Our goal was to get the renovation to the point where we could participate in the finishing, painting, etc. We are accustomed to living in chaos if need be and had just spent six months being displaced in our own home in the United States while dealing with our water damage disaster. Thankfully, we have one of those FROGS (Family Room Over the Garage) that was a finished space, and completely removed from the damaged sections of the house. We had a place to sleep, a bathroom, and had set up a 6’ folding table where we were able to have a coffee maker, toaster oven, Vitamix, and had purchased a small refrigerator. I’m not saying we were doing any gourmet cookery there – but I did manage to master making scrambled eggs in a toaster oven, so…
As we reviewed all of the contractor proposals (Devis) we were struck with the reality of what we’d taken on and especially with the cost of the painting contracts. These contracts were triple what we would have paid in the US, so why were these numbers so high? And why did everyone in France seem to feel the numbers were in line with normal? Our thought is we would have the paint contractor do the items that were, shall we say, beyond our skill set and we would paint the bedrooms, kitchen, dining room, salon, bathrooms, and the entire second floor. This would leave the main entry, ceilings, stairwell, first floor entry, windows, grilles, gates, and floors for the paint contractor. It certainly cut the quote down to a manageable number for us. We’d go over and spend two weeks painting. Sounds doable. Problem was, as I explained before, no one told us why the painter is so vital to your project.
One of the items we had taken out of the proposal was removal of all old wallpaper – since we had been told it could be painted over and commonly was. Not long into the construction I received an urgent call from France – this was the second call. The first one was to tell me the ceilings on the first floor needed to be re-plastered. The ground floor ceilings would be fine with smooth fiberglass, but now, the wallpaper must be removed everywhere. Because the house had sat unheated for what was now its third winter, the cold and damp conditions had caused the wallpaper to begin to separate from the limestone walls. There really was not option other than to remove it. Ok, so let’s add that also back into the contract… Painter is now happy. I would come to fully understand later how important it is to make your painter happy. He is an artisan, and as such takes a tremendous amount of pride in his work, so you want him to be proud of what he’s doing. Asking him to paint over a very imperfect substrate would be criminal.
About one month prior to my visit beginning the end of May, I received a picture of the new ceiling work in the main entry – the new ceilings were beautiful and things appeared to really be shaping up.
Then, the painter visited the house to access the progress to know when he could begin his work and the following pictures were sent to me –
Our beautiful ceilings had fallen down in the entry and we were in danger of losing the mouldings if they were not repaired immediately – not to mention the fact this was a scheduling delay and more expense. Bottom line – they needed to be repaired and they needed it done quickly before additional damage would be done.
I contacted the carpenter who was responsible for hiring the plaster man and he was dispatched immediately. There was much discussion about the ceiling and my stressing the impetus of preserving the mouldings which I feared would be destroyed in the process. They explained to me the medallions would be detached, then the loose plaster removed, new plaster board attached and then the decorative medallions reattached. I held my breath, but everything went as promised and the ceilings were repaired just before my arrival.
I arrived May 29th, 2017, Memorial Day in the US – two weeks before my husband to sort things out and after my first visit to the house – I returned to the Chateau and wanted to cry. So many things were a long way from being painted. And several things were not where they were supposed to be. Evidently, to some, blueprints are, well…a suggestion. My husband was due on June 10th, and although I was to be here for just over two months, he would only be here to help me for two weeks. We were met with walls that were so far from ready to paint it was ridiculous.
Well, let me tell you why – and I really wish someone had explained this to me beforehand. You will have contractors for the demolition and construction of new surfaces, you will have plaster men (not being sexist here, that’s what they’re called and no, I never saw a female plasterer here), electrical contractors, plumbers, kitchen contractors, masons, etc., and THEN the painters. Most of these contractors do exactly as they would in the US – except the painters. In France, your painter will insist they be the last contractor on site. They want everyone else to be done with their work. They are the ones who will not only paint your doors, but they will strip, sand, repair, and then paint. If there is glass in the door, it will likely be completely repointed before finishing. Your plaster? The plaster man doesn’t sand and finish it – your painter does. Walls not perfect? The painter will smooth and cover every surface of wall with fiberglass paper. Those beautiful mouldings at the crown or ceiling – those ceiling medallions? Completely repaired, primed and painted. If your ceilings are old (as were ours), then they will also get a layer of smooth fiberglass before painting. Perfection – that is the goal of a good and ‘serious’ painter, and ours was SERIOUS! Your painter is going to be your best friend. They work from top to bottom, so they will start with the ceilings to get them perfect, then move on to windows, doors, walls, and finally, the floors. In our case, they also cleaned and repainted our window grilles and gates.
