Pre-purchase surveys aren’t as common in France as they are in the UK but there are a number of reasons why it could be a good idea
Why might you need a building survey before buying a French property?
While it’s undeniable that first impressions count, wiser heads also realise that you shouldn’t necessarily judge a property by its outward appearance alone. For that reason it makes sense to have a building survey before buying.
It is true that by law in France, the vendor is obliged to commission a limited range of diagnostic reports, collectively referred to as the Dossier de Diagnostic Technique (DDT). These cover asbestos, lead in paint (if the property is post-1948), natural or industrial risks, gas installations, termites (if the property lies within a defined termite risk zone) and electrics (with an electric installation over 15 years old).
If the property is not connected to mains drainage, the vendor is also obliged to commission a diagnostic report from the authorised body on whether or not the drainage disposal arrangements are satisfactory. However, none of these inspections cover the structural condition of the building.
As one purchaser, Mark Hackett, attests, the benefit of a building survey is that you’ll go into the purchase aware of the risks you’re running and the likely costs of any remedial works. “We did a survey in April because we’re buying an 18th-century house in St-Émilion and wanted reassurance we were not buying something that we could not maintain or which needed a lot of work. It pointed out some things we had not bargained for and gave us some very useful reassurance and provided costings of our dreams for converting the house,” he explains.
Do you need a survey if you’re buying a new property?
John Marshall, a chartered valuation surveyor and building pathologist, also stresses the importance of having a survey on a modern structure. “In France a new dwelling does not have ‘building control’ by the local council as in the UK and, if less than 170m², does not have had to be designed by an architect. The construction is not always supervised by an architect and the ‘assurance tous risques’, which is, in theory, compulsory and expensive, has not always been taken out.
“The supposed 10-year guarantee can be worthless if the original contractor is uninsured or bankrupt. Also, check the exact terms of the assurance tous risques, as it can, for a reduced premium, only apply to the original owner. For these and many other reasons there can be problems in modern houses that have not been repaired and even concealed.”
At what point of the buying process should you get a survey done?
It certainly makes sense to carry out a survey before you buy but in order to do so it’s advisable to have a building surveyor lined up in advance, as good ones are unlikely to be available at the drop of a hat.
Ian Morris, a chartered building surveyor based in France, points out that the phrase ‘subject to survey’ is virtually unknown in France, and certainly unknown to French owners. He suggests that, if you want to make your purchase subject to the survey that you commission, you could ask for a clause to be put in the compromis along the following lines: ‘subject to an expert revealing no major defects likely to cost more than €10,000’ – or whatever value you want to specify. French owners would understand that.
“But bear in mind you cannot add this, or any other clause, unilaterally; the vendor must agree to all of the clauses in the compromis, including any that you want to insert.”
What does a building survey cover?
As to what a building survey should cover, John Marshall, explains: “The critical things that the client needs to know are: what is wrong, why it is wrong, what to do to remedy the problem and how much the remedy will cost. That enables the client to purchase in full knowledge of what they are taking on.”
While there are a multitude of things that will typically turn up in a French property, “from chimneys down to the drains,” according to Ian Morris, there are also problems specific to certain regions. He notes that these can include such problems as shrinkable clay, mining subsidence, termites (principally around the south and west of France), radon gas (for example in the Massif Central), flooding, and (if you’re near the Alps or Pyrénées) earth tremors. Some people might also be concerned about the proximity of their chosen property to one of the disused uranium mines in France.
How do you find a suitable surveyor in France?
The French traditionally have a more laissez-faire attitude to building surveys than the British, which makes finding a suitably qualified surveyor to carry one out more difficult.
Still, there are various ways to find a suitable surveyor. For example, there is a database for the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) and an online search should turn up a few candidates. Moreover, reading magazines such as French Property News will give you names and contacts of possible surveyors along with the Complete France directory.
As to whether you should only use a RICS-qualified chartered building surveyor and not a general surveyor, Ian Morris comments: “I myself am qualified as a chartered building surveyor, and I’d like to say yes, but there are very few of us based in France! I do know of RICS-qualified surveyors based in France who are not chartered building surveyors but who are perfectly capable of carrying out building surveys based on many years of experience. I think the answer is to look at the surveyor’s website and/or ask the surveyor for details of his/her experience of carrying out surveys in France, and over what period.”
John Marshall agrees, adding that a potential client should “ensure that the surveyor is qualified and experienced in ‘building pathology’ – a specialisation that can be studied by building and general practice surveyors in the RICS”.
Another thing to check is that the surveyor has professional indemnity insurance.
What will a survey cost?
While a building survey is never cheap, it will buy you peace of mind and potentially save you from making a dreadful and costly mistake.
The fee you can expect to pay for a survey will vary depending on the location, size and nature of the property. According to John Marshall, “an ‘average’ property of about 175m² will incur a fee of about €1,500, including taxes and expenses”.
Ian Morris broadly agrees, saying that, “the fee for an average property, depending on its size and how far the surveyor has to travel, might be in the region of £1,000-£1,500”.
Set against the likely purchase price of your dream property, this seems like good value to help provide protection ‘against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’, as Hamlet might have said if he were buying a house in France.
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