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How to Renovate Your House Like a French Girl

It’s not about decor. Not at all.

French woman drinking coffee looking out of her window
Image: Zeljko Dangubic/Westend61/Offset

How do the French do it? That effortless style in their homes?

Even our term for that mysterious and not-quite-definable dollop of fabulousness is French: je ne sais quoi.

Hint: it's not decor that does it. There aren't enough Anthropologie throw pillows in the world to ooze that level of sophistication.

Instead, it's an ideology of six guiding principles:

#1 Respect Your Home's Architecture

French style living room in Paris

Architecture matters. It's the bones of your house and should guide your renovating decisions.

Can you imagine a French homeowner replacing the windows in his Provence farmhouse with arched Spanish Colonial-style ones? Of course not.

Mixing architectural styles turns your house into a hard-to-sell Frankenstein. It's the home renovation equivalent of bad plastic surgery: ill-advised, expensive, and tough to undo.

Paris is 2,000 years old. The French have been watching trends come and go since Julius Caesar ruled the place.

They don't care about the Pantone Color of the Year, the craze for faux stone veneer, or shiplap. You'll get more bang for your remodeling buck if you think like the French and pick a timeless look.

The tile with ducks wearing blue bows that's in your mom's kitchen? Trendy in 1984. White subway tile on the kitchen wall? Timeless.

Before renovating your house, ask yourself: Were homeowners making this choice 20 years ago? Will they still 20 years from now?

#3 Allow Nature to Be Itself

French style yard with lavender and gravel

Your yard has an architecture, too, made up of the existing trees and native plants that are meant to grow there.

The French don't plant palm trees in front of their Provence houses. They plant lavender.

When you landscape, honor your surroundings and pick plants that go with your climate, making your yard easier to care for, more affordable, and looking like it belongs there.

And don't cut down trees in your yard. Unless they're an environmental hazard (especially "Bradford pears"), or they're about to fall on your house.

#4 Keep It Functional

French style apartment with dining table and couch
Image: Maison Beix Rignault, broker/Maison Basco, interior design

A house that functions well is the little black dress of renovating. Swapping your traditional staircase for industrial-chic spiral stairs seems like a good idea until you've carried a laundry basket up and down them for a few years.

So before you reno, run your plans through the criteria the French follow: form follows function.

That's the reason French houses are so effortlessly stylish — they're built to accommodate the way their owners go about their day. It's actually effortless to live in them.

#5 Make Room for Your Things

French style house kitchen with many shelves
Image: Nadia Meli, photo/Le Mas des Poiriers, location

Ignore those magazine photos of kitchens with nary a stray dish or stack of mail, where a slim trio of open shelves appears to contain all the owners' culinary-related possessions.

Those rooms are staged for a photo shoot, not life. The French know that one's possessions give a house personality. They design their homes with space for their stuff to live out in the open.

So make room for the things you love. Build shelves in your kitchen so you have room for your cookbook collection — and room for it to grow. Add more counter space so you can set out your vintage Fiestaware canisters.

They're not clutter to be hidden. They're the ingredients of your life.

#6 But Don't Overdo Renovations

When you have a passion for power tools, it's easy to think, "What can I do next?" instead of "What needs to be done?"

Sometimes the answer is nothing. If the French swung sledgehammers half as often as Americans do, their centuries-old homes would look, well, not centuries old.

Do what your home needs, and stop there. Because you won't get back much of your investment if you over-improve for the neighborhood.

Use that extra time to do something else the French have mastered: enjoying their homes.

Related: A Home Style You Can't Muck Up

A headshot of Leanne Potts
Leanne Potts

Leanne Potts is an Atlanta-based journalist and serial home remodeler. She's tackled five fixer-uppers and is working on a sixth. She's written about everything from forest fires to dog-friendly decor and spent a decade leading the digital staff of HGTV.