If you are planning to carry out building work in France, you need to stay on the right side of the law
You’ve decided on a move to France, eyed up a dream property, and are hoping to put in an offer before planning all the renovation works you will undertake – installing an in-ground pool, perhaps, or converting an outbuilding into a gîte. First, before you make any decisions, it’s important to consider exactly what these works might involve.
Before you buy
If you would only want to buy the property only if certain work could be carried out, then you need to ascertain if building permission would be needed. If it will be, it is very important to make obtaining permission a suspensive condition in your purchase contract.
A suspensive condition is one that, if not fulfilled, allows you to withdraw from the purchase. For example, if the purchase is subject to the suspensive condition that you can convert the barn or build an extension or add in some new windows and doorways then, in the period between signing the contract and completion of the purchase, the notaire will apply to the local authority on your behalf for the equivalent of our outline planning permission to do the works (known as a certificat d’urbanisme opérationnel).
If the application is rejected, then you are able to withdraw from the contract and have your deposit returned. If the application is accepted, it is valid for 18 months, during which you must apply for full building permission.
Normally, any work that you carry out inside the property will not require building permission. However, if the work affects the structure of the property, then it must be the subject of an underwritten 10-year guarantee. Work affecting the structure would include the installation of equipment which, if removed, would cause damage to the structure, such as plumbing equipment.
Strictly speaking, the person who is in charge of the work should take out an underwritten 10-year guarantee for that work, known as assurance dommage-ouvrage. This guarantee must be passed on to subsequent owners. It covers any defects affecting the structure, without the need to prove fault or negligence on the part of the contractor/artisan.
Any contractor that you employ to carry out work on the property also has a legal obligation to have their own 10-year cover for defects in the work that they undertake. However, with this type of insurance, it is necessary to prove fault on the part of the contractor concerned. With the underwritten guarantee, however, it is sufficient just to show that there is a defect.
The only exception to having to provide the underwritten guarantee against defects in the structure is if you are building or carrying out works solely for yourself or your immediate descendants or ascendants. However, in practice, property often needs to be sold before the 10-year period expires and the new owner will be looking for this insurance, which could make the sale difficult. The assurance dommage-ouvrage is quite expensive, but it is a legal requirement.
Some works require full building permission and others a simple declaration. The kind of work that would require building permission include:
• New building work or extensions which have a floor area larger than 20m2
• Work that entails a change of use, e.g. converting a barn into dwelling accommodation
As already mentioned, for those works, it is important to ascertain whether your project is acceptable and apply for a certificat d’urbanisme opérationnel at the time of purchase. You can then have plans drawn up and apply for full building permission, which will be granted as long as the works comply with regulations and any specified conditions.
Note though that it is a legal obligation to involve an architect in the project.
Permission will only be granted if the property is in an area where building is allowed. This can be checked on the zoning plan for the area known, as the PLU or a POS. Permission lasts for three years providing works have commenced during that time and as long as there has not been any interruption for more than a year. It can be extended twice, for one year, if permission is sought from the local authority in the right form, two months before the current one expires, but only if the planning regulations have not changed.
Work which doesn’t require building permission will instead require a prior declaration of work (déclaration préalable de travaux) made to the local authority. This declaration allows the local authority to make sure you comply with building
regulations, even though full permission is not necessary. You might file a declaration to build a new terrace or install a swimming pool, make new openings in the building or put a new roof on.
The local authority must normally respond within a month to accept or reject the work or to ask for more time to consider it. If you hear nothing within one month, your project is deemed to have been accepted.
Some work which doesn’t require building permission nevertheless requires special permission from the state architect, the Association Nationale des Architectes des Bâtiments. For example, if your property is situated near an historic monument such as a church, no changes can be made to the exterior, such as rendering the property or changing the shutters, without this special permission.
It is always advisable to check with the mairie before carrying out any work because, in addition to the general laws/regulations, there may well be special ones that apply in protected areas.
Sue Busby is the owner of France Legal