Yes, my patience (and indeed my sanity…) are still being tried and this post is not just about my efforts to get things done in a timely manner but just getting things done at all, a perennial problem here in France. In my last post I mentioned the problems that I was encountering getting my new house build together and now I’ll go on to elaborate.
I found a buyer for my present house at the back-end of last year and also identified a parcel of land at Fleurac for a new-build. I quickly found a house design being offered by a large, established builder that would be a perfect fit for the land I’d found and I had my first meeting with the builder in the first week of January during which we agreed an outline budget and building programme.
The builder said that although I would be responsible for preparing and levelling the land to meet their requirements (‘terrassement’), laying on water and electricity on site and the installation of a waste water treatment system (‘assainissement’) they would deal with everything else, including obtaining a building permit (‘permis de construire’). The latter can be quite a complex process here in France due to local planning restrictions and the information that has to be provided, including plans and images of the house, specifications of materials with specific colour references etc and detailed thermal efficiency data. This is not easy for a private individual but is much more so for a builder with their own house design who can merely cut-and-paste the required information into the ‘Demande de Permis de Construire’.
I was told that the project would take about a year from that date, which I had no alternative other than to accept, but saying that if it was at all possible to bring things forward it would be a great help as I was already pretty committed to moving out of my present house within the coming three months. So it looked as though things were about to take off – except that they didn’t. My next two meetings with the builder were cancelled and in the meantime I was sent the wrong house plan and layout and also the wrong siting (‘implantation’) of the house on the land to approve, both of which I had to amend myself and return.
It wasn’t until early in March, two months later without meeting again in the meantime, that we met up on site with the builder’s surveyor to check the ‘implantation’ taking properly into account the land’s slope, soil type and other environmental factors (eg location of trees, roots etc) and it was on this occasion I was shocked to be told that the project’s completion date would now be summer 2022. This somewhat alarmed me to say the least as it meant that if I moved out of my present house in May this year as I’d originally planned to do, I’d be living in ’emergency’ accommodation for possibly up to 18 months. This presented me with a serious dilemma. Where I currently live I have no mortgage or living expenses other than the ‘taxe foncière’ and the ‘taxe d’habitation’ that all householders have to pay. If I have to rent alternative accommodation for just 12 months, even a very modest house or apartment would cost from 500€ a month and possibly more, giving a total ‘excess’ outgoings figure of at least 6000€.
I don’t find that prospect very attractive – not because I’m mean or a penny-pincher but because if I’m dishing out that sort of figure, I’d rather spend it on fixtures, fittings and furniture in the new house (eg a heat pump floor heating system would cost around that figure) and in any case, now I’m retired, money doesn’t come that easily. I started out with the idea that I’d acquire a second-hand mobile home and site it on the land until the house was complete, as many others do, and this is still my preferred option. They can be found for 2000€ or less on Le Bon Coin and can be sold on at the end of the project for about the same amount leaving just transport and siting, around 1000-1500€ as the sunk cost. I don’t much fancy spending the winter in one but needs must and I’m sure I’d get through it.
Nevertheless, I was disappointed to learn how the builder had apparently done very little in the meantime, despite having told me that they’d received outline planning approval for the house, and how the lead time had been extended by so much as a result. My main concern was that the builder had done little (nothing really) to advance the project in an administrative sense. Under French law, I’m unable to finalise the purchase of the land until I have been granted a ‘Permit de Construire’ and I can’t touch the land, let alone site a mobile home on it, until I’m the legal owner.
But even to apply for a Permit de Construire, I have to have a waste water system that’s been officially approved for the building and the land with a declaration as such from the local authority that has to be attached to the Demande de Permit de Construire. The catch was, as I’d found out but not the builder (due to my recent contact with SPANC, the authority in question who have an office in Montignac), that there is currently a high level of demand for their services and their usual 1 month turnround had become extended to 2 months or more.
So allowing a further month (assuming my Demand de Permis de Construire gets a fair wind, which usually they don’t) I surmised that I likely wouldn’t be in a position to seal the land purchase until June or July at the current rate of progress, and with a planned removal date from my present house of end May, I’d end up facing major accommodation problems. In a nutshell, I’d end up homeless with nowhere to live and with my land purchase still hanging in limbo.
I therefore decided that I needed a Plan B, which I saw as being a house design of my own with the same essential characteristics of the original design that I could show to other builders in the hope of securing a shorter lead-time and also deal with personally for administrative purposes ie the demands for the waste water system and the building permit. So this is what I started to devote my time to all the while leaving the original house project in the hands of the original builder but so I’d have an alternative to fall back on if things eventually went pear-shaped.
And this is when the ordure hit the fan in a big way. My design was similar to but different from the original builder’s design (for legal reasons if nothing else) but retained certain essential characteristics, which I won’t go into for now to save time. However, whereas the original design had apparently been given outline planning approval by a government organisation called Les Architectes des Bâtiments de France, who brood over proposed house designs and jealously guard building form, house types, materials and colours to preserve local and regional traditions, a second builder who I discussed my new design with reported back that it had been turned down and would not be permitted to be built on my particular parcel of land.
The reasons given would also have excluded the original design, so this was something of a mystery to me. Fleurac is in a semi-protected area, what the builders call an ABF area (see paragraph above) and they are used to being knocked back in such an arbitrary way, just shrug their shoulders and either get the client to build a house that they didn’t ask for and don’t want (like me) or walk away to look for another client.
I don’t want to make a big thing about it, but deference comes more easily to the French who are used to being controlled by the ‘authorities, but it’s not something that we Brits subscribe to, especially ex-pats of my generation. So while recognising that I might well have to pull the shutters down on my project, I decided to put the effort into a counter-attack action.
