The potential pitfalls of buying old property in France

The potential pitfalls of buying old property in France

You have found the beautiful farmhouse of your dreams in Gascony with a Pigeonnier dating back to the 18th Century. There are a few simple rules to make sure that your dream does not become a nightmare:

This is an old property built using ancient methods and materials. Many properties in the South West of France where I live do not have foundations and several of the walls of my home are constructed with compacted mud bricks. To make sure that the dream is not on the verge of crumbling to the ground it is essential to contact a qualified surveyor or architect and have a proper structural survey carried out on the property. If there are structural problems you may well be able to negotiate a drop in the selling price and if you do decide to go ahead with the purchase at least you know what to expect and the budget involved.

If you do not commission a survey and you discover major defects to the property once the sale has been completed, in most cases, the vendor will not be held responsible and you will have no legal recourse to obtain compensation. Indeed, the sale deeds clearly state that you are buying the property en l’état, in the state that it is in. The vendor can only be held responsible for vices caches. These are defects that the vendor was fully aware of and deliberately did not draw the attention of the purchaser to. In my experience as an Avocat, I can confirm that it is difficult to prove in court the existence of vices caches.

If the property has already been renovated the survey is often still very useful. If the renovation works have been carried out within the last 10 years by registered builders then the vendor should provide you with copies of all the invoices and the insurance certificates for each builder that was involved. The compulsory building insurance in France, the décennale covers any defects to the works for ten years following completion.

If the renovations have been carried in whole or in part by the vendor then of course you do not have this insurance cover. If any major defects appear, and even if you were to win a court case there is no guarantee that the vendor will have the finances to pay any damages or compensation. The survey is essential to check that the works are to a proper professional standard. This also implies that you do some detective work before signing any paperwork and enquire about the status of the building.

On the long list of questions to ask before committing to the purchase of an old property is the one relating to listed buildings. In France these are buildings that are registered with the bâtiments de France and are protected as part of France’s heritage. If the building you are buying is protected as an historic monument then you will be restricted on any renovation works that can be undertaken and you will have to use a specially listed architect who is affiliated to the bâtiments de France. However, even if the property you are interested in is not itself protected, if it is situated in a picturesque village or near to a Château it is essential to enquire whether or not it is in a classified area. If this is the case exterior improvements to your own property may well be restricted and you may also need approval from the bâtiment de France architect.

Once you arrive at the Notaire’s office to sign the compromis or the pre-sale agreement, if you are planning to carry out major building works on the property and even if it is not a listed building, it is essential that you include a condition suspensive in the compromis for obtaining planning permission for your project. This condition will protect you if your project is refused by the local authorities as you will be able to pull out of the sale without incurring any penalties. However, it is essential that this clause be drawn up in a very specific manner, if it is too vague you may well find the vendor demanding that your deposit be retained if you do decide to pull out.

If your property is deep in rural France, your land may well not be fenced off. In this case you should ensure that you know where the boundaries to your land are. The Notaire will provide you with a plan cadastral showing the boundaries and limits of your properties. You should be very vigilant about encroachments by local farmers over the land. If the vendor has allowed a farmer to work on the land under what would seem to be a “neighbourly agreement”, it may well be that the farmer has in fact acquired farming rights over the land and you will not be able to use this land. If there is an official rural lease with the local farmer, then this farmer has full rights to farm your land, you cannot terminate the lease and the farmer can pass it on to his successors.

Regarding rights of way over the property, you should be very insistent with the Notaire on obtaining full information on any rights of way that may exist. A rough track that runs past your patio may actually be a public path. A neighbour may have the right to take water from the well situated in the middle of your lawn. In my professional experience I have come across all sorts of unexpected situations that were set up in the distant past between neighbours or members of the same family and that have been passed along with each sale of the property.

If in spite of all your precautions you find yourself facing difficulties once you take possession of your new property, you will almost certainly need to consult a legal advisor trained in French law.

If the difficulty is related to important information that was not communicated to you and was not included in the sale documents, there may be a case for taking action against the vendor and/or the Notaire.

If it is a structural problem related to renovation work carried out by a builder, and the ten years have not gone by, then you will need to contact the builder and his insurance company and you may well be able to reach an out of court settlement.

However, if your purchase has been well prepared, you have taken adequate legal advice and have not gone into the Notaire’s office with a basic grasp of high school French, then it may well be that your dream really will be heavenly!

This article is intended as a general overview only. If you do encounter any difficulties as described in this article, I would advise you to seek independent legal advice.

Sarah Bright Thomas,
Avocat à la Cour,
Bright Jones law firm (Toulouse),
Email: [email protected]

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Sarah Bright Thomas moved to Toulouse in 1998 to integrate the Toulouse bar and set up the law firm Bright Avocats in 1999. She has been selected to the Toulouse Bar Council and is one of the 21 members of the Conseil de l’Ordre representing nearly 1000 lawyers in Toulouse. Sarah provides advice on company law, wills, conveyancing and is an active member of the ACE organisation (Association of Corporate Lawyers). Sarah can be reached at:   Bright Avocats 16 place Saint-Georges ,Toulouse +33 (0)5 61 57 90 86 Email: [email protected]

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