image source: @andre_and_lee_
Last September, we introduced you to Lee and his French husband André. They had just sold up in the UK and bought a Château in southwest France. Château Jostelle came complete with four hectares of forest and woodland, plus a 17th century building called the White House, an additional barn that was ripe for conversion and a large pool.
There was work to be done and a lot of French admin. Luckily, French Connections HCB and our sister company, HCB Renovations, could handle it all.
Lee and André have been HCB clients right from the start. We facilitated their mortgage, helped them open a bank account and organised Lee’s visa. Those of you who are following their story will remember that Lee had only passed his driving test a week before leaving the UK but is now very happy behind the wheel of their new VW Golf.
It was only natural that Lee and André would turn to Richard again for help with the restoration. He has years of experience in buying and renovating in France and over the years has gathered together a loyal team of experienced builders who were very happy to take on the project of Château Jostelle.
Lee explains how it is to work with Richard’s team.
“Basically, the builders moved in with us. From Monday to Thursday, they live in the château while they work on the White House, then they go home for the weekend. They’re a breeze, to be honest. We were a little bit nervous at first, you know, wondering how would they like the château, how are we going to get on… I was ummming and ahhhing, but now we’re doing it I can’t think why I was worried. It’s quite funny because when they’re not here at weekends, we kind of miss them. How many people could say that about their builders?! My dog Mr Titch misses them the most. He has fallen in love with Yannick. The guys usually go to bed at 10, 10.30 but I don’t head up until about midnight. On the way upstairs, Titch always runs into Yannick’s room to say goodnight….”
Lee and André’s renovations are being documented every week on YouTube and the progress from week to week is quite astonishing.
“We started with the White House, and we couldn’t believe it. Within two or three days they had completely gutted it! It was derelict but they managed to save the staircase, which we were really happy about, because it was beautiful. In the latest video, you can see that they’ve now done all the insulation, they’ve put the plumbing and pipework in, and they’re adding the second layer of insulation. There’s a big concrete lorry coming tomorrow because they’re doing the foundations. Our friends in London can’t believe it. I had building works done at our last house and it would have taken at least 6 months to get to this stage….
A lot of people have said to me, ‘Aren’t you putting all your eggs in one basket with Richard?’ because I use him for my financial stuff and everything else. But I’ve known him for more than a year and a half now, from when we were buying the property and he handled all our mortgage and visa admin. We’ve become friends. If I can’t trust Richard’s building firm after all he’s done for us, who can I trust? Especially bearing in mind we’ve been badly stung by some local gardeners who were recommended by the previous owner of the château. He had given us a list of local people, all of whom have been great except one. The gardener started off fine, but then I noticed that his bills were going up. He quoted 6000 euros to cut down and clear an overgrown piece of land no bigger than a swimming pool, which used to be the vegetable garden when the château was a nunnery. In the end, our next door neighbour did the whole job for 400 euros!”
Lee and André are now getting ready for the next stage of the restoration.
“Richard has been advising us on different heat sources. We’ve gone with a wood pellet burner, which he is sourcing for us. It will be our main heating source as well as electric radiators, and it has a ‘pompe à chaleur’ system to vent warm air around the house. In the summer, we can have the fans on so the air circulates. Richard initially suggested a log fire in the sitting room, but we opted for wood pellets because they’re easy and we can operate the burner on our phone. All in all, it’s been an interesting learning curve for people like us who are only used to central heating!”
There are also decisions to be made about lighting.
“I’m a little bit OCD about lighting. I tend to have lots of lamps, but I just want one switch so I can walk in and turn all the lamps on at once, like we had in our London house. I told Yannick the builder and he said that’s a bloody good idea!'”
The château itself already has a sizeable pool, so Lee and André have decided to put in a smaller, simpler one at the White House.
“We’re going for a black liner. It’s something a bit different and it will suit the house which will be boho chic, mainly black and white with grey tones, hessian and wicker.”
Choosing fixtures and fittings is something that both Lee and André enjoy.
“That’s the exciting part, picking out bathrooms and showers and things like that. We’re probably going to use Hudson Reed. Funnily enough, they are actually based in France.
I love all of their stuff, Victorian baths, Victorian toilets.”
Lee knows that invoices are essential during a restoration project.
“Richard has been telling us that the paperwork is really important. It’s all about making sure we have the 10 year guarantee (decennale) in place, which is also linked to the mortgage. At the end of the project, we’ll have a decennale for all the work, so if anything goes wrong, we can just call Richard.”
Much to Lee’s surprise, Richard’s building team is already about a month ahead of schedule.
“I said to the builders, ‘You’ve only been here 7 weeks, how can you be a month ahead?’ But when you think about it, they are here, living on site in the château itself and they’re happy. They have nice beds, they have their special coffee and the English biscuits that they like and a beer in the evenings. André makes them a big meal on a Monday and they absolutely love his food. It’s almost like Christmas, he does a 3 course meal! For the rest of the time they go to the Auberge for which is literally two minutes down the road. They’re up at 7 and at work by 8. Of course they go for lunch between 12 – 2, but now the evenings are lighter they work until 7.30 or 8pm. I would highly recommend the live-in approach to other people doing a big renovation. It’s quick and efficient and it saves a lot of money.”
