The Tall House: Work Has Begun!

This post is to get you caught up on what’s happening with our new house in France. But first let me clear up some confusion about the three different French houses that show up in my photos.

1- The rental house. The house we currently live in is a rental house. It’s the one with the blue door. It’s right in the center of our little town and a short walk from the bakery, the market, the school, and pretty much anything we need. It’s very affordable — about 600/month, and fits us comfortably. When our container from the U.S. arrived with our household goods, the rental house is where we moved everything, so we’re surrounded by familiar things — and you might even spot recognizable items (like our green piano) when I share snapshots of the rental house.

We’ll be a bit cramped when the three oldest kids join us for Christmas (there’s only one full bathroom in the rental house), and there are lots of design changes we would make if this was a home we owned, but for day-to-day life, it’s great and we feel lucky to have found it.

2- The cottage. This is a house in the countryside (about 25 minutes out of town) that we bought 6 1/2 years ago. We paid 25k for the property. We put on a new roof and repaired the chimney after we bought it, and have started some other renovations since we arrived 3 months ago, but our timeline for this property isn’t urgent. When we bought it, we thought we would eventually use it as a summer house or a vacation home and we still think of it that way. Perhaps we’ll rent it out or put it on Airbnb.

It has a large yard where we’d love to plant some fruit trees. It has a working well on the property, a charming outbuilding, and beautiful views of the countryside. It’s very rustic at the moment, but we have a vision for what it will be. If you see photos of us wearing muddy boots and working on ancient stone walls, we’re probably working at the cottage.

When we moved to France this time around, we used the cottage as our address and that was really helpful.

3- The St. Martin House. The new home we just bought is also right in town — only a couple of blocks from our rental house. It’s in the historic St. Martin neighborhood, and we’ve been calling it the St. Martin house.

We started looking at homes a few months ago and fell in love with this one pretty quickly. It has a grand staircase, four floors with plenty of bedrooms, a pretty garden/courtyard, and it’s right across the street from a centuries-old cathedral. It hasn’t been lived in for a few years, and it needs lots of work, but it was priced to sell. We officially closed on this house the Friday before Thanksgiving with a price tag of 92k.

I shared a full video tour of every room in the St. Martin house on my Instagram Stories and you can see it on the French Home highlight here. Oh. And there’s a surprise at the end of the tour!

[ Sidenote: I knowing owning two properties in France seems over the top, but remember, the total property value is less than 120k, which is equivalent to a down payment in the Bay Area — so it’s not as extravagant as it might sound. Property is really reasonable in this area — here’s a post with links to listings if you’re curious. ]

Though we only closed a week ago, and took a break for Thanksgiving, we’ve already jumped in and started work on the St. Martin house. Here are a few updates:

– Water was turned on last week.

– Electricity was turned on yesterday.

– Gas (which powers the radiators and hot water) was turned on today.

– We met with a man today who will do the plaster repair and window repairs, and he’ll sand the wood floors too. Though that sort of work won’t start until probably March. Most of the contractors we’re working with are French, but this man is from England, so that makes communication a bit smoother.

– One of the first big projects is adding insulation to the roof/ceiling in the attic. And it’s well under way. The demolition in the attic is almost complete and we picked up the insulation Monday morning. Our Dutch friend, Gjisbert, is doing the attic.

– Yesterday we took a tour of a nearby house that is being renovated and is almost done. The man who has led out the renovation wants to work on our house too and wanted to show us what he can do. I was especially impressed with the stone work and tile work, and we’re thinking we’ll hire him to add a doorway through the (very thick!) stone wall from our bedroom to the bathroom to make it an owner’s suite.

– We were supposed to meet with a fireplace and chimney contractor this afternoon, but he had to reschedule, so that appointment will be (hopefully) later this week. I’ve been hunting for gorgeous fireplace inserts and can’t wait to show you some of my favorites.

– We’re meeting with an electrician on Wednesday, and a different electrician on Thursday. Updating electricity is another of the first big projects I want to start right away. So I’m really glad about these meetings.

We have lots of electricity questions! We’re not sure if we need to replace all the wiring from the ground up, or just update the outlets and switches. And some of the old switches are round and brass and gorgeous and we’re wondering if we can source more of them and use them throughout the house.

– Tomorrow, we’re also meeting with a plumber. He will make sure the hot water heater is working, and help us turn on the radiators. We want the house in decent working order while the renovations move forward — so workers have a bathroom and aren’t freezing, you know?

We also want to get a renovation bid from the plumber because we need to add a few more radiators and extend the bathroom plumbing to the upper floors.

