Working for yourself and living in the beautiful French countryside is an idyll to which many expats aspire. Being able to bask in the warm weather, indulge in French patisseries and enjoy classic wines on your terrace while earning money on your own doorstep certainly sounds like a cushy number. But the reality of letting your own holiday cottage or starting a gîte business in France can be rather less glamorous.
Five expats who have taken the plunge and moved to France to start their own gîte business give the low-down on what it takes to go into holiday lettings and give important tips you should know before setting up a holiday cottage business in France.
Location, location, location?
France is a country of varied landscapes and differing weather systems. In just one country you can find the swankiest cities on the planet, the most extraordinary mountain ranges, windswept coasts, sun-baked beaches and rolling green hills. So with all this choice, how on earth do you narrow down where to base your holiday home business?
Donna Thain who runs Old Bakery Gîtes, a complex of three cottages in Gomene in Brittany, says: “Many people will say research it carefully - be near a tourist attraction or the coast - but I think anywhere goes as long as you market to the right clients.
"One location doesn’t fit all - not everyone wants the countryside, not everyone wants the city, not everyone one wants the coast. Find your niche and reach your audience. For us when choosing our property it was important that we loved the property and location as much as we thought it would be a viable business.”
Law and Order
The French are known for their love of licences and laws, so what potential health and safety hazards do holiday cottage owners need to be aware of? Here is a breakdown of the main points:
- Safe gas installations & CO2 detectors
- Smoke alarms (minimum of one per floor of the house), fire blankets and fire extinguishers on all floors.
- Swimming pool safety device that conforms to AFNOR standards, safety covers and, for extra security, it's advisable to install a pool safety fence
- Safe electrical equipment
- Safety gates on staircases to protect small children
Lynn O’Neill from Maison de Salamandre in Mohon in Brittany (pictured) says: “Health and safety is a complex area and worth discussing with your insurance company. It’s also one that is regularly changing so it’s important to keep up to date. Be careful about any additional activities or equipment offered in case it is faulty and you find that you are not insured in the event of an accident. It’s a matter of assessing your property and looking for risks. Then try to mitigate these and also point them out to guests and note them in your handbook. (Make sure your handbook is in French as well as English.)
"We found issues such as needing to add bars across low bedroom windows; making sure the gas bottle was locked away from children; ensuring that the swings/slide set is safely secured; pointing out to families about the road and risks from passing traffic. Most of the equipment is fairly obvious but some are less obvious, such as considering if cots are clean and safe. So do you provide a cot mattress and bedding and does your high chair conform and have safety straps? Does your log burner leak fumes? Is your tumble drier subject to safety modifications and has this been carried out? Are your gas hoses in date? Have you left anything lying around that could be dangerous for young children? Are your outside chairs in good condition? Is your BBQ in a safe place and what do guests do if the hedge catches fire?”
As well as making sure your gîte is safe for tourists, you’ll also have to make sure that if any building work is carried out or any conversions are made, it is approved of by the local town hall called a ‘Mairie’. You'll need to register with the town hall when you set up your business, and making contact with the local Chamber of Commerce is also a good idea to make sure you’re complying with any local rules you may not be aware of.
Donna Thane from Old Bakery gîtes adds: “Many gîte owners are unaware that if you provide a TV, or even just a DVD player, you must obtain a separate licence for each gîte over and above the one for your private accommodation. In 2017 this is 138 euros per licence. The fines are hefty and backdated licence fees can add up to a financial shocker if you are found to be non-compliant.”
Tax, Accounts & French Administration
Tax and accounting for businesses is tricky enough in your own language, let alone in a foreign tongue with the added difficulty of unfamiliar business systems and rules. For many expats, sourcing a bilingual expert who can help with taxes, accounts and business advice on how to register as a gîte business owner, is their first port of call. English-speaking accountants who are fully up to date with the French tax laws can help enormously.
Marion Autrum who owns the Domaine de la Dolce gîtes in Lot (pictured) says: “I think it is important to seek professional advice related to one’s particular situation - annual revenue, costs and eventual depreciation allowance, to make sure you are registered and declaring under the most tax-efficient regime.
"I made a joke in the beginning that with the French system everything takes three months such as applying and receiving the French healthcare carte vitale. The only one replying promptly was, and still is, my accountant.
"Many people talk about the red tape here in France - bureaucracy is after all a French word – and I read once that somebody said ‘French administration is a little bit like a truffle hunt. First you need to know where to look for it, then you have to find it and then you have to dig it up!’”
The paperwork and organisation involved in an international move should also not be underestimated. Some useful tips you will need to consider are:
- Health insurance – apply for a ‘carte vitale’ as soon as you can and while you wait make sure your European health insurance card is up to date.
- Get a French bank account that you can manage online. It is very hard to register yourself, your car, set up insurance etc without a bank account and you cannot set up a bank account without a registered address. Related article: The French banking system
- Set up an arrangement with a money transfer organisation if you will need to transfer sterling to Euros. Choose a company that has an arrangement with your bank to reduce transaction fees.
- Take photocopies of all your key documents and have them with you when you visit the different administration centres to register yourself. If you send anything in the post, keep a copy of what you sent and mark down what day you sent it.
- Check the expiry date on your passport and driving license before you leave the UK and make sure these documents are up to date. Always have your passport and full birth and marriage certificates for any legal matters. Buy a small box file in which to keep all your documents - insurance details, vehicle documents, birth and marriage certificates and legal documents. (The French love to have multiple forms of ID so don’t get caught out by leaving anything back in the UK). If you keep your UK driving licence make sure it is actually legal by still having a valid address in the UK.
Moving to a new country means you are without your usual support system. One way of becoming immediately involved in your new community is to use other local businesses to help you set up your gîte. It also helps if you speak – or at least try to speak – a decent amount of French.
Suzanne Reeve who owns the La Croix Bardon gîte (pictured) at Genouille in Vienne in South West France says: “We found the French neighbours were very welcoming and very happy to receive our guests (particularly our local baker who got a lot of business during the summer months) but we are considered very unusual for British people as both my husband and I are fluent French speakers.
"The French neighbours were very helpful in finding us plumbers, electricians and artisans to help with our gîte renovations. We made 100 percent effort to use only French workers to show we were bringing investment into the community. The French workers were excellent – very hard working and professional - and I would hope in the future to actually employ local people to help with cleaning.
"The French in our small hamlet were very interested in what we were doing and in particular the Mayor was keen to find out what we were planning and he keeps in touch to find out if we are busy. The local farmer asked if he could put his sheep in our field to eat and graze on the grass. In exchange for having a few sheep for a few months he came to cut the grass and left a huge straw bale which we use for our chicken coop. We also bought a few chickens from him!”
If you want to become even further entrenched in the community, you can get involved with voluntary organisations, local campaigns and school associations.
A steep learning curve always has to be navigated when first setting up a holiday cottage business in France. It isn’t until you actually open your doors to holiday makers that you realise if you’ve forgotten something or haven’t anticipated certain situations.
Vickie Malyon who owns the Dom Saladry holiday cottages in the Aude Valley at Villepinte in Languedoc (pictured) says: “We have learnt that clients who arrive tired and excited about their holiday do not listen to what you say. Try to arrange a time to go through gîte instructions when they are feeling refreshed and if they have children, suggest that the kids are kept entertained whilst you are talking to them.
"We’ve produced a book of the house which contains information about the gîtes, local area, hospitals, ATMs, local markets, supermarkets, etc. Make this simple and easy to read. Also have a book for guests’ comments. We’ve noticed everyone reads these and often take recommendations on places to visit and eat.
"And when we first started we naively thought people would leave the gîte in a good state as we would do when staying somewhere! So now, we take a security deposit from guests and have a process of thoroughly checking the gîte with the guests before they depart. We ask people to leave the gîtes in a certain level of cleanliness, such as rubbish bins removed and fridges emptied. You have to point this out clearly – don’t assume this is known. We also ask guests to tell us if they’ve broken anything, mainly so it can be cleaned up or mended from a safety perspective. It’s surprising how many people are scared to admit if they’ve damaged something, mainly I think they are worried about being charged extra.
"For late arrivals, I always ask them if they want some basic grocery items bought on their behalf, especially if they have small children. This always goes down well with tired Mums and I think guests are really grateful that you thought of something like this.”
Taking the Good with the Bad
Most holiday makers are decent human beings who treat their gîte accommodation with respect and care. However, you must be prepared for the times when you have customers who treat your French home with a little less regard.
Donna Thain from Old Bakery Gîtes says: “There are some downright awful customers so don’t have your rose-tinted specs on and don’t take everything to heart. Our worst customers were a group of young men who partied too hard, would not stop when asked by my husband, vomited on the sofas, bleached their hair ruining my towels, and left us shell shocked and the place in a state.”
Vickie Maylon from Dom Saladry adds: “The most challenging things we’ve faced so far are really messy gîtes which have to be spotless within two hours and breakages we have discovered after guests have left.”
One of the first obstacles to owning a gîte is making sure potential customers can find you, so having a good website is the first job you’ll need to sort out. Your website is the first impression a customer will have of your business therefore ensure your website is beautifully designed with professional photographs that show off your property to its best advantage.
Understanding SEO and how you can creep up the Google rankings is also an advantage – being on the first three pages of google is essential if you want to pull in the bookings so hiring a professional web designer/SEO expert at the start could put you on a good footing. (For instance, having a constantly updated blog with excellent content about the local area is one way of putting you top of the list). Taking out a Google Adwords campaign may also help, but make sure you are familiar with keyword searches and review your campaigns regularly to keep tabs on your costs.
Suzanne Reeve from La Croix Bardon flags up a particular problem that besets gîte owners who move into their new holiday property during the off-season months and want to start advertising straight away: “A very large learning curve was having the website designed and set up and then not being able to take photos inside or out as it was winter. I hadn’t thought this through properly so we did loads of juggling - finishing rooms or part of a room, dressing it, getting photos then putting them on the web. Invariably whichever room wasn’t on the web was the room potential guests wanted to see!
"It was a huge juggling game as there is so much to get in place when you start from scratch such as getting furniture, equipment and bedding and soft furnishings in place. It was almost a chicken and egg situation where time needed to be invested to make the website look really good while doing the decorating and purchasing. This is where I spent many hours and long days getting everything ready. It was tough to actually get it all done.”
Social media is also an excellent form of free advertising – a well-designed and current Facebook and Twitter page will help you not only connect with customers but also with the local community and the local tourist offices. And a Google Business page will put you on the first page of Google immediately if you link it with your location and your website.
Always ask customers who have enjoyed their stay to leave testimonials that you can put on your website and ask them to review it on your Google Business site. Potential customers always go for the sites with the best starred reviews. But if you have a customer reviewing you badly, make sure you reply in a polite and pleasant manner and address any problems they bring up. Sometimes it's worth asking customers that instead of leaving a bad review, if they could instead bring up any complaints at the time of departure, so they can be addressed in person. That sometimes prevents customers from leaving a bad review if you deal with the complaints nicely.
There are also online booking companies and tourism agencies that can advertise your gîte for a fee such as Chez Nous, Owners Direct, HomeAway, Airbnb, Trip Advisor, Holiday France - and of course you can make sure your local tourist office knows about you by leaving leaflets and business cards with them.
Advantages vs Disadvantages
With the high price of accommodation in many holiday homes in France during the tourist seasons, it would seem there’s a lot of money in owning your own gîte. But turning over a profit can be harder than you think. The cost of renovations, health and safety features, taxes, furnishings and fittings can all mount up, which means it could be a good few years of solid business before you can see your pockets bulging with euros. But despite the expenses and the hard graft, most gîte owners never look back after taking the decision to up sticks and open a gîte business.
Vickie Maylon from Dom Saladry says: “After years of corporate jobs it’s really nice to wake up every day and totally motivating to know that it’s up to us to grow our business and make it a success and we will get out of it what we put into it. I can at least say I tried rather than sitting in my old job forever bitter that I didn’t go for it! I’m discovering I have the ability to do anything I put my mind to which is something that does not happen when you work for the corporate dollar!
"We live off about 1/20th of the income we used to have but have adjusted as you actually don’t need half the things you think you need and I love making meals from local in season ingredients for pennies rather than bolting down ready-meals at 9pm. I would rather be cleaning loos and gardening, looking at my lovely views of the black mountains and the Pyrenees than working 14 hours a day and getting stuck on motorways.”
Marion Autrum of Domaine de la Dolce says: “I have no regrets. Every time I step outside and look across the meadow over to the gîtes I think to myself “This is such a wonderful office to work in”. I am part of something very special - a family holiday – and I love meeting all the lovely mums, dads and kids. All the hard work running three gîtes is paid off when I read their feedback and know they had a wonderful family holiday.”
Suzanne Reeve of La Croix Bardon adds: “Despite the long hours and working 7 days a week I’ve enjoyed working for myself and I have surprised myself at what skills I've used and the new knowledge I’ve built up. Also we have less financial worries than we did in the UK trying to pay off a large mortgage. The lifestyle is less stressful and we are able to survive on a lot less than we expected. Growing our own fruit and vegetables has been refreshing from buying everything at the supermarket. Also we have embraced the up-cycling phenomena - making do with what we have rather than buying new all the time.
"I think the best thing about doing this is the free time at your disposal built around the new constraints – we have certainly worked hard but had lots of opportunities to get away for a day or a few days exploring. It feels liberating being in charge of your own schedule.”
So if you’re thinking of upping sticks and following these inspiring expats into the French holiday cottage business, you can get expert advice about how to start a business in France including how to open a bank account or find an English-speaking chartered accountant in France by downloading our free guide below, contacting us on 0033 (0) 1 53 57 49 10 or emailing us via our contact page.