Gite mods: why you really need to think about winter if you’re buying a place to live here

When we agreed with the owners to take this place that we’d previously rented during holidays in June and September, both nice warm months, we were warned by our neighbour, Marie, who we know from those holidays, that it wasn’t very warm or well insulated and that winters here could be pretty hard. We shrugged off her concerns, naturally; we’re pretty resilient types, used to winter camping trips in the UK and also used to some pretty grim weather in our damp old house near Manchester. This is France, right, so how bad can it be? As it turns out, with a few creative modifications we’re perfectly comfortable and we’re also learning a heck of a lot that’s useful when we are looking a houses. So what have we done and why – and what does this teach us?

First up, the drafts. The building we’re in is a “renovated” barn along on old, narrow street. Luckily one side faces South, so on sunny days we benefit from the winter sun warming the wall and the roof, which means we don’t need to light the fire, even on cold days (as long as there’s sun, of course.) The downside is that whoever fixed the walls probably did it during warmer months and didn’t do a great job so when we light the fire in the evening and the air temperature inside rises inside, cold air comes pouring in through every available crack and crevice, of which there are many – some more severe than others. Our first hack involved stuffing cracks in the render with tissue paper, which is very rough and ready but works pretty well – and is great fun for DD too. Once it got colder, around mid November, we took down the thin summer curtains and replaced them with thicker, heavier ones, meaning that the room we sleep (which is the main room with the woodburner) keeps the heat better. Now, because some pretty cold weather is forecast in the next week or two, we’ve upped our game, so now the arch between the kitchen and our bed/main-room now looks like this:

Really, it’s not for everyone, is it!? That’s my 4.5 tog summer duvet right there on our wall and it’s doing a fine job of keeping the other room very cosy and snug indeed.

We’ve also had to hack the woodburner. This place only got a woodburner a few weeks into our extended stay. I think it was early October. The owners decided to put one in primarily to make winter rentals possible but, like all “good” landlords, they didn’t want to spend much money, so we have the pleasure of spending winter warmed by the Panadero Gothic 2, now out of stock but originally purchased from Mr. Bricolage for less than 200 euros. And what a billy bargain it has turned out to be. Not. I mean, seriously. The first or second fire we had caused the door to buckle, making it now impossible to fully choke down. Consequently the fire goes out usually some time between 4 and 5am every night because burns through the wood too quickly. As any wood stove aficionado knows, airflow management is the key to a successful burn. We figure we’re getting through about 25% more wood than we need to because it is burning so fast all the time. And of course there’s the waking up cold at 5am thing. James has managed to hack the stove, improving this slightly, by stuffing the gaps and cracks with foil. It’s not pretty but it works.

Then then are the handles. That’s the handle for the door and the knob that is used for the vent. You’d think it would be a good idea to equip a wood burning stove with handles made out of a heat resistant material but no, not the bottom of the range Panadero Gothic. This meant that they too suffered in the heat, breaking into pieces within the first week or two of usage. Brilliant. James fixed them with wood glue but now that’s given way too. Perhaps there was a label somewhere saying that this particular model is for decorative purposes only but it was in French so the owners missed it? That would make more sense of why anyone would buy this. It does look okay, I suppose. But at least with the hacks, which you can see in the picture over on my other post about the rainy day, it is functioning. Thank goodness for aluminium foil!

This whole experience is teaching us so much more than we thought we needed to know; we learn something new every day. So what are we learning from tin foil door handles and duvets for curtains and why am I writing about it here? Well, fundamentally, the big lesson for us or anyone moving to a hotter climate than they’re used and buying (or renting) a house to live in year round, is to think about winter and what that means in terms of heating and cost. That’s why James is being so meticulous about checking the sun exposure to every property we look at. Essentially it’s why we haven’t bought one yet, too! We are really glad we’re doing this now because we can see how it would be all too easy to turn up in France or elsewhere during the summer when the sun is high and the air is warm and to be swept off our feet by some land or a property only to find that we are saddled with somewhere cold and expensive to heat during the winter. As a pretty extreme example we were shown a gorgeous plot of land – on the side of a hill, lined with trees, totally private and secluded, away from the main village – that felt right. When James first saw it he was so excited because he loved it and he knew I would too. It ticked many of our boxes but, knowing how cold it can get, James went up there early one morning to check the time when the sun would hit the site – and it’s a good job he did, because it didn’t! He came home two hours later, freezing cold, relieved to be able to sit on our South facing balcony to warm up. It was exactly 10 degrees warmer here than there. Can you imagine!?He went back later to check with the fancy Sunseeker 3D app and that was the end of that because it turns out there’s no sun hitting that plot for more than 30-minutes each day in winter. Brrrrr. The sun is so important here in winter. As is having a warm, well-insulated house that is cheap to heat.

The money side is critically important unless you have money to burn, literally. As another example, we were put off renting a large villa-style house only a few miles from here after being told by the owners told to expect a 2,000 euro bill for heating during winter. Two thousand! The owners typically live there all year round and, get this, said they only heat the main room and one of the bedrooms – and still it costs two grand to heat during winter. And we’ve read stories online where that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Heating bills of 6- even 7-thousand euros are not unimaginable. In contrast, one stere of wood (equivalent to a cubic meter measured as a single scoop of the JCB), is costing us about 75 euros and we’ve had five and a half so far (one lasts just less a month) and we expect that will see us through to March now we’ve erected the duvet mod. We’d have spent less if this dumb stove could take 50cm pieces of wood (65 euros per stere instead of 75) but it can’t. That’s not bad though, is it. Plus we know how much we’re spending because we buy it then we burn it. The idea of being on mains gas or oil central heating, where you can just pop it on or turn it up if you feel cold to get hit by a bill later, is terrifying. If you just want to spend summers here, fine, you don’t need to be so discerning. But we do so we must; as much as it works, I’d rather not spend all my future winters huddled in one room with duvets for doors but I also don’t intend to spend what’s likely to be two-month’s wages on heating!

And buy a decent stove. Period.

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