It’s a paper chase

Peter-Danton de Rouffignac talks through some of the initial searches that will help buyers decide whether or not to proceed with a purchase

Buying a French property invariably involves studying and preparing a mountain of paperwork. In this article I look at four important documents that will help guide your initial searches and may influence your decision whether or not to buy a particular property you may have set your heart on.

Cadastral plan

Known simply in French as le cadastre, this series of documents dates from the French Revolution and was primarily intended to identify every property and parcel of land for the purposes of raising taxes. The project took nearly 40 years and the first plan was not completed until 1850.

Further reforms were undertaken from 1930 onwards and again after 1950 when aerial photography was first used as a means of surveying and identifying property all over France. Today le cadastre contains details of 100 million properties from tiny parcels of land to vast estates, together with details of 30 million owners. It is continuously updated as new properties are built, parcels of land sub-divided and houses and apartments bought and sold.

The cadastre is available online, but in practice property enquirers may find it simpler to visit the local mairie with the address of the property they are researching and receive a print-out of the relevant section of the plan. The cadastre is divided into two main parts – the plan cadastral which identifies a property, its name and its identification number on the relevant section of the plan; and the relev� de propri�t� which gives details of the value for tax assessment and the property’s owners.

The mairie can identify the owners and the amount of taxes paid on the property. It is reassuring to confirm that the owners/vendors are in fact who they say they are! However, inclusion of this information in the plan has no legal value, and in the event of a sale the buyer and the notaire will require a copy of the vendor’s official titre de propri�t� (title deeds) before completing the transaction.

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Note also that despite the thousands of updates annually, the plan is not always 100% accurate. In a recent case, I found that a two-storey house built 15 years ago did not appear on the current plan, although the local mairie later confirmed that they were aware of its existence.

In another instance, a parcel of agricultural land was shown without its forage (deep well), an important element for the would-be purchasers; and an irrigation channel that bordered two sides of the land was interpreted as a pathway.

Enquiries on the spot revealed that there were both a pathway and a channel, though it was not clear where the precise boundaries of the property lay – to include or exclude the irrigation channel.

These anomalies may occur where the plan has not been updated or a fairly recent sale (or even a boundary dispute) has not triggered the employment of a g�ometre to survey and mark out the property, using the traditional bornes (boundary markers), and submit any amendments to the cadastre.

Property searchers need to keep in mind that the primary purpose of the cadastre is fiscal – who owns the property and is therefore responsible for paying taxes on a particular property – rather than legal (establishing a precise boundary line) and in case of doubt you may need to employ a g�ometre.

Typical situations where this is necessary include the sub-division of land into two or more parcels. And in every case simply referring to the plan is no substitute for visiting the site and ensuring that each element accords with what is actually shown on the relevant section of the plan.

PLU – plan local d’urbanisme

Another useful document that can be consulted at the mairie is the overall town plan, known as the PLU which, since 2003, has replaced the earlier POS (plan d’occupation des sols). This document describes the overall plans (including those of the commune for any proposed public works) and the planning restraints relative to the various sections of a community, with its division into zones.

Among the main classifications are zones designated for urban development (U), future urban development (AU), agriculture (A) or left natural’ such as forests and open spaces (N, sub-classified as Na, Nb, Nc etc). A would-be purchaser seeking land on which to construct a house would need, for example, to verify that the site falls within a designated residential zone (sub-divided into Ua, Ub, Uc etc according to the sort of dwelling allowed), and what the general rules are. Detailed planning consent has then to be obtained and any subsequent plans accord with the general rules of the PLU.

Another important element in the PLU is the coefficient d’occupation des sols or the maximum building density allowed on a particular parcel of land. This is expressed as a percentage of the total area of the site and can give the intending purchaser an idea of the size of dwelling that can in theory be built there. As a preliminary to applying for detailed planning consent, a buyer can obtain confirmation of the COS and other information before proceeding any further. This should be regarded as an information document and not a binding agreement.

PPRN – plan de pr�vention des risques naturels

The French government has in recent years become increasingly concerned about the effects of climate change and natural risks’, including flooding, forest fires, avalanches or seismic movements. Areas perceived to be at risk are now obliged to prepare a local plan (with maps) which documents the level of risks and regulations concerning construction, enlargement or improvement of property within designated zones.

Some 5,000 local plans have already been published and a further 6,500+ are in the course of preparation. Where such a plan exists, it is attached to the documents prepared by the notaire during the property-buying process, and is normally available at the local mairie.

