Improving your French property does not always increase its value, so choose what to do with care, says John Marshall, a chartered surveyor living in the Aude.
Brits have a strong culture of home improvement, so it is not surprising that the first thing most new owners of French property want to do is carry out works to their new home.
However, in my experience there are a considerable number of international owners who regret the amount of money they spent on their French home, leaving them short of cash, and unable to recover the investment in the sale price of the property.
Changing windows, adding an extension, or improving the grounds might well make sense, but those works that add the greatest value are not necessarily the ones you might like to do.
So what are the main issues to consider?
One can change many features of the property, but one that cannot be changed its location.
So, above anything else, you need to ask if, given the location and nature of the property, it makes economic sense to carry out the works.
Even if the property is an attractive one, you need to have very personal reasons for wanting to carry out investment that bears no relation to the environment in which the property is located.
If these reasons do not exist, there needs to be a coherence between the location of the property and the cost and nature of the works. You can make a house too big and too plush for the location, so don't spend more than the maximum price achievable for a house in the area.
The only guaranteed way to add value is to add m². The habitable surface area excludes passages, so removing passages to increase the 'surface habitable' is often a good idea, but may make the place more expensive to heat and cool.
Take Your Time
Do nothing for a year or so, or at least do the minimum necessary. Often, ideas change when you have lived there through four seasons, as use patterns change from winter to summer. So get the feel of how the house works and find out which areas get the most use and traffic flow around the house.
When considering the works to be carried out the most important priority is to consider the organisation of the space in the property and to do work that makes that space practical and attractive.
The lay-out of older property, in particular, is often unsuitable for modern needs so some change is normally desirable.
A great deal of older property is irregular and often tortuous, so the most important priority is to clearly demarcate separately the property for living purposes, cooking, sleeping and washing.
Other works on the list of priorities are decoration and luminosity. Provided the property is in a reasonable condition, painting is one of the most economically efficient works that can be carried out.
Avoid exotic colours and use colours that are clear and simple.
Closely linked to the paintwork is the luminosity, which is often the key to improving value.
The priority should be to maximise the volume and the luminosity of the property.
To achieve these objectives, it is rarely necessary to add an extension; much better to remove dividing walls, to repaint in neutral colours and perhaps to change floor surfaces, which may be too dark.
Rooms without natural light and ventilation are not proper rooms, so put bathrooms in dark areas. They can be given natural light via a sun pipe.
Bathroom and Kitchen
Those rooms in the property to which you should give priority should be the bathroom and the kitchen.
Such investments are doubly interesting, for they do not necessarily involve substantial and costly works.
Thus, it does not necessarily make sense to install a fully equipped kitchen, as most households either already have their own kitchen equipment, which they would bring with them, or which they would wish to buy themselves.
Likewise, enjoying a newly installed marble bathroom in your country cottage may well be a wonderfully relaxing experience, but it is unlikely to do anything for the value of the property.
The location of the bathrooms and kitchens is also important. In order to keep down plumbing costs keep pipe runs as short as possible, and as water does not flow uphill, a WC a long way from the exit pipe will need quite a large fall.
French people buy houses in France as well, and they prefer WCs separate to bathrooms.
When it comes to external works, the garden is often the great omission in the house improvements. It is also difficult to measure the level of investment that makes most sense for the property.
However, between a jungle and the gardens of Babylon there exists a reasonable medium. Most properties are sold either in Spring or Summer, so it pays to give attention to the condition of the garden and grounds.
The mimimum necessary would be a nicely cut lawn, with a few mature trees. In addition, if there are immediate neighbours, then the condition of the fencing is also of critical importance.
Be very careful about what you choose to cut down. You will eventually appreciate that full sun is not always welcome and that shade is highly valued, particularly if you have purchased anywhere south of the Loire.
Be careful also about investing in works of energy conservation in the property. Improved roof, window and door insulation will always be of benefit and is low-cost to undertake.
However, many of these works are expensive, and the pay back period long, so you need to act with prudence. In addition, some works, such as new double glazing may not be aesthetically attractive, and may actually reduce the value of the property!
Do not presume you can have a roof terrace and velux skylights if your property is located in a conservation area, as the 'Architects Bâtiments de France' are involved in the planning approval process; they tend not to like them.
Neither should you presume you can just add a new window; you have to own the land over which it will open/overlook.
Take advice before removing walls, even thin partitions can have a structural function and provide rigidity to the frame of the building.
John Marshall CEnv FRICS CNEI