted in new work in France, your electrical renovation or extension need not entail total refit. Even if you want to do it yourself, speak to an electrician and get a devis (quote). His work will be at 5.5% VAT if he supplies the materials, whereas your purchases will attract 19.6 % VAT. And he knows the rules, whereas you might not.

Before you “attack” your new acquisition, research the local déchetterie (waste disposal facility). French environmental regulations are much stricter than they were three or four years ago: Waste debris now has to be sorted into recyclable and non-recyclable materials and bennes (skips) containing mixed debris might be refused. Hiring skips is a very expensive pastime, and the purchase of a trailer could be worthwhile. Bonfires in certain communes at certain times of year are outlawed – possibly with heavy fines. So it’s worth considering beforehand what means of disposal are available.

So now you have planned your schedule, but did you check your insurance? Have you bought a pair of protective goggles? Or even a yellow hat! And what about a mask? Whilst your house might not have been required to be asbestos-tested, it was common practice in France in the 30’s to use asbestos in certain plaster and paintwork, and more recently for drainage pipes, so it’s not worth taking risks when working with this material.

You will also need to consider scaffolding or a tower. Safety is paramount. If you did succumb to an accident, and you “contributed” to it through negligence or inadequate safety measures, your insurance claim could be hard work.

With four acro-props, two sturdy planks and two solid oak bars (1 metre long), you can open up doorways and windows without a problem; you will just need another pair of hands from time to time.

Conserving is actually a big part of the process. Most original materials in your house will be “green”, and if not rotten or diminished you should consider keeping them. For instance, rather than demolishing a terre battu ceiling/attic floor, consider its properties. It is a good natural insulator and, with some modification, can form the base of a new floor covering of perhaps béton léger, which is a lightweight cement containing tiny polystyrene balls.

At all costs you really should resist the temptation of removing that “rotten” beam, especially if it is a tie-beam. If it is oak and has not snapped, it is probably not rotten to the core. The heart (core) of oak becomes stronger with age. Carefully sand blast or scrape the external decay; you will probably find it is not more than three centimetres deep and the centre is as hard as iron. If you have a cracked lathe and plaster ceiling, it is often a simpler solution to attend just to the cracked section, and then bond a covering of toile de verre (a woven glass-fibre material sold in 1 metre wide rolls in DIY stores) to the underside of the whole ceiling and then apply an enduit de lissage (acrylic skim), which adheres well to the woven material. Hey presto, a new ceiling.

Conservation, recuperation and moderation are the watchwords: Go on, take that first swing. And bon courage!

This article appeared in French Property News, June 2002

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