Carlie: Welcome to another episode of the Expat Focus podcast. I’m your host Carlie, and my guest today is a UK expat based in beautiful South-West France, where he runs a guest house along with his partner.
Their home is called Maison Mûrier, and on their website Phill and Kev call it their little bit of heaven in the French countryside. Looking at the stunning photos, their acre-and-a-half property has a pool; incredible views over sunflower fields; their house has seven bedrooms; and there are a number of barns on the land as well.
So how did they choose their dream French property? How was the renovation process, and what sort of qualities do you need to run a guest house in France? I spoke to Phill about his experiences in November of 2018, at the end of his very first year as a host.
How did you come to be living in and running a guest house in France?
Phill: Well, I’ll give you the abridged version. We had always wanted to live in another country while we were still young, because I know a lot of people leave it until later in life. But we wanted to do it while we were still young because we love renovating properties and that’s what we did in London, and we wanted to do it while we had the energy and the verve to get out and do lots of different projects.
We’d been on holidays to France many times, all over France, and came to this area with my mother and my cousin from South Africa about eight or nine years ago, and absolutely fell in love with the area, and just found everybody in this region nice and friendly. And [we] quite liked the idea that it was sort of near the south of France but not right down by the coast. Although I love the sea and I love the coast, when we visited further south we felt it was a little bit barren. I still wanted some greenness and some hills – I’m Welsh, you can probably tell from my accent. So I still like that little reminder of home.
I love the sun, so I wanted this combination of having really hot summers but still keeping autumn and spring, and having some greenness. Although this summer I have to say has been extremely hot, and my poor garden has suffered greatly, so we’ve spent most of the summer with quite a barren garden. So yeah, that’s the main reason.
Carlie: Before you settled on the South-West – and clearly there were lots of elements about it that attracted you – did you consider any other parts of France? Did you visit other parts of France to kind of weigh up your options?
Phill: We did. I mean, we looked at the Champagne area and around the Loire Valley. We actually owned a tiny little apartment in Nice for four years, going back about fifteen years ago, and we renovated that and we absolutely loved the Côte d’Azur and that cosmopolitan lifestyle down there, the mix of having the city life with the sun and sand available. Unfortunately, down that area it’s just ridiculously expensive, even coming further across, down to Montpellier, it’s still very expensive. One day I would like to go back to the sea, so we wanted something where we were going to get value for money, but still have the sort of Mediterranean lifestyle, so that’s really why we chose this area.
Another reason as well is my partner flies for British Airways, so we needed to look for airports that BA flew to, and Toulouse airport is one of their main hubs over in France and has three flights a day. So that’s really where we started: we looked at Toulouse airport, put a pin in it. He only wanted to travel about an hour’s drive from the airport, so we drew a circle around it –
Carlie: I was going to say! Just draw a literal circle around it, see what comes out!
Phill: Absolutely, that’s what we did! And we split it into four quarters, and we started exploring south-east, south-west, north-east, north-west. Mainly, to begin with, online, as probably most people do: hitting the websites and looking at all the pretty pictures, which sometimes don’t always show things exactly the way they really are. I have a bit of a bugbear about that, because they show you lots of beautiful things but they don’t show you any of the bad things; I just wish sometimes agents would be a bit more honest about the good and the bad, the pros and the cons.
So we went to visit those regions. Online we must have looked at about 150 different properties and whittled it down to 35, and we came over here for one week, it was April, and we visited properties in all of those four areas, and got it down to five properties.
What we then did is, because the property we currently live in has a two-bedroom house which is attached the the main house but it’s actually owned by Kev’s mum, so she and her partner were involved in the process. So we whittled it down to the top five; they then came over and we took them back to see the five, and we actually quite gamely gave them a judging sheet and split it into categories, and they had to judge the houses, and then we managed to whittle it down to two. Out of the two, me and Kev’s mum had a favourite, and Ian and Kev had a favourite, so we had to battle it out between the two.
Carlie: Did you toss a coin?
Phill: We didn’t, we just talked about it and talked about it, and eventually we came to the decision that where we’re living now, in Maison Mûrier, is the correct house. We took a bit of persuading, because Marion and I were quite taken by another house an hour away, but to be quite honest, Kev and Ian were correct, they were right. We were using our hearts too much and not listening to our head, and a combination of both is good, but at the end of the day you really do have to look at things and paper and try to… as much as I really believe in gut feelings and sensing that it’s the right place, you do have to think about practicalities as well.
Carlie: You mentioned that you had experience renovating homes in the UK. How did that factor in when you were looking for the ideal property purchase?
Phill: Well it factored in inasmuch as we’d renovated five properties in London, and the one down in Nice, and it gave us a good basis, [an] understanding of what we thought we could do. However, anybody who’s lived in London will probably know, houses there, or any of the houses we could have bought, weren’t huge, and one of the reasons for buying a property in France is you get a lot more property for your money.
So we bought this house for the same price we originally bought our last house for in London, which was a three-bedroom semi-detached Victorian house. Here we got a ten-bedroomed house which is probably three times the size, with an acre of land. So although when we looked at it online, it was a blank canvas, it hadn’t been looked in for a long time, we sort of looked at it and thought “Oh OK, we could look at that, we could change that,” but the difference was the scale. And when we eventually got here and looked at it, that was one thing that I was a little bit scared of, because I was looking at the size of the rooms, the size of the property and thinking, OK, it took us this long to do this property in London; I think we may need to adjust our timeline of how long it’s probably going to take us to do this house in France.
Carlie: And this is a way that you earn an income, I assume, as well, because it’s a guest house?
Phill: Yes. So we’ve only been running the guest house for one year, we opened last June. Previously to that I was still working in the UK, travelling back and forth, only one week a month, and working online the rest of the time. But now this is my main job, and it’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and I absolutely love it. The first year has been absolutely incredible. It’s scary, because when you design your own house and you build it, obviously you get friends and family coming, going “Ooo, it’s lovely, I like this, I like that”, and I believe them when they say that; but when you then have to open it up to people that you totally don’t know, that you’ve never met before, you’re thinking in the back of your head “Oh my god, will they like it? Will they like us? Will they like the style of decoration?”
Carlie: And do you get protective of it? Because I think I would be, especially if I’d put so much work into creating it – I think I’d be a bit like, “Oh don’t wear your shoes on my floor!” or “Make sure you’re not doing this or that in my property!”
Phill: That’s an interesting question, but my answer to that would be, because of the work I’ve always done, I would have to say… I’m protective in that obviously I want people to respect it, but no, I totally don’t mind. My idea of a house is that it should be lived in, and everything we do and everything we buy and put into this house is to be used. So I’m really not worried if somebody breaks anything, or if they get a mark on something, because that’s living and that’s what happens in the real world.
I love looking at design magazines and watching design programmes on TV, but some of those houses are sterile, and you sort of think “Yeah, it looks lovely, but would anybody live in that? There’s nothing on display… could you sit on that white sofa? What happens when my dog comes in after a muddy walk, where are they going to go?”
So no, I believe [that] things should be lived in, should be used and enjoyed. So no, not really, I’m not worried.
Carlie: You’ve got the right mentality and the right attitude to be running a guest house!
Phill: I have to say though, all the guests that we’ve had this year have just been amazing, and they have been very very respectful of everything that we’ve done, so I’ve not really experienced anything. Yeah, sure people have broken the odd glass and things like that, but nobody has disrespected the house or its contents at all.
Carlie: Phill, when it came to the renovating, how much of it were you able to do yourself based on the experience that you and your partner had, and how much did you have to look for local support to help with?
Phill: Well, this is quite interesting because again, when we were living in London, Kev and myself have always been quite hands-on people, and we were able to make money in London because we did virtually all the work ourselves. The only thing that we didn’t do in London was electrics, because obviously they are health and safety orientated and have to be certified, and that’s the same over here in France.
So when we came to France we wanted to do the same thing: we wanted to physically do as much as we possibly could, and we used the same mentality. The only thing that we haven’t done… there are two things. We didn’t do the roof, because we needed to get the roof completely re-roofed. That’s quite a specialist job, although having watched what they do, I do believe now, with the aid of maybe YouTube to remind us and videos that I took, we could probably do that. Although I’m not that great on heights so I don’t know if I’d want to go on the roof, to be quite honest with you.
