Old houses might have any of a wide range of floor types in place – including earth, old quarry tiles, wood and concrete.
Flattened earth floors are quite common in old houses in France. These ‘terre battu’ (beaten earth) floors are not simply a consequence of never laying a proper floor, but were once (until about 200 years ago) quite sophisticated, with clay being spread on the existing floor and then beaten flat.
Some places in France even had a special dance that was performed on the floor to ensure it was well flattened down! These are not generally practical in a restored house (earth floors, I don’t have a problem with special dances), unless you are trying to restore the property faithfully ‘as original’ and intend to open your house as a museum.
Some properties are lucky enough to have the original quarry tile floor in the property. These tiles can usually be refurbished to look magnificent. However, you might bear in mind that quarry tiles were usually set onto a bed of lime, straight onto the bare earth. The net result is that problems of damp and cold can persist, unless the entire floor is lifted, a damp membrane inserted and the floor re-laid. Not hugely difficult but quite a significant job nonetheless, and relaying and rejointing the tiles might even lose some of the charm of the original, slightly wobbly or uneven floor.
It is also easy to buy newly made quarry tiles that give the apearance of looking old when they have been laid. You will be constrained only by your budget. We bought our quarry tiles direct from the local factory for about 15 euros per square metre, but this was a very good price for tiles that were made by hand, and I think you would expect to pay more, perhaps double this price. Even new quarry tiles that look new will look good when they are laid, oiled and pointed.
Old in-situ quarry tile floors can be cleaned of old cement and ‘water mark’ stains with hydrochloric acid. This is quite dangerous stuff though, so follow the precautions on the bottle very carefully. You don’t want this acid on your bare skin.
Old wooden floors are also very attractive, but they also may have their own specific problems. As with quarry tiles, at the time of installation insufficient attention was often given to damp prevention. Timber floors were often laid on timber supports, which in turn rest straight on the earth, and damp from the floor can rise through the supporting timbers causing them to rot. A damp smell in the room, rotting wood around the edges of the floor and a wobbly or uneven floor will sometimes be the first sign that you have a problem.
It is difficult to raise an old wooden floor board by board for subsequent re-use without damaging the floor. In recent decades floorboards have been nailed down through the ‘tongue’ of the board, which makes the job slightly easier, but older or more rustic floors are often nailed throgh the middle of the plank. They can be both hard to lift (use a jemmy) and also hard to remove the old nails from. Persevere though, because they will always look better than new flooring if they are in reasonable condition, even after you have filled the holes with woodfiller.
A good condition dry floor will often simply need sanding, and meticulous cleaning away ofthe sawdust. One useful tip: because the small gaps between the boards act as a dust trap varnishing can become spoiled very easily. If you drag the back of a knife along the gap with one nand while vacuuming the dust away with the other hand that will remove a lot of the dust and debris.
After the floor is completely clean and dry, apply two coats of ‘vitrificateur’ which will restore the wooden floor it to its former glory. You will probably also eed to give the floor a light sanding before the second coat is applied to be absolutely sure of that mirror finish.
Note that new floorboards and other wood based flooring materials need to be unwrapped, in the room where they will be laid, at least 48 hours before they are laid. This allows them to adjust to the temperature and humidity in the room.
Whenever you are laying a wooden floor you need to leave an expansion gap all around the edge of the room between the floor and the walls. That is to say, the floorboards should stop several millimetres from the wall. This is because wood expands and contracts quite a lot with temperature and humidity variations. If you lay floorboards or parquet right up to the wall, when they expand the floor will develop a big wrinkle. A plinth is then often put around the edge of the room at floor level to conceal this expansion gap.
OK so concrete is not a traditional flooring material, but many houses that have been partly restored during the last 50 years or so will have had a big slab of concrete poured as a floor. Your only choices are to tile over the concrete, or pay a large amount to have it removed. Since removal will be difficult and costly, and may even weaken the structure of the building I would only do this if it is absolutely unavoidable.
Rough poured concrete is not the same thing as having a very sophisticated and hardwearing polished concrete floor laid. These effective floors are best laid by professionals, and can be poured in various colours, effects and finishes. You could try and do it yourself – it will probably involve a concrete sanding machine and a great deal of dust. Most important – you need to be confident that you can lay it with a mix of exactly the right consistency, if you want to avoid cracks and fissures appearing later as the floor dries. I understand that companies that install swimming pools are often called on to lay functional concrete floors, because of their experience at laying very flat surfaces.
Fitted carpets are not common in houses in rural France, and shops selling quality carpets are also unusual. For practical reasons – it is hard to avoid dirt entering a house in the countryside – tiles and wooden floors are usually preferable. If you do want a fitted carpet in your house, perhaps just upstairs, you will need to track down a suitable supplier and fitter. Or reconsider, and get some nice floorboards and a rug.