Lee is quick to acknowledge that HCB’s help has been invaluable.
“I know I sound a bit like a broken record, but so far so good with HCB Renovations.
There’s nothing they haven’t been able to pull off for us. I’m talking to William at French Connections HCB at the moment because he’s looking after my driving licence. Our first year of being here is coming up and I’m only allowed to drive for 12 months on my UK licence then it has to be switched for a French one. The application is going through at the moment.
I’m also talking to Richard’s barrister because he’s looking after my visa extension. I came over on a 12 month long term visitor visa (VLS-TS) so I have to renew that for a 2nd year, but within 6 months of renewing, I can apply for my 5 year residency. Once I’ve got that, it means I’ll be able to work because on a long term visitor visa I can’t. The other thing that’s important is that André and I had a civil partnership in the UK, which is supposed to be recognised in France but sometimes it’s not. So we’re going to get remarried over here in June!”
It’s a credit to how well Lee and André have settled into village life that everyone is delighted by the news of the wedding.
“We’ve been to the Maire’s office and they were all so happy for us. With Richard’s help, we’re having all our documents translated, so when they are all done, we’ll take them all back down to the Mairie. With our civil partnership in the UK, there were admin costs, registrar costs and everything. We asked what the admin costs were here and they said ‘No, it’s free. It’s our privilege.’ We’ve told everyone in the village about the wedding and they’re all excited. We’ve got about 50 people coming and we’ve invited Richard and the builders and their wives. We’ll stroll down to the Maire’s office and get married there, then it’s a one minute walk back to the château. We had always wanted to have a party to say thank you to everyone, so this will be a wedding and a party combined. André has already spoken to the wine merchant, who has become a friend, and we’ve got a barman and a DJ lined up.”
After an eventful year and a lot of French admin, Lee and André are delighted with how far they have come.
“2023 is us really cementing our roots. Fingers crossed, the White House should be finished midsummer, which is earlier than we’d anticipated. We’ve been sharing our progress with the village, and they pop in and have a look. I send them the video updates that Richard films, too.”
When we spoke to Lee last year, he told us that the château grounds used to host the village fête in years gone by. That’s something Lee and André are keen to do again once the excess trees have been cleared and the grounds replanted. “We want to get it to a position of being a managed woodland. Local people told us to reach out to the farmers and they’ll come and take down the trees free of charge as long as you give them the wood. I’m happy because I know those trees will be much healthier. Next year we can start thinking about re-seeding what we call the fairy meadow, which looks even more beautiful now. We’ll just seed it with loads of wildflowers and cut a pathway through the flowers so you can stroll in and out. “
Lee laughs as he admits to a very English yearning.
“André has found some South African grass called Kikuyu that’s tolerant and resistant. It is very invasive and needs very little rain, which is good. Best of all, it means I can have striped grass! When I tell people here that I want striped grass, they look at me as if I am mad – but I’m an Englishman and it’s important to me!”
With the White House progressing at a pace and the grounds slowly taking shape, what’s next on Lee and André’s agenda?
“When the White House is done, we’ll start on the château with the same team. The electrics need to be completely updated, and the basement floors have to be supported.
Yannick has already brought in a structural engineer to make sure we can do it.
It’s essential because the château has huge rooms and they have bowed in the middle. We have bits of hard cardboard under tables to balance them at the moment! The château was stripped of all its features when it was occupied by the Germans during the war. So we’ll be redoing all the coving and plasterwork, including the ceiling roses. André wants to include pineapples in the motif, to reflect the Edwardian era. We have a lot of work to do in the bedrooms, too. There are currently 11 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms, but our goal is to end up with 6 bedrooms all with ensuite..”
Lee reflects on what he and André have achieved.
“People say they can’t believe that we’ve done this, we’ve done that. I tell Richard he ought to be paying me. I’m the biggest PR person for HCB, I can tell you! Not only am I their number one client, from securing a mortgage to sorting out pensions and visas, building work and driving licence, but there’s plenty more we’ll need their help with. To everybody who is thinking about moving to France or renovating a property, I say before you do anything you need to speak to HCB. I don’t know what I’d do without them, particularly Richard. He’s man of many hidden talents. We keep in regular contact and he comes every week to check on the work and film the progress. I can’t thank HCB enough.”
If you would like to follow Lee and André’s adventures, simply click here to watch the renovation videos and meet Richard and the building team.
And of course, if you have a project you’d like to discuss or an admin issue you’d like us to help with, we’re all ears. For a comprehensive question and answer session, we invite you to book a 30 minute personal consultation with our business and property specialist, Richard Hammond, at a time to suit you. Simply click on the button below. The consultation costs 90 euros, which is fully refundable if you use any of our services moving forward.
We look forward to talking to you.