-On Thursday, we’re meeting with design team at a kitchen design store. We took all the kitchen measurements today. For the kitchen and bathrooms, everyone we’ve talked to has sent us to kitchen & bath speciality stores. I guess that’s how it’s done here. There are a few of these stores in our little town, and dozens in Caen, which is about 40 minutes north of us. But we’re going to do as much as we can using resources here in Argentan.

We’re very curious about the process. Does each store only use particular brands of faucets or appliances? Will they provide the plumber and electrician for the kitchen work? Do they do the demolition or just the installation? We’ve also noticed that current kitchen design trends in France are super modern, but we want something that feels really traditional, so we’re not sure what our options will be.

Anyway, there’s a lot of exciting work going on — and all those appointments are just this week!! We don’t have a timeline yet on how long renovations will take, but happily, we can stay in this rental until they’re done.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this update. I’d love to hear your renovation stories. And I hope you get a chance to watch the tour. What part of the St. Martin house renovation would be most intimidating to you? What part would be most exciting? I’d love to hear.

32 thoughts on “The Tall House: Work Has Begun!”

  1. love this update and thank you also for sharing info about prices – it’s amazing how affordable it is in Normandy! Looking forward to following along :D

  2. An attic demo sounds very intimidating! Your St Martin house looks like it will shape up to something gorgeous- can’t wait to see the updates! Your renovations would make a great episode of “this old house” or “old home love”. Hope it all goes smoothly! My sister is finishing out a six week stay at a French farm in France, but near the Italian speaking part of Switzerland (I think)- I like to imagine fellow expats running into each other at a local boulangerie!

    1. Hmmmm. That’s strange. Not sure what’s up. You can also access it just by going to my Instagram page (@designmom) and you’ll see the highlights labeled right there.

  3. I’m curious about how you would describe your personal design style. I loved the decor in the Treehouse and your wonderful sense of color. Will the St Martin house have a similar look? It sounds like you’re thinking of going more traditional with this one.
    I’m in awe of all the arrangements you’ve been able to make so far. I’m finding the recent cold and wet weather in Northern California depressing and rather paralyzing.

    1. Yes, my instinct for this house is to make it feel traditionally French — though I’m sure it will be more like “traditionally French as pictured by an American.” I find that I’m open to tons of different styles as long as the design is really good, so I tend to really lean on the particular house I’m working on and let it lead the way on style choices.

  4. This is so exciting! I’m curious about your overall plan. Are you trying to have certain rooms completely ready before you move in? Thanks for the updates.

  5. Wow! Very fun to see. I can’t even imagine how $92k feels after Oakland! I’m interested in seeing the nuts and bolts…insulation, heating, cooling, plumbing, kitchen, etc. That’s the part that seems intimidating to me.

  6. I’m always amazed at how much you do! This is so fun to see. I’m curious—does your home share walls with the homes next to you? That’s how it looks to me from the pictures. Does that make any of the renovations tricky?

    1. Yes, there are buildings on both sides, but that hasn’t come up as an issue when we talk with contractors. The only thing we need to be aware of is the front face of the house — because it’s in a historic district, if we want to paint the doors or windows or make any changes to the exterior we are supposed to get colors/changes approved with the city.

  7. Even though it’s seems affordable, from An American point of view, if you look at the demography of this area , no French family can afford it…it’s like you will move from New York and land in Missouri…put things in perspective, France is not affordable even for the French.full disclosure, I am French, therefore I know.

    1. It’s crazy how differently priced real estate can be based on geography. In Paris you can’t even get a studio apartment for $92,000, nor can you in any major city in the U.S. But remote work has the potential to make more farflung locations viable options to live for more people.

      I would much rather have a “rich” expat/immigrant family living next door to me than a vacant, decaying property. It’s not like one random family moving there is pricing out the locals, either (as may be the case in certain magnet cities like NYC).

      1. Yes, L! So true. Remote work really changed everything for our family. I know it’s not a possibility for everyone, but if you have a job that allows you to work remotely, you can essentially “give yourself a raise” by moving to a really affordable place.

    2. Yes, that’s right, Therese. It’s like moving from NYC to a tiny midwestern or western town. (Have you seen the show Bless This Mess about an NYC couple who moves to Nebraska? It’s maybe a bit like that.)

