It’s probably a fair assumption that most expats of any nationality who purchase a property in France will want to upgrade it during the early part of their ownership. This can range from a general lick of paint to a full rewiring and restructuring job, depending on finances and ambition. Whether you choose to employ local contractors to help or prefer to carry out most of the work yourself, you will need to adapt to the French style of DIY (Bricolage). The aim of this article is to provide some key signposts for successful DIY projects à la Française, without the stress.
Where to Buy DIY Materials and Hardware in France
Where you go to buy your DIY materials in France will largely depend on your immediate needs. For everyday items, such as tools, wood, kitchen tiles, fixings, electricals, paints etc., you will find that any large town will have several DIY dépôts that are broadly similar to B&Q, for example, in the UK. These might include national chains such as Brico-Cash, Brico Marché and Tridome, among many others. For larger-scale projects, such as complete bathroom suites, kitchen units etc, there are much bigger regional super-stores, including Castorama and Leroy Merlin, whose prices can be much more competitive for these products.
Prices of DIY Materials in France
A point to note, however, is that while these may be chain stores, their pricing often fluctuates significantly according to the local manager’s policy, and there is little standardisation. For bulk buys of items such as roof tiles, wall blocks, flooring etc., it is always wise to spend some time online to see which local business is offering the best deal that week. The inevitable Manager’s Promotion (Promo) will always be displayed prominently in any Brico store, and if it’s something you need, then buy it on the spot because it certainly won’t be there next time you go!
Shopping at French Brico Stores: Drive-Through Depots
One of the most notable differences between French Brico stores and those that expats may be familiar with in the UK or elsewhere is the concept of the drive-through materials dépôt. Most Brico stores of any size will have an attached dépôt, accessible by vehicle through a gated entrance to a one-way internal system. This is effectively a yellow brick road through a vast selection of heavier materials, ranging from roofing and drainage materials to plasterboard, ladders, wheelbarrows, paving, fencing – you name it, and it will be there. Just be sure to have a receipt for any items of hardware in your boot or trailer that you may already have bought, or you’ll be invited to pay for them again at the check-out gate – no excuses.
This is a superbly efficient system for buying DIY materials in bulk, although it can be hard to resist a new trailer at half price or a Gallic weathercock that happens to be on Promo, so beware.
French DIY Materials, Hardware, and Paints: Quality Comparison
While many French building materials are exceptionally good, there are others that still have some catching up to do. On the positive side, for example, are the zinc-plated roof drainage gutters and pipes, which look superb and are far superior to the cheap plastic fittings that now predominate in the UK. Internally, the hardwood doors and windows are also excellent and built to standard, interchangeable sizes. Best of all is that both the doors and windows lift off their hinges easily for painting, which is a boon. Bear in mind, however, that French windows invariably open inwards (unlike the UK), so no ornaments will survive on your windowsills.
At the other end of the quality scale, it has to be said, are French paints, which generally leave a lot to be desired. Without being too scathing, a large can of white matt emulsion is likely to cost around 70 euros and will often be like painting with chalky water. Similarly, cans of paint for wood and metal surfaces are frighteningly expensive and will often be little over half full when first opened, adding insult to injury. To be fair, there are some local manufacturers who now produce paints and finishes of an acceptable quality, but they will still be ‘top dollar’ on price for relatively small volumes. It may be a cliché, but the wisdom of filling your car with paint of known brands and quality in the UK still makes all sorts of sense if you have a DIY project in France of any size.
DIY Stores and Builder’s Merchants in France: Customer Service and Returns
The French approach to customer service, both at the point of sale and for returns, has improved drastically in recent years but there are still marked variations between Brico businesses. Naming no names, for obvious reasons, there are those that prefer to stack their goods high and sell them off cheaply. Don’t bother trying to return anything here unless you enjoy being interrogated by an indignant manager who clearly thinks you’re trying to pull a fast one. However, the majority of French Brico stores have now bought into the modern service ethos and will happily exchange goods for you, although a credit slip is more usual than a cash refund.
The best Brico outlets are those that have well-trained staff who are happy to deal with you and make due allowance, if necessary, for your wobbly French language skills. It often helps to have a photo of the item you need and to have looked up the correct French term before you go. How else would I have known, for example, that the classic style locking bar arrangement on a French window shutter is an ‘espagnolette volet‘? Good luck with your DIY project in France – with a bit of persistence and resourcefulness on your part, the results will be magnifique!
By Bill King
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