Michel Le Bail is a Breton farmer who initially trained as a carpenter before taking over the family farm. He personally renovated a longère on his farm into two, back to back, 3 bedroom properties complete with utility rooms, freezers, and all mod cons years before the TV programmes in the UK extolled the virtues of buying a property in France and making a living from letting it out as that peculiarly French holiday home – called a gîte.

Years ago, he invited me to see his properties, and even now I remember my surprise at their high standard, the things Michel took for granted that a family would need – like a small chest freezer in the utility room – that in my experience the English gîte owners were not supplying. The clever way he had restored them – two totally separate houses joined back to back, so that each family feels totally private but if a huge party wants to be accommodated altogether, the gîtes are perfect for that also.

The grounds are beautifully landscaped, with colourful shrubs and tumbling geraniums peeping out of attractive containers and have a full set of outside equipment – not just the basic obligatory plastic table and chairs, but also sun loungers and children’s games.

I went back to see him recently, for FrenchEntrée, and found out some interesting background from a French gîte owner’s perspective.

Renovation and administration

Michel first thought of making the lovely stone outbuilding into gîtes in 1998. Once he started, they only took him six months to renovate, but first he had lots of administration to wade through – this is France, after all.

If you were thinking of making buildings on the farm into gites, you could apply for a grant towards the total cost – 25% – and this ties you into a contract between the local government official (the consiel general de la region) and ‘Gîtes de France’, the authority who assesses the gîtes, awards the appropriate number of stars, and then advertises them for the owner. To be eligible you need to be a resident of France.

Michel (left) did all the work himself except for the truly ‘artisanal’ trades of electrician, plumber, plasterer and tiling – it was a condition of his grant that he employed the correct professionals to do their part of the work. Michel’s skills as a carpenter were a huge bonus.

By July 2000 he had not only completed the administrative requirements and the renovation, but had also been inspected – and awarded three stars, a very high standard. To get the maximum four he would need a a cleaning lady and a swimming pool. Since he could not see himself as the cleaner (he is a single parent with two teenage boys) he did in fact get the top award he could for his gîtes.

He has no choice where to advertise his gîtes – part of the package that went with the grant, was a ten-year contract with ‘Gîtes de France’ who have exclusive rights to his gites for June, July and August each year – although they do not guarantee to feel them, or pay for those weeks they do not fill.

A change in demand

His first holiday guests arrived in July 2000. At first, eight weeks a year was the norm, and as that increased with recommendations he became used to at least a ten-week season, for both gîtes. Since 2005 however, the demand has declined and now he is lucky to rent out the gîtes for July and August.

He can more or less rely on being full simply for the French school holidays which means from 2nd week July to 3rd week August but having to advertise with ‘Gîtes de France’ and guarantee them occupancy if they want it, means that he sits with the first week in July and the fourth week of August empty. If he were able to advertise elsewhere, on the internet or with UK agencies, the former might still be a problem, but with English marketing, certainly that fourth week in August would be expected to be filled.

I asked him how he feels about the fall in demand for his gîtes. In his opinion the change is the result of many different reasons – certainly now there are so many British gîtes that supply can outstrip demand, plus there is the French equivalent of question about why in the UK people do not holiday as much in Devon and Cornwall – because it is often cheaper overseas. Similarly French people can book a week in Tunisia or Greece for about 400 euros with guaranteed sunshine.

Michel does not charge a huge amount – currently, in 2007, 350 euros per week of which ‘Gîte de France’ take 16%. Michel is registered for the gîte business as a ‘real simplifier’ and pays around 350 euros per year cotisations from the gîte income. (‘Real simplier’ is a business tax option. The bottom of the rung is a Micro enterprise, which has a simple accounting system, in return for a very black and white view of your profits – 55% of your turnover is assumed to be costs, and 45% is assumed to be profits.)

‘It takes longer to clean up after the British!’

His guests are 90% French, with some Belgium, Spanish, and British. He and his partner rocked with laughter when talking about the different nationalities who rent the gîtes because they did not quite know how to tell me … that with French guests they probably take ten minutes to restore the gîtes back to how they need to be for the next arrivals. With the English guests, this is usually more like three hours and they told me that English visitors just do not have the same standards as the French. Well, I did ask them for their honest opinion.. and that is definitely what I got!

He is philosophical about the change in demand, but has already reacted and let out one gîte on a long term let, paying back a proportion of the grant as a result. He sat talking to me about the sheer economics of his long term let. He gets 500 euros a month, plus the tenant pays all the electricity, water and gas charges. So his income there is 6,000 per year. This is against his now guaranteed (almost) seven week letting period for the gite of 2,450 euros less cotisations and less any refurbishment he has to make to the gîte. Quite a difference. So, will his other gîte go the same way?

He is waiting to see how it feels having someone living all year round near to his home and admits that the French law heavily protects the long term tenant so there is that to consider. Plus, he is a lovely, gregarious man with a wonderful sense of humour – and he quite enjoys the changing company of the holidaymakers who arrive. (To my surprise, the average French family stays 3 weeks.)

He does provide a lovely environment, and cheerfully admitted that many of his guests cry when they leave. Many of the families he has there live at home in small apartments with people all around them, and he says the lovely fresh air and countryside around his Breton farm is literally like a tonic. So, for the moment, he is content to retain one gîte but I can’t help thinking this is more almost a way of life in the summer for him, rather than for what he earns as a result!

By Sally Stone of Les Bons Voisins

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