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  • Emma Pruen & Estelle Deerenberg

A new (backbreaking) Life in the Sun?


Have you been tempted by the fantastic house prices in Sud Charente or have fallen for gorgeous French home? You might be wondering how to make it work financially and thinking about converting your outbuildings into a ‘gîte’ or two. Here’s our guide to making it work.

Emma who developed the French Retreat as an event venue says:

Converting outbuildings into gîtes is invariably an expensive, time consuming and even back breaking undertaking. A few key things to be aware of are:

Don’t do this expecting to make a quick buck. Property does not go up in the same way as it does in the UK. You might recoup your costs if you need to sell up, but don’t expect the amazing profits that can be made from adding extra bedrooms in the UK. Even then the housing market is much slower in France and on average houses take two years to sell.

Building materials are much more expensive in France. Even experienced property developers have been caught out by assuming the prices in the local brico are roughly equivalent to B&Q. Everything from plaster to paint will have you calculating whether it’s worth getting a van-load imported. Screwfix ships to France at very reasonable rates, B&Q doesn’t. If you are driving back to the UK it is always worth stocking up on undercoat and emulsion. But watch out for importing everything, If you think you’d be better off buying your sanitary wear in the UK it will come as a nasty shock when you discover the fittings won’t match standard French plumbing.

The Professionals (and not so professional)

There are a great number of Brits in France advertising their building services. Many of them are not just unqualified and unskilled but could seriously harm your project. Take recommendations for every trade and beware the friendly face that turns up to see if you need any help when you move in. Stories abound of building fails such as the workman who used concrete on the exterior of an old building causing huge internal damp problems. More serious (but providing much amusement on Facebook) was the vast old barn that collapsed when a hole was knocked into in the wall to make a doorway. Local artisans understand how these buildings are constructed, and it’s the not the same as your average semi. Our neighbours were a good source of recommendations and using their excellent local plumber was a move that not only provided us with quality workmanship but put us in good favour with our community. As everywhere there are also scammers such as the ‘roofer’ who spent a week walking up and down a ladder with the same pile of tiles and provided beautiful photos of someone else’s roof as evidence of work completed.

It is very tempting to pay cash for cheaper labour. Not only is this illegal but it leaves you with no comeback if the job is not done to a satisfactory standard. Get a quote (devis) for every job. Check the siret number (at www.infogreffe.com) to ensure they are registered. Sign the devis and keep a copy. If your work annoys the neighbours and they call in the gendarmes you will be asked to provide the devis for every trade on site. Unlike the UK you cannot have your builder patching up your roof if he has given you a quote to screed the floor. You will be liable if you are caught and people have been.

After having worked for over 25 years in the hospitality and holiday lettings sector Estelle, a.k.a. The gîtes fairy, reveals her tips of the trade:

Size does matter

A small gîte (1 or 2 bedrooms) may appeal mainly to couples, a few friends or small family. This limits your market slightly but you’re likely to get last minute bookings from this market. It usually generates more all-year round business as they to book late and can travel anytime of the year. A large holiday home will suit families who tend to book far in advance and can only travel in school holidays.

Always consider having zip & link beds, to give more flexibility with beds configuration. For dining always provide a dining table large enough to accommodate the number of people the holiday home sleeps.

Lay-out & gardens

Should you live in France permanently and are adding a holiday home next or near to you, do consider the location of your garden and rooms in comparison with the guests’. Everyone likes privacy, both your guests and you too. Have the gîte’s garden away from your own garden if possible, fence it off if you accept children or pets. Guest are on holiday, they tend to stay out late, whether inside or outside. Some visitors are noisy, some are not…. Be flexible, they want to have fun.

Letting out

A holiday home can be lucrative but it needs a professional approach and it takes time and effort to get it right. It is time-consuming and can be costly too. Calculate what you need to earn or want to earn.. these are two entirely different approaches to letting out.

Cleaning costs (housekeepers, linen, cleaning products) are your highest out-goings at around 25-30% of your revenue if done properly. Cleaning a holiday home takes time and it’s a physically demanding job to do, especially in 30+ degrees temperatures. Do look after your housekeepers, pay them a decent wage and try to keep them. If you expect 1 housekeeper on her own do clean your 4 or 5 bedroom holiday home, realistically she needs at least 10 hours to do so… on top of that she works alone, she works very hard, she will do it once, she won’t stay……..

The two biggest complaints in the hospitality industry are: cleanliness and heating. So your property has to be thoroughly cleaned each time… remember that includes the fridge – please no half-eaten furry products in the fridge from previous guests! And do look under the beds; I remember myself finding a dirty hanky under the bed from the previous (or before that) guests…… not pleasant.

In summer keep the house cool and explain to guests to close the shutters in the day! In winter leave enough logs for guests to light a decent fire on the 1st night or even light the log burner (if safe to do so) if you know the arrival time.

If gîte marketing, management and presentation are all done correctly, it is possible to get booking all year round and reach occupancy of over 80%, like a friend of mine who has a 2 bedroom gîte in SW France…. And this one is not anywhere near the beach either.

There might be trouble ahead……(as the song goes)

Stormy ‘out of the blue’ weather is a normal occurrence in SW France; advise your guests to unplug the TV or freebox at night if they want to stay online all holiday.

Do’s & Don’t’s

Do give your guests a warm welcome (personal hello, welcome card with wine)

Do ask your guests for feedback

Do give your guests tips on how to keep the house cool or warm

Don’t just believe in weekly stays with Saturday arrivals. Be flexible with your check-in days, time and min. stays to encourage more business.

Don’t diss the competition; every cottage has it’s merits including it’s owners.

Don’t just appeal to one nationality; a good mix of international guests is great for your ratings & feedback.

For more information, or any advice on managing or marketing your gîte(s), please do contact the gîtes fairy on www.thegitesfairy.com.


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