Stages in a building renovation

It is commonly suggested that you should live in a house for six months without making any changes before starting work. That enables you to get a feel for the building, think about how the space could best be organised, and clarify your requirements, and avoids making expensive mistakes.

The principal is the same even if the building is not currently habitable. It is difficult for most people to look at a large empty space and visualise how this space would best be used.

'Spatial perception' I think it is called, and it is an attribute more common among good architects, landscape designers and artists than among bankers and accountants. Certainly it was hard for us, and we spent at least a year considering all the options, looking at magazines and so on before we spoke to an architect.

You really do need to try and consider every possible option and use of space before the project starts.

Further, while sticking to tradition is very important, there is an equally important aspect to consider. We don't all want to live in houses with the layout and amenities of an 18th century cottage. Current needs are very different. We want bathrooms, telephones and hi-fis, and we also want light, hot water, insulation and heating. Incorporating these needs is essential, and it is important to recognise that living in a museum may look very nice but will not usually be very comfortable.

It is the clash between authenticity and comfort that causes many of the challenges in a restoration, especially of a building that was not even designed for people to live in. Good architects can integrate new materials - steel, large areas of glass, and so on - in a building without compromising its impact on the environment. The rest of us struggle. It is much easier to find examples of poorly designed improvements than well-designed examples. We want to live in a barn conversion, but we don't actually want to live in a barn.

Get planning permission!

I am not an expert on planning rules and you will need to seek advice for cirumstances particular to your particular property. Nonetheless there are some guidelines you should be aware of - the basic rule is to always ask at the local mairie before making any change:

At the time of buying a property you can specify that the purchase is conditional on receiving the appropriate CDU or planning permissions. This needs to be written into the contract (ie not a verbal agreement outside the contract). Your notaire will then be able to help submit the appropriate applications, and the mairie will respond within two months. Secifically, ask for a 'clause suspensive' to be inserted to this effect.

  • A CDU (Certificat d'urbanisme) shows whether the building or land has, in principle, the right to be developed as habitation(s), and what development is acceptable. The local mairie holds a plan of the commune, which shows which areas are likely to be permitted development.
  • A CDU lasts for one year, but can be extended for a further year. Application to extend the life of a CDU must be made at least two months before the original date of expiry.
  • Planning permission - permis de construire - is not the same as a CDU. With a CDU you can apply for planning permission. This approves the actual buildings or development that can take place. The planning application will need to be for a building or development that falls within the scope of the original CDU.
  • Projects including significant additions, extensions, renovations or change of use will usually need full planning permission. Any project with a floor area greater than 170 square metres requires official plans to be drawn up or approved by a architect qualified to practice in France.
  • Almost all changes that affect the appearance of a building, its use or its internal layout require a declaration to your local mairie. They will supply you with the appropriate forms. These include new windows, new roof windows, loft conversions, terraces and many other things
  • Extensions to a property that add less than 20 square metres of floor area do not usually require planning permission but again they do need a declaration to your maire.
  • External changes are very restricted if your property is within a certain distance of a national monument or castle in France. That dream house in the shadow of a grand castle may be very impressive but replacing the roof tiles may be both difficult and expensive.

One curious situation can arise with the 20 square metre rule - generally buildings of less than this size can be erected with only a declaration to the mairie rather than full planning permission. I have seen a property which consisted of a series of small buildings very close to each other - one the lounge, one the bedroom and so on. And I have received publicity from a 'Holiday Chalet' company offering lodges that measured 19.99 square metres and suggesting they were only sold in packs of five. Would you actually get away with five 20 square metre chalets in your garden? I don't know.

Be clear about your plans

Before you start discussing your plans with artisan builders you need to be absolutely clear yourself about your plans. Study them until you are familiar with every detail. Whenever possible you should follow the plans in every detail.

This is not because I think the local planning authorities will demand that your property be demolished because you have put a sink in the wrong place, rather it is because as soon as you allow one change that can escalate into misunderstandings between the different workers involved, disputes, and an uncontrollable increase in your costs.

Overly dramatic? Assume that the plumber has a good idea about using a wider shower tray than you had planned, and at the same price. Why not, you may think, and agree with him. As an absolute minimum you now need to tell the maçon (the drainage pipes may need relocating before the concrete floor is laid), the plasterer who is constructing internal walls since these will contain the water pipes, the electrician (there are detailed rules about lights and electrical fittings not being permitted within a certain distance of a shower) and the tiler. All to be informed in writing, with copies of the revised plans. There may be other workers to inform as well, this is just an example.

