A beginner's guide to French barn conversions
Post-purchase guidance | Renovations and conversions
A beginner's guide to French barn conversions
Converting a French barn into a new house or holiday let is so much more than a home improvement project. Here's how to plan ahead to get the most from your build and your budget, as well as avoiding common pitfalls along the way!
1. Practical considerations
Firstly, look at the practicalities of the barn and its location. Ask yourself the following: 'Will the building allow me to achieve my goals?'
Consider the barn itself
Is the roof high enough for a first floor and/or attic conversion to be added? Is the barn shaped correctly for the number of rooms you want? Are water, gas and electricity lines already hooked up or will they need to be installed?
Look at the land and location
Is the building easily accessible? You'll need to consider not only the potential for a driveway, garage and access by car and larger vehicles once the conversion is complete, but also if there are likely to be onsite access issues while the work is being done. If the site can't be reached by construction machinery and heavy goods vehicles, you'll undoubtedly add time and cost to the project overcoming accessibility issues from day one.
Do your research
Are there local builders and architects who can help? Check out the local building suppliers: will you and your chosen contractors be able to easily source what's needed for the build?
Ensure the best return on investment
Once the conversion work is complete, what will it be used for? For example, if you're planning to rent out the property as a holiday home, ensure local amenities are adequate for paying guests. Don't forget annual controls - you'll need the correct certificates for services and safety. And make sure you are aware of the number of other gîtes in the area: a little competition is a good thing but it's important to secure a healthy annual return on your investment.
2. Technical considerations
Next, take a look at the technicalities of the building. Remember that a barn isn't built for human habitation, so look at its current structural condition. Is it technically sound enough to accommodate renovation? To answer this question, you'll need to give serious consideration to the following:
Main structure: Are the floor and walls sound?
Electrics: Is the barn connected to mains power?
Drainage: Is drainage sufficient? Will you be able to upgrade any existing drainage system?
Roof: Is the roof in good condition? Is it lined and/or waterproofed (e.g. will tiles need to be replaced)?
Timberwork: Are beams, joists and other woodwork adequate to support the conversion and free from termites and wet/dry rot? Will you need to invest in replacements or upgrades to doors and windows?
The elements above can be costly to repair and even more expensive to install, so having a good understanding of the building's condition and estimated costs for resolving key technical issues will help you manage your budget more effectively.
3. Planning considerations
Planning considerations and restrictions are also very important.
Is the building listed (classé)? Before you make any modifications to a listed building, you'll need to contact the préfecture for permission. In most cases, permission is given, and internal works are usually allowed, but be aware that your planned alterations might face certain restrictions (such as matching stonework or tiles of the local area).
Similarly, if the house overlooks an ancient monument (such as a château or church), any work to the front elevation of the building may be strictly limited, and again, you'll need to find out what's allowed first.
Also, bear in mind that restrictions can vary depending on your location. Modifications are normally more controlled in towns/cities, where there are adjoining buildings or accessibility to consider, for example, whereas controls are usually more relaxed for countryside properties.
Change of use
As in the UK, converting a barn to habitable accommodation is classed as a change of use and planning permission will be needed before you begin. You'll also need to provide drawings and plans to show your proposed conversion.
Depending on the size of the building, you may need to instruct an architect to help with this. While there will be fees involved, an architect will be able to assist with controlling the cost and quality of the work, so consider this an investment in your conversion project.
4. Cost considerations
Know what you can achieve
Make sure you're clear whether your investment is worthwhile. If you're planning to convert the barn into a 4-bed holiday let, ensure you understand what needs to be done and how much you might need to spend on the conversion. Once you know what's possible, practical and financially viable, you'll be able to make an informed decision on your next steps.
Issues and defects
Also ensure you're aware of any issues with the building. Some problems will be obvious and can be budgeted for, but it's the hidden defects that can really put your investment at risk. Issues like unsafe wiring, poor drainage, earthen floors, termites, and subsidence are often discovered when the build is well underway, and may add considerable unforeseen costs to your project.
Invest in a property survey
A good surveyor will be able to carry out a professional assessment of key technical and structural aspects of the building, help you determine the viability of your plans for the conversion, and recommend the best approach. Most importantly, you should also receive indicative cost estimates for building works and rectifying any defects, so you don’t face any financial surprises.
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