Real Life: Our Charente renovation project


Real life stories

Real Life: Our Charente renovation project

Charente, with its sun and pretty towns, was where Neil and Sharon Mckenzie found their petit chateau on a budget…

Full of excitement, the car literally packed to the brim, we set off to see our petit château, a term use very loosely. Set in a village close to Pazay-Naudouin in Charente in southwest France, we had bought it nine months previously but due to Covid had been unable to visit.

Charente has a sunny climate, lovely towns such as Cognac and Saintes, the pretty villages of Verteuil-sur-Charente and Nanteuil en Vallee, lakes with beaches, fascinating history, access to several airports, restaurants, supermarkets and DIY stores.

After years of searching, we found the house by accident. We were about to make an offer on another property when we took a wrong turn. Neil was checking the map, I looked to my left and there it was. A little farmhouse, looking neglected but to me utterly charming with views of a field with sunflowers and another with donkeys. It appeared detached with a fairly new roof, a good-sized garden, a few outbuildings and brown flaky shutters crying out to be blue. A viewing, a price agreed, buying with power of attorney and a helpful solicitor, due to Covid and we had our next adventure.


© Neil and Sharon Mckenzie

So for €36,000 including fees, what had we bought? Our new house had three ground-floor rooms, a lounge, a kitchen (with no kitchen but with a potential fireplace), a bedroom and pink dilapidated bathroom. The potential second bedroom and bathroom would be located on the first floor, but at the moment they were accessed via a rickety set of stairs in an attached barn that badly needed reroofing.

There were two open hangars that we visualised as a covered area for eating, hot tub and car; and also rabbit hutches, which would become storage for logs or other items. Weeds had taken possession of the drive, and the electrics and plumbing needed revamping. Friends we’d got to know over many years holidaying in their lovely gite, were in the process of selling up and offered us their gite to stay in for free until their sale had completed. We loved their style.

The time frame to get our holiday home habitable was just five weeks!

Phase 1. Create a bathroom, bedroom and makeshift kitchen. Improve the exterior of the house particularly the shutters and drive.

Phase 2. Add an internal staircase, with a bedroom and bathroom upstairs. Get the barn reroofed, stop the hangar leaking. Sort out the garden.

Phase 3. Add a fosse septique.

We are not builders. I am a retired practice nurse and Neil is a retired car dealership general manager. Neil is a doer with boundless energy We have common sense, ideas and (after 35 years of marriage) work well together. I became the gopher, painter, paper striper and researcher. Neil planned, demolished, plumbed, fitted, tiled, pondered and replanned.

We employed a French electrician, a roofer for the barn and staircase and a French company to make some wooden shutters. They painted a set blue for me when the weather was cold. The rest of the work was down to us. My retirement plan had been to relax, read and drink chilled wine, but we ended up working 10-hour days. We loved it-it was our dream.


© Neil and Sharon Mckenzie

We recycled when we could. The kitchen island worktop is a door from the attic just waxed, with the bolt hinge and writing on it just left on. A ladder from the attic is displayed on a wall and decorated with fairy lights. I painted three chandeliers we bought secondhand for £45.

All the furniture other than the four-poster bed and the settee is secondhand and then painted. The chaise longue and dining chairs we recovered. Two barn doors from a vide-grenier cost €15. One we made into a table and has been perfect for outside entertaining. The second became our bedroom door, sanded but we left the colours of old paint visible. A cot is now a garden ornament. Abandoned window frames are now a mirror, photo frame and bathroom screen.

There are certain jobs we wouldn’t like to have to do again but they were worth our effort. I’m trying to forget the smell of the insulation and the ache in my arms holding plasterboard up while at the top of a ladder due to its height. The new bedroom floorboards were original but had been in an attic for 200 years. We swept, hoovered and mopped multiple times to reveal the character. We may varnish but it was totally right to preserve them. The driveway was transformed with 20 tonnes of stones and under webbing we manually moved together. I wish to state that I shovelled at least one ton, despite Neil disputing this.

The villagers have been marvellous – particularly our neighbours, the previous owners, of what had been a family home. They helped with some aspects of the French system, improving our language skills and integration into the village. We invited everyone to see the changes. They appeared to love them. We have been given gifts of lovely homegrown produce and a ready supply of my favourite sunflowers.


© Neil and Sharon Mckenzie

We can’t speak fluent French, but are improving. From the moment we arrived, we spoke to everyone who walked past. Neil joined a local football team. We were soon recognised as the couple renovating the house with the now blue shutters. It was almost a ritual for our elderly neighbour to call in to check our progress on the way to feed her donkeys.

So, absolutely, you can have a ‘petit château on a budget’ with nine months’ work. Our final spend including the house purchase, living expenses, renovations and this year’s fosse will be €86,000. OK it’s not really a château, but we love it and it’s ours.

We wish to thank all the people who have helped us and hope they know how much they are appreciated. I am off to sit in the sun and read a book with a glass of wine – heavenly. Or maybe not, I can hear Neil calling, he needs me to pass him the hammer.

© Neil and Sharon Mckenzie

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Lead photo credit : © Neil and Sharon Mckenzie

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