If the mason says no, it is not possible, you now have to retract your change in the same way. With problems of language thrown in to the confusion as well, it can very quickly become a project that is impossibly complicated.

Now you are ready with you pile of plans and a clear mental picture of how the finished building will look. Let the party commence. It is now time to get the estimates (devis as they are known in French). It is usual to get the estimates during the (typically 2-3) months that you are waiting for the planning permission to be approved - this will save a lot of time afterwards.

Decide the order of works

Below I have listed the approximate order in which tasks will occur during your renovation project.I have not attempted to estimate the time required for each part of the project because it will vary too much between projects. Few projects should take more than six months to a year in total.

You may have additional tasks such as an internal heat circulation system, geothermal heating, air conditioning, built in sound system etc that you will need to factor in to the project plan as necessary.

Even before the project starts you will have a moving-in date in mind. You should therefore also have a reasonable understanding of how that target date will be achieved, and which jobs should be finished by which date. Some degree of delay might be unavoidable, due to weather conditions, injury, etc. You need to be in a position to follow these delays, so a plan based initially on the list of tasks below should provide you with a starting point.

Approximate Chronological Order

Site Clearance

Masonry: structural walls, new openings for doors and windows, concrete floor, outflow pipes from sinks and toilets etc, some buried conduits for the later addition of electricity and water systems, installation of septic tank system

Roof: Should be completed as soon as possible after the walls, so the property has a dry interior. Chimney exits to be considered. Timber treatment.

Plumbing and Electrics: making channels in the walls for buried pipes and wires, putting most conduits in place for carrying the electrics and water

Heating: Some heating systems will require work, especially those with underfloor heating systems or concealed pipework

Doors and Windows and Shutters: As with the roof, useful for keeping the interior dry

Internal walls: Start construction, usually before the screed/chape is laid on the internal floors. Plasterboard one side only.

Electrics and plumbing: placed in the internal walls

Internal walls and Ceilings: Can now be completed - plastered, pointed and so on

Flooring: screed for tiling can be laid

Heating and Plumbing and Electrics: Can all largely be finalised. Certain elements e.g. radiators or sinks may need to wait until floor tiling is completed.

Kitchen and Bathrooms and Internal doors

Tiling: one of the last jobs, in part because you want to avoid the risk that the floor is damaged by building works

Heating and Plumbing and Electrics and Kitchen and Bathroom: any final work required after tiling

Painting and decorating

Make a List of Recommended Artisans

Before you reach for the local 'pagesjaunes' (yellow pages) you need to ask around the neighbourhood. Anyone you know that has lived in the area for a while will have recommendations to offer you, and dire warnings as well. Listen to these recommendations - personal recommendations are the best way to find good workers.

It is often difficult to separate those with a vested interest in their recommendation from those making a genuine personal recommendation based on work they have themselves had done.

Many new arrivals in France ask the person that they know best for their recommendations - the estate agent that they bought the property through. This is unlikely to be the best way to find good workers, and those recommended will sometimes be relatives or personal friends of the estate agent. If you do ask your estate agent for recommendations, insist on speaking to existing and former clients of the workers, in private, about their work. Even then, they may well be new arrivals like yourself, and not in a position to actually compare quality of work and the price paid.

The old lady who lives in the house down the road, or the ex-pat who has lived in the area for a few years, are often your best chance of getting a valuable recommendation.

If somebody recommends a whole list of English builders to you, their recommendations should be ignored. In a French town it is just about possible (although unlikely) that the best electrician, plumber, or mason, is English. Anyone who suggests that ALL the best workers in town are English - no chance. They must have chosen their workers based on language rather than abilities. That is not the best way to get good work done at a good price.

Next suggestion - never deal with any builder, be they from France, the UK, eastern Europe or anywhere else, that is not properly registered in France. All registered workers will be able to show you a SIRET number (see separate section for how to verify a SIRET number). If you do not check this, you are exposing yourself to problems with the quality of work, problems with guarantees and insurance, problems with tax when you sell up. I am not saying this because I have a great moral problem with people 'working on the black'. The French bureaucratic system for starting a business and employing people is such a disaster that many people are more or less forced to work in the black economy - it is simply a question of quality of work, price paid and tax issues.

