From ruin to riches ... in several long years

Many Brits dream of renovating an old French farmhouse, but it's never plain sailing. A new book reveals what not to repair. Ginetta Vedrickas reports

As French property prices inch upwards and the pound battles against the euro, your dream home across the Channel may be starting to feel out of reach. This may mean taking on a property that requires more than a little TLC but a new book aims to turn your cross-Channel dreams into reality.

How to Renovate a House in France was written by David Ackers, an interior designer in France for 20 years, Jerome Aumont, a French property journalist, and Paul Carslake, a British editor and Francophile who conceived the idea. "Most UK buyers have no experience of what it's really like trying to renovate a typical French farmhouse," says Carslake. "We can't give them the exact A-Z of renovation but we can tell them to expect things like damp wood and stone floors with just earth beneath and what to do about them. Most people in the UK have never lived in old stone houses, and we just want to stop them going in there blind and then getting disappointed."

The authors have a wealth of knowledge about what French renovation truly entails and, inevitably, have all witnessed horror stories. "Sadly, they are very common. We've all seen those half-renovated properties which come back onto the market and you have to wonder why. In many cases they haven't anticipated just how much work or expense is involved," warns Carslake.

Included in the book is a 64-page technical guide, from the initial buying process through to getting planning permission and your services connected. But it also looks at working with professionals in a foreign country and even cultural differences such as how to make friends with neighbours.

Carslake runs a website, www.renovationfrance.net, where owners trade experiences and questions, but he is at pains to point out that renovation is not all heartache, hence the many lavish photos included in the book. "You only have to look at the thousands of beautifully restored French properties on the holiday market, which are really inspirational and have added so much to the French landscape. It doesn't have to be a nightmare."

Boyd Rogers' story is an inspirational one. He bought a large, ruined, 200-year-old farmhouse in Normandy, and planned to restore the stone half of the house for his family before converting the timber-framed section into gîtes. After setting up Red Field Property Care, a surveying company for British renovators, Rogers has transformed the stone half and is about to renovate the remainder to form one huge house for personal use.

Thanks to his surveying background, Rogers was unfazed by the task. "We fell in love as soon as we saw it and knew from the outside the full extent of the work." But it was often a steep learning curve: "Although things went smoothly, I had to teach myself electrics, which are different here. And the plumbing gave me a headache as they use so many different pipe sizes."

Rogers has no regrets, however, and even feels nostalgic when he does property surveys: "I watch others and see myself a few years back." But, while 90 per cent of his clients are realistic about the work they are about to take on, he questions the realism of the other 10 per cent: "Some are either completely mad or very brave, but it's not my job to talk them out of it."

Ray and Christine Fletton are happy they weren't talked out of the major renovation of a house near Cordes sur Ciel in Tarn but, after several years, Ray has this advice for others considering similar projects: "Work out your budget and timescale and then double both. I describe it as like buying a well and then pouring money down it."

The Flettons paid £45,000 for the house with a barn on two hectares. Ray estimates he has spent £150,000 so far, and another £30,000 is needed to restore the pigeonnier. He puts the home's current value at around £500,000: "It's possibly been a good financial move but you have to take into account four years of working on the house full time."

The couple are now running a bed and breakfast to fund further renovation and admit that it hasn't all been plain sailing. "There are times when it's very stressful. The pace of life here is far slower and builders are notorious for not turning up when they say which can be frustrating and very worrying if you have paid up-front."

Fletton knows of countless other British owners experiencing similar problems while adapting to a different culture and language. He took the precaution of studying both plumbing and French before moving: "You will encounter a lot of bureaucracy and methods differ here. It takes a while to fit in, I'm only recently using the more informal tu rather than vous, but if you learn French then at least you have a fighting chance of making it work."

How To Renovate a House in France (Ascent Publishing, £25) will be in major book stores from next month. As a launch offer, 'Independent' readers can buy it for £20 by calling 01527 834406

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