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What self-build dreamers in France need to know

People decide to build new houses or convert barns for many different reasons.

For some, it is about creating a dream home, with everything perfectly in place. Others see it as a way of adding value by doing work themselves.

Family circumstances and needing to be close to people where there are no alternative properties available also drive some home-builders.

In France, regulations concerning housing seem to change constantly. Some places which used to allow individual houses to be built now insist on new building being done in lotissements, or housing estates.

These are often the result of a commune adopting a plan local d’urbanisme (PLU), introduced in 2014, with the aim of tightening up zoning in France. 

PLUs are often detested at a local level – even though, in theory, they have to be drawn up by communities themselves – as representatives say department-level planners, backed by préfets, impose their will.

In some places, it can seem impossible to build or even renovate in the centre of villages, while plans for little rabbit hutch estates on the outskirts are nodded through.

There are, however, still plots for individual builds.

In general, if the land is near medium-tension or low-tension electricity lines, has water mains not too far away, and can be accessed without risk to road users, there is a good chance it might be approved for building.

Similar conditions apply for barn conversions.

The taxe Duflot, named after then-housing minister Cécile Duflot, meant that in some areas the taxe foncière on land deemed to be constructible increased 80% from 2015.

It was intended to encourage the release of land for building.

Instead it has often had the reverse effect, with owners fighting to have their land declared non-constructible.

Make sure of the status of any land you want to build on by asking at the mairie, which is likely to be more informed than a notaire in a town some distance away.

If you decide to buy where there is a doubt, it is possible to add a condition in the compromis de vente that the sale goes through only when the permis de construire is approved.

Problems result in a lost deposit, but that is better than years of wrangling over whether your house is legal.

The process of getting a permis requires a fair bit of paperwork but is relatively simple. Most will not have problems, especially if they get an architect to design the house or conversion.

You must use an architect’s plans if the project has a footprint above 150m2. Under that size, an architect’s stamp is likely to speed things through.

A standard form for a permis de construire is used. It can either be collected from the mairie or downloaded from the website.

Processing the document is done by staff at the urban planning office of the department, and effectively their decision is final, even though in law it comes from the maire.

There have been cases where a maire has taken up the case to allow a permis against the advice of the planners and the préfet but they are rare – and even more rarely successful.

Once your form has been filled in, it is handed in to the mairie, with compulsory supporting documents.

These include a map showing the location of the land, builders’ plans showing horizontal, vertical and three-dimensional representations of the building, a notice describing the project, and builder’s plans showing details of the facades and roofs.

A drawing or painting showing how the final building will look is also needed, as well as a photograph showing the land close up and another showing the land from afar.

Another 19 documents can also be required – if, for example, your project requires a wood to be cut down, you need to show a certificate from the prefecture that this is permitted. If old buildings are demolished, you need a supporting notice.

The form includes a section destined for the tax office, which determines how much taxe foncière you pay.

As most old buildings had their last taxe foncière valuations based on 1970s rental rates, expect new-builds or conversions to be among the highest taxed in the commune – it is one of the reasons why maires love new housebuilders.

Once you have handed in the form, the formal time for a decision is two months.

If you have not heard anything at the end of that period, you can assume tacit approval. But during the month after you hand in the form, you might be told there will be a longer delay.

You might be asked for more documents, or receive a letter saying that the nature of your project means that a tacit approval cannot be granted.

In that case, you must wait for formal approval.

Barn conversions often seem to fall into this category, but most are approved.

If you are not contacted within the first month, the standard two-month timeframe applies, and if you do not receive a letter from the administration stopping you doing so, you can start work.

To do so, you make an official déclaration d’ouverture de chantier, either by filling out a form at the mairie or on the internet, show the form from the mairie saying the déclaration has been made, and put up a sign describing the project.

During the two-month period, objections can be made by a third party who judges it illegal. The person lodging the objection has to tell you they have done so within 15 days of completing this.

If an objection is made, the permis might be withdrawn within a three-month period after the objection if the authorities decide it is illegal.

Before doing so, they have to inform you and allow you to respond to their observations.

We couldn’t find what we were looking for, so we built it

When Mary and Yves Douche moved from Provence to the Gers 10 years ago, they could not find the property they were looking for in their price range.

It was only by chance that they ended up building their own house (pictured above).