One easier possibility is to choose 'teams' that always work together, or a building contractor who will subcontract the individual parts of the project themself. All builders will have their preferred electricians and so on. If the different teams all know each other, you will probably find that they let each other know about delays and problems with your project over lunch or a drink in the bar. When you have chosen your mason, ask him who he usually works with, or ask other people nearby who have had work done for details of the teams who worked for them.

Check the SIRET numbers

All enterprises registered in France will obtain a SIRET number at the time of registration. This is a number that you can check to be sure that an enterprise is correctly registered and authorised to work on your property.

An enterprise must be not just registered, but registered to do the kind of work that you are asking them to do. The SIRET number must appear on the devis as well as the final invoices - so you can check before accepting a devis whether the company is authorised.

Officially it should also appear on any publicity from the enterprise, but I think this happens rather less often.

To check the validity of a SIRET number, enter the first nine digits of the SIRET number (called the SIREN number) at the following website, and the name of the company and the type of work they carry out will be shown:

Check a SIRET number

Note that if you employ a UK registered company to do the work in France, you will not benefit from the obligatory 10 year insurance that French artisans carry, you will not be eligible for a reduced VAT rate of 5.5% (reduced from 19.6%), and you will not be eligible to deduct the cost of works from an eventual capital gains calculation in France.

Hence there is very good reason to check the SIRET numbers both exist, and are valid, and to only employ artisans who can provide them.

There is a short period when an enterprise first registers when 'SIRET in course' note can appear instead of a valid SIRET number. This should usually only apply for a couple of weeks, and you should make it a condition of proceeding with the work that a valid SIRET number can be produced at that time.

Actually Getting Quotes

Now you have a list of builders and tradesmen you need to get them around to inspect the property, and then to give you quotes (known as 'devis').

This is often in itself a tricky process. You will often need to ring someone two or three times before they will come to your property to look around. Try flattery - "Madame Vernier suggested I call you because she was so pleased with the work you did for her" or persistence.

After they have been to inspect your property, and taken a copy of your plans away, it will usually be at least two or three weeks before an estimate arrives. And this will be only after you have phoned once or twice to ask how long it will be and mentioned again how keen you are for them to do the work. It takes a long time to prepare a complicated devis and it isn't always top of the priority list for someone who already has a six month backlog of work.

The good news is that this is where your problems with French workers will usually finish. After you have accepted a quote, the very large majority of workers will do a good quality job (they have served a long apprenticeship), more or less at the time promised, and will work late in the evening if it is necessary, to get the job finished on time.

It is necessary that you go through the quote very carefully. You need to understand all the items and terms listed, if you are to be sure that the work quoted for is the same as the work you want doing. This is not always straightforward - the quote from your mason will not say 'build house - 150,000 euros. It will be a multiple-page document specifying everything from doorway sizes to the colour of the stonework. Or the plumber might charge a reasonable price for the plumbing work, but be proposing very expensive taps and fittings. This is the best stage to resolve any misunderstandings, not when the roofer is halfway through laying the wrong colour tiles eight months later.

Similarly, if you think something has been omitted from the quote you will need to discuss it at this stage. Do not assume that it forms part of one of the other 'hard to understand because they are technical' items on the quote. If you ask why pouring a concrete floor has been left off the quote, and it is already on there, the tradesmen is not going to think 'Ah good, I can add it on again and make a fortune' he will explain to you where on the devis it appears. And if it isn't on there, it probably isn't going to happen, and if it does you will still be charged for it.Now you have received the quotes - and you should allow at least six to eight weeks for this process - and checked that you will be able to afford to pay all the bills when they arrive, and that you have a clear understanding of the work specified, you are now able to accept the quote.

Accepting Quotes and devis

Quotes need to be accepted in writing. If your written French is poor, a couple of sentences saying 'We accept your devis of [date], number[ref]. Please confirm how soon you can start' should be managed.

It is sometimes suggested that you try adding a clause that the quote be conditional on a certain start or completion date. I doubt if this will help you too much. Even if the dates (and the whole devis) are not rejected by the builder, there will be little you can do about it if the work does start late. Are you seriously going to take the plumber to a French court if he is behind schedule? I know some people like to try and insert penalty clauses in case a delay occurs. In my opinion, developing a positive relationship with your workers will get better results, but you may consider it worthwhile.

