Buying a home in Europe – Renovation and bricolage

This is the third post in Harris Sliwoski’s online series, in which Shannon Brandao will guide you through the practical, legal, and personal considerations of purchasing a home in Europe. See past posts here: 

Where can YOU buy a home in Europe? Well, that depends . . .

Where to buy a home in Europe: Does any place have it all?


My husband and I just bought a fixer-upper in Portugal, and we are exhausted. 

All homes, especially ones that require renovation, have unexpected issues. 

But rehabbing abroad is incredibly eye-opening, especially when something a local would know leaves you hosing yourself off in the mornings with a battery-powered shower pump and a bucket full of kettle water. 

At the moment, we have a chain-smoking contractor muttering under his breath as he pushes plaster across our kitchen walls, and two “retired” electricians are switching our new home from gas to electric with the power still on. 

But let’s back up a bit. 

My husband and I both need quiet, private office space, and we enjoy barbecuing and entertaining in the open air. 

The house we just bought has all of that and more. In addition to four bedrooms and two bathrooms, it has an annex—commonplace in traditional Portuguese homes —with ample outdoor terrace space. 

Even better, it’s an hour to the sunnier south of beautiful, but cacophonous and very rainy, Porto, where we landed after arriving in Portugal. 

It even has a sizable — for Europe, mind you —backyard (that’s a “garden” if you come from the UK), and it’s in a lovely coastal area with plenty of amenities a short drive away. The neighbors are super friendly. 

After the purchase

Although it didn’t concern us when we presented our offer, the drawback is that the house needs some work. 

It’s a large, 20-year-old fixer-upper in a peaceful setting with fantastic potential. What more could anyone want? 

Hot water, for starters. As we quickly discovered, there is a long queue for water heater installation in our vicinity, and it would be about a month before I could take princess showers again. But I digress.

The actual purchase of our new place went somewhat smoothly. 

I say somewhat because someone later told us that the sellers’ real estate agents – who were excellent, by the way – had to move heaven and earth at the 11th hour of our closing date to get the local bank’s staff to coordinate on the final documents. 

But, thankfully, they succeeded, and our home purchase concluded without further issues.  

We were bursting with joy as new homeowners, and, keys in hand, rushed to the property for a full unboxing. 

But when we stepped through the front door, we discovered the former owner had yet to move out.  

It was the beginning of many other surprises.  


Once the squatter – ahem, former owner – finally removed his belongings — that took about three weeks – we got a clearer picture of the house’s actual condition.

There were over a hundred cracks in the walls, significant mold growth in the closets, and toilets that didn’t work properly. 

Worse, the former residents had not maintained their energy equipment to comply with electric and gas regulations and were years behind on government-mandated safety inspections. 

Not to be deterred, we got to work updating the inspections, only to find a significant gas leak deep inside the house’s pipes, which would require major demolition work. 

We considered everything and found a cheaper, quicker solution: Switch the entire power supply to electricity, but we had to do it fast. We had six weeks before the end of our lease in Porto. 

When we bought the house, we knew the kitchen would eventually have to go, but with the decision to switch to electricity, it had to be completely redone now. 

We were running out of time, so we asked every friend and stranger we could find for contractor referrals. 

And to speed up the work, we decided to get our hands dirty.

So far, we’ve widened dozens of wall cracks and filled them with plaster so they can be sanded to a smooth, even surface. I’ve painted five coats of primer and paint on the master bedroom and one office – it took that much to cover the cracks – while my husband and his sister’s boyfriend demolished the old kitchen. 

We are overeducated desk jockeys.

Nothing in our professional or personal lives has prepared us for a house that needs so much work. 

Currently, an assortment of hired tradesmen arrive at my home when they please. They scowl at questions, speak a language I struggle to follow and finish tasks between other, better-paying gigs. 

I’m writing this post at a local gin bar to get away from the noise. But instead of a nice, dry spritz, I’m throwing back a nasal rinse to clear my sinuses of plaster dust and paint fumes. 

It’s not the experience I had in mind when I decided to move to Europe, I assure you. 

The bricolage

When you buy a home in Europe – or anywhere else – as a foreigner, you step into the unknown. The learning curve can be steep, and what is common knowledge for local homeowners is very often unfamiliar to you. 

There’s really no alternative to finding great professionals to help you bridge the gap. But that, too, is a challenge for the new immigrant without local contacts.   

It shouldn’t stop you, however. If you’re considering buying a home abroad, start thinking now about how you will assemble your team of reliable real estate agents, lawyers, builders, and handymen. 

You can sometimes collect references from expat Facebook groups, but beware: There are always fraudsters posing as professionals, and the information you get online will only partially solve your problems.  

Once you’ve bought your home, I highly recommend checking out local home improvement stores. These stores are known across much of Europe by the French term bricolage—or “brico,” which is synonymous with “do-it-yourself” in English. 

You’ll find these huge, big box home repair depots are similar to what you’re used to in the US. They’re in nearly every medium- to large-sized city in Western Europe, and they’re teeming with reliable expertise, tools, construction products, appliances, and services. 

Although relying solely on our local brico for every project was impossible, it has helped us get a lot of the way there. We just bought an entire kitchen, including custom-made cabinets and appliances, for example, from our local brico store. 

Now, we must figure out how to make do for the next six weeks until it’s installed.  

If you’re considering buying a home in Europe and are apprehensive about buying abroad, or if you’ve already purchased your home and don’t know where to turn for help, send us a note. We have a tremendous global network of problem-solving folks who excel in ideas.