Builders in France: Dealing with Them: Our House Renovations – Stage 1

Builders in France are the same as in the rest of the world.  There are for the most part the brilliant ones but alas there exists a small minority  that give the industry a slighted reputation.  

We have dealt with both ends of the spectrum.  At least the bad ones have given us all the funny stories we hear around the dinner table and read in the countless well-known books written on that subject.  We all remember “A Year in Provence” during the height of the British invasion of France in the late 80s, early 90s.  Over the course of the coming articles I will recount our experiences with the good, the bad and, dare I say it, the ugly!

This series of posts deals with our attempts to renovate and extend the house we bought back in 1993.

Other Posts in the Series


The Procedure

Our Cottage

Original Cottage 1993

The procedure should be straightforward in the main.  One decides to renovate/extend one’s property, consults a builder and architect, plans are drawn, estimates received.  Decisions can be made, engagements are undertaken, plans passed and the work done.  On completion with everybody happy, the final amounts of money are handed over and all is great.

I don’t wish to get into all of the technical details as these have been well-recorded in a series of articles on the French Property website.  They are clear and concise and have been written by someone more expert than myself.  While the overall descriptions are for new properties, much is pertinent to renovations and extensions also.  Below I give the links to the start of each topic.

 Our First Experience – A Leap in the Dark!

Builders in France - Stage 1 Complete

Stage 1 Complete – Outside

We had our plans drawn up by a British architect living in Italy, a friend of a friend.  First mistake!  The plans covered taking the roof off the shower room, building up and forwards and making a bathroom en suite to the mezzanine.  There was also a plan for covering the terrace as there was no shade at the property.  Summers can be extremely hot in the Lot and without shade days can be long and searing.

Our friends always finished their school year before us and were at the cottage.  They contacted a builder for us.  We had made an initial call late the previous summer.  They had shown him the plans, he had taken a copy and a meeting was set up for the evening we arrived.  He duly arrived at the allotted hour for ‘apero’ with a devis (estimate).  The estimate seemed reasonable though they didn’t include the covering of the terrace.  He was honest enough about not being able to start straight away but guaranteed that the work could be done by Christmas.  Fair play to him, he sorted out the necessary arrangements to have the plans passed and all seemed well.  We even had dinner at his house and we met him and his wife at a champêtre (literally – rural but in this case was an outdoor meal during a village fête).  During this period we also made it clear in the long term we would build basically a second house onto the first as we wanted to use the old part as a gîte.

We spent the rest of the holidays ordering what was necessary for the new bathroom.  We paid a deposit for the work and at the end of the holiday, left to go back to Singapore.  He had agreed he would pick up the keys from a friend in the village, a retired farmer.

We returned for the Christmas holidays – the builder had sorted out the necessary formalities and paperwork and, had done the work.  We arrived during a Saturday evening, too late to pick up the keys from our friend so we went down into Cahors, had a meal and booked into a Formule 1.  That was an interesting experience!  Perhaps another time but maybe best left to a dinner time tale!

Seeing the Work

Finished Bathroom

Finished Bathroom

The next morning, Sunday, we went to see our friend in the village to pick up the keys.  They were not happy and said they would never hold the keys if we used the builder again!  Apparently he had been incredibly rude and obnoxious towards them.  Later in the week, we heard from our neighbours across the road that he had left his team working on the property and would come by from time to time shouting and screaming at them!  This didn’t sit well with us.

As for the work; the outside looked good and we thought the bathroom was lovely but……..

The entrance to the bathroom had been left unfinished and looked awful.  They had made a hole, fitted a cheap looking door and simply slapped cement around the hole.  We naively assumed this would be finished off after we had gone back to Singapore.   A rude awakening was in store for us!

There was also a small problem of a couple of dripping taps, hot water came out of the cold tap and visa versa.  That wasn’t too bad as it only meant changing the indicator on them.  The door onto the balcony was hard to open and close.  But the most interesting thing was the way a pipe came out of the downstairs shower room at about head height at the foot of the stairs for about 20 cms, bent upwards and went into the new bathroom!  Odd!

Meeting the Team of Artisans

The first person we met was the carpenter, a charming man with whom we have had a long and friendly relationship.  He was concerned about the door he had made and did indeed come back after the Christmas to fix the problem.  When he saw the two obvious problems, he assured us they were provisoire(temporary fixes).  The electrician and plumber arrived at the same time as the builder.  The electrician was fine and his work was good.  We never used him again but this was more by circumstance than anything else.

So we pointed out the problems with the taps to the plumber – he had forgotten to put in any ‘joints’ (washers)! And when we asked about the ‘trapeze’ at the bottom of the stairs the builder jumped down our throats saying it was not ‘provisoire’ and nor was the wall.  I suggested he must have a copper trapeze at the foot of his own stairs and that he wanted us to share in the fun!  He claimed, with regard the wall, the ‘devis’ had only said make a hole and that’s what he had given us!  The devis never said that!  I once looked across at the electrician who was simply shaking his head in disbelief!

Where did that leave us?  Was there such a thing as a small claims court?  Should we refuse to pay?  The ever-so friendly builder before the event had turned into …. I can’t think of a suitable word to say to a mixed audience!

We spent the rest of the Christmas holidays searching for  a new builder who would do the next step of the work , refurbish the shower room and do the terrace. That is when we met the plumber/electrician that would stay with us for the remainder of the major works.  A man with great ideas and very professional in all he did.  He worked with us until he retired as did the carpenter.  He came with a builder recommended to us by our farmer friend.  Unfortunately the builder was retiring but suggested a replacement.

In spite of all this, Denise & I spent a lovely first Christmas in our house.


So what did we do about the question of the poor work?  Inside the bathroom was fine, we weren’t sure what we could claim and whether it was really worth it.  I guess we should have refused to pay the plumber and the builder but in the end we simply gave them their cheques and said they had no chance in doing further work for us.  The plumber was somewhat upset – his attitude had clearly been bravado in front of the builder.  The builder was another kettle of fish, a most unpleasant man!

We did end up paying to put right their wrongs but at least we got rid of them!  What would you have done?

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3 Responses to Builders in France: Dealing with Them: Our House Renovations – Stage 1

  1. Clive December 16, 2013 at 12:42 am #

    Hi David, it’s very hard to call. I know some that would have said no chance, your not getting paid a penny or a Cent, until you put the work right. But then we sometimes read about them in the obituaries, admittedly rarely but it does happen. This is where the bully’s can succeed, where an honest guy can loose out by being undercut by a rogue.
    From my point of view you probably did the right thing, get rid and move on. We all learn by our experiences, it’s part of life’s rich tapestry (not my words obviously) but then being a scholar you know that 🙂 Upside is you have no worries about your family being in an awkward situation in the village in the future, and can hold your heads up high while they will try and avoid you.
    Regards Clive & Lisa

  2. Dave Foston December 17, 2013 at 1:28 pm #

    Hi Clive & Lisa

    Thanks so much for your comment. Looking back I think too we did the right thing as we could see he had a belligerent manner. He even brought backup when he came for his money! We felt he couldn’t see further than the end of his nose and consequently missed out on a lot of work later on. Luckily he was from a neighbouring village and we received nothing but full support from all our neighbours.

    We have more stories to come in the New Year once I can search out some of our older photos.

    Take care both of you and I hope you enjoyed our tale.

  3. Erik Vreeman January 28, 2016 at 9:31 pm #

    Yes, yes, I remember your first plumber. Remarkable guy. Strange way of connecting the hot and the cold water on the taps!

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