The respondent at Bâtiments de France wanted me to totally abandon my plan for a modern single storey house with a low-pitched roof for a design that looks just like what I’m now trying to get out of, of a simple rectangular design with a high-pitched Périgordian roof. I know that the land in question has houses on all sides of the type that I want to build so over a week-end I did my own survey using Google Earth, one of my drones and a camera.
The results were stunning. Of 16 houses built in recent years, 12 are ‘non-traditional’ in terms of design, roof style and colour ie are similar to what I want to build and of the 4 remaining ones, one was a rebuild of a ruin so can’t really be counted as a new-build. The respondent also said that my proposed design, which is in the form of a 45 degree ‘V’ was ‘too complicated’ and that I should look at either a rectangle or an ‘L’ (damn cheek – neither shape is suitable for the land in question for technical reasons) and I had great pleasure in providing pictures taken at ground level and from overhead using my drone showing a ‘traditional’ style house (an utter monstrosity we all think actually) that is currently under construction just down the road and is in the shape of a ‘V’.
I pointed all of this out when I sent my evidence to the gentleman saying at the same time that if he was intent on creating a museum of traditional house designs in Fleurac, that horse had already fled the stable. However, when presented with evidence based on facts and common-sense, French bureaucrats just dig in (it’s a face thing I think) so I knew that I had to look for another angle of attack. This was in the person of the Mayor of Fleurac who I know and doesn’t suffer fools gladly, so I took the correspondence and my papers along to the Mairie to show him.
Partially as a result of our meeting, the approval for my proposed waste water system came through in a week (compared to the originally stated 2 months), although I know the SPANC people pretty well and they had already indicated that they were dealing favourably with my request. The Maire also showed from the official papers that he is bound by in respect of planning approvals that there would be no problem obtaining a building permit for my proposed house and that I should continue with my project as it would be with his support.
When I started typing this post I had in mind a final paragraph along the lines of ‘so now the tide is turning and the waters are beginning to flow my way’, and that was indeed the case up until yesterday when I had a follow-up meeting with the (original) builder to progress the project from their side. They’ve tried to get me to sign a contract on several occasions and I’ve always demurred and will continue doing so until I have a firm budget that’s acceptable to me, an agreed timing plan and evidence that they are progressing the project in a serious way, especially in respect of the building permissions that are required.
This was supposed to be a ‘turn-key’ project but already I’ve had to move things along by securing the declaration of conformity of my planned waste water system myself. When I sent that over to them I emphasised that it was essential for them to contact and speak with the Mayor of Fleurac who was waiting for their call, so I was somewhat miffed to hear that the lady to whom I was speaking hadn’t done so.
I was also annoyed that she should then start wittering on about colour schemes and the like, which are trivial and easily decided upon once the crucial matters that I mentioned above have been resolved. But then came the bombshell that I was somehow expecting from her body language. Following our previous conversations she was proposing that the cost of the house was increasing by a massive 20,000€ due, she said, to the state of the terrain which would require an enormous amount of groundwork due to it being in a ‘red zone’ for clay.
I regard this as nonsense as their ‘surveyor’ did not carry out a detailed analysis of the terrain when he came to examine the planned ‘implantation’ of the new house. All they were using was the mandatory ‘controle’ that I had given them a copy of that was carried out by a surveyor on behalf of the seller which shows the whole of Fleurac and a huge part of the surrounding area being in a ‘red zone’ on a national chart produced by the government. It says nothing about individual parcels of land within the zone and in fact the ‘controle’ merely advised footings 1.2-1.5m in depth with other precautionary measures and nothing that would cost 18,000€ more than the figure originally estimated.
So that was when I called a halt to the meeting. This leaves me in a difficult position due to my potential ‘accommodation vulnerabilty’ which perhaps she was playing on and I think that this will be the end of the road for that builder. Luckily some others who I contacted sensing that things would go adrift have taken my putting them off very kindly and doors have been left open for me to remake contact with them. I have a fully finalised alternative design of my own to discuss with them and I have a couple of knowledgeable local contacts to call next week, one of whom is the very experienced company who took my enormous tree out and ‘terrassed’ my garden for me, who know the local land and soil intimately and will be able to tell me what to do next. They might also be available to do the groundwork for me, who knows.
I’ve now got to press on with finalising and submitting my own Demande de Permis de Construire which under the circumstances, I’d like to have in my hands before I finalise the land purchase. When I did the Demande for my planned extension, which isn’t now going ahead of course, there was a government web site available that allowed anyone to generate a thermal efficiency study free of charge. It seems that that’s now been withdrawn and you have to use the services of ‘a professional’. That’s annoying but at around 100€, it’s not too onerous. Just another aspect of the ‘closed shops’ that exist in France keeping people employed.
But at the end of it all, here I am over 2½ months down the road and with practically no progress made. And what progress there has been, I’ve achieved myself. My French neighbour, Chantal, screwed up her nose at the beginning when I originally told her about the builder and how they were behaving and it looks as though she was right. As I said right at the start of this post, just getting anything done here is incredibly difficult and getting anything done to an agreed deadline is almost impossible. Unless you do it yourself, so that’s what I’ve now got to buckle down and do – while at the same time having to do the work on my house that I said I would do (eg replacement windows, making good etc) before I hand it over at the end of June. This is like being back working full-time – and not being retired at all 😕
This is the latest, and hopefully final, version of my own house design. All of the previous versions, including the builder’s own original version, had an attached garage. However, hardly anyone down here has a garage and I’ve managed without one for 9 years. I was thinking about enlarging it so I could use it as a workshop, but what the heck, why not save the outlay, do away with it and build a separate garage/workshop if I need it? Makes more sense to me.