And the electrics. Luckily we had the most incredible electrician, and again luckily for us he is the son of one of the previous owners of the house, so he knows the house well and his dad knows the house, so whenever he has come up against problems, he just calls his dad and sort of goes back in time with his dad saying “Do you remember how they did that? Do you remember how they did this?” which has helped him out.
But everything else, apart from the roof and the electrics in Maison Mûrier, has been done by Kev and myself, and numerous helpers that have come for working holidays, even down to installing a swimming pool.
Carlie: It’s brilliant, isn’t it? Give them some wine and cheese and somewhere to sleep, and put ’em to work!
Phill: Absolutely, yes. Send lovely photos of beautiful views and rosé and people flock to you!
Carlie: So it sounds like you didn’t have to deal too much with suppliers or workmen, workwomen, in France that you didn’t know. On the Expat Focus Facebook group occasionally there are some posts about some dodgy operators to be aware of if you’re working on your house in France. Did you have any worries in that regard?
Phill: Not so much about dodgy operators. One thing I think you have to learn when you move to, I guess, any foreign country, is that it’s going to be completely different to the country you currently live in. Yes there will be similarities, but anybody who’s visited hot countries and all the Mediterranean countries, they have a very different perspective [on] work, and obviously there’s the difficulty of shops shutting during lunchtimes and closing on Sundays, and the big July and August holidays where you get absolutely nothing done.
The one frustration for me, definitely when I’ve used artisans or just looking at minor things – we did get somebody in to dig a hole for the swimming pool – is they just don’t get back to you. I mean we experienced that in the UK as well, so it’s probably the same in lots of different countries.
But here in France, I find my personal experience has been that companies are not great at using technology; so they will ask for your email address, and they’ll say “Yeah, yeah, we’ll email you.” And then quite often you don’t hear from them for months, or nine times out of ten you don’t hear from them at all, so you have to do a lot of chasing.
And then there’s the whole mañana. So for instance when we were needing somebody to dig the stone out – we dug a lot of the pool ourselves but there were big boulders that we couldn’t get out, so we needed somebody with a big digger to come in and do that, and I had about five different companies come in – and they stood and talked to me for about an hour, and they had a coffee, and then at the end of the hour I said “Oh great, so when can you do this for me?” thinking they would say “Oh, next week.” But it was like “Oh, right. Next year?” or “Six months’ time?” which, you know, I just started laughing and thinking, why have you wasted all my time?!
Carlie: Gosh. Drank my coffee…!
Phill: Why didn’t you just say that from the start, why didn’t you just say “Oh great, I can visit you, but just so you know, I’m booked up for the next six months.” So I found that very frustrating, and the technology part.
Carlie: How did that affect you, that unexpected timeline and any additional cost, how did that affect your initial plan for when you would have your home ready to be opened as a guest house?
Phill: Well it didn’t really, to be honest. Because what we did, we obviously didn’t use any of those people, we just kept asking. And this is actually where the expat thing comes in and is very useful. We had started meeting expats; we have a café in the village and we met a lot of expats there, and there’s nothing better than chatting to people, and then suddenly you’ll get “Oh, I know somebody who’s got a digger! I know somebody who’s got a digger!” So we just used those channels to find somebody that could come in very quickly and help us out in that situation. And people helping people who have done things before, I think is one of the most important things I can say to people: when you move to wherever you’re going to move, try and find a community, because they will be very very helpful.
And also I have to say, our French neighbours have been absolutely incredible, again offering loads of advice and support, and offering up trusted tradespeople that they have used before to come and help us.
Carlie: Phill, do you think it’s essential to have experience renovating property and to be knowledgeable in that regard to be able to embark on a project like this in France?
Phill: I think if you want to do a renovation project, any experience that you’ve had before is important if you physically want to do it yourself. If you are not the kind of people who want to get your hands dirty, then what I would say is: research, research, research is the most important thing. And being a good project manager. Because there are a lot of people who want to do it but are not capable of doing it, and then in that case you either need to project manage it yourself and try and learn as much as you can about project management via the internet or speaking to people who’ve done it before; or you need to employ a really good project manager that can do the job for you.
