Winterising your French home

Whether you are the proud owner of a residence secondaire or a full time French resident, ensuring that your property is ready for winter will pay dividends. Tackling household maintenance before the bad weather sets in, is especially important if you are planning to leave your property unoccupied over the winter months.

Every home will have slightly different issues that need to be addressed so the best thing to do is to go through the property and outbuildings and make an individual checklist. This may be useful in the future if for example, you have friends staying and ask them to close up the property for the winter.

One of the most basic but also most important things to do inside the house is to clean thoroughly. Not only will this make the property far more welcoming when you return but ensuring the house is crumb free, will reduce the risk of rodent infestations during your absence! Make sure any food items such as half used packets of pasta or tea bags are stored in secure containers. Remove old newspapers and anything else which may be a source of nesting material. You may want to leave traps or poison out if you have suffered previous infestations. However, if anyone else is likely to use the property before you return, make sure that these are clearly indicated and this is especially important if small children are concerned.

Returning to a house that smells musty is never pleasant but there are several things you can do to avoid this. Enhancing air flow inside the building is the key to reducing ‘mustiness’, so leave doors to storage areas and lofts open. Mattresses and pillows can be propped up and cupboard doors left open. Once the fridge has been defrosted and cleaned, leave the door wedged open. Sofas, upholstered chairs and other such dust absorbing items should be covered. Not only will they stay cleaner but should something happen in your absence, they will be more protected than they would otherwise. Furniture or other items that are close to chimneys should also be covered up to protect them from falling soot and so on. Chimneys should be checked and swept on an annual basis and it is a good idea to plan this before the start of the winter season. If you return for a long weekend and want to light a fire, there is nothing worse than discovering that the chimney needs to be swept as the room fills with smoke!

If you heat the property with wood in any way, you should ensure you have an adequate supply of firewood before the winter starts. Full time residents will need to calculate how much they are likely to use and stockpile logs accordingly. Even if you think you are unlikely to return during the winter months, it is a good idea to have a small supply of logs in. Your plans may change or you may need to return for some reason and a fire will provide instant heat.

Depending on the location of your property, how long you are leaving it empty for and the type of heating system installed, you may wish to completely shut off the gas and electrical supplies. However if you have a frost protection feature in the system, you will need to leave an electrical supply running to this. In any case, you can turn off any other unused electrical breakers. It is sensible to ensure that the boiler is fully serviced and in good working order before the winter sets in and the installer will be able to do both this and advise on the best way to run the boiler over the colder months. Whilst you are thinking about heating and plumbing, make sure that all exposed pipe-work is lagged and that external water meters are protected.

Besides insulating pipes and meters, you should also think about the overall insulation levels in the property. If lofts and eaves areas are uninsulated, now is the time to think about doing this. In an older property, even if the loft has been insulated by a previous owner, the chances are that it could easily do with some extra insulation adding, to bring the standard up to current norms.You could also consider insulating walls externally. This is a good solution for older properties where it is not practical to start adding extra insulation internally. If time, financial or other practical constraints prevent you from insulating properly for the time being, do not despair - there are several other things you can do to try to keep the property cosy during the colder weather. Gaps around doors, windows and beams should be filled. Expanding foam is an invaluable ally in the battle against draughts! Heavy curtains make good draught stoppers across ill fitting windows and doors can be fitted with draught excluders which makes a big difference. Owners of hard floors often use rugs during the winter. However, if you have underfloor heating, this can make it less effective. Equally some people swear that using rugs, especially during the spring and autumn months, means they do not need to turn the heating on to the same extent.

Home security is a concern for many owners of second homes. France is generally a very safe country but isolated properties can be a target for thieves. Most thefts are opportunistic so simply making sure that the house, any outbuildings and their contents are well secured and that it is difficult for burglars to enter, is often enough. However, you may want to think about installing security lighting that comes on by a timer to make the property appear occupied or an alarm system. Asking friends or neighbours to keep an eye on the property is another good idea. Leaving a key will enable regular checks to be made inside as well as out and should there be any problem, the key-holder will be able to let in repairers and so on. If there is no one nearby that could do this, there are now numerous companies operating in France, that offer this type of service. Always check that they are fully registered and check references if necessary.