I recently received a query from someone who had paid a 25% deposit on a new roof, with the work due to start in a month or two. They had now decided not to proceed with the work for personal reasons. In this particular situation the problem was unavoidable, but do try and be sure that you only accept a quote, whether or not you pay a deposit, if you are completely sure that you want to proceed with the work. Otherwise you will create a difficult situation all around, if the workers involved have bought materials, postponed other work and so on to fit your work in.

Don't accept an estimate unless you actually have the money to pay for the bills when they arrive! I know someone who borrowed the money from the bank to renovate a gite. The gite didn't generate enough income to pay the loan, and the bank are now forcing a sale of the property.

File a copy of the letter that you sent accepting the devis.

What should appear on a devis (building estimate)

There are some items that you expect to see on all quotes you receive for your building works.

- The administrative details about the enterprise: name, address, phone number, SIRET number / SARL details

- The date the quote was prepared, and also the period within which the quoted price is valid

- A breakdown in detail of the goods that are to be supplied. This includes the quantity, the price per unit, and the number of units (e.g. 15 square metres of quarry tiles at 22 euros per square metre)

- A detail of the related costs, such as labour charges

- The daily / hourly rate of the labour

- Any other charges that will apply, such as delivery charges

- the total price excluding VAT

- an estimation of the VAT to be paid: this may be shown as two figures if the applicable VAT rate is not yet known (see finances category of this site)I have already said that you need to clearly understand the quote. If two quotes received are for different amounts, you need to understand the reason. Perhaps one roofer has omitted insulation from his quote, or one builder has forgotten about the supporting wall you need...whatever the reason, it is important to understand the quote and be clear in your mind that the quote covers all the work required.

You should not assume that 'the price of taps must be included, he just hasn't separated it out'. If it is not listed, then it quite possibly is not included. Check, in writing, about any material omissions or things that are not completely clear.

If your renovation project is to be rebuilt from a ruin or you are having a new house built,you will need connections to electricity, water, telephone etc. These should be included in a devis.

Up-Front and Initial Payments

On one or two occasions we were asked for a small (10%) payment just as the work began, because the cost of materials involved was high. More frequently we were asked for stage payments as work progressed, but these never exceeded the value of the work already done.

We never paid anything in advance of the work beginning, or at the time of accepting a quote, and we never paid a large percentage of the total upfront. Neither should you. On the other hand, we always paid bills promptly when they arrived. Most artisans are small businesses, and can do without waiting months for you to pay. Word will get around the other tradesmen in the area pretty soon if you are a slow payer, or dispute your bills unnecessarily.

Never pay a greater amount of money than the amount of work that has been completed to that point in time, except if paying for materials already bought and supplied.

Subsequent Changes in the price

Usually, the price quoted in a devis and accepted, is the actual price that you will pay. it is not a variable estimate to be changed at will, just because things worked out slightly differently when the job was under way. In normal circumstances the only thing that can change the final price is any changes that you have discussed and agreed with the people involved. Any change in price should have an additional devis to go with it.

I should admit that we didn't always follow this rule, when we were confident we could trust someone. When we agreed with our plumber that we needed three bathroom radiators instead of two, we were happy that he would add the correct additional cost on the final bill. Most changes are less easy to quantify. If you decide you want the rear wall of the house repointed instead of painted, or a bigger septic tank than you had originally planned for, you should get an additional quote in writing.

Overall, this has never been a problem for us in France, where a devis is more like a 'fixed quote' than an 'estimate'.

Building words in French

When you have received a quote, assuming that you are using a French builder, it will be in French! Sometimes (often...always...) this can cause problems of comprehension, so in this section I have listed some of the more common expressions used, with their English language equivalent. The lists are divided as: 'General', 'Building', 'Electricity', 'Plumbing' and 'Roofing and Carpentry':


When you have received a quote, assuming that you are using a French builder, it will be in French! Sometimes (often...always...) this can cause problems of comprehension, so in this section I have listed some of the more common expressions used, with their English language equivalent.

