Surveys on French houses
Matthew Cameron looks at the various reports a seller must carry out on their house, and asks whether a buyer needs to commission their own survey
It seems that the requirements for preparing a contract for the purchase of a house in France becomes ever more complex. The number of searches and enquiries that are to be carried out by the seller before a contract can be signed has increased substantially over the past few years. In this article we shall look at what this means for the buyer – and also the seller – and whether there is still, in principle, a benefit for a buyer to commission a survey as well.
In the UK, a survey is commonplace as part of the buying process – househunters will generally factor in the cost of a survey when planning a purchase. It is certainly the case, though, that fewer purchasers in France have recourse to a surveyor. There may be fewer surveyors with the requisite skills and knowledge of French construction, but is that sufficient reason not to commission one to inspect a property when purchasing?
Buyers occasionally relate stories about how they are told there is no need for a survey, that the pre-contract diagnostics cover the same task. But is this correct? They are certainly very detailed. The types of inspection to be carried out depend on a number of issues, mainly the type, age and location of the property.
As an important side note, the inspections discussed below may well be required when a property is being rented out, not just sold, and therefore this article should hopefully be of relevance not property buyers and owners alike.
The best known of the inspections is the termite report. Situated predominantly in the southern and western areas of France, but slowly spreading further, termites can have a potentially devastating impact on wood, both in and around the house. The inspection carried out is visual only – in that it will not require an invasive analysis of the woodwork. It will note evidence of any current infestation, which would then need treatment. It would not necessarily reveal evidence of any previous infestation.
In many areas of France, the local authority will require that properties built before 1948 are inspected throughout for the presence of lead-based paint. While such materials are no longer used, they are often still to be found – commonly by virtue of having been covered up by several further layers of paint. In such a state it may not cause any major health risk. However if it the paintwork is damaged or degraded, then such risks are increased. The inspection results are therefore to be considered in detail: not only is the presence of lead-based paint revealed, but the concentration of the paint, and its state of degradation are to be considered. This can lead to a requirement that the local authority be notified of the potential health risk.
The risk to health of asbestos is well known. Yet this material is still commonly found in many properties – as insulation, roofing, fire protection and so on. Properties built or renovated subject to a planning permission from before 1997 are to be inspected for asbestos. Again, the simple question of presence or absence is only part of the search: its location and state of degradation are important. Some people may want to ensure any such material is stripped out professionally; others may leave it, provided it remains entirely intact.
Where the property to be purchased is in co-ownership – which normally means it is an apartment in a block – then a measurement of the internal areas is necessary. This measurement establishes, in square metres, the size of the habitable areas, so would exclude any parts that are less than 1.8 m high, and also parts such as a garage, a ski-locker or a store. The basis of this inspection is the fact that such properties have generally been marketed on the basis of their size. If the inspection is incorrect, a purchaser could claim for a reduction in the price, although rarely is this exercised.
The inspections of the electrical and gas systems are based on a similar premise: if the installation is more than 15 years old, it needs to be inspected before a sale. The inspection will test the systems against a set of acceptable norms, revealing any anomalies that may exist. Where there are problems with the systems, their gravity is also noted, so the urgency of any repairs will also be clarified.
If there is a pool at the property, an inspection is necessary to ensure that one of the three recognised pool protection systems is in place. Irrespective of whether one is looking to sell or rent a property in France, the absence of suitable protection is an offence that carries substantial penalties. The acceptable systems are an alarm, a fence, or a rigid cover. In each case, the system must be of a pre-approved format; any old fence will not do.
There is much talk of drainage at the moment. If a property is served by a private drainage system, such as a septic tank, then this will be checked for compliance. Any non-compliance would have to be rectified within one year of purchase. In fact, all properties are to be inspected, whether they are to be sold or not, and this could lead to many more systems having to be upgraded. And even where the system may be fully compliant, if the local authority has ordered that all properties in the village are to be connected to mains drainage, then the owner will have to pay for the connection from the house to the edge of his property. This is certainly, then, a point that buyers need to consider in detail.
A natural risk report is produced as part of the purchase. This will reveal any natural disasters – floods, landslips, avalanche and so on – that may have affected the area. It is important to check in the contract whether any such risks or previous events have impinged directly on the property to be bought. However the search reveals the risks noted in the entire area, so the report must be considered carefully, as any past or possible future damage may not be anywhere near the house in question.
So we can see that there are a large number of inspections carried out at the seller’s expense, and these must be supplied to the buyer before the contract is signed. In this respect, extreme care needs to be taken when a buyer is signing a power of attorney that will allow the compromis de vente to be signed by someone else (probably one of the notaire’s clerks) in his name. That power of attorney will often include a declaration from the buyer confirming he has seen all of the pre-contract inspection reports, as well as a copy of the draft contract, and that he is happy with all of these.
If the buyer is asked to sign a power of attorney in this way, it can be incredibly difficult to persuade a court, in the event of problems, that despite having signed a document confirming sight of certain papers, he has not actually seen those papers beforehand. Inevitably, a person would not sign an English legal document including a declaration that is thoroughly incorrect, so is it only a lack of understanding, or fear of causing problems, that would lead so many British buyers in France to agree to sign up to incorrect statements? A power of attorney is a very powerful document, and should not be signed off without detailed consideration of its impact.
As to the inspections, these are an important part of the contract process. They are not, though, a replacement for a full structural survey. A termite inspection might confirm that there is no evidence of any active termite infestation; it may not however reveal that a previous visit by these wood-devouring insects has left the roof beams in a state of such extreme fragility that one more hard winter could result in the entire roof caving in. That is the task of an independently instructed surveyor. However detailed the pre-contract inspections are, they will rarely offer the same protection to the buyer as a surveyor. A careful buyer will instruct a specialist solicitor to work alongside the notaire, but acting in the buyer’s best interest, and a surveyor working alongside the diagnostic inspector.
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