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  • Let's convert the barn to Gîtes...

  • It seems that an increasing number of buyers plan to generate an income by converting part of their purchase to gîtes.  But is it really as simple as it seems ?

  • We asked Pierre Weingaertner, a French architect and member of Surveyors-en-France surveyor, for some informal comments...

  • FPN:  If somebody buying a property in France wants to convert a building into gîtes,  how many gîtes can they have without telling anybody anything ?

    Pierre:  "without telling anybody 'anything" doesn't exist any more in France... should you be in a very remote area and intend to open a very confidential business as a casual activity, you can always try, but as soon as it becomes more settled, then you enter the serious stuff !
    Yes, these times are over now, and bureaucracy is everywhere in France, especially when it comes to generating some income !
    Before answering that question, I think that you must first ask yourself about the future success of your venture;  in other words, what is the demand for guest accommodation in your particular area ?
    Your first preoccupation should be: what is the local market for leisure ?  I mean you don't open a budget accommodation in the heart of Luberon, or a four star luxury guest house in the middle of nowhere (unless ‘nowhere' is the Sossusvleï desert where everybody wants to be, but this ‘nowhere' is, only, 8000 kilometres away from France!).
    Then, if it comes to gîtes, and to answer your question, opening gîtes "officially" depends on amounts to following the criteria stated developed by the official organisation called gîtes de France, once a private organisation and now a monopoly run by members of the two government  ministries responsible for tourism and Agriculture!

  • But as to your question about the number of gîtes, the answer is "normally, three" - provided you stick to the rule that in France gîtes means strictly self-catering accommodation, (i.e. no service at all).
    Then if you would like to provide extra services, like breakfasts or any other sort of assistance, you fall into the category of the ‘bed and breakfasts' or ‘guest houses', where you are allowed to open up to 5 units of accommodation, or even 6 if one is equipped for handicapped people.  But this is a different story., also highly controlled by...  the gîtes de France monopoly !

  • FPN:  If someone wants to convert outbuildings to gîtes do they need to get permission from the Mairie for the building work ?

    Pierre: Yes definitely. The type of permission you require It depends on whether you are converting, say, a barn into gîtes, or part of the existing living area of your property into gîtes.  Before you complete the purchase of the property you intend to convert, you should obtain a certificat d'urbanisme , which gives a response 'in principle' to your question as to whether a particular building can be converted and the maximum surface habitable that will be permitted.  If the premises are too close to an existing agricultural unit, this might be a problem. The certificat d'urbanisme does not in itself convey a permission but sets out what you can or cannot ask for !
    Converting barns into gîtes is called in France ‘"changement de destination", and this is subject to planning permission.  The best bet is to ask a qualified architect to design the conversion for you and to lodge the application with the local authorities - the Mairie and the DDE.
    It normally takes two to three months to get a decision, or longer if you are in a protected area such as nature reserves (such as the parc du Luberon) or in any other specific areas under the control of the "architecte des batiments de France". but in that event If the period of 'instruction' includes July or August, you can reasonably leave for the Caribbean for 6 months before you can expect to see your application granted.
    That is why it is not exactly a luxury to pay for a local architect or any of the British architects practising in France;  it sometimes takes more than your personal efforts to deal with the bureaucracy !
    But patience is a great thing, and things happen... even in France, provided you follow the rules, and make sure the area you are in allows you to do so; but that's your architect's duty.

  • In the second instance where you only convert existing living areas into gîtes.... believe it or not, but in France no planning permission in needed... provided you don't change the outside of the house AT ALL.  The only rules you must comply with are those related to paying guests in your private home, but then again your professional adviser will be aware of these things.

  • Once you have obtained permission for the building work you must display an official board on the public road with all of the details of your permit for at least two months because, in France, all building applications are subject to third party liability... any person coming along is entitled to lay a claim against your permit, and for two months after.... provided you took the trouble of displaying ‘the official board' on the public road for the two months period:  If you fail to do that a claim can be made against you at any time for up to three years;  ask any lawyer in France and they will tell you many nice stories about it !

  • FPN:  What about other regulations to comply with ?  Particularly fire regulations if there is a lot of woodwork, for example.  Who controls that ?

    Pierre:  The French rules are different from England.  In England you must have a fire alarm, but in France you don't have to.  But you must have a fire extinguisher somewhere:  One per unit; it must be 25Kg and it MUST be controlled by the ‘APAVE' every three years.
    That's for fire regulations:  Woodwork is also controlled by specifications about fire, as well as access to the place, but we enter a different story and that would be too long to answer here.

  • It's always fun to be able to welcome guests, even if they are paying guests, especially if you like to entertain or just to have people around you.  But it's easy to forget about your personal responsibilities, and everything goes marvellously well up to the unlikely event of an accident...

  • Then, we talk a different language... and a lax attitude towards regulations can turn your nice French life into a nightmare.
    So, it doesn't take that much trouble to comply with a certain number of safety regulations, sometimes very simple, to make sure that everything has been done to avoid, as mush as possible on your side, the terrible consequences of an accident.

  • To give you a very simple but cruel example:  In France, 35 children die every year in swimming pools ...  yes, thirty five !  No need to say that it is the most awful thing that can happen to a happy family during holidays, but should this happen in your pool, where no legal measures have been taken to comply with regulations, you will have another nightmare in addition to the first one.
    So, do not neglect pool regulations such as legal access and the required notice boards -  "swimming at your own risk", and "children under your sole responsibility", in three different languages, and on a 20 X 30cm board minimum ... Sounds stupid?  Yes, up to the point when your guest's lawyer will take you to court.
    And unfortunately, it does happen.

  • FPN:  Are there any other rules about opening a gîtes business?

    Pierre:  It would take more than one interview to answer that question !
    Not just because it's a nightmare to deal with the French bureaucracy, but also because what was in the past a confidential activity treated amicably by the tax man, is now a business regarded as such by the French authorities, and strictly controlled by gîtes de France - who are presented as a commercial organisation bringing you clients, but in fact are a monopoly directly controlled by the ministère du tourisme.
    So the very first thing to do is to pay a visit to your local Mairie, and register with the prefecture. Things will become clear from that point, where, most of the time in rural areas, civil servants are more open to newcomers and will gladly explain the whole story.

  • FPN:  Any other advice ?

    Pierre:  Any other advice...?
    Yes, go for it, it's great fun. I did it myself and enjoyed it tremendously.
    Use your common sense, but think first:  Even before buying the house of your dreams, if your motivation is to open a gîte business you must focus on that in your choice and start with a serious "marketing survey" about local needs.
    The best way is to play the guest in the existing gîtes in the area to get the views of ... your future neighbours and colleagues ! 

  • Pierre Weingaertner