Certain sectors may be subject to specific rules, in addition to those outlined in the PLU. Some sections of the Atlantic and Mediterranean coastline are classified as susceptible to flooding, either from exceptionally high incoming tides, or excessive rainfall in areas that are also close to mountains. There may be additional rules about residential development (if allowed at all) regarding, for instance, the occupation of ground-floor living areas.

As an example, a client recently withdrew from the purchase of a ground-floor apartment located about 100m from the beach; a conversion from former business premises. The owner/vendor had completed the work without planning consent (he was wrongly advised that he did not need it) but with the permission of the syndic (building managers).

Fortunately the notaire raised the question of planning consent and a g�ometre was called in. A survey of the building established that the floor level of the apartment was below the required 50cm above the level of the road outside, a new regulation introduced under flood-safety rules for the area.

The owner was told by the planning department at the mairie that he must either raise the floor levels – an impossibility as the work was already completed with a bathroom and kitchen installed – or allow the property to revert to commercial or professional use.

As a result, the client withdrew from the purchase and the apartment was taken over by an osteopath and later became a kitchen showroom. Curiously, the planning department indicated that the rules would allow a commercial or professional user to live on the premises if they so wished.

In my earlier example of the two-storey house that did not appear on the cadastral plan, further enquiries revealed that it was constructed not only on land zoned for agriculture (the owner arguing he had a right to construct a dwelling as a farmer’) but was also classified as at serious risk of flooding (a zone rouge).

This was due to it being right next to an above-ground reservoir, the steep-banked sides of which bordered the property. The zone concerned did include dwellings and a technical lyc�e whose construction allowed for specially designated escape routes.

As a result, the house being sold by the owners was not only illegal (built without planning permission) but being in a zone rouge could not be altered or extended and could even be subject to a demolition order at any time. Not a very attractive proposition to the English buyers who eventually withdrew from the purchase.

Co-ownership

The term co-propri�t� (co-ownership) may be unfamiliar to many non-French buyers seeking a permanent or second home in France. But if you choose to buy an apartment it will invariably form part of a co-ownership property, in which each resident has a share in the property’s common elements, in addition to owning the freehold of their individual apartment.

Some estates (lotissements) which offer a mix of houses and apartments are also run as a co-ownership, particularly where communal facilities are provided, such as a swimming pool, tennis courts or gardens. In each case, the co-ownership will be managed by professional (occasionally voluntary) managers, known as the syndic.

The management of the property by the syndic is financed by contributions from the individual owners, according to the size of their individual property. By consulting the rules of the syndic and the history of recent decisions made at the annual general meeting of the co-owners, a prospective purchaser can get an idea of what the annual standing charges are likely to be and what additional expenditure may have been approved.

Typical extra costs can include internal or external painting, renovation of the lift(s), and other essential works needed to bring older buildings up to new normes imposed by the ever-changing building codes.

Included in the rules of the syndic will be those concerning the common areas: entrances, corridors, gardens etc and what an owner may or may not be allowed to do with or within his own apartment. Typical issues include rules for closing in open balconies to create a loggia, and any alterations or improvements that may affect the exterior of the co-owner’s individual property, such as the colour of paint to be used on doors and window shutters.

Every co-owner has a vote at the annual general meeting, using a proportional system according to the size of his individual property: for example, the owner of a four-room apartment has more voting power than the owner of a small studio. If there are restaurants, caf�s or other businesses included within the co-ownership, they also have voting rights; their preferences sometimes being opposed to those of the residential owners.

The estate agent handling the sale or the notaire should be able to provide a prospective buyer with a copy of the records of the syndic, particularly of additional expenditure approved at the annual general meeting, which the new owner will inherit.

Conclusion

As can be seen there are a number of important documents available to the property searcher that can be consulted ahead of any firm decision to buy, and those described above can give a good idea of the local area, together with its particular rules and restraints.

When initial research has resulted in the selection of a particular property, the next step is to study the technical reports (known as les expertises) which have to be provided by the vendor, and whose latest additions now include a survey designed to establish its energy efficiency.

However, although all documents can be a useful source of information, there is still no substitute for researching on the ground and satisfying yourself that you will be happy in your chosen location.

Peter-Danton de Rouffignac MA LLM is a property adviser based near Perpignan www.francemedproperty.blogspot.com