On closer inspection

It’s often said that a survey isn’t needed when buying a French property, but going without could be a big mistake, says Matthew Cameron

Many people will hear that there is no need to commission a survey when buying a house in France. This is, it’s often suggested, because of the pre-contract diagnostic reports carried out by necessity and at the expense of the seller, or simply that they are just not done’. In my view, if you would have commissioned a survey on a purchase in the UK, then you should be able to do so in France.

The pre-contract searches the seller must pay for are strictly limited in their scope. What they cover depends largely on the age, location and type of property. If a house is built before 1997, then an asbestos inspection is required; before 1948 then the paintwork will be analysed to measure the level of lead it contains. If the property is in a more southern area, a termite inspection is necessary. The internal habitable surface area of apartments must be measured. Septic tanks will be checked for conformity. Electrical and gas installations more than 15 years old are certified for compliance. If the property has a pool, then confirmation is required that one of the three approved methods of protection against drowning is in place.

These inspections may appear quite detailed. They do not, however, necessarily extend beyond the strict remit set out. The termite inspection, for example, may not reveal the extent of damage that may have been caused by any previous infestation. Instead, it will simply state whether there is any evidence of active presence of the insects.

The pool inspection is simply intended to confirm the strict observance of the regulations relating to pool security as a protection against the risk of drowning. Below the specific standard, the pool inspection report would just reveal that it does not comply. There has even been an incidence where the pool inspection report specified a non-compliance just because the battery needed changing in the alarm. However, the report would not necessarily reveal if the pool mechanics were totally obsolete, or if the whole pool structure was not built properly.

A structural survey would allow you to obtain a full understanding of the overall condition and integrity of the property you are buying. If you have any specific development plans, the surveyor may be able to offer some initial guidance as to the potential viability of your ideas.

Albeit rare, there have been instances where a full survey has revealed sufficient wants of repair on a property that the purchasers have decided not to proceed with the transaction. While some buyers are happy to take on a renovation project, many will want to be able to move straight in with a minimum of work or expenditure: the survey would have reassured them that this was true. And for those who did want to grapple with a construction task, they would at least have been able to have a better idea of just what would be required.

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Carried out after the compromis de vente is signed, the survey may be worth little more than an indication in detail of what you have let yourself in for. Carried out before, it may be a negotiating tool for agreeing a suitable price.

It is sometimes suggested that if a buyer is to have a survey, then this can be carried out after the first contract is completed. After all, there is a seven-day cooling-off period following completion of the compromis de vente and if the survey revealed substantial problems, then you would be able to cancel the whole transaction in that seven-day window. So what if your surveyor cannot visit the property and report during the seven days? If you were to exercise your right to withdraw, you need to appreciate that the form of notice of withdrawal, and the time limits in which you can exercise it, are both very strict. You cannot withdraw by telephone, fax or email. It is therefore a risky strategy to rely on this very short time span.

Another strategy sometimes offered by sellers is for the addition of a precedent condition (condition suspensive) in the contract, by virtue of which the survey can be carried out after the contact is signed and the buyer can withdraw if it does not produce a satisfactory result. This is fraught with risk for the buyer. It is incredibly difficult to establish what may or may not constitute a satisfactory survey. A condition suspensive is a condition of a contract that cannot be completed by either seller or buyer, so the subjective position of these two parties is not relevant. It follows that for a survey condition to be suitable, an independent third party would have to be able to judge the situation. Or at least, the clause would have to set out what property problems, or the overall cost of these, would constitute too much of a burden for the buyer. It should be clear from this that the complications are excessive and therefore the risk too great. Thus if a survey is to be commissioned, it should be completed before the contract is signed.

A separate independent survey is not cheap. To involve a specialist solicitor in England to help with the purchase, and then to seek the opinion of a surveyor as well, would add a fair amount to the initial costs. But if you are looking to invest in a dream home, the extra costs should offer sufficient peace of mind. LF

ContactMatthew Cameron is head of the French legal service of Ashton Graham Solicitors www.ashtongraham.co.uk/franceThis article is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal or other professional advice. You should not act or rely upon this information.

Ashton Graham is authorised and regulated by the Financial Services Authority. Ashton Graham Solicitors are regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority No. 50075.

Living France April 2011