The building market is starting to settle down after the post-lockdown boom, labour shortages and price inflation combined to make “getting the builders in” easier said than done.
As a result of frustrations dealing directly with builders, a new service industry has grown – project managers for small home improvement projects.
However, by drawing up checklists similar to the ones they use, you can make the task less formidable and still go it alone.
Here are some pointers:
1. Fix your aims and your budget
Builders complain that some homeowners ask for estimates with no real idea of what they want doing nor how much it is likely to cost.
Examples include people demanding “bigger rooms”, not realising that the walls they want knocked down are load-bearing and the job will cost tens of thousands.
Partition walls, by contrast, can be done for under €1,000.
If you do not know the structure of your building or how it might look after the work, it is a good idea to pay €4,000- €5,000 for an architect to come up with initial plans and an estimate of costs.
2. Select good firms
The best way is to ask around. French people are usually proud of the country’s artisanal history and happy to share details of good masons, carpenters, joiners, plasterers or electricians.
It is relatively rare to find cowboy businesses in France – the country’s training and business registration process weeds them out.
Some local insurance firms make a point of advertising businesses in the area that are insured with them, which might be a good way of finding names you can run past people.
Another often overlooked source is noticeboards in rural supermarkets, where businesses looking to make a name for themselves pay to put up a flyer.
Lateral thinking also helps.
For example, this writer was having trouble getting an electrician to rewire an old house.
All the main firms in the area claimed they were too busy.
Remembering he had bought a washing machine from a local shop, he asked in there and found the store was just a small part of the owner’s main business of being a building electrician.
As we already had a connection, he agreed to look at the work and his firm eventually did an excellent job.
3. Get a few, detailed estimates
This can be harder than it sounds.
Even though the building industry has stabilised, many good firms have work lined up for two or three years and little interest in spending the time, often half a day, drawing up estimates for more work.
Still, it is worth trying.
It is very rare for rough estimates to be given in France, They are usually detailed.
Once signed, they are legally binding so it pays to make sure you understand them.
If in doubt, ask. When you do get a quote from a good firm, at around the price you were expecting to pay, consider accepting, especially if the other firms are not returning your calls.
4. Assess technical options
When building, there are often several technical options to achieve the same result.
For example, with insulation, you can choose between polystyrene foam, fibre glass, wood pulp, recycled cotton, or hemp-based or wool-based insulation at various price points.
Polystyrene is cheap but can lead to damp problems, is made from oil and will never biodegrade.
Glass fibre can be effective against damp, if properly installed, is made from recycled glass, but requires a lot of energy to produce.
And, although it is recyclable, this is not often done in France.
Other options are sometimes less efficient but better for the planet.
The choice is yours, but remember that the most expensive one is not always the best.
5.Consider labour costs
Some options take longer to implement and every extra hour will be billed for.
An example is the choice between an entirely new wood floor or using laminate instead, which can clip into place and be done much faster.
Decide if the extra cost is worth it.
6. Do some work yourself
You can discuss this with the builders when they are doing the estimate.
Examples include clearing furniture from a room or taking rubble to the tip.
Make sure, however, that you do what you commit to or you risk poisoning the relationship.
7. Plan your work
Builders like plenty of time to plan.
If they are needed on an urgent job – a plumber called to re-direct pipes that are preventing masons from knocking down a wall, for example – they will charge a lot more than for scheduled jobs.
8. Get the right VAT
One of the most popular niches fiscales in France is one where VAT for building work carried out by a professional is at 5.5%, rather than 20%.
Check with the builder that he is registered, and fill in the exemption form he gives you.
9. Consider getting grants
In theory, this should be top of the list if you have an average income in France, with the government offering to pay up to half the price of new heating equipment and a third of insulation costs.
However, it has become obvious that the system cannot be relied on, and the delay between signing a devis and starting work might be too long for you to get the cash the government promised.
The system is constantly being tweaked but problems remain.
Grants also depend on tradespeople getting special accreditation, and many with full order books are simply not bothering.
The sums promised by the government for just a couple of days of form-filling are attractive – but do not rely on them.