Informative World

Setting Up a Gite Business in France

Since the late eighties I regularly visited the Poitou-Charente region of France and had fallen in love with the area; particularly the style of the buildings, which are of mostly eighteenth or early nineteenth century origin with thick stone walls and massive oak beams throughout.

In April 1997, I bought a large semi-derelict farm in central Charente-Maritime, The purchase price was FF200,000 ( about £20,000 today ). At the time I was a young unmarried software contactor working in Hong Kong. I viewed the property as a great investment, not only financially, but also as part of an early retirement plan that I’d dreamed up a few years earlier, My idea was to have the farm renovated and converted into a complex of four or five Gîtes (self-catering farm cottages) with a pool and playground and set up mainly for families with young children.

Historically gîtes were used to provide a second income for cash-strapped local farmers and in 1997 it was mostly French farmers (or more often their wives) who were running them. A traditional gîte would have few mod cons and guests would often be expected to bring their own towels and bed linen. My idea was to offer a traditional farm house feel, but provide a bit more luxury than normal, (including a swimming pool and a kid’s playground on site).

Fortunately, I had the renovations covered. Though I was committed to a long contract in Hong Kong, my sister and her husband had recently moved to France and were looking for building work to supplement their income. We decided that I would continue to work overseas and send them the money for the materials, services, taxes etc. I would deal with the marketing and build a website for the property and they would keep the rental catering income from the finished gîtes for the first couple of years in exchange for carrying out all the renovations. By summer 1998 they were able to rent out two cottages. In 1999 the third cottage and the pool were completed. With a swimming pool, we found that we were able to practically double the rental income for each cottage. By 2000 we found that our gîtes were very much in demand, but also around that time competition had started to build up.

The idea catches on

With the steep rise in house prices in the UK, more and more people were getting the same idea and setting up gîte businesses in the area. Property prices in most of Poitou-Charentes were still less than quarter of their equivalent in the UK. The temptation to “cash in” on UK equity to move to an unspoilt, super-sunny but still easily accessible area of France was often difficult to resist. In 2000 £40,000 could still buy a huge “maison maitre” with plenty of outbuildings/cottages suitable to turn into gîtes.

Many of the new arrivals have their own ideas about property development and often had little interest in maintaining the character of the historic local architecture. In 2000, an old property near to us was snapped up and rapidly converted into modern apartments with a massive “Florida style” fuel oil heated pool.

I have seen Ancient oak beams and kingposts joined with hand made wooden pegs torn down, thrown away and replaced with cheap pine. Hand-built stone walls are often covered over wholesale with plasterboard in the rush to modernise and let out as quickly as possible.

Despite the growth in competition, we managed to successfully let our gîtes and continued with slow but sympathetic renovations. In 1999 I moved from HongKong to Sydney and in 2000 got married. In 2002 our first child was born and we holidayed in France for a few months to get an idea of what it might be like to actually live there with a young family. We decided to move to France in mid 2003 and take over the business from my sister (who by now was busy renovating property of her own nearby). We now have two children and four gîtes (with more on the way – gîtes that is)!

The pros and cons

On reflection we had a lot of good fortune: as a software engineer, building a good quality website was not a problem for me. My sister and her husband shared my respect for the providence of the buildings and carried out the renovation work with great care, even though this was often costly of their own time. My father was an experienced builder and helped out a great deal, particularly with tricky engineering issues.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *