The homeowner's page 2
D-I-Y  shops;
Useful books;
Keeping the septic tank sweet;
Winterising the house;
Doing up a historic house.


Below are links to the four different sections into which I have now divided this part of the site.








Rental & tax

Shops / kitchens

garden centres

Cinema & books


Books / drainage



travel deals




estate agents



talking points














Howard Clements shares his experiences of refurbishing his house in the Vendée with those who drop in on his Vendée house website.












DIY was slow to take off in France, but now the French are into what they call "bricolage" in a big way. Most hypermarkets stock paint - including Hammerite, or equivalent metal paints - electrical fittings and basics such as sandpaper, but sometimes you want something a bit more - well, serious.
(As we are based towards the north-west Vendée, we are not going to be much use to those of you who live over the other side of the département, so I'd welcome some suggestions of other good sources of timber, building materials, tools, and fixings.)

A book that is much recommended is David Everett's Buying and Restoring Old Property in France.

The aptly-named Monsieur Bricolage is a large DIY store at Les Flâneries shopping centre, on the Nantes road, north of La Roche-sur-Yon (not closed for lunch - yippee), and continues to be one of most useful sources of bits and pieces generally. Also at Les Flâneries there's a rather flashy decorating shop along the corridor from Monsieur B.
For the basic materials, you cannot do better than the nearby (and much cheaper) Brico-Dépôt, a large warehouse-type store on the east side of the Route de Nantes and a bit farther north. Other branches are in Cholet, Angers and Nantes.  (THANKS TO BERNARD FOR THIS INFO)

In Challans, the Leclerc has a DIY and gardening shop just across the car park from the hypermarket building. Unlike the main store, it closes at lunchtime.
July 2006:  This DIY shop has now become a Monsieur Bricolage.

If you want building materials, you can wander round and find some good stuff at branches of Vendée Matériaux (there's one at Aizenay, opposite Netto, on the St-Gilles road).
For quantitites of cement, sand, gravel etc (yes, we've been laying concrete recently!) we were recommended Alain Legrand, at Palluau. The company was charming and efficient, and delivered quantities of the above to us on several occasions, in state-of-the-art vehicles that could drop the stuff within a millimetre of where you wanted it.
There's a wonderful tool shop in Aizenay (Routhiau, on the Nantes road, just north of the centre). You can buy such professional brands of power tools as Makita, as well as Bosch and Black & Decker, and find absolutely any nails, screws, mastics etc that you could dream of. And if your French is not up to much, you can wander around peering into all the boxes to see what would be most useful.
Also in Aizenay, if you're considering some really authentic hand-made terracotta tiles for floor or roof, visit the Tuileries Gauvrit, signposted off the dual carriageway La Roche road, just to the SE of Aizenay.
One of the major DIY chains in France is Castorama. Unfortunately there is not yet a branch in the Vendée, but across the Loire, on the NW section of the Nantes ring road, you will find one at Orvault.













Kitchen layout

A quick word of warning for those using French workmen to install a kitchen: be sure you have specified the heights of your cupboards and worktops!
We took over some UK-bought units for installation in our house some years ago, but in the meantime had commissioned the plumber to fit a French sink and washing machine etc. Great was our surprise to find that the sink had been installed a good couple of inches lower than the height of our UK base units! It's turned out fine, as we have made it a two-height worktop - which works quite well as the lower level is great for carving, chopping, pastry-making etc. But we had to have a special plinth made for the French-purchased cooker, to jack it up level with the UK-height worktops on either side of it.
Paradoxically, our carpenter was about to fix the wall cabinets higher than they would have been in the UK. One can only conclude that French housewives are deemed to have shorter legs than their British counterparts, and longer arms...

A branch of Ikea has now opened in Nantes in the Atlantis retail area, somewhere north of the Cheviré bridge crossing, which is good news for those looking for top-quality, low-cost kitchen units.








Indispensable reference books




There is no substitute for a good French dictionary. It's a mistake to think that if you don't speak good French, then you need only buy a pocket-sized one. Once you get down to serious communication with builders and officials you will find its lack of subtle differentiation between several translations of the same word or phrase infuriating - if not expensive. The big Collins Robert French-English dictionary has 350,000 references - including modern expressions and computer jargon. If you'd like the reassurance of pictures, then the Oxford Visual Dictionary has copious illustrations of everything from the points of a horse to the parts of a yacht, from plumbing systems to the mysterious underground world of the septic tank - neatly labelled in English, French, German and Spanish.

Another smaller, but no less vital reference work is the pocket-sized English-French, French-English Dictionary of Building, Property and Gardening (£6.95+p&p). Another book that is much recommended is David Everett's Buying and Restoring Old Property in France

There is a series of excellent booklets produced by Hadley-Pager on specialised French-English, English-French vocabulary of various sorts - including the legal terms involved in house purchase, and the essential vocabulary of DIY. You do not seem to find them in many mainstream bookshops, but the "France" magazine shops - located in Stow-on-the-Wold and in the French Tourist Office in London (Piccadilly) - stock several of the titles. You can enquire about the full range from Hadley-Pager (email: ; UK tel/fax: 01372 458550), and also order a couple in the series through Amazon:
Glossary of House Purchase and Renovation Terms
, and
Hadley's French Motoring Phrase Book and Dictionary

Another vital area is maps. For actually getting to France, you need the Michelin Touring and Motoring Atlas (scale: 1:200,000 - 1cm=2km), or the folding, red-covered, Michelin map of France. And change them frequently, because new roads and motorways are completed all the time so you might miss out on some vital, time-saving new route! In the yellow Michelin series, Map 67 (Nantes, Les Sables, Poitiers) covers the county down to Les Sables-d'Olonne; with Map 71 covering from Les Sables down to La Rochelle and beyond.









Keeping that septic tank sweet







I'm not setting myself up as the greatest expert here, but somebody asked me for advice the other day so I thought I would lay out our 30 years' experience of all three types of fosse here for all to see. Needless to say, I disclaim any liability whatsoever... If you have problems call your friendly local builder.

There are three sorts of fosse:
- une fosse étanche, or cess-pit – which is simply an underground chamber that collects all the outflow from your WC, and has to be emptied several times a year, depending on its size and how often the house is used. This usually leaves waste from the sink, washbasins etc to exit to a soakaway or to a convenient ditch. There is no biological activity in a fosse étanche, so it doesn’t matter what products you put down the loo (except that you don’t want anyone to block it up with nappies etc, obviously).
- une fosse septique, or septic tank – a mini-sewage system, with a double chamber and filters buried under the ground. The action of bacteria turns the WC waste to liquid, which gets pushed out through the filter bed, and thence (as, hopefully, clean water), into a ditch. Often these takes just the outflow from the WC, leaving the sink, washbasins etc to exit to a soakaway or to a ditch, as above. The biological process can be halted by unsuitable cleaning materials, or even perhaps from being used by someone on heavy doses of antibiotics.
- une fosse toutes-eaux (I don’t know the English for this, but it means an “all water” system) – which takes all waste water from inside the house, and processes it in the same way as the septic tank, above. This is becoming compulsory for all rural  homes that are not connected to mains drainage (tout à l’égout).  The clean water at the end is supposed to filter down into the ground, leaving nothing to pollute the ditches. Precautions as for fosse septique, above.

1. Make sure you know exactly where your fosse is! We were fortunate to have photographed the installation before it was covered over with earth 10 years ago. Lucky we did, because the builder's plan was very hazy...
Then ensure you don't drive a 10-ton truck over any fragile parts of it; don't lay concrete on top of it (or you can't get to it if necessary); and be sure you know where the access hole is (you will need to uncover this if you ever have to get it emptied).
It will probably be beneath a dinner-plate-sized cover, and is often hidden under a layer of earth - no bad thing, as it keeps any unpleasant whiffs from seeping out around the edge. But you will have to uncover it to be ready for the vidangeur (see below) if you ever need him.

2. For a fosse septique, or for a fosse toutes-eaux, put the contents of a couple of packets of Eparcyl (a brand of biological activator) down it when you arrive after several weeks' absence to kick-start it; thereafter, give it a single dose once a week while you're in residence, to keep it all going nicely. You can buy Eparcyl in the local French supermarket - or if not, then go to a droguerie (a sort of ironmonger's). It's usually with all the loo cleaners etc.

3. Don't put bleach down the loo, and only use cleaners that are biological (i.e. Clarcyl, also available from supermarkets, in a green plastic bottle). The system depends on bacteria to work properly, so if you kill them off then it won't. Also, if anybody is taking antibiotics, then somebody told us you ought to put a bit of extra Eparcyl down the loo. In new installations, the sink outflow, bath etc all goes into it too. I have to admit, however, that I just use ordinary dishwasher and washing-machine powder (don't even know if there *is* anything special).

4. Don't let people using it put anything but loo paper down the lavatory. No tampons, condoms, disposable nappies etc. (I read somewhere that you shouldn’t put anything down the loo that you haven’t eaten first!)  The foregoing items won't biodegrade properly, and will eventually get stuck in your filter bed, and cleaning it out is Not A Nice Experience. Believe us.

5. Avoid putting coffee grounds down the sink. Somebody told us that they can settle into an immovable lump - well, you know how they do when you try and pour them out of a jug... Maybe best to avoid tea leaves too. Put them on the compost heap instead.

6. The outflow, even in what we hoped 10 years ago was a state-of-the-art system, still pongs a bit - more some days than others - out in the lane where the "purified" water drains off. If it's a day when I have done two loads of washing *and* run the dishwasher, and it's a bit whiffy in the ditch, I might put an extra packet of Eparcyl down the loo. Not sure it makes much difference, but it makes me feel better about it.

7. If you want to get the fosse emptied, you call a vidangeur (look in the Yellow Pages of the phone book), who arrives in a great tanker and sets up pipes ready to suck up and cart away your unmentionable debris. You are supposed to have the sludge pumped out every 5 years, though I think this may be a counsel of perfection. If you don't live there permanently, then I don't suppose you're filling it up at the rate that permanent residents would do. We had it done at our current house after 10 years. The septic tank of the next-door cottage was emptied at the same time (first time for about 25 years!), and the total cost was about £100 for the two (in 2000).
It is up to you to uncover the access point before the vidangeur arrives. Take photographs, relating the access hole to some immovable structure like a recognisable part of your house, and measure how far it is from a couple of fixed points. You'll be glad you did, next time!







Although intense snow and frost are uncommon in the Vendée, before you close the shutters of your holiday home and head north for the winter it is worth bearing a few things in mind.

Bring all garden furniture etc indoors. Lock doors, windows and shutters of house. Arrange to leave a key with a neighbour or other trustworthy person, and ask them to visit the house at least once a month, checking it inside as well as out. We recommend having a checklist near the front door, so that before you leave you can run through "Is gas turned off? Iron unplugged?" etc before turning the key and leaving.

Obviously turn off the electricity at the mains before leaving for home (although make sure there is nothing left in the fridge or freezer that might decompose into a soggy mass in your absence). It's also wise to unplug things in the house, just in case anybody (workman or neighbour) needs to turn the power on for some reason, and then inadvertently leaves your electric radiator running...

You should turns off the water at the mains tap, probably in a hole on the perimeter of your property. This means that should you have any burst pipes indoors during the winter, at least there will be no gallons of expensively-metred water pumping frantically out of it for four months during your absence. It is your responsibility to protect the meter that is also in the hole from frost etc, so pack around it something like bubble-wrap, or at least some plastic bags stuffed with straw.
Once you have turned off the water, give all loos a final flush to empty the cisterns. We once had a porcelain cistern crack into several pieces during a particularly fierce frost.

Your lovely cool summer cottage is likely to become somewhat damp during the winter, so keep soft furnishings off the ground, and leave internal doors of the house open to allow air to circulate as much as possible. Recently on the market are electric de-humidifiers that might be worth considering. These would of course have to be left running all winter, positioned on a draining-board or on boards over a bath so that their drainage tube can carry the water away. We have not tried them ourselves, so I cannot comment on the possibility of drips of water freezing in the waste pipes etc.
Another inconvenient fact of country life is that, by October, the little creatures of the fields that seem so charming at a distance will be searching for somewhere cosy to spend the winter. To make it more difficult for them to create comfortable nests from your possessions, we suggest the following:
- shut pillows and cushions in mouse-proof drawers or cupboards;
- lift rugs and put them on tables or in cupboards;
- pile larger soft furnishings on something with legs, that keeps them a bit off the damp ground, and drape everything loosely with polythene sheets.
- hang bedding - duvets, blankets, eiderdowns etc - up from some sort of rail or line. Then lay a polythene sheet on top. At least if mice or rats trot along the rail this will ensure they will get less of a foothold!

If you think there may be a problem with rats, mice or dormice, it's worth putting down some poison before you shut up for the winter. Mice go for specially-treated (i.e. poisoned) grains, that you can put down in little piles - note that mice tend to run around the edge of a room rather than across the middle. Be sure to remember where you put it, though, as you will want to remove any leftovers in the spring before children or animals find them. In our experience, rats and dormice prefer the bait in paper-wrapped blocks (boxes of this are available from supermarkets). In fact they like it so much that they have on occasion eaten into the cardboard box and helped themselves before we have thought to put it out for them...







If you are keen to do an authentic restoration job on an old property, it's worth getting in touch with the Vendée branch of an association called Maisons Paysannes de France before you bash any holes in the wall or ruin some piece of priceless heritage. They offer leaflets on different techniques - such as lime-rendering walls instead of concreting them - to help retain the genuine features of rural cottages, logis, bourrines, in fact any nice old vernacular building. They also have a list of specialists - from tile-makers to builders, carpenters to roofers - in different parts of the Vendée who will give advice to members on how to proceed. The association organises visits, talks and courses on practical techniques, and publishes a quarterly magazine. Annual subscription is about 270F.
The Vendée branch - an enthusiastic bunch of people, passionate about architectural heritage - is headed by Madame Claudine Schnepf, Fief Mignoux, 85120 St-Maurice-des-Noues (tel: 02 51 00 81 42) and Madame Janine Duème, 8 rue Jean Charron, 85200 Fontenay-le-Comte (tel: 02 51 69 31 85).






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