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DIY Your French Wreck - The Dick and Angel legacy?

Updated: Aug 26, 2022

Do or DIY!

I noticed, very quickly after my arrival in France many years ago, that there are two main types of intrepid migrant! There are those still working and those that are early or newly retired. How they approach the renovation of their very own French Wreck can be very, very different.

There are the 'have a go Harry's' that just go with it, gaining experience as they go and usually on a very slim budget. I call this the 'Dick and Angel effect'! I know their budget was rather more elastic, of course, but they did invent the DIY French Chateau Wreck craze, so I will credit them here! Even with a tiny budget, It's not impossible and some people turn out to be more capable than others, I'm sure, but it is brave! Then there are those that simply don't have the time right now (that's us) and they go the whole hog, employ architects and artisans. We throw money at it all and hope for the best.

There is no right or wrong way really, but you do need to understand what your budget will buy you? My dear husband gets super upset at how some French renovations are approached. He would say 'you've been done if you buy one'! He really feels many people just do a 'DIY sticking plaster job', rather than upgrading the building with care and consideration. I tend to agree, as I have viewed many, many expat DIY properties that really need another go at it!


France is very aware of these often dangerous renovations and is trying very hard to stop them!

His main beef is that 'DIY renovators' are not re framing the walls, insulating and protecting the building from damp, instead they just decorate over it. Then a couple of winters in, the mould and damp is back! No surprise there then!

At our French Wreck, we've been ripping pretty much everything out, replacing floor beams and framing the walls so that there is a good gap between the walls and the new plasterboard. New electrics, plumbing etc! These old buildings need bringing into the 21st century and beyond to ensure they live on another 100 good years.

You really have to be realistic about your skills and budget from the get go. NEWS FLASH! Materials have gone up in cost and so has the cost of the trades you will need along the way. France has also tightened up the laws for knocking your building about, so be aware and make sure you have the correct permissions well in advance. Also, if you do all the work yourself, you won't have much in the way of guarantees when you sell and this could be a problem. If you've done sneaky work in your home, when you come to sell it will be noted and you could be fined. There's absolutely no point taking risks. If you are making new openings or building a pool, please don't do so without the planning in place. Also, be aware that you will often be taxed on the addition of an extension and or pool.

The truth is, that the modern buyer now wants a modern house or a well renovated old house with modern facilities. Most foreigners are only interested in modern interiors. They do not want draughty, damp hard to heat homes. 'The Brocante brigade' aren't as many as you think now and the pre Brexit glut of mad DIY Brits prepared to slum it, has pretty much vanished. The folks buying your homes are more like to be from within Europe or rest of the world now. It really doesn't matter wether you think you will sell up in months or years, it is a wise renovator that future proofs his home. If you want to add real value then make sure you do a good job! I mean, we've all had a good giggle at the average French home labelled as 'renovated', a sink for a kitchen, rotting wood everywhere and how they shout proudly about a 'recent' renovation which is actually already 30 years old! Honestly, some of the agents descriptions should be up for a misrepresentation award!

The French aren't really DIY savvy and they often don't invest in their bricks and mortar in the way that we do. When we bought our wreck, it was a mishmash of dire decor throughout all of the previous decades. Formal, flocked wall victorian paper and period features and next door, a really funky blue and orange formica 1970's kitchen! They often take the approach that 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' and by the time they are carried out in their coffins, the house is pretty much held together by dodgy electrics and wallpaper glue, which I might add is impossible to get off!

Whichever way you approach your renovation, there's no doubt it will cost more and take way longer than expected. We've all watched those renovation series on the television where the owner nearly goes to debtors jail several times, just trying to get finished!

I do admire the 'Have a Go Hero's', I do. However, I do rather prefer the realistic approach! I'd really advise you to do your homework in advance and seek to understand how much your savings will really buy? I have heard of many early retirees having to return to some form of employment, to ensure they can either complete a renovation or simply, to put food on the table. We can all dream, but it's probably wiser to really crunch the numbers. Deal with facts not fiction.

If you've never renovated before, everything is a shock! Such how long it will take clear and strip a property, to how long the windows take to arrive? BTW, windows are very much a last order thing because accurate measurements are needed and then they take many weeks to be manufactured! Other shocks are, how different the French materials are to the UK, paint is super expensive and whilst these days you can order online, its not cheap to ship from the UK now. The days of bringing trailers full of B&Q DIY materials is pretty much dead and gone, unless you are willing to pay the customs charges!

Then there's the trade and labour. We've found it easier to use English speaking trades, but have found them to be mostly unreliable and sometimes cheeky! Not all, but sadly 90%! Watch out for those that have reinvented themselves and are pro-porting to be 'experts'! Follow up on references, portfolio's and obviously their registration and insurances.

A lot has changed since the day of Peter Mayles, A Year in Provence! What hasn't changed is the amount of fun you can have with a renovation and in France, all the reclaim material available. The next question is wether you live in the home whilst renovating or not? We haven't this time, but maybe next time and I'm under no illusion it will be rather tough, especially during the long winter months. We don't have small children now, ours are all grown up, thankfully. It must be doubly difficult trying to look after children, cook, clean, wash and do all those daily chores whilst living in a French Wreck. You'll need a bucket of gumption!

When Dick and Angel bought their basket case of a French Chateau, they did so with some knowledge of what was ahead, but I do believe the romance of it always takes over in the end. They also bought it to make it earn its keep and they did that very well. Big houses cost a fortune to run and if they don't work you may end up rather poorer! I expect they've spent over half a million on it so far, maybe more and their journey is nearing what? 8 years old? I suspect living in a renovation can be brutal in the beginning and rather challenging mentally and emotionally. The project is never ending but Dick and Angel have shown you the good bits. Not the ugly bits in between. Be careful what you wish for, eh.

There's also a sense of responsibility when renovating these old buildings. Not all chateaux are listed or historical monuments of course. Better for you if they aren't. However, I'm aware of many grants available if they are, you just need to work out how to apply for them! Personally, if I were lucky enough to own a larger French Wreck, I'd definitely not want it to be a monument. I mean, let's face it, if the owners had access to the building materials we have now, they would have used them! I'd want to modernise not be stuck in the past.

If you go down the route of the larger French edifice, you are usually expecting a much longer renovation project. My husband has shown me many of these piles on the internet and I've gone to bed worrying my life away. Where to start? When would we be finished? Would we ever be able to afford a car or holiday again? I want one, but I really don't, if you know what I mean?

It all makes me rather anxious.

If you don't like camping then maybe 'making do' in one room for a couple of years isn't really for you. I know my limitations and I don't like camping! I admire the Chateau DIY lot, very much and I'm pretty sure the Chateau life is interesting, full-filling, hard word but not that glamorous in reality. It's not for everyone and is your marriage strong enough to survive a French Wreck? Also with rising energy and living costs, are massive bills what you need right now? Let's not forget the pandemic years which made earning impossible for these chateaux.

I have noticed that there are a few of the Chateau DIY chateaux for sale at really cheeky prices, given that we know what they paid thanks to Channel 4 and what they have or haven't done. I have my eye on one, my favourite chateau that was bought in the 300's and is for sale at not much under 900k with so much still to do. Whomever buys it will pay a premium and then be stuck investing a mountain of cash in the building. Will it value up afterwards? Who really knows, this is France after all?

My husband and I enjoy the program and it gives us many ideas, but I also sometimes have to strap him to his chair when he see's a rotten floor beam being ignored! I'm the same with all the 'brown' Brocante furniture! Hate it. I'm all for repurposing and updating but not plonking it in as bought with active woodworm in play!

There's no doubt you can let your inner interior designer go wild and I have to say, I fancy that. Am I brave or stupid enough? Not sure, I guess time will tell eh!

D x

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