The lists are divided as: 'General', 'Building', 'Electricity', 'Plumbing' and 'Roofing and Carpentry':


Apparent: visible

Devis: quotation for work

Diverse: various

Enterré: buried

Etanchéité: water tightness

Frais: expenses

Gravats: rubble, rubbish

Mains d’oeuvre: Labour cost

Marche: step

Nettoyage: cleaning

Nivellement: levelling

Percement: pierce, make a hole

Remplissage: filling back in

Travaux annexes: related / necessary works

Building TermsBéton: concrete

Coffrage: temporary wooden boxing that concrete is poured into while it sets

Dalle béton armé: reinforced concrete floor

Dépose: take down

Encadrement: framing, surrounding

Enlèvement: removal

Fondation: foundation

Film polyane: plastic sheeting, used under concrete as dampproof course

Linteau: lintel

Pierre: stone

Sablage: sand-blasting

Sable: sand

Electricity termsAllumage: lighting

Ligne alimentation: electricity supply line

Piquet de terre: earth rod

Prise: socket

Prise spécialisée: special socket for washing machine, oven etc

Tableau de répartition: distribution box / fuse box

Va et vient: two way switch

Plumbing termsAlimentation: supply of (e.g. water)

Baignoire: bath-tub

Chaudiére: Central heating boiler

Chauffage: heating

Cuve: reservoir/storage tank

Douche: shower

Evier: sink (kitchen)

Fourniture: supply of (e.g. bathroom equipment)

Lavabo: sink (bathroom)

Pose: installation

Raccord: joins

Receveur de douche: shower tray

Robinet: tap

Robinetterie mitigeur: mixer tap

Tube cuivre: copper pipe

Vanne: valve

Roofing and carpentry termsBardage: wooden cladding on building

Cadre: frame

Chevron: part of wooden roof structure

Faitage: the apex ridge of the roof

Fenêtre: window

Menuiserie: doors, shutters and windows

Panne: part of wooden roof structure

Planches de rives: wooden planking around the bottom/outside edge of a roof

Porte-fenêtre: door with glass in

Poteaux: support post

Rabotée: planed smooth

Serrure: lock

Quincaillerie: ironwork (handles for windows and doors, fittings for shutters)

Vantaux (abbreviated often to vtx): number of openings for door/window

Volet: shutter

Volige: wooden boarding on top of roof structure

Zinguerie: zinc items - refers to gutters etc

Check the work before paying

One day the project will actually be complete! When the workers are on the point of leaving, you need to check that all the work is completed as planned. Specifically, you need to check that the work has been completed as per the devis, and that you are satisfied with the work.

As the work has been progressing you will have been monitoring progress, and checking that things are happening as you expect. By a stroke of good planning, the entire workforce will disappear each day from midday to 2pm, giving you ample opportunity to check things over without looking as if you don't trust them. It is worth doing this if possible.

On one occasion we had doorways added that were 50cm too low; on another, a wall was built without leaving a hole for the window to be added later. These things do happen, and they are much easier to correct straight away than to alter them later on.

The final check before you agree that the work is satisfactory is more important that these 'interim' checks. You are going to be asked to pay the bill soon if you don't query anything now. I am told that if you notice a particular problem, and you do not have a specialist with you, you have 8 days in which to bring any other outstanding matters to the attention of the workers, but it is better to get it sorted straight away.If the gaps for the windows are 5cm too narrow, or if the shower tray is off-white instead of white-white, or if the kitchen floor tiles are spattered with cement, you need to raise these matters at this stage (if not sooner).

to proceed, walk around the property with a pen and a copy of the devis and actually tick off each item as you go round, indicating that it is satisfactorily completed. If it is not, discuss it with the supervisor.

Another problem that can arise is that work was simply not included on the original devis, and neither you nor the workers gave it any thought. For example, we had a mason and a roofer working on a project. The new roof was added, the walls wer finished, but there remained a big gap between the two, still open to the elements. I had assumed one of them would do it, without really giving the matter any thought. When a situation such as this arises, it is easier to discuss it before the teams have cleared away and left the site.

For reasons of courtesy and common sense, I always pay the bills as soon as they arrive. I realise that a lot of people wait 30 days (or more) but I believe that by paying bills promptly your chances of getting subsequent little problems resolved, and getting the same team back to do other work at a later date, are greatly improved. In addition, once word gets around (as it will) that you are pay promptly, other people will be happy to work for you.

10 year guarantee

Building work carried out by artisans in France (that is, by all registered workers at your property) is covered by a 10 year guarantee. If a significant structural problem emerges during that 10 years the individual or company involved should put it right without cost or complaint. If you have suitable insurance, they will sort the claim out for you. If you don't, you will need to write directly to the company involved to be passed to their insurers.Your letter should explain in detail what the problem is, preferably backed up with an 'official opinion'.

If there are aspects of the work which need altering or finishing, you are entitled to withhold up to 5% of the payment, until the work is completed. The company awaiting the payment can ask that the money be deposited at the notaires office.