Darker nights make effective outdoor lighting a necessity and installing motion sensor lights can be a good idea. Being able to see clearly as you park, carry shopping in and search for door keys, will be far easier if you can see what you are doing. You should also consider other outdoor tasks, getting firewood in is one example and make sure that the exterior lighting is adequate before the dark nights set in.

Making sure that your property is kept in good condition externally will help it survive the worst of the winter weather. Gutters should be checked regularly for blockages or other damage. Make sure that run off from down pipes is going where it is meant to rather than pooling at a corner of the building, a scenario which can lead to big problems in the long term. Check roofs for missing, slipping or damaged tiles and deal with the problem quickly. Shutters should fit securely and be in good working order. Firmly closed shutters will protect windows and frames from winter weather and in any case, having working shutters is often a requirement for household insurance cover. Make sure that doors and windows fit securely and consider installing draught proofing if required.

Storms and high winds seem to be an increasingly common event and whilst you can’t prevent them happening, you can try to minimise potential damage. Take a good look around the property and try to imagine what could be damaged during storm conditions. This is especially important if you are likely to be absent for periods of time. Store unsecured items such as garden furniture, rotary washing lines and large pots somewhere where they will not get blown over. Falling roof tiles can create a lot of damage so move any items that could get broken away from the edges of the building if possible. Try to arrange for someone to come and check over the property after any particularly bad weather.

Pools can be closed down for the winter season and much like inside the house, the key to this is cleanliness! Give the pool a good clean, brush the walls, remove leaves, vacuum and clean the filters. Follow the manufacturers instructions regarding the addition of chemicals, the filters and the pump. Whilst a cover is not essential, using one will protect the pool and prevent it from getting dirty. A covered pool will also fare better during storms; apart from anything else, the cover should prevent things from being blown into the pool.

Don’t forget to let your insurers know if your property is going to be unoccupied for a period of time - this may affect your cover in the event of a claim.

Be prepared!

If you will be returning to the property after a period away, make sure you create an ‘emergency box’. This should contain:


At least one torch and spare batteries

A lighter or matches (in a damp proof box)


A camping type stove, dry kindling and a supply of basic provisions can also prove a lifesaver should the worst happen and you return to a cold, dark, damp house. After all nothing seems as bad once you are eating something in front of a crackling fire!

Copyright - Catharine Higginson

Thanks again Catherine - wonderful list - great food for thought :)

I was suprised by the info re. use of shutters and insurance though.............we are still in process of renovating our stone cottage and want to have some wooden shutters fitted - can anyone tell me where these are avaliable to buy or perhaps someone is upgrading and has some to sell?

Pity you picked that up Frances, it was superbly funny ;-D

That's insulating not insulting

This list is less useful for us renters who have to stay put and don't have the ability or dosh to improve our lodgings physically, but I'd endorse the insulting curtains idea. Even though my new apartment has modern volet which do NOT encourage installation of curtains because of those damned intrusive boxes where a rod should go, it can be done. Coming from NZ, I am always amazed that there are heating radiators in every room in French houses. Sometimes even in the toilet. This seems rather extravagant in terms of energy use compared to what most of us do in NZ (running from the warm room to the cold room and back again haha).

Jon - actually would be the answer, however we have a Rayburn that needs it from in front. We have a vent under the floor with an opening just in front of the air vent of the stove using a design for a traditional Swedish stove and it works a treat. Time to remember to take off the external grille and clean out detritus inside with a wire brush though. Part of the chimney cleaning process.

check if you have and antigel facility - in simple terms a thermostat or sensor which runs the pump(s) if the outside temperature get slower than say 4 degC, it will keep the water on the move and mitigate the risk of freezing. Good oil/gas heating systems have a similar facility to fire the boiler to just keep the water up to a sensible level. All static water systems should be drained if the house is left. If it is affordable a couple of oil filled electric radiators with thermostats can prove to be a worthwhile energy investment to avoid catastrophies - as long as the insualtion and draught proofing have been dealt with - see other bloggs.

