Let’s start with renovation.
Plan it realistically and realise that some things will need to be done in what might appear a strange order. There are some tasks that are tempting to get started on because they quickly show results or doing them is something you like – but you have to work first on the things which take longest to ‘mature’ and prioritise those. Also, if you need specialist artisans, remember that if someone’s work is good, they are likely to have a full order book perhaps for some months to come. Beware someone who is immediately available to help you – unless there is a sound explanation, I would be very wary of anyone who is free to start tomorrow…
Landscaping is the most obvious aspect which needs time to mature – for ‘next year’, planting the previous autumn pays dividends. For your budget – you can buy smaller plants, and they will be established by the spring and will not be so susceptible to problems whether of climate or pests. Sowing the lawn is much better in the autumn also and can be left to get on with it – sowing a lawn in the spring might need constant attention and watering (both expensive!) to get it to germinate in time.
Drought resistant shrubs will provide the framework into which you can put typically French cheerful red geraniums in the spring. The “drought resistant” is not just important because the sun will hopefully shine, but matters if you are not around all the time – you need to choose plants which will survive albeit with some neglect. Even with local caretakers who will be an important part of your team, you are unlikely to have the luxury of daily watering to keep plants not just alive, but in a good state.
By the way remember to prioritise carefully – there is no point doing the garden if you’re then going to dig it up to put in the fosse septic or a pool.. Make sure these have been done before you start planting – it’s not just the area which might be dug up, but the heavy equipment needing to go across the garden which might leave a path of destruction.
As well as planning carefully, make sure your budget has some allowance for the contingencies which crop up in all projects. If your property is a recent purchase, you might be carried away by the bargain purchase price – you will have paid far less for the property than you would have in the UK. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that your renovation costs will be proportionally low. In fact, you might find the reverse as the insurances artisans like roofers need to carry for your benefit makes the costs higher than you might first imagine.
If you are not around yourself, you will need to have some sort of project management in place locally to ensure that the priority of the work on your property does not slip down the ladder in the artisan’s diary, so delaying or even preventing your gîte being ready when you had hoped. As well as ensuring the project keeps on your timescale, a local person will also know the best artisans to use, and what you should expect to pay: someone you can trust to report back to you whether the news is good or bad, will make the difference between a renovation that runs smoothly and one which is problematic.
Whatever the date of your next visit, never give that date to anyone – always tell them you will be there a week earlier just in case they are leaving things to the last minute!
Quotes – (des) devis – in France from French artisans are unlikely to vary wildly. You will find, as we do in the LBV network, that most French artisans provide excellent work for reasonable pay and one plumber’s estimate is unlikely to be very different from another. If you do get a quote, which seems too good to be true, it probably is. Also, for their guarantee to be valid, the artisans will want to supply the materials for instance with a bathroom. Be wary of going out to too many artisans in the area, asking for a quote for the same thing as that will quickly get you a bad reputation as a time waster, and may even lead to your eventual chosen artisan suddenly being too busy to undertake the work after all.
Refurbishing your gîte
Be very clear about what you are trying to achieve. Is this gîte intended, one day, to be your permanent home? Or at least, to stay in the family? Or, is it your intention to sell it on once it is up and running? That knowledge may impact on your decision as to what materials are used in some areas, the quality of the fitted kitchen and whether you ensure that you pick the tiles that are ‘on offer’ and not worry about whether they are the exact shade of duck egg blue you love.
Even if you inherit some weird colours in the bathroom do not discount white tile paint – it works wonders!
The key to the renovation and subsequent refurbishment is for the gîte to be appropriate for its use – fit for the purpose in fact. Paint the walls – it is easier to refresh than wallpaper. Where your refurbishment extends to bathrooms choose white as it always looks fresh (provided they are sparkling clean!) and for the contents, have the right amount for the gîtes occupancy plus a couple over.
So a gîte for four would require cutlery and china for six maximum, also if possible keeping them plain and simple. Plain white china always looks good, as do plain glasses that are easily replaced by not quite ‘matching’ ones after the inevitable breakages. Those pretty ones with the blue stems are less easy to match and will look like odds and ends thrown together.