This team shows up bright and early, (whistling) have their espressos and cigarettes (yes, they have brought their own little espresso machine), set up their brushes and buckets for the day and all the while listening to American music and singing the entire day! Lunch break is at noon when they sit together and relax, eat and talk amongst themselves, then an hour later, they’re all back to work. Depending on the crew, the job, etc., they work either four eight-hour days or five seven-hour days. Our crew worked mostly five-day weeks – and on one occasion they were even there on a Saturday which is unheard of in most instances. If they leave on Friday and tell you they will see you on Monday, then they will be there on Monday.
This is the crew who will be responsible for not simply ‘renovating’ your house – they will be responsible for ‘restoring’ your house. As I watched them work, I realized I was witnessing the greatest artistry in home finishing. I learned A LOT and even thought I should call a couple of my favorite paint contractors from the US and encourage them to come and just watch because it would have been worth the price of a plane ticket to see them work.
So, hubby arrives on the 10th of June and with nary a day to recover, we set about doing what we can. Our logical thinking is we will begin with the second floor and get our suite squared away first, so we have a place to hang our hat at the end of the day. All we need is a place to sleep, coffee maker, a refrigerator, and perhaps a microwave. He thought we would drive directly to the house from the airport and move in. Didn’t happen that way. We ended up staying at the chateau for another week before finally sleeping at our house. We’d get up, have coffee and a bit to eat before checking office email, then with work clothes on, head straight to the house to sand, spackle, prime, paint, clean, clean, clean….I had the beds delivered on the 9th, before my husband arrived so they were all in the centers of the rooms, still in plastic and drop clothed as well.
For the next six days, we worked 12-14 hours a day to get the second-floor suite finished (well, all exposed beams scrubbed, and the walls and ceilings painted at least), and on the 16th of June, we spent our first night sleeping in the house! This gave us the weekend alone, without contractors so we could sleep a bit more and fully assess the mess we had gotten ourselves into. At this point, we were becoming fully enlightened as to the depths of work the painter is responsible on a project and began re-appropriating more work. We decided the painter must do ALL ceilings, then trim (by the way, this is not finished either. It will be of poor-quality wood that will need to be puttied, smoothed, etc. before even considering primer) And yes, at this point we have given the painter the green light to apply fiberglass to ALL walls. Before we were done, the painter had roughly 70% of his original contract and not the 35% we had begun with and we were feeling he had more than earned every euro he received. Merde!
We sanded, we painted, and we did so during one of the most brutal summers in a while. Some days it was 110◦ with no rain and no reprieve. My only saving grace was the bathtub I had installed in our bathroom that I had taken to keeping cool water in. This would allow me to get my core body temperature down when it was all just too much. My husband pushed himself too hard one day and ended up with heat exhaustion. After that, I monitored him closely and made certain he was getting enough fluids, rest and just plain taking a break before allowing himself to get overheated. If you don’t know anything about heat exhaustion – it’s serious and can lead to heat stroke if left unchecked. And once you get it, you are more susceptible to it, so be careful!
By the time he departed at the end of his two weeks, I had a manageable amount of work remaining. The kitchen, dining room, and salon, on the ground floor were painted, as was the entire second floor, plus bedroom two and bathroom one on the first floor. I needed to paint bedrooms three and one, touch up at the ceilings on all rooms, and paint trim. Doable. Yet that bedroom one, with all the fancy wall moulding and trim seemed to be taking on a life of its own. The painter was putting such painstaking energy into getting all that trim just so…and asking periodically if I was still planning to paint it. Finally, I surmised this was a room he really wanted to complete on his own so asked him, “C’est combine pour finir cette piece?” The amount was staggeringly low so I simply said, “Oui, si’l vous plait – merci!”. Now my work was down to a manageable level.
I can state with confidence I had the best of the best. My electrician was awesome – not only did he follow my blueprints, but was what I like to call a forward thinking professional. He cut no corners and took the initiative to lay any additional lines needed for any and all potential ongoing renovation. If there was a hole to be filled or a light fixture he felt lacking – he installed it. I can honestly say I’ve never, in all my years in construction ever worked with such proficiency. His motto/mantra was “No problem!” Loved it! My plumbers work was also impeccable, and he will continue to work with me to ensure my ongoing boiler maintenance. He even assisted me more than once with securing fuel deliveries and making sure they were completed.
The carpenter who was responsible for demolition and new construction was also excellent – but took a bit more babysitting. The phrase that comes to mind when I think over the work of this contractor was, “You want fries with that too?” Let me explain. (and this is but one example) We had a window with an ice box beneath it in the kitchen we intended to have removed and replaced with a door. Perhaps I misread their quote but, I got the door. I did not get a finished opening, nor trimmed, not a handle for the door. After seeing the numerous areas of incompletion and meeting with the carpenter – I did get these items resolved, but not without a good deal of negotiating. By the last phase of work, they had clearly placed their best man on the job and all was completed to my satisfaction.