Mary said: “We were passing a notaire’s office and, on the off chance, went in to see if there were any houses available. There were not, but he did say he knew of a village where some land was for sale, and from there the idea was planted.”

The couple tracked the owners down through the village mairie, and decided that they liked the plot.

They did their sums and found a new house on their ideal plot would cost no more than an older property without the location – and they could build it exactly as they wanted.

So they then engaged an architect after first drawing their own ideas of what they wanted.

“The architect was a good idea – we had to have one because of the size of the house, but he looked after all the administration for the permis de construire, and found a builder and oversaw the construction work,” said Mary.

“We wanted something with a Provençal touch, but which looked as though it had been here for hundreds of years, and I think we succeeded.

“Local artisans did all the stone and woodwork, and the attention to detail which they put into the work was wonderful.”

Their house, with a floor area of 300m2, has four bedrooms with en-suite facilities, a large dining room and open-plan kitchen, sitting room and office, and has underfloor heating. Alongside it is a barn, which is also in the same style.

Mary would encourage others to do the same, especially if they have a clear idea of what they want.

“In our case, we wanted a house which looked as though it had been there for a long time, but with all the mod cons, and although we did not start out wanting to build, it was a good decision.”


Family took on abandoned new house project found on a bike ride

A cycle ride took Marek Woznica and his wife Shirley past an abandoned plot with a stunning view in a village in the Aude.

Intrigued as to why work had stopped with little more than the floorplan and the cellar completed, they asked around and found the house was being built by a British couple. The husband had died suddenly and it was up for sale.

Marek said: “Until then, the idea of building our own house had just been something in the back of my mind, passed on to me by my father, who had got as far as building an extension to his house.

The idea began to grow and we bought the site to finish the house, and immediately had a bout of buyer’s regret, worry and frustration.

“But we kept at it and it all came together and now we have a house we are very happy with.”

The Woznicas employed a local builder to complete the walls and roof.

They did the bulk of the rest of the work themselves, with the help of their two sons, Gareth and James, one of whom is an electrician and the other a mason.

They estimate they saved around €60,000 that way. They stuck with the existing plans, rather than going through the administrative hoops and cost of starting again, even though the house was larger than they needed.

To begin with, work took up all the spare time left over from running a restaurant about 15 minutes away.

“But then we took semi-retirement from the restaurant to let us have more time to work on the house,” Marek said. “And now we have just completed the sale of the restaurant.”

The main surprise was the way the budget never seemed to work out. “We realised we had to plan, so that some things took longer than we thought,” he said. “But now it is done, we are very happy with it and glad that we took the plunge.”

Their house has six bedrooms, with ensuite bathrooms, four of which are in the main house and two in a separate “granny annexe”.

They intend to let the main house to holidaymakers in the summer, while they live in the annexe.

“It is a lot of hard physical work, but very satisfying,” said Marek.


Two years in a caravan

Builder Dave Alcock finished renovating the old house he and his wife Kim bought in the Aude in 2002 and started feeling bored.

He looked for a new project.

The couple thought of buying another renovation project, but were attracted to the idea of using Dave’s construction skills to build their own house from the ground up.

Dave said: “We looked all over and could not find a suitable plot.

“Then, when I was talking about this to a friend, he said ‘Do you know about the plot in our own village which can be built on?’. It was just on the edge of the village and we decided it was ideal.”

The couple (pictured) sold their own house and moved into a caravan on site, with their goods stored in two shipping containers, also on-site.

“It took two years living in the caravan, which was a long time, but we did nearly all the work ourselves,” said Dave.

“I drew the plans to building standards and a friend who is an architect checked them over and put them through for the permis de construire.

“The electricity and water people were very friendly and helpful.”

He bought a mini-digger, which proved to be an inspired decision, not just for the foundations but for other work during the build.

“The only problem is it is a bit small, a 1.5-tonne machine, when a 2.5-tonne would have been better,” he said. “I broke the arm while digging the foundations and had to get it welded.”

Another problem came when the first concrete lorry arrived, and found it could not turn the bend in the road to get into position to pour.

Dave said: “The chap had to get on the phone to get a pump sent here, which, luckily, he was able to do.”

The couple have moved into the 150m2 house that has cost them €140,000 in total.

The digger is still being put to good use – Dave has used it to dig the hole for a swimming pool and has had the concrete base poured, so work on the sides can begin.

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