Most people celebrate their 40th birthday with a party or perhaps a special holiday, but not Peter Friend and Mark Barber. They decided that by the time they were 40 they wanted to own and run their own luxury B&B…in France. As they approach their 10th season running la Villa de Mazamet, co-owner Peter provides a valuable insight into successfully opening and running a bed & breakfast in France.
After a 12-month search and subsequent three-year renovation, we opened our doors to paying guests in May 2009. When we re-open for Easter 2018, we will commence our 10th season across the Channel and do not regret, for one minute, the decision made to start a new life on the continent. We know that many people still consider, and make, the same decision every year, despite the uncertainly that Brexit presents. The quality of life, the food and culture still make France an attractive and enjoyable place to live and work.
The Property Search
As with establishing your B&B in the UK, you have two key decisions to make. Do you buy an existing business, with a view to putting your own stamp on it, or buy a residential property to turn into a B&B? Secondly, in which location?
With the UK being such a condensed island nation, most of us are fully aware of the areas ripe to attract paying guests. By contrast, France is three times the geographical size of the UK, with roughly the same population, and the diversity of geography, culture and climate much more pronounced.
For our search we looked at four different regions of France from Brittany in the north, to the Tarn in the south – finally setting for the latter due to its great transport links, climate, visitor attractions and proximity for guests to travel onto the likes of Provence, Bordeaux and Spain.
After having narrowed our search to a specific area, the size and style of the property, determined by the level of comfort and service we wished to attain, we were led to a stunning 1930s villa in the market town of Mazamet, at the foothills of the Montagne Noire mountain range, and equidistant from the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Carcassonne and Albi.
The French buying process is relatively simple and very structured. Unlike in the UK, where the buyer and seller use different solicitors, in France a notaire is used by both parties, which helps streamline the process.
Once you have found and agreed a price on the property/business, a 10 to 20% deposit is sent by the purchaser to the notaire. A cooling-off period, normally ten days, then ensues, after which the seller is not permitted to amend the price nor sell to anyone else; you as the purchaser are not able to pull out of the sale without losing your deposit – the exception being on the occasion that, if a mortgage is required, you are unable to obtain one.
A further set period then allows the notaire to pull all the paperwork together to complete the sale. On the day of exchange, both you and the seller sit in the notaire’s office and each line of the contract of sale is read through (in French) with every page signed by both parties. The notaire will check that the electronic transfer of funds has been paid, by you or your mortgage company; you then you shake hands with the seller, who hands over the keys to the property.
As the purchaser, if you buy via an estate agent, you pay them commission (anywhere from 3-7%) in addition to the notaire fees, which cover the conveyancing process including land registration. Notaires in France all charge the same fees as set down by government for both the sale and purchase of properties, which take into consideration the age, location and value of the property. The process from the paying of the deposit to you collecting the keys normally takes three months.
Setting up and Running Your French B&B
In the UK the entity in which you set up and run your B&B is very straightforward. In France, by contrast, there are a number of entities which may seem very complex, and here the guidance and advice of a bi-lingual business advisor/accountant is crucial.
You will already have decided whether it is your aim to run your B&B as a full-time, sole income business, or whether you will run a couple of rooms to make some money to help with your retirement. From this, and the length of time for which you intend to run your business and/or remain in France, the business advisor will set out for you the entity options and the tax, pension and other financial implications for each.
The decision on this entity will also be influenced by the way in which you have purchased your property, whether that be that just privately with you and your partner; with another couple(s); or with investors.
It is also key to position your business in the market: at which level of comfort, service and price do you hope to attain and operate within? We opened our business in a town that had no accommodation above 85€ per night, and our vision was to be at the luxury end of the market and become the leading B&B accommodation, not only in Mazamet but the region, within five years.
From our experience to date, the ups and downs of the financial market and implications of Brexit have certainly had more of an impact on the budget end of the B&B market in France; whereas, at the luxury end, the impact has not been as noticeable, as those selecting higher quality properties are not so price sensitive.
Whilst the day to day running of a B&B in France is less regulated in the UK, there are some elements which are key:
- You can only operate with a maximum of five letting bedrooms, accommodating a maximum of 15 guests. Above this level you are technically an hotel, attracting rafts of regulations and financial implications you really want to avoid!
- If you are offering dinner, only a “table d’hôte” single menu may be offered where all guests dine at the same time. Only resident guests may be served dinner. You are also not permitted to charge for breakfast: it must be included in your nightly rate.
- You will need to attend an approved local health and hygiene course, normally two-days, and a one-day course for the serving of alcohol, accompanied by a licence to serve alcohol, if indeed, you plan on serving it.
If, like us, you have a period of renovation before opening, use this time to put everything in place so you open hitting the ground running. Register your business with the local mayor and chamber of commerce; ensure you have good private and public liability cover – there are a plethora of insurance offices in every French town!; set up your website and online presence and start networking with local businesses, the tourist office and local organisations.
The actual day-to-day running of your B&B in France will vary little from the UK. The one aspect to be conscious of is whether you intend to trade below or above the TVA (VAT) limit, which is much the same as the UK at 82,200€ per annum. If you are buying an established business, it may well be that the turnover already means you are trading beyond the threshold. If you are starting from scratch, it may take you into your second year of trading before you exceed the limit (if that’s your intention) – however, by contrast to the UK, the benefit of being able to offset practically all the VAT on purchases made for the running of your business – from orange juice to linen – can be beneficial.
The other nuance with VAT in France is that there are two levels that apply to running a B&B: 10% on the actual B&B accommodation and food; and 20% on alcohol and sundries (for example, cycle hire, massages, etc.)
Our move to France at the age of 40 was for a complete change of lifestyle and we don’t regret one minute of that decision; however, running a B&B as a business (and as your sole income) is extremely hard work, with days starting from the minute the alarm goes off at 6.45am until you say bon nuit to the last guest at around 11pm. Serving dinner, which we do six nights a week, significantly adds to your workload and extends the working day by a good few hours.
To anyone who is considering a similar path, it certainly is a wonderful way in which to live, to make a living and to meet great people. We regularly, and happily, give tips and advice to people who call or email to say they would like to make such a move.
First and foremost – learn French! It may seem so obvious a statement, but having the basics of the language, from the outset, will help enormously with paperwork and engaging with the local community.
To those who are still in the initial stages of finding a property, the location and accessibility to good transport links cannot be under estimated. It may seem idyllic to live miles from your nearest neighbour, but think too of your paying guests and the fact they have to drive a distance every time they want to pop out for a coffee or see a local market, and also for you getting supplies to run your business: imagine needing a litre of milk and the nearest shop is a 15-minute drive.
Consider also how you want to live your life when not open for business, be that proximity to a larger town/city for the theatre, cinema or near a golf course and other sports facilities. Remember that making the decision to move to France is as much about your lifestyle as it is your business and attaining the right balance is key.
Get involved with your community, local trades people, tourist office, etc. from a very early stage so that they engage with you and support your business. Part of our ethos has always been to make sure we support the community in which we are based: for every 1€ we spend on running the business, 85 cents are spent in the town of Mazamet. Don’t be afraid to shout about that too, especially to your local Mayor! This has been invaluable to building relationships and, especially as expats, in both engaging and integrating us into the community.
Listen to your guests and ask for feedback on their stay, your amenities and facilities. Plough some of your profits back in each year to make sure you not only keep on top with the décor and maintenance of your property but also add to the guest experience. Return guests will always notice the smallest of detail and love it when you have taken their feedback on board.
Get your website and marketing plan in place at least a year prior to opening your doors and engage with guests via social media and E-newsletters to help develop return visits. See your website as the main marketing tool, and invest in professional photography. This is a potential guest’s first engagement with you and your B&B, so you need to get it right.
Also invest in professional translation for your website and other marketing materials – it does not cost that much but is essential to get right – and make sure the reservation process is simple and online.
Work with other B&Bs locally and regionally – don’t just see them as competition, as you can work with them during busy periods or when you might need them to take a loyal guest you can’t accommodate. Also make sure you stay at other B&Bs on your travels. Every year we will book a stay in at least two B&Bs of a similar price to see what they are offering their guests, and we learn from the experience.
La Villa de Mazamet has been a dream come true for us. We love welcoming guests from around the world and have met some truly wonderful people, from all walks of life, who have become friends. Guests will often say, “if you are come to our city, you have a place to stay,” they genuinely mean it, and we have had some wonderful holidays as a result, from Melbourne to Manchester.
As we approach our 10th anniversary season in 2018, writing this article has certainly been a trip down memory lane. We are immensely proud that, today, La Villa de Mazamet has been rated one of the top B&Bs in France for eight consecutive years on Trip Advisor, is included in Le Guide Michelin, the Good Hotel Guide and the Alistair Sawday’s guide – and we have enjoyed some wonderful press from America to Australia.
We had visions of French bureaucracy and paperwork being a mountain to climb; however, hand on heart, once you understand the system, why it exists and don’t fight against it, it is no less onerous than those faced in the UK.
France is a wonderful country in which to live, own property and run a business, and we are so glad that we made the decision, as scary as it may have seen at the time. There are still wonderfully unspoilt areas ripe for setting up a business and enjoying the ‘art de vie’.
La Villa de Mazamet