French News

Building & Renovation

British or French Builder?

Tuesday 15 June 2010

When renovating or constructing your French home, does it make sense to use a French or a British builder?

International owners of French property have long since ceased to be dependant on domestic French building professionals for their new build or property renovation project.

The large presence of expats in many areas of France has created a substantial resource of experienced British and other foreign building professionals.

With demand of building professionals often outstripping supply, you may not be fortunate enough to have the choice, but if language is the major issue for you, then clearly you will need to restrict yourself to an English speaking builder, of whatever nationality!

However, beyond the question of language there is no easy answer, and it would be unwise to choose on the basis of language or nationality alone.

Stories of the abuses of unsuspecting British owners by their compatriots are commonplace, as are those of overcharging of international clients by French builders.

What are some of the steps you can take to ensure you make the right choice?

Building Estimate

The first issue to consider is the quotation for the works. You need to make sure you get a written one, and if it is to be given in French, you will need to be certain that what you are being offered is what you asked for, and at a fair market price. Indeed, whatever the language in which the estimate may be written, check it carefully!

If you have only limited French language ability, and/or you lack an understanding of building practices and materials, it is going to be difficult for you to determine whether you are getting what you expect, and whether it is value for money.

Building quotations need to be understood as much as for what they omit, as for what they say!

Getting alternative quotes may be one way around the problem, but without a common specification of works against which each builder can quote, you may well find the quotes are not comparable. By all means consider using a French architect to prepare a specification, but you also need to be prepared to pay for it.

A smart move would be to find out if there is a British building surveyor or architect in the area, and obtain their assistance in the preparation of the specification and/or evaluation of the quote(s). Their fees are likely to be more competitive than a French architect, although you need to be certain of their professional credentials.

Type of Works

The second issue to consider is the type and scale of works you are proposing to carry out.

If knowledge of building regulations is important then, clearly, you can expect French tradesmen to have a better understanding of the relevant standards.

While building regulations in France are generally less strict than those in the UK, there are few occasions when you can now expect to work on a French building site without some knowledge of these regulations.

Clearly, if the work is of a specialist nature, then you need to be sure the builder has experience of working on the type of structure, or with the materials you wish to use.

Efficiency on Site

The third issue to consider is the level of efficiency on site. French building professionals can be expected to know their way around French building materials, suppliers, local officials, building structures and work practices and, therefore, be more efficient on site.

All can seriously affect the price you pay for the work, and the quality of the build.

French builders have a strong artisanal tradition, so you can expect to find that the skills of most French tradesmen are high, and often (but not always) superior to those of many building professionals from elsewhere.

While a UK tradesman may be well qualified and experienced in the UK, do not underestimate the learning curve they will need to go through in France.

This is particularly the case for plumbers and electricians from abroad, where the case for using a local French tradesmen may be stronger than one of the other building trades.

Even builders in the 'wet' trades from the UK do take time to acquaint themselves with the materials used in France, which are not always to the same specification of those from the UK.

If you have a mix of both French and English speaking builders on site, you need to consider how they are going to be able to coordinate their activities and, if neither can understand the other, you may have a problem!

Nevertheless, there are no universal truths in the building trade. While we think you would be well-served by using a good local French artisan, we are reluctant to generalise in favour of a French builder.

There are 'cowboy' building professionals of all nationalities, and the regulations in France controlling entry into the general building trades are not as tight as many would believe.

There are also a large number of very good expat building professionals who have been established in the France for many years, and whose own knowledge, competence, and level of efficiency is as high as those of French builders.

Those from the UK have a tradition of working under the external monitoring of the building control officer, often to a higher specification than is the case in France.

Many of them also operate in France within multi-national teams, drawing in expertise irrespective of nationality. Indeed, with the shortage of building labour in some areas of France, there are now also many French companies who employ foreign building labour!

So, of greater importance than nationality is the track record of the builder in France.

Accordingly, make a point of speaking to previous recent clients of the builder to find out the level of their satisfaction. Ask around amongst the locals, both French and expats. Find out the word on the street about them!

Find out more about the labour force the builder is proposing to use on site - are they their own employees, or temporary building labour they may be bringing in for the job, who may also be self-employed?

If you select on the basis of individual trades, rather than a single company, make sure they can work with one another, and that they are capable of dovetailing on programme dates.

Particularly if major or structural works are involved, you should also insist on seeing their 10 year building insurance guarantee for without it it could well be far more difficult to deal with later problems, should they arise.

Determine the approach to supervision of the works on site. Are you to do it? Will you leave it to the builder, or do you think you need to engage an independent supervisor? Whatever you do, make sure the site is visited on a regular basis; with a major renovation or new build project, this should be at daily. Do not try and manage a second home renovation from abroad; you are simply asking for trouble. Engage someone to look after the project for you, after you have first checked out their credentials!

Finally, try and give yourself the ability to choose either a French or British builder by learning something about building construction, French building construction/renovation costs, and the French language. Renovating a property abroad is no small affair, and a fool and their money are soon parted if you put blind faith in your architect and/or builder.

Whichever way you go make sure you use a builder with a French business registration, because that is the only way you will be able to get the reduced 5.5% rate of VAT, and the only way you will have latent building defects cover. Using an unregistered builder also happens to be illegal, unless you are using a registered company from abroad!

The business registration number is called the 'Siren'. Ask the builder for their Siren number and then check it by visiting Insee.

Make sure you keep all of the bills for the work, as you will need these if you later decide to sell the property and you have a capital gains tax liability.

We would be interested to hear your feedback on the use of foreign building professionals over the locals, and of your experiences of renovating or building a property in France.

You can read more in our guide to Building a New Home in France.

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