Rural French properties often come with the added bonus of outbuildings. This is especially true of older homes, where the outbuildings are often equal in size to the house itself and sometimes even larger. Whilst this can be a huge ‘plus’ factor if you are planning to use the buildings for a specific purpose, perhaps as extra accommodation, having to restore and repair additional buildings can significantly add to the overall renovation budget. So when viewing a property, its always sensible to factor in the cost of renovating the outbuildings.

If you aren’t planning to do anything major to the outbuildings for the time being, it still makes sense to carry out a thorough inspection and evaluate their structural condition. Anything that looks dangerous probably is! This means you may need to consider demolishing or removing elements of the building. Depending on whether or not you eventually plan to replace all or part of the building, you may need to complete un demande de permis d’amenager or un demande de permis de demolir. The ‘Notice explicative pour les demandes de permis de construire, permis d’aménager, permis de démolir et déclaration préalable’, can be downloaded from the gouv.fr web site and clarifies which type of permit you will need. However, as always, its best to start by visiting the local Mairie and asking their advice. Planning requirements will vary from area to area and the local Mairie will be best placed to advise you on your particular situation. A lot will depend on the type and nature of the buildings in question too. Obviously removing an eyesore of a shed which is held together with corrugated iron and string may be viewed quite differently to a request for permission to knock down an old stone barn.

So where should you start with your outbuildings? The roof is key and a roof that needs replacing or repairing will allow water ingress. This will damage the fabric of the building. A leaking roof will also mean that the building is effectively useless. If there are just a few leaks and drips, you may be able to live with the situation. Even so, you will need to ensure that you don’t store anything in the building that could be damaged by being exposed to damp. However if the roof is showing just small amounts of water ingress, replacing missing or broken roof tiles should solve the problem and it is obviously sensible to tackle this as soon as possible and thus prevent further damage. If gutters have been installed, check that they aren’t blocked; if not, you should consider installing gutters and down-pipes. Not only will this prevent water from pooling around the base of the building, but you will also be able to harvest a significant quantity of extra rainwater from the roofs of your outbuildings. Whether you use this for watering the garden, washing the car or for livestock, it will help to significantly reduce your water bill.

The structure of the buildings will probably also require attention. If you are very lucky, you will have acquired a range of solidly constructed, traditional farm outbuildings, all in reasonably good condition. However its far more likely that you will be the proud owner of a ramshackle collection of buildings which have been added to over the years. French outbuildings often seem to have been built entirely from odds and sods with the ‘waste not want not’ principle being rigorously applied. This can make repairing them challenging to say the least! Depending on the type of construction, i.e. block, stone, brick or timber, you may decide to repair or replace any damaged sections. Old stone outbuildings that have been subject to water ingress for a period of time may be in bad condition. Even if you don’t plan to remove sections of the building, you may find that once you start work, the walls start to come down of their own accord. If this happens, you will need to carefully assess the situation and decide on a course of action. Whatever you do, don’t panic - its amazing just how much can be repaired with the judicious application of concrete. You can also replace the damaged sections with breeze blocks. These and the other exterior walls, can eventually be rendered to give the building a uniform appearance. As the majority of buildings would have been built without foundations, you may also want to consider adding a reinforced concrete belt around the base of the building. This can be shuttered into place and will strengthen the structure. You may find that there are large gaps or holes in places. You could simply board these up with timber, or alternatively, you might wish to consider making the openings larger and installing doors or windows. A lot depends on what you eventually plan to use the building for. For example, if you want to turn the space into a studio or workshop, then you will require a good source of light to work by. Equally if the space is going to be used for storage of pool equipment and garden furniture, then any daylight is an added bonus rather than a necessity.

Most outbuildings will have earth floors and if you can stretch to it, replacing the earth floor with a concrete slab, will make the space far more practical. Depending on the size of the building, you may want to mix and pour this yourself or order a truck load of ready-mixed concrete. This is a better option for large spaces and the end result will be better, especially if you opt for self-leveling concrete. Having a solid floor will make the building suitable for numerous purposes and mean than any spills are much easier to clean up.

Whilst thinking about floors, if there is enough height within the building, it makes sense to install an extra floor. This could be a simple mezzanine storage area accessed by a ladder or a whole first floor and staircase. Depending on layout and budget, you might wish to install roof windows to give additional light. If you do have space to install a first floor, think about windows and light early on in the renovation process. Installing roof windows at the same time as any roof repairs are being carried out, will make life simpler and reduce labour costs. There may already be openings that will be suitable for the installation of windows and doors. Many outbuildings will also have small openings that were designed to provide ventilation. Rather than boarding these up or filling them in, you could consider covering them with perspex which will allow light through. Old doors and windows can often be repaired. However if you are planning to keep anything of value in your outbuildings, make sure that the door is of sufficient strength to act as a security measure and solid enough to allow for the installation of a lock.

Whilst renovating the outbuildings may seem less important than tackling the main property itself, with a little time and thought, your outbuildings can become a useful part of the property. They are also the ideal place to practice DIY skills such as pointing and concreting. Adopting a ‘waste not want not’ policy, will allow you to use up any extra materials that may be left over from the main renovation project. You can also opt to use reclaimed materials and make sure that you let friends and neighbours know that you are happy to take delivery of unwanted items. If you need to buy materials the French site www.boncoin.fr is a great place to find timber, staircases, loft ladders, doors, windows and so on. Most of the stuff is second hand and very reasonably priced. Look in the Bricolage / Jardinage section for your area and snap up a bargain.

What is shuttering?

Shuttering is a term used to describe the creation of temporary moulds, which are usually made of timber, into which concrete is poured. They can be any shape or size. Once the concrete has hardened sufficiently, the shuttering is removed. Frequently, shuttering is used to create lintels above openings, but can also be employed to form anything from work-tops to walls.

What is self-leveling concrete?

Self-leveling compounds are added to concrete to allow the concrete to flow much more easily than a standard mix. The self leveling concrete (beton auto nivellant) is usually poured from a pump but can be mixed by hand if only a small quantity is required. The concrete is then simply pushed around and finally leveled using a special tool. It is a fantastically time-saver, although it is more expensive than a standard mixture. It can only be used when a completely flat surface is required. If your slab requires a slope, to drain water away from a building for example, then self leveling concrete would be unsuitable.

Copyright - Catharine Higginson

I agree about keeping and eye on outbuildings - we have identified a need to do some remedial work on the roof of our coach house, before it becomes a major cost and a headache.

Also, we have started to make use of the space, and have created a summer kitchen cum utility room, plus an office for OH. This has given us more space in the house and an ideal place for working from home.

We had to ensure that all the correct wiring was run, plus cabling for running the computers, so it wasn't a quick process.

We also did some external rendering on the building to ensure it was sealed from the wet and damp, as it would have spoiled the work that has been done in there.

We have plenty of ideas as to how to use the rest of the outside space (it is bigger than the house itself) but from a cost point of view, it is the same as renovating your main home - a few bits of chipboard and planks just won't cut it when the wet weather comes!