Good point Glen. A British couple not far from here apparently had an immersion heater, storage tank and several radiators go. Bedding was soaking for months, floorboards wet (which makes more susceptible to beetles, termites, fungal disease, etc) and like your client the insurance company dismissed their claim.

On the plumbing side, you should always drain your house systems down if you are expecting to be away for a long period. With central heating you can add anti-freeze, but it is only intended as part of the protection system in the event of a boiler failure. Anti-freeze will not save your home or boiler if the temperature drops below -20c as it did last year.

Great check-list James, although fortunately it doesn't get quite so cold in Brittany as in some other parts of France!

Can I reinforce your recommendation for heavy curtains? We run chambres d'hotes, meaning all our guest rooms upstairs are largely unoccupied in winter, whereas our bedroom and bathroom are on the ground floor. But we have an open plan salon - so all the lovely heat from our wood-burner was disappearing upstairs making the empty bedrooms beautifully warm and leaving us shivering! We put a really thick curtain, floor to ceiling, across the bottom of the staircase. Problem solved! You can really feel the temperature difference if you try standing first one side of the curtain and then the other! We have tie-backs to turn it into a decorative feature in summer . . . but in winter it stays closed!

Hi Brian, that's a common problem. It's obvious that all fires need oxygen from the air to alow combustion and log burners can require a great deal. The best way is to have a vent behind the fire so counter-productive cold air isn't, say, dragged across a room.

For me, the two most important fcators in returning to an empty house in the winter is to have propane bottled gas (outside) instead of butane and empty all pipes and the water heater before leaving.

September and time to think about this again.

My thought is about a mistake I made a couple of decades ago. I bought my first log burner. The house was nicely 'hermetically sealed' but the very big room, 18m x 12m, needed proper heating. I bought a good quality Scandinavian wood burner, put in the flues and all and lit it. In now time I was gasping. It happened several times. I did not have adequate ventilation. Seems simple, but it is not. I put in a vent, cold air came in and defeated the object. I installed a two way extractor, but clearly in the wrong position and eventually had to get somebody in who could instal appropriate ventilation. As it was, since it was a room that had never had a fireplace to begin with, he felt I had put it in the wrong place to begin with.

So, my point is that if you are installing a wood burner or stove get it right or you'll have the same kind of mess to deal with I had.

Can I add my tip to your list!! Don't buy the cheaper fuel - not everyone offers two grades, but some suppliers still do! The "economy" grade fuel will freeze at around -5 as it has more impurities and less (if any) anti-freeze. The "superior" fuel is more refined and has more anti-freeze - which will keep it fluid down to around -20 or even lower! We have had boiler problems in this cold speel - including almost 4 days without heating!! The temp in the house has dropped to around 10 degrees - and that is COLD!! So - if I can recommend anything it would be to buy the better fuel - buying the cheaper has definitely been a false economy for us. I NEVER want to be this cold in my home again!!

Informative, comprehensive list; you should get it published in the Connexion as it will help no end of people.

So glad you got your home and yes, the article is extremely helpful even to us "old timers". Wishing you all the best

That really is extremely helpful - I'm flying out next week to sign a compromis de vente so (unfortunately) will be moving in probably February with the worst of the weather (driving 5+ hours from Paris airport with one dog, 2 cats and the Kid in the car, oh joy). You've now supplied me with a superb list of things to check next week while I'm there which will give me a little more confidence that we might arrive at a house that won't be too affected by the elements and can immediately become a home and a safe haven. Thankyou.

Grand, you are welcome to come to cut our vast stacks of wood bought during the low price period of late spring and go around looking to see where I have forgotten to lag outside taps and so on. You appear far more organised than we are...

Wow, very very thorough list James and Catherine. very helpfull especially to second/holiday home owners.