I can only plead for the contents NOT to be the discarded items from your home in England. It is so easy for gîte owners to think ‘ah, yes, we could use that in France’ – we have one client whose holiday home has 70 glasses, 14 saucepans, three sets of cutlery and in some toilets two toilet brushes. True. Now the house does sleep 10 people – but all the contents does is clog up the cupboards and irritate the guests.
So from the kettle to the bathmats, think simple, very clean, and walk a careful line between cheap and nasty (first impressions will not be good) and fantastic quality – which will break your heart if they are left damaged or broken.
PS: sometimes it helps to get a professional to help out. In just four weeks and with a budget of 12,000 euros one LBV couple in Cotes d’Armor, enabled their client to turn an inhospitable shell into a comfortable and extremely well presented three-bedroom gîte ready for its first letting already booked. This involved choosing furniture (a good deal of which, to the clients amazement, was flat pack but appropriate – see the picture to prove this!), physically decorating the entire house and buying all the contents in close co-operation with the owner who has yet to see the end result. The good news here was the fact that the client was open to advice and LBV guided them time and time again in the ‘right’ direction with the benefit of their local knowledge.
When it comes to running costs, you need think truly welcoming – but also appropriate. Better to spend your money on a local caretaker who will personally welcome your guests and spend half an hour with them explaining the local area than to leave a fantastic ‘welcome pack’ that is quite likely full of things not to your guests taste. A good bottle (which in France simply means one costing more than two euros!) put on the table with a personally written welcome note from you plus a vase of flowers will do the trick admirably.
And yes, in our client files in the LBV network we keep those little welcome notes from the owners and put them out with the bottle of wine as part of our routine when preparing for the next guests.
It’s essential that you have someone reliable to look after your house. It’s easiest if you can find one person who will do the changeovers, cleaning and laundry, arrange the key exchange, be an emergency contact for your guests, and take care of routine maintenance. It was understanding how essential a service this was that caused the start of the LBV network in 2002.
Check the forums and classified sections of website and the services ads on web sites and magazines which are devoted to France. You can often find people that way: but make sure they are legally registered to work, ask to see their documents and their insurance. If these are in place, then you can truly relax. The French government take a dim view of absentee owners employing people “on the black” and it’s a little known fact that the person employing someone illegally will face a stiff fine if found out, as well as the person actually working being in trouble.
The obvious expenses are changeovers between guests and advertising your property: the less obvious ones are things like general maintenance. Rooms painted in March, will need repainting by the end of September. Bed linen will need renewing every couple of years. Wine glasses are a consumable – items that regularly need replacing – try putting a note in the housekeeping brochure asking for breakages to be replaced – this often works.
Top tip: don’t worry about providing towels. They get abused, are quickly scruffy and cost quite a lot for decent ones. Most guests are relaxed about bringing towels, provided you supply bed linen which needs to be good quality, and colour coding each room (lemon for the single, peach for the double) which earn you huge brownie points from your caretaker!
Remember that although you only pay for changeovers when the house is rented, you will need to pay for caretaking throughout the year. Especially, a pool not only requires a twice a week attention in the rental season, but TLC the rest of the year as well.
The initial cash outlay can be a shock. At least two sets of bedding for each bed, cutlery, crockery, pots and pans, the aforementioned wine glasses, garden furniture, the list can seem endless. Don’t forget things like books and music and some rainy day toys for children. A television and VCR or DVD player are assumed to be a norm. How about supplying internet access? Might get you some great bookings for those business people who need to keep in touch on holiday.
Some simple Dos and Don’ts…
* Give yourself enough time
* Think of the order in which you need to plans things
* Get someone local with a good reputation to act on your behalf
* Decorate the gîte in an appropriate way
* Work on your marketing but make sure it’s accurate
* Think ‘French,’ simple and classic
* supply home comforts – guests are much more sophisticated nowadays
* Try and rush things
* Fill the gîtes with cast offs from all your friends and relatives
* Make it fussy so that it’s difficult to care for
* Stock the garden in such a way that its labour intensive (Hanging baskets and window boxes are great – but need watering most days!)
* Underestimate the standard your gîte needs to be, to get noticed – and then booked!
•With thanks to Sally Stone
Les Bons Voisins