But if you’ve had a little bit of experience, just get stuck in and have a go! That’s what I would say. I think the most important thing is just to not be scared, and just have a little go, and if you figure out that you really can’t do that, then fine, just get somebody in to do it. There’s no shame in paying people to do things, it keeps people employed! Just for us, we totally enjoy physically doing the work and then standing back and seeing the results at the end of it.
Carlie: And when it comes to running your property as a guest house, how much did you know about hosting people that aren’t friends and family before you started for your first season?
Phill: Nothing, other than being a good host in my house in London, having lots of friends and family to stay. My previous job… I’ve worked in retail all my life, so I’ve been used to dealing with the general public. And obviously because Kevin works for British Airways he works in hospitality anyway, so we just wanted to create a place where people could come and relax, and we wanted to create a home from home. And I just figured, you know, I’m not going to put on any airs and graces, I’m just going to be myself, and hopefully that will be enough.
I’ve had to learn lots of things, I did loads of research on the internet, on expat sites like French Entrer and companies like that. But again what you have to do is you just have to do it, and learn very quickly about things, you know, like how many sets of duvets you’re going to need for every room, how many sets of sheets you’re going to need, how many towels you’re going to need, because when you’re turning rooms over on a daily or two-daily basis, you have to have lots of things.
Where they’re stored in conjunction to where the washing machine is; what type of iron you use, you need an industrial size iron. So it’s still having things that you would have in your house but you have to upscale things a lot.
Carlie: Pimp your appliances.
Phill: Absolutely, yeah, definitely. Pay for the good appliances, you know. If you buy cheap, you end up buying three or four times; it’s best to go for really good quality. We bought a fourteen-kilogram drum washing machine; my god, it’s massive, but it’s been so useful. And also a tumble drier, even when the weather’s great you still need to have a tumble drier to be able to get things dried when you need to.
Carlie: So you’ve been through your first peak hosting season now. Is now your kind of slotted in down time, or what do you do in your off season and what are your plans for the next season?
Phill: Oh, yeah. So we just closed at the end of October. We were going to close at the end of September but we had quite a few enquiries for October. I didn’t think it’d be busy but it ended up being really really busy. So 31st of October we finished, and I took a big sigh; absolutely loved the whole season but it was really nice not to get up to do early breakfast, so that was lovely.
Now I’ve had a few weeks off we’re going to start with renovations, carry on with the renovations, because as I said the house is massive. We’ve done all the guest bedrooms. We’re still about 90% done with our master bedroom, we’re just hanging a door on that and putting skirting boards on, and we are still renovating the garden, there’s lots of work to do in the garden and outside. Also just getting things prepared for winter, and then we’re going to start work on the barns, because we have six barns attached to the house, so then we will start working on those. So it’s not going to be a quiet winter! It’s going to be a busy, busy winter. And then obviously when the spring comes it will be getting everything prepped ready for the coming season: getting the garden ready, getting all the decking ready, the pool back up and running, and yeah, getting all the rooms ready. So yeah, there won’t be that much down time!
Carlie: When you’re running a guest house and you’re opening your home to people for so much of the year, what strategies do you use to carve out some personal time and personal space for yourselves?
Phill: Yeah, that’s a really good question, and it is so important, I would say, to people. You sort of panic a bit when you open your guest house at the beginning, especially if you don’t have many bookings, because you think “Oh, I need to make money,” so you accept booking after booking after booking if you’re lucky and they come that way. So the biggest mistake I made was accepting all these bookings and not portioning some time off in between.
So I had quite a few large parties throughout the summer of twelve people staying, and then literally had people staying the next day after they left; so the one thing I would say to people is, don’t be scared maybe to block off a day or two days if you’ve had a very busy period, because you really will need that time not just to get the house back looking really good, but also for your sanity, just to have a little bit of down time so maybe you can just spend an afternoon by the pool, to remember that actually it’s your house as well as everybody else’s house when they’re visiting. So I would say don’t be afraid to carve out little bits of time for yourself peppered throughout the season: that’s something I’ll definitely be doing next year.
Carlie: That’s it for today. If you have any questions for Phill or want to share your own experiences, head over to ExpatFocus.com and follow the links to our France forum or Expats In France Facebook group. We have more episodes about all aspects of expat life; you can find them on our website or by searching “Expat Focus” on your favourite podcasting app. If you like what we do, please leave us a review, and I’ll catch you next time.