How to Find an Artisan to Renovate your House

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This month Beth shares great advice and top tips about renovating a property in France, in particular how find the right artisans and build a team, for the long term.

“Do you enjoy property restoration work? Many people who buy a property in France love the idea of throwing themselves into a renovation project, better still when it’s falling to pieces. Not us. We had been through the excitement/traumas associated with restoring our house in the UK and decided enough was enough. Our spec for buying a second home in France majored on ‘no renovation required’, which, as it turned out, failed miserably.

A Complete Property Renovation

Working on the basis that ‘one can’t have everything in life’, we ended up with the house of our dreams, assuming that all it needed was a ‘touch-up’. It wasn’t until the sale had gone through and the chateau-sized furnishings had been removed from our tiny farmhouse that we realised it needed renovation. A complete renovation.

We got stuck in, but it wasn’t easy. Being newbies to the area presented our first challenge because we had no idea where to find local contractors. An additional difficulty was our language capabilities, which weren’t up to the standard required to cross-examine specialists on their expertise.  

Find French Artisans

Hoping to manage the project remotely from the UK, we began by searching online. We sought ‘artisans’, experts in refurbishing old buildings. Our home is rural, and the company closest, which ticked all our boxes, was in Toulouse, more than an hour’s drive away.

We had many telephone calls and on-site meetings with our would-be project manager. Monsieur Bennoir, who much prefers restoring ancient churches, eventually decided he wasn’t interested because we didn’t have an ecclesiastical building to renovate. We had already told him this. Still, he was convinced one must exist because we have a moat and the shell of a 14th fortification. We eventually parted company with a promise from Monsieur that he would return to look after everything if we found une église in the woods. We really don’t have one. We had lost three months and were back to square one.

Things Don’t Always go to Plan

This spectacular failure convinced us that project management wouldn’t work and that we needed to be on-site. We, plus our dogs, moved into our teeny apartment (one of the buildings we inherited with the domaine ), which had the least dangerous wiring. And started again.

While the dogs did battle with the loir infestation (awfully sweet-looking dormouse-type creatures with furry tails who love eating cables, ceilings and furniture), we resumed our search for individual specialists.

We tried again online, using keywords such as ‘trouver un artisan’ (find an artisan), followed by the specialist activity required. It reaped several contacts, but, as before, there was no one in our area close enough to handle individual jobs. With no success there, we searched noticeboards in our local Bricolage stores. Sadly, we had no luck with those either.

Our next point of contact was the local Notaire’s office. As you’ll probably know, notaires are French government-appointed ministerial officers who handle estate matters. Their offices usually have a waiting room noticeboard displaying houses for sale, builders, renovation companies etc. The same goes for estate agents.

Simultaneously, we asked for advice at our village Mairie. Our baby town hall is run by a helpful mayor and his team. They gave us lots of advice about local merchants who could do the job, but sadly, the ones we contacted were booked weeks in advance. Meanwhile, we had been making friends and were given lots of advice.

When Renovating, Perseverance is Key

Ultimately, we relied on personal recommendations and eventually gathered a team of ‘experts’, not all of whom were as proficient as we had hoped. Things we learned through the process included:

•    Never underestimate the power of personal recommendation, but do so wisely. A friend suggested a roofer, although, to be fair, he wasn’t sure whether the chap was still alive. As it turns out, he was, and came to the house with several medical tubes attached and a willingness to ‘give it a go!’. This was a step too far for our health and safety consciences, and he left soon after.
•    The pharmacies, doctor’s waiting room, markets, la poste, they’re all one-stop chat hubs where folks, certainly in rural areas, are often keen and willing to offer information about someone local with a great reputation, also, those to avoid.
•    Don’t forget to ask for a quote (un devis) and explain that you will be seeking several – which raises eyebrows and often lowers estimates.
•    Ask for business credentials: tradesman’s registration documents, testimonials and a siret number (which identifies the establishment of a single company). We found that the older artisans didn’t always have business information to offer, but they could show us examples of their work, which did the same job.
•    Beware of flashy portfolios. I’m simply offering this because it’s easy to be fooled by photographs without seeing the evidence. I know this. It happened to us with dire consequences. If you’re unsure, go and look at examples of finished work.
•    And don’t be surprised to find artisans with other jobs. Our kitchen fitter is a monumental mason. Business in the summer tends to take a downturn, so he stops making gravestones and focuses on producing granite pieces for kitchens and bathrooms. His work is terrific and half the price of buying from a bespoke store.

Build a Team for Now, and the Future

So, quite by accident, we embarked on a complete property renovation. Perhaps because we live in a remote rural area, the internet/conventional approach to finding specialists didn’t work. We eventually ended up with a team, some of whom may look somewhat motley around the edges, but they are superbly gifted artisans. They have become personal friends, and I would recommend them to anyone, just give me a shout on social media. C’est la vie en SW France.

For more France and animal stories check Beths’ excellent books, all about country living in southwest France. While we await Beths new series, check out our business directory.

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