      The French think of the town we live in as total hicksville! We get asked all the time by French people why in the world we would settle in lower-Normandy — like they can’t even imagine anyone wanting to live here. Hah! But the thing is, we have no baggage about the area and can only see it from an outsider’s neutral perspective — and we simply adore everything about this place. It’s endlessly gorgeous, the people are kind, the food is incredible, the history is super accessible, and the charm factor is off the charts. So French people don’t think it’s particularly cool? Turns out we could care less. We know this town is a treasure.

      As far as French people being able to afford houses here in our area, they apparently can. Our town has very few tourists or expats and there is still lots of buying and selling of property going on. Our house was an especially good price because it needs a lot of work. Houses that are similar in age, style, and size — but that have been completely updated — are in the 300k range, which would be a pretty normal price in a typical American town.

      If you’re looking for a good deal on an old charming American house, and you’re not particular about location, I highly recommend following Cheap Old Houses on Instagram. They feature beautiful homes under 100k frequently. If you’re looking for a good deal on a historic house, you don’t have to move to Normandy. There are plenty of treasures to be found in the U.S.

  8. Gabby, thanks so much for sharing your journey. It has been so fun to live vicariously through your family. One thing I have been curious about is, why are you putting so much work into a new home if you are unsure how long you will be staying in France?

    1. Good question. I think the biggest thing is that we want a true home base here for our family. Also, we like the idea of potentially renting it out or airbnb-ing it in the future. And another reason is that I’m good at this and craving a house project.

  9. The idea of writing a sentence about clearing up confusion about your three properties in France is absolutely delightful. I wish you could have told your younger self that this would be your life one day!

  10. Congratulations, Blair Family! Your new home is charming…those wood floors…the fireplaces…that view! I loved what you did with the Treehouse renovations and can’t wait to see how you infuse your style into your new home!

  11. It’s interesting that it doesn’t sound like you have to get any kind of approval before making the changes. I think any work involving plumbing, changes to the walls, etc. would require permission from the city or county planning commission. How does it work where you are?

  12. Thank you so much for sharing, especially the financial information. I am always dying to know how much things cost and people almost never share. Now I can really daydream about moving my family to France someday. Can’t wait to see what you do with those gorgeous properties.

  13. Love! Love! love! Keep the updates coming! We have steam radiators too. I’m interested in how that goes! Happy Holidays!

  14. I love that you have bought this house and now we get to go on another renovation project with you! I can’t wait to see what you do with each room. BTW I think you need a name for the cottage.

  15. I love seeing this. It has been months since I’ve stopped by to see what you are up to and I am so excited to see your newest projects! I’ve been consumed with my own renovation. It’s been a little over 4 months (since we moved out – longer in planning) and we have just moved back in (with minutes to spare as family arrived for thanksgiving). I am recovering and continuing to unpack and tomorrow our contractor comes back from a short vacation to finish things up. But the end is near and I am realizing how much I have loved and will miss the process.

  16. If the kitchen market in France is like it is in England, then the kitchen shops are expensive and sell mostly modern, stylish German kitchens. If you want something more rustic, see if you can find a local carpenter to put it together for you. It is often cheaper here and made of nicer wood like oak. I had a modern kitchen installed and they supplied the kitchen and the plumbing. Actally you might like to see their designs as they fit well in an older property (https://www.john-lewis.co.uk/).

  17. Hi, I’m so enjoying this new French move (I started reading because you lived in France last time). But please can I ask, any chance of the videos being posted on the blog so you don’t have to be a member of instagram to view them? I am resisting its siren call, I don’t think it would be good for me and I have recently left Facebook which makes me happy. Please tell me I’m not the only one asking??

    1. Similarly to Twitter, with Instagram it looks like you can’t get into IG if you go to the main site page or try to search for an account without knowing the URL, but going directly to an account using the URL works. You can type Gabby’s account URL (instagram.com/designmom) into your browser and click on the picture of her face for videos posted in the last 24hrs or the little circles below for saved videos (“Highlights”).

  18. I am unreasonably excited to watch your renovation. Like more excited than the thought of rehabbing my own kitchen. (Dust? Mess? Limited access to kitchen appliances? No thank you. Watching your new house take shape? YES PLEASE! ) can’t wait to see what you do!! PS- you have a lot of fans named Julie. 😊

  19. I am also thrilled that you’ve moved to France and that we can live vicariously through you with your life there and with your huuge remodel. So exciting!
    Thank you for posting and photo-ing and for sharing this all with us.

  20. Courage, les travaux sont pénibles ! Temps, argent etc.. Pour la cuisine traditionnelle voir avec un bon menuisier à partir de caisson standard, possible, moins cher et à votre gout. En France les “cuisinistes” sont très chers et mettent beaucoup de temps de travail.

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