Our House in Brittany
Martin and Jayne Sanderson share their experiences
Jayne and I had been planning an exit strategy for a while! To escape the rat race, we planned to buy a boat and sail the world in very slow time. Having read several books on the subject, they all stated that if you really wanted to escape the pressure of daily deadlines then don’t set yourself a time limit for doing it. After thinking about it for a while we thought we could not be without a fixed base to return to, after all, what if one of us became ill or we just had enough of living in a 45ft fibreglass box. So we looked around at where we could buy a house with the criteria of being good value for money; without having to borrow to buy; not too far from the UK for visits to family and friends; but in great location for positioning a boat. We came up with Brittany because, as we all know, it’s not too far from friends and family, but away from the UK rat race. The housing was affordable and it just happened to be in a convenient location for the Atlantic / Bay of Biscay for sailing opportunities.
After a couple of months searching the Internet we made contact with some online agents and made arrangement for several viewings in March 2003. During these viewings we found a house we fell in love with for its potential to be fantastic house. It was about the 4th one we saw and all the viewings that followed did not give us the buzz that we had felt in that shell of a house in Kerpert. It was at this point we had forgotten our main reason for buying this house, a base to sail the world from! All of a sudden our priorities changed – the house was well over the budget we had originally set ourselves and so our plan of sailing the world etc etc, had changed. It was now to be big house and a small boat and be happy with sailing the West coast of France and, when we were feeling brave, battle our way down to the med.
The house when we first saw it was already in the process of being re-developed by the owner, we will call him Mr M CARIE SECHE for reasons that will become clear later. Mr Carie SECHE was a well-respected builder in the local community. We found out later that respect was more fear!
The Front View of Our House – The Old Bicycle Shop
As you can see it looked like it was two houses because it had two front doors. In fact, that is what he was trying to do. It used to be a Bicycle Shop one door was the entrance to the shop and the other was a door into the residential part of the house. It had 5 bedrooms and two small bathrooms but the thing we liked the most was the thought that there should be no surprises. The inside was gutted, all the structural elements were exposed and the property already had a new roof, windows and septic tank. It was on the market for 72000 Euro including all taxes and fees.
We put an offer in which was immediately rejected only the asking price would do. So we agreed……
In the months leading up to the final purchase we asked for a timber survey to be done as there was evidence that the house had had some repairs and treatments done by Mr Mr Carie SECHE. We just wanted peace of mind that it wasn’t just a bodge job. The timber survey came back saying that there was evidence of dry rot that still required treating down in the cellar but the woodworm had in fact been eradicated. So we made it a condition of sale that the dry rot be treated at the vendor’s expense and a guarantee applied.
The day of completion came, 4th July 2003 and we met the estate agent at the Notaires office in Guingamp. Not knowing quite what to expect we went into the Chambers of the Notaire – it was like stepping into an office that wouldn’t look out of place in Dickenzian times, files lined the walls dating back to the early 1800’s. There we met the Carie SECHE’s for the first time and all was proceeding well until we go to the bit where the subject of the dry rot was being discussed and the guarantee would be handed over! The Notaire informed us that Mr Carie SECHE was a very well respected member of the local community and that asking for a written guarantee from such a well respected builder was considered an insult and that if M Carie SECHE said it was fixed then it was fixed. And if ever there was a problem just to call him and he would come and sort it out. Against our better judgement and not wanting to offend anyone we signed smiles all round…. the house was now ours!
After the formalities we were invited around to the house of Mr and Mme Carie SECHE for a celebratory drink and a further invite out for dinner that evening! But that’s another long story, for another time!
We had grand plans for the house, forget the boat ideas for now! There was a hole in the ceiling above the kitchen which was an opening that had been put there to accommodate an additional staircase up to what was one of the bedrooms. This would effectively divide the house into two. The hole was to be filled in
and that bedroom was going to make a big master bathroom. Downstairs we wanted to turn what was the old shop at the front of the house into a kitchen dining room. The living room had a door out to the side of the house and a solid wall where it joined the barn. We wanted the door turning into window and a door through to barn.……………… bored yet?…… Needless to say lots of work. So of course Mr Carie SECHE being a builder we enlisted his expertise to do the structural changes.
We had made the acquaintance of our neighbour who also happened to a be a builder and the deputy Marie for Kerpert! A very useful man to know. He offered to carry out the internal work for us. As it turns out Gilbert and Frédérique have become good friends and we have enjoyed several evening with them, including a Nouveau Année Réveillon, but that is also another story! We also enlisted the services of an excellent plumber / electrician from Bourbriac. The team was complete. The problem was the date! It was still July and all three builders were taking the customary August holiday and so were not prepared to even provide a “Devis” before the summer break and of course seeing as they were on holiday for August we would not see one before October! Well October came and sure enough the Devis churned out of the fax machine, by now the yacht was looking more like a rowing boat!
With Christmas fast approaching the work did not actually start until January. At the commencement they all agreed that it would be six weeks to complete the works! We were impressed and started to make plans for a return at Easter to go and stay in our new house!
As Easter approached we were not getting a warm feeling. As I am sure anyone that has tried renovating from afar will tell you, the flow of information is not all as it could be, faxes went unanswered phone calls not returned, apart from Gilbert and Frédérique the neighbours. They sent us a fax asking if we were intending staying in the house during our visit at Easter? It turned out that the house would be habitable, well sort of, just the one room only (the one where no work was planned), apart from some minor details like electricity, heating, and sanitation!
Fortunately our neighbours the other side rent their property out as a gite and as much as we wanted to stay in our new house the gîte next door was more appealing.
Stop The Rot
During our Easter visit we set about doing what we could. I got on with demolishing a set of Granite Steps and it was during one of my many ‘stop to think’ breaks I happened to walk down the to the cellar with a torch and thought I would check on the timbers that had been treated. To my horror the dry rot was back!!!! I was on the phone quicker than you could say knife to Mr Carie SECHE, he had incidentally had finished his part of the structural work and had been paid….. His son came round for a look and tried telling me that it was not dry rot just a mushroom! I insisted that I knew dry rot when I saw it and mentioned the verbal guarantee that his father had given us in the Notaires office! He said he would consult with his father and get back to us. That was the last we ever heard from him despite phone calls faxes and letters they never got back to us…. If you take anything from this story don’t accept someone’s word as a guarantee! We commissioned another review of the ground floor timbers and this time they suggested we should have a suspended concrete floor to replace the wooden one that would always have a propensity to rot. We agreed with them as this was going to be a retirement home we did not want a large bill when we were meant to be taking it easy!
At first it sounded simple, just take up the old floor and lay a new one….. It would have been if we hadn’t already started the renovation and had
all the new stud walls in place. So we spoke to our neighbour (Gilbert) and he didn’t seem too worried about having to undo all he had just done. In fact, in the end, he didn’t even charge us a much as he should have for undoing and redoing it all again. He informed us there would be a problem finding a maçon (mason) to do the work! It appears that all the local builders knew Mr Carie SECHE and our house was even known as the Maison Carie SECHE! This was because he did actually live there with his wife and family for a number of years. The only way we would be able to find a maçon would be to find one that was not scared of Mr Carie SECHE!!
Well if it wasn’t hard enough to find a builder in France under normal circumstances, this seemed like having to get six numbers in the national lottery …. And all in the few days before we were due leave Brittany for the Isle of Man. Well this may sound like something out of a thriller but we had an anonymous tip that there was such a man in the next village. Jackpot…. We wasted no time and contacted him and he was round that day to have a look. He did explain why he had fallen out with Mr Carie SECHE … what a nice man he was turning out to be. We agreed that we would return in July to inspect the new floor. But his time without the optimism that we would be staying there, so we booked the Gîte next door again…..
July came around slowly and we arrived in Brittany expecting nothing, but to our joy the floor had been done and it looked great. The downstairs was now just a big open space and we could play about with the layout to make it work better for what we wanted. Although we didn’t change the layout radically we did move one wall to balance out the room space a little better.
The problem now was that August was not far away and it was holiday time once more. We went home after a meeting with all the builders who promised after the August Holiday our house would be their number one priority. With this in mind we set a deadline of October for our next visit. We were feeling brave and didn’t bother to book the Gîte next door. We told them that we would be just turning up at the end of the first week of October and we expected to stay in our house for the first time! We purposely did not write, fax or call. I think it was the silence that got the better of them because we were inundated with information, without requesting it. At last it looked like we would get to stay in out house for the first time!
Living in the Isle of Man we always have an extra flight or ferry crossing to get over to France. This time the journey was going to be even more exciting. We had been out a purchased a Transit Van for the princely sum £250. We loaded it up with a flat pack kitchen from B&Q. I think in hindsight we were either very brave or stupid! In October we set off on our epic adventure; a two and a half hour ferry crossing to Liverpool followed by a six hour drive to Portsmouth and another ferry journey most people reading this will love or hate!
It Was Now Our Turn
We arrived at the house feeling very nervous not knowing what to expect! To our surprise everything requested to be done had been completed, with the exception of the shower in the en-suite (nothing to do with the French ‘En Suite’) bathroom. This was promised to be ready in a few days. Oh well, we had to put up with this small inconvenience. Since facilities were limited to say the least we started off with a makeshift kitchen, a camping Gaz stove in a bedroom and a 12v cool box.
Despite this it was great to be staying in our house at long last. After being with a shower for the first 5 days Eric finally came up trumps and our new en-suite double shower was fitted. The two weeks just flew by and after about ten days of hard work things got even better when we were finally able to dispense with the makeshift kitchen…..
“Jayne hard at work prepping the walls!
Note the bottle of liquid refreshment!”
Everything was going great guns….. until the men arrived to sand the upstairs floors. Jayne being the thoughtful person that she is offered Thierry and his companion a cup of coffee. While they were sanding Jayne put the kettle on and all the electric went off. Eric the Plumber / Electrician just happened to be on site wrapping up the central heating. He went in search of the problem and found the EDF breaker had gone. He reset it and when Jayne put the kettle back on it all went off again. Eric then concluded it was bad news! Nous n’avons pas assez de puissance! Our EDF supply to the house was only 15 Amps not enough to sand a floor and boil a kettle, let alone use the all electric range cooker! Merde!!
We had to phone EDF to come out and increase our supply. It took less time for them to do this than the lecture we got from the Engineer about how it happens all the time and how ‘you English come here with your big electrical appliances using up all the French Electricity!’ (I thought perhaps it was free.). Lesson number 1047 learned! Check how much supply you have to your house before buying big cookers!
Anyway the house was really coming together. Jayne had decorated all the bedrooms upstairs as well as the shell of the kitchen, while I laid the flooring and installed the kitchen. As you can see from the photos below it turned out ok.
We are still not finished, we’ve got the lounge to complete and the upstairs and downstairs hallways to decorate, the concrete the floor in the cellar, renovate the barn attached to the back of the house and rob the bank to pay for it all! Ok well… Anyway if you’re ever passing our way and recognise the house from the photos and we are in residence, pop in for a glass of Vin Rouge. We would be happy for an excuse to stop from the work for a while.
If you have any questions that you think we may be able to help, we don’t know it all but we have learnt a lot over the last couple of years and I know we still have a lot to learn. Drop us a line at [email protected]
©Martin and Jayne Sanderson 2005
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