French Property Survey
What is a French Property Survey and do I need one?
The English type of property survey is almost unknown in France. There is not even a word for Surveyor; the nearest being ‘Expert de Batiment’ or ‘Maitre d’Oeuvre’.
There is a legal requirement for a French vendor of a property to provide the purchaser and the Notaire with a report identifying the presence of asbestos in the property, the presence of lead in paint and, in the south of the country, the presence of termites (this last point is generally extended to other parts of the country to include all parasites). The report will also comment on energy consumption in the house.
It is expected that the scope of the report will be extended in the future to include septic tanks and electrical safety.
Specialist businesses, who have the necessary equipment to perform the required tests, provide these Reports (written in French). These Companies do not provide structural surveys, they are not looking at the general structural stability of the building, nor at any of the other services such as water, gas or electricity.
When you first inspect French property look carefully for any visible defects to the structure, equipment and services (vices apparentes). By law your vendor is not obliged to disclose any such defects if you or your surveyor could have discovered them. Signs to look for include bulges or cracks to walls, shrinkage to woodwork, springy floors, stains on the walls, sagging ceilings, crumbling plasterwork and funny smells. Also be aware of termites which are a problem in many parts of France. Termites are capable of completely destroying a building from the inside out, so their presence may not be obvious.
A vendor may have newly painted, plastered, rendered or otherwise covered over a multitude of defects, which by law he must disclose if you or your surveyor could not have discovered them (vices caches). You can sue your vendor if he falsely stated that the property has not suffered from dry rot or flooding. Ask your vendor if he has carried out any structural work to the property. If so, why, and where are the planning permissions, guarantees and invoices?
Buyers aught to know the exact condition of the property they are buying. They should commission a proper building survey or structural survey. A common misconception is that mortgage lenders carry out structural surveys. This is not the case. They perform valuation surveys, which are very different. The lenders only concern is whether the property is worth the amount being borrowed, not with its precise condition.
Litigation in France is not an economic option. For peace of mind you should always commission a survey (expertise) before you make an offer to buy. Your vendor is unlikely to accept an offer made ‘subject to survey’ but may accept a more specific condition such as subject to written confirmation by a surveyor that the roof structure is in good condition, the attic ventilation/insulation functions properly and that no repairs or timber treatment are required.
It is not only for old property that one should commission a survey; a recently built property may have serious defects through bad design, bad workmanship or neglect.
Look at it this way
You have found your dream property located on a hill, near a stream, in France. The French estate agents tell you that the property is in perfect condition, that you do not need a survey and, unless you sign a purchase contract today which has been prepared by the French estate agents, someone else will buy the property. You take the plunge and complete your purchase three months later.
Then you discover the house has cracks, woodworm, noisy neighbours and a building company has begun to dig trenches in the adjacent poppy field. At no stage were you warned about these pitfalls, either by the French estate agent or your notaire. So what can you do?
Well, you could sue the seller if he hid defects, which by law he must have disclosed if you or your surveyor could not have discovered them. But the vendor was not obliged to disclose any defects to the structure, equipment or services which you could and should have discovered. But, as you had signed the contract without a survey, their vendor is not liable.
The French Estