Ever dreamt of owning and renovating a property overseas? The Block’s creator, Julian Cress, talks to us about the challenges - and satisfaction - he’s found in the restoration of an old 17th-century mill.
Tell us about your home in France - it’s been in the family for a number of years, right?
We’ve had the house for about thirty years. My father used to spend six months of the year there. It was all very rudimentary, and in a state of mass disrepair, when he bought it.
Where is it?
It’s in Burgundy, which is a really beautiful part of France - very picturesque. And great wine!
What prompted him to buy it? It’s a long way from home, after all...
He had been looking for a property in France for years. He was an artist, and he used to go every year and drive around different parts of the country, looking. Eventually he found this little pocket of Burgundy which he decided was the most beautiful place he had seen anywhere in France. So he narrowed his search down to that area - and eventually found this old 17th century dairy for sale.
How much do you know about the house’s history?
The house is called ‘Pierre au Grain’, which basically means ‘stone and grain’, and we know that it was originally a place where they milled grain. Then, after that, for some time, it was a cheese factory. So it’s been a range of things. But it’s essentially a beautiful old house on a lake.
It sounds like everyone’s dream, to renovate an historic property in France...
I think so! But it’s not for the faint-hearted. It’s working with houses that are built out of solid stone - ours is from the 1600s - so it’s not easy when you want to knock out a wall. All the walls in the house are over a metre thick!
How does it work with heritage overlay over there? Does that kind of thing come into play?
Absolutely. The French are incredibly protective of the look of the countryside, and of their homes - you can’t just throw up a modern house in the beautiful rolling hills in Burgundy. You have to get approval from the local mayor, a bit like you do here in Australia. It’s just that you don’t have to go through all the paperwork - you just have to go to the Mayor and say, ‘This is what we are thinking of doing,’ and the mayor will say, ‘Yeah, I am happy with that.’
Is it quite rural, where you are?
Yeah, it is. There is a city nearby called Cluny, which is about 12kms away. There are about 10,000 people, so it’s a decent-sized town. But it’s only about half an hour drive to one of France’s larger cities, called Macon. And that has all the big hardware stores, so if you need to pop out to get some ‘No More Gaps’ - it’s there if you need it! And if you can find it… That’s been one of the of the most challenging things about renovating in a foreign country. In Australia we’re very brand aware and spend most of our days on building sites with popular products. Over there it’s the reverse and without a data plan or a mobile phone we can’t do quick translations… So sometimes we might spend way too many hours trying to find something we need… Like the time we needed sugar soap. It took us ages to find what we thought might be called something like Savon à sucre… But eventually we found something called St Marc. Go figure!
Let’s chat specifics about the renovations. How much had been done before you inherited it?
My father did a lot of work in the nineties, just to make the place liveable - clearing out all of the rubbish, and lining all the walls, and re-pointing everything. It’s old stone and mortar, so he did a lot of work going around and re-pointing all the stone work, which is hugely labour intensive. He did the hard yards, making the house structurally sound and fixing the roof. The work we have done in the last ten years has been more cosmetic.
How do you find the time to work on it?
Unlike The Block where we do a room a week - we do a room a year! So each year that we go there, we decide that we are going to tackle one room. One year we did the kitchen. And the next year, we tackled the bathroom. And now that we have children, the last couple of years have been spent doing the kids’ rooms.
How did you find booking trades?
There are some great tradesmen there. They are very respectful of the heritage of these homes and they are real artisans - they do some amazing stuff. But there is a natural language barrier that’s been challenging for us, because neither my wife, nor I, are fluent in French.
That’s a bit problematic. Does this mean you hired a project manager?
No, we still did it ourselves - we have enough French to, kind of, get by. But there were a lot of hand signals! We were fortunate to find a local builder in the area who was originally from Wales, so he speaks perfect English. He is an older man - in his seventies - but he still loves getting on the tools.
Yeah! And without the language barrier there, we have been able to get a lot done by using him. Luckily for us, he can also maintain the property, because he lives close by. So when we’re not there - which is most of the time - he will go over and do the odd jobs that need doing, and make sure the place is maintained. Because the biggest issue of a house that is 400 years old, is the maintenance.
What’s been the most challenging part of renovating overseas?
Probably distance. The thing is, we can only really work on the house when we are there. It’s really a project we have to get into ourselves, and get our own hands dirty. So we’ve really had to learn to look at it as a long term thing. You can’t go there and make the whole thing perfect - so far it’s taken 27 years to get it to the point it’s at now, and I think there is at least another twenty years of work in it. But we can only do it in short bursts.
Have you got any advice to people wanting to do something similar?
I would say be brave and just do it. There is a lot of talk in Australia about property prices, and how absolutely ridiculous it is to buy property in Sydney or Melbourne. Property in France is, comparatively, amazingly cheap. For half a million Australian dollars, you can buy a really grand, beautiful old stone house that has been standing for 400 years already - and will still be there in 400 more.
For more pictures of Julian's renovation project please view the picture gallery below:
When Julian and his family are not using the house they rent it out. Check out the listing here.