Property surveys in France

Property surveys in France

Looking beyond the initial beauty of an old French home can be tricky, but, as Andrew Bailey explains, there are many benefits to undertaking a pre-purchase survey

After almost 20 years of surveying all types of property in France, it is my view that all houses need inspecting at an early stage to establish defects and condition, no matter the age or type of construction.

Much less common in France than in the UK (there are less than 20 chartered surveyors who undertake pre-purchase surveys in France) there are a number of personal, technical and financial reasons why prospective purchasers should consider 
having a survey done.

Having the assistance and support of a professional during the selection and buying process will provide peace of mind to help buyers feel more secure and, as a consequence, be able to act with more confidence in the final choice of their dream home abroad.

A well-written, unbiased and honest report from an appropriately experienced and independent surveyor who provides unfettered support to his/her client will not only highlight the technical deficiencies of the building but should offer advice and judgement to address the problems in the most effective and economical way. The report should also provide estimated expenditure for the remedial work to provide a level of expected additional outlay beyond the property’s purchase price.

The in-depth surveying exercise we have in the UK does not form part of the French buying process and that can prevent a UK-style survey being carried out. In fairness, the French selling process often allows numerous agents to become involved and a survey is seen by them as a hurdle that can slow the process down and possibly upset the sale.

Another reason why surveys are pushed aside is that technically neither old nor (often) new properties would stand up to the rigorous examination we have come to expect in the UK. Old properties usually manifest poor condition from both the vagaries of time and lack of maintenance, and although rules are in place to govern new construction and major renovations, there are no building inspectors to administer the necessary controls.

It seems that only where an architect is involved in both site management and design do properties meet higher standards and avoid the more common defects.

Circumnavigation of the purchaser’s request for a survey can also be achieved by saying that it’s not done in France or that there aren’t any surveyors. Your immobilier may sometimes recommend a surveyor, or offer a shorter report from a French building technician. Both routes are usually cheaper but are not as comprehensive as a survey you would expect to see in the UK.

Under diagnosis

In France, having a diagnostic inspection on a property for sale is a legal necessity, although this does depend upon the importance placed upon them by the particular department or local maire. Undertaken by specialist firms, these inspections are often promoted by the selling agents as sufficient scrutiny of the property and as such an equal replacement for a pre-purchase survey.

Nevertheless, they do not, in my view, deal with the seemingly most common problems found in French property: structural defects, issues of damp and specific problem areas.

There are up to nine diagnostics inspections that can be required from the vendor before completion. These include asbestos, drainage, electrical installations, energy use/carbon emissions, gas installations, lead, natural risks (flood, forest fires, earthquakes, mining and land pollution) and timber infestation (termite report). Some regions now also want to check swimming pools’ safety aspects, chemical storage and water disposal.

Inspections carried out are listed in the compromis de vente and your legal adviser will explain their importance to you.

Remedial action

The reports are promoted as advisory documents only, requiring no remedial action by either the vendor or the purchaser, with the exception of the termite report. If found, any active termites have to be dealt with within a period of three months and usually become the vendor’s problem.

However, in my experience, over the last 12 months or so, many notaires are demanding that any reported shortfalls falling outside the required norms are addressed within a specified period after purchase.

The reports most likely to lead to some financial outlay by the owner of a property in France are problems with asbestos, drainage, electrical or gas installations, swimming pools and timber infestation.

All the diagnostics reports should be seen and analysed by your surveyor. Technical matters can be highlighted for remedial action and those requiring a possible financial input, whenever it becomes practically or legally necessary, need to be assessed and costed.

Common defects

All elements of a building have a technical lifespan. If there is a lack of ongoing maintenance, any property can require upgrading, and in some cases even newly built properties can show structural defects due to a lack of initial building control.

Unless the following elements of any building are maintained, the value of a property will not increase and future saleability may be reduced:

Electrical installations: Inspection is part of the diagnostics reports unless the system is less than 15 years old. Unfortunately, rules have changed and so many systems need current inspection to commercially assess any necessary upgrading.

Common shortfalls relate to old equipment, poor earthing, old three-phase supplies and lack of safety features. Systems are wired differently in France and so not usually replaced completely, but there comes a breakeven point as with any product when localised repairs are uneconomic.

Heating: Energy use and carbon emissions are covered by the diagnostics report, but not the system’s age and condition. The boiler especially needs to be inspected professionally as many I have seen are too small for the size of accommodation. However, some boilers can be rejuvenated by the replacement, and possible enlargement, of the burner unit.

Old radiators are often inefficient and pipework of mixed metals (very common) suffers early corrosion.

Electrics and heating are commonly seen as a specialist area but a surveyor with sufficient construction experience should 
be able to get a good picture on site and analyse the electrical diagnostics report adequately to offer estimations of any necessary remedial works.

Structure: Movement (subsidence, heave or spreading roofs) can crack and deform walls, especially stone ones. Stonework is often not pointed and this lack of adequate weather protection can lead to collapse over time due to failure of the soft bedding material. Remedial works can be expensive but any refitting/replacement of finishes and fittings internally will be more so.

Damp: To some extent, damp affects many French properties, largely due to the lack of damp-proof detailing incorporated into walls and floors and often exacerbated by high external ground levels sitting against the building – especially in old ones. There are ways of reducing damp issues but these can be technically awkward and expensive where internal floors and fittings are affected.

General finishes: Plasterwork, decorations, fixtures and fittings (cupboards and kitchen units) get tired over time, as do sanitary appliances. While they are expensive to replace, they are often a good indicator of the overall condition of a property.

Moving forward

However slight or serious, there is a solution to all problems with a property and a survey is not meant to put you off the house you have fallen in love with. Rather it arms you with professional guidance and help so that you are in the best possible position to make the right choices in moving forward.

The hassle and money saved will more than cover the perceived extra cost and letting someone get involved who has no proven building ability or experience is not very wise. By using modern materials and widely available technical advice, some things can be undertaken on a DIY basis while others need extensive expertise.

Watching a property renovation on television is not the same as putting the lessons to the test. After all, would you watch Holby City and then expect to carry out an operation on your spouse?

Andrew Bailey is the founder and head of

Survey Link France

Tel: 0843 289 0693

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