Cash in the attic

Converting the attic can be a great way to increase your living space, but you must proceed with caution, says Jean-Paul Vovor

Converting the attic of a French property to create either a bedroom or extra living space is often seen as an attractive proposition by property-hunters, but it may not be as simple as it first appears, and it is always advisable to determine what the attic can be used for before the preliminary contract is signed.

The main questions to ask are as follows:

? Is this really an attic?

? Is this place mine?

? Is this place convertible, and if yes, under what conditions?

This may appear self-evident, but it may not be. The reality is that what is simply called combles aménageables (convertible attic) is defined in the French planning code as a space that:

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? Is free of rafters or trusses, which makes sense as a clear space is required;

? Has a solid floor strong enough to avoid the attic being a potentially dangerous place;

? Is at least 1.80m in height;

? Has a window installed (for which permission may be necessary).

Therefore, a converted attic must meet all these requirements and all necessary authorisations must have been granted. It should also be properly insulated.

The authorisations required depend on the nature of the property, especially if it is a flat in co-ownership. Ownership of an attic in co-ownership is always complex as, in most cases, the attic is a communal area (parties communes) due to the supporting walls, foundations etc.

It is important to read the co-ownership documentation (the Etat descriptif de division et Règlement de copropriété) to clarify whether an attic space is already mentioned as a unit. Often it is not. However, this does not automatically mean it is up for grabs. Imagine that your apartment is on the top floor and has an attic above it. You might think it is yours. This is probably not the case, as it is classed as a communal area even though it can only be accessed by you.

This means that even to use that space without converting it would require prior authorisation of the co-ownership. It would then also require local authority permission as well, if windows were to be installed.

The co-owners would probably decide that it is more profitable to sell the extra space instead of simply allowing the right to use it. This leads to a process where a valuation needs to be carried out to work out the price. If agreement is reached to sell, then the sale process can take place. The notaire, assisted by a géomètre – a specialist surveyor – reworks and updates the co-ownership documentation. This process could be costly as it entails paying the sale price, notaire’s fees and stamp duty, and the surveyor’s fee.

It could also, therefore, be a lengthy process. Unfortunately, this authorisation, as complicated as it seems to seek and obtain, is not the only one required when the buyer intends to create an opening and put in a window. Planning permission may also be required.

Depending on the nature of the work intended, this will be a déclaration de travaux for minor matters, or full planning permission for larger works.

Planning permission allows the town planning services to control the development in line with residential density policy as each property is allowed only a limited developed floor space within its boundary. Expanding the living space by converting the attic means increasing the density and needs to be checked against the available density for the plot of land as a whole.

This is why authorisation is needed when a house is being renovated, and a window is installed in the process. This is also why authorisation is required when a floor is installed with a view to converting the attic space.

All of the above means that whether you own a flat in co-ownership or a house, the process is the same. The process is a little bit more complex in co-ownership as the authorisation of the co-owners is also required. The authorisation may involve some taxes to pay, the obligation to create an extra parking place, let alone the fact that the amount of taxe d’habitation may also increase.

As an illustration of this, I recall that a friend in France, unfortunately, found herself in the following situation.

She bought an apartment in a small co-ownership. The apartment is well located on the third and top floor. Her apartment is the only one on that floor. Above the front door in the hall outside the apartment, there was a loft hatch leading to roof space above. The previous owner, a photographer, used to lean a ladder in the hallway against the front door and would go through the opening to the empty loft space to develop his photographs.

This space was presented to her as a place she could enjoy exclusively by virtue of its location. This was true, insofar as nobody else could access it. However, it was perhaps not true to say that she had authority to use it.

She decided to close the opening in the hallway, and created an opening inside the apartment through the ceiling. She put in stairs to the attic and turned it into a very nice extra room, adding a window for extra light. She stayed there for eight years until she left to get married.

When the time came to sell the apartment, it transpired that there was no authorisation from the co-ownership for opening the ceiling, using a communal area and no planning permission from the local authority for increasing the living area or installing a window. All of this process needed to be taken care of, along with the costs, before she could sell. There was also the risk that the tax administration would ask for the arrears in taxe d’habitation.

These issues must be taken care at the outset instead of at the end, when the property is put up for sale and what was once an enjoyable place becomes a predicament. Care must always be taken when looking to develop an attic into residential space, whether the planned work is in a house or an apartment.

Any work could require planning permission or other authorisation. It could lead to slightly higher local taxes as the usable floor space would inevitably increase. An increase in floor space might actually breach maximum permitted occupation density for the plot, so careful enquiries should be made in advance. Failure to do so can lead to complications in the future.

As with all such matters, it is prudent to seek legal advice from specialist solicitors in advance. If the work anticipated relates to a property that has not yet been bought, then extra protection can normally be incorporated into the purchase contract, to ensure that authorisations can be obtained.

Jean-Paul Vovor has a Diplôme Supérieur du Notariat and has been with Ashton KCJ since August 2012. Prior to this, he worked for more than 15 years in notaires offices in the Paris area, managing a real-estate department responsible for drawing up contracts such as property sales, loans, commercial leases, business sales, company status, and share transfers. He also advised on legal risk management in the aforementioned fields, and on matrimonial transfers and inheritance tax.