One of the first issues to arise during my January/February visit was with the floors on the ground level. In France, there is a code that stipulates you must have approximately 6 cm of concrete under any floor receiving tile. This was something I was unaware and unfortunately for us, there was an existing concrete slab in the kitchen. For us to install the cement tiles we desired would have required breaking the entire slab in the kitchen to make this possible because traditional cement tiles are already a few centimeters thick. (roughly ¾”) We had intended to lay this tile in the entry and run it into the kitchen. Given the code with the concrete, we needed to not only remove the floor boards in the entry (which were also astoundingly thick), but to accommodate the concrete slab, we needed to cut down the supporting beams. The resolution was to remove the floor boards, cut down the beams, then in the adjoining kitchen, remove the existing tile and install a much thinner tile so the two floors would align. I originally had planned to run the cement tile into the kitchen and have a center patterned tile as a decorative ‘carpet’. Instead, I used this decorative patterned tile throughout the entire kitchen. This was not only the best decision, but the smartest since I later discovered these cement tiles take a bit of maintenance that would be less suited to a kitchen environment.
Another issue was with the remainder of the wood floors. The bedrooms on the first floor had been previously covered in carpet. With the carpet now removed, the painter was pointing out all of the problems that we had not seen before. These floors were riddled with insect damage and there were many areas where the gaps between boards or the boards were so out of line that they would be impossible to sand and finish as they were. This necessitated removal of many boards and piecing in new ones while filling smaller insect holes with a wood putty. Not a perfect solution but in the end we have floors that are original and full of character. And those boards where we filled in? If I didn’t point it out to you, you wouldn’t notice. For the finishing, I had opted to have them all sanded, then stained to match the color of the front door and stairs, then varnished. The result are floors that look as they should in my opinion.
Some additional things I’ve learned:
- Do not assume because it’s clearly marked on a blueprint it’s going to get done – or even that’s what they priced or included in their quote.
- Do not assume they don’t have good advice. This is their country and they know their codes as well as what works and what does not work.
- You will not need a building permit for a renovation – even an extensive one. The state will render their compensation with the 10-20% TVA on everything you do.
- If your house is beyond a certain age, which I believe is 50+ years, you will only pay 10% TVA and not 20%. This, however, does not apply to items such as kitchen cabinets, appliances, swimming pools, or landscaping.
- Depending on where your house is can make a huge difference in finding contractors and building materials. If you are in a very remote area it’s going to be much harder than if you are relatively close to a large city center.
- Use local contractors. While it may be appealing to use an American or British contractor, it can be problematic. Do yourself a favor and learn enough French to communicate. I did the best I could, and when I couldn’t I used my cell phone with Microsoft translator software. It was a bonus for us because we had made friends with a couple of local people who were French and could assist in the beginning – but for day to day interactions, you may find yourself on your own.
- If you are not intimately familiar with the process of renovation, hire a general contractor and don’t try to do this yourself. We managed because we could not find one available and since it was in our wheel house, it was not as intimidating. In hindsight, I probably would have hired a general contractor because we were not able to be here as much as we should have to oversee. If there is a question, work will and does stop. If the work stops, you have no idea when it will resume.
- Your best sources of information initially are the people who live here. I would keep a list of items I was looking for or places for services I needed and when given the opportunity I would ask for recommendations. Once I was out and about I would spend a bit of time just looking at what was available close to me.
- During the discovery period when the house is being inspected for everything from hazardous materials to insect damage, remember – they only look at what they can see. If, per se, there is insect damage under carpet or linoleum – it will not be seen nor reported. If they check for termites, but there has been another insect burrowing into your wood floors or beams, you are only protected by their insurance if it were termites. The damage to our floors was not termite, so it was our responsibility to mitigate it ourselves. This applies to all items inspected during this discovery period.
- Do NOT expect local contractors – or anyone here, for that matter, to understand the American way. It is a different pace here and once you accept that you will have far less frustration. After all, isn’t that part of the reason you wanted to move here?
During my last two weeks of the summer here, my adult daughter joined me to see the house, enjoy a bit of France, and to assist in any way she could. She traveled first to Paris for a few days of shopping, then took the train to Bordeaux where I picked her up and spent the remainder of the day in that city before driving to the house. For the first week, we alternated work days with days that included an activity such as a wine tasting and cave tour, enjoying a gastronomic meal, or a bit of shopping. Her big job while here was to take care of meals, scrub and polish all the windows, and clean where she could. By the end of these last two weeks, we could safely say we could return and live in the house and enjoy it!
Would we do it all over again and participate in the renovation? Probably not, but we can proudly say we came, we conquered, and we successfully assisted in bringing this lovely lady of a house back to her former glory!