Phil and Beverly Gray didn't set out to renovate a property in France, but once they began looking for a house to buy, it became clear this was their main option. "For the money we could afford, it was likely that any property we bought would need renovation work," says Beverly. In the event, the initial budget they set for renovation of a medieval village house near Vaison la Romaine turned out to be "totally unrealistic", but they nevertheless express themselves "extremely happy" with the finished result.
University lecturer Phil and wife Beverly, both born in the US, first discovered the area in 1995-96 when they spent a year in Grenoble. "We used to spend weekends traveling around the area," says Phil. "Eventually we reached the Vaucluse and the Drome and it was an area that appealed to us." They subsequently returned each summer for holidays and when they decided to buy a property five years ago, it was the natural place to look.
On a rainy day in December 2004, they found the village house, empty for a number of years and with a leaky roof, and thought: this is the place for us. The property had been owned by a couple, originally from Paris, who had retired there and eventually died, and it had been given to the local hospital to pay for nursing care. It had last been renovated in the 1960s, and ticked all their boxes with the exception of one – no swimming pool. The Grays had some limited experience of renovation work with a house in the north of Scotland, the country where they have lived since the 1970s. "We were reasonably confident, although there were moments when we looked at the scale of it and wondered what we were doing," says Phil.
The northern Vaucluse is an area of Provence like the Luberon 20 years ago, before being made famous by Peter Mayle's book "A Year in Provence". There's a mixture of locals and expats, but the former are generally appreciative of people coming to re-occupy and improve empty properties.
Phil and Beverly were handed the keys in April and immediately set to work, hiring a local surveyor to draw up internal plans for the three storey property, and to apply for the permis de construire. After a frustrating wait with the surveyor dragging his heels, the permission materialised at the end of September, by which time the builder they planned to use was no longer available.
Beverly decided on the spur of the moment that she would project manage herself, and look for a new builder. Word quickly got around the village, and a local mason originally from Sardinia, presented himself. After that, work started quickly and there were soon three full-time employees on the job.
It quickly became clear that the roof, which Phil and Beverly had intended to repair, would have to be totally replaced. Other aspects of the renovation included knocking down the front wall of the top-floor salon to build a new terrace; a new bathroom; various re-modeling changes, such as a new layout at the top of the stairs, and enlarging the kitchen; and new plumbing, wiring, heating and windows throughout.
The work started in November and by Christmas the new roof and windows were in situ, allowing the Grays to spend the festive season there. During the early phase of the build, a French neighbour provided invaluable help by taking daily photos of progress which could be emailed to them in Glasgow. "We had lots of minor crises during the build, but nothing that left us really upset," says Phil. Typical was the occasion when the couple arrived to stay in March just as the plumber removed the last WC from the house. They stayed until summer when the project was completed.
The couple acknowledge that they were fortunate in their choice of builders: "Each of the builders was a character, but nobody ever tried to charge us a penny more than their original estimate," he adds. "I think the time we spent in France before really helped," says Beverly. "I wouldn't have wanted to tackle this without a reasonable fluency in the language." The couple also believes that getting to know their neighbours with an early house-warming paid dividends, as it led to friendships and help from various quarters.
In the end, with a €160,000 purchase price and a £70,000 mortgage to cover the renovation and furnishing, Les Colonnes cost more than the Grays had initially budgeted, but they are sanguine. "We have ended up with more than we expected," says Phil. "We have a space under the two terraces for a gite and we fitted in an extra bathroom. We could have done the minimum required to make this a summer home, but with details like the quality of the windows, and the wood burning stove we can let the property out all year round."
Overall, the project taught Phil and Beverly that it was not so much about the building as about the people and the place where they were investing their commitment. "I don't think either of us anticipated how much the project would come to mean to us," says Beverly.
Alexander Garrett is a freelance property writer who contributes regularly to The Observer and British Airways' Business Life.
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