My Expat Experience of… Renovating a French Property


My Expat Experience of… Renovating a French Property

I meet all sorts of expats in France in my line of work – I’m a journalist, editor and blogger which I suppose all adds up to making me quite a nosey person!

I love to find out about the people I meet, to know what brings them to France from all the corners of the world, what drives them to give up sometimes lucrative careers, leave their family and friends behind and set off on a journey amongst strangers.

There are distinct groups of expats:

Retirees – some are comfortably off, some less so but they come to France to enjoy their twilight years with good food, good weather and good neighbours

Escapees – a group that are running away from life back home, craving change and adventure or a new start – sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. Life isn’t necessarily easier in France, work is hard to find, rising costs add pressure for those on a budget – sometimes the dream is just that – a dream that never achieves reality.

My favourite group are those who fall in love with a house, a village, a plot of land or an idea of what life can be in France if they work hard and have a little luck.

I have met many people who fall into that group. They buy old houses that the French don’t want – houses with no electricity, no running water, no mod cons and yet they have a vision. They see past the jungle of weeds and bramble surrounding the house. They are not daunted by having to decorate by candle light until EDF (Electricité de France) can be persuaded to connect them to a power supply.

The thought of digging half way to Australia to fit in a septic tank and drainage area is a challenge – but one that can be met.

Dirt floors, holes in the roof, no windows  – no problem, there is nothing that cannot be sorted with determination, blood, sweat and tears – and of course money.

Tempted by the low price of a house that needs to be loved they fling caution to the wind, sell their comfortable homes with carpets, cupboards and kitchens. They pack their belongings into vans, trailers, boxes and bags. Wave goodbye to work mates, neighbours, friends and family and embark on their French adventure.

Without fail every expat I’ve ever met in this group is astonished to find that the cheap house they bought will cost much more to renovate than they ever thought possible, the words “money pit” are frequently uttered.

The work is never finished when you buy a big old house needing renovation and particularly with a lot of land. It will take at least twice as long as you estimated and cost much more than you have. You will at some point – perhaps many times – wonder why you gave up that wonderful job that now seems like a haven of respite; ask yourself what on earth possessed you to be so stupid;  plan to divorce your partner as you now consider that it is their fault you are here.

But, with luck and if you don’t give up and stay focussed – you will make it in your new chosen life. Don’t work too hard at getting those jobs done every day – take time to remember why you fell in love with France in the first place. Stop and smell the roses sometimes.

Try to budget before you start so that you know where you can cut costs if necessary and don’t get caught out by something unexpected that may bring your project to a grinding halt.

Plan the workload for rainy days and sunny days so that you are not subject to the vagaries of the weather and can continue with the programme.

Accept help if it is offered, accept advice if it’s good, accept that not everything will be how you dreamed, wanted or expected it.

The most successful and happy expats I meet in France are bloody-minded, determined, flexible pragmatic, sanguine and quite possibly a bit mad.

I am one of them.

Janine Marsh
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Janine Marsh is the Editor of The Good Life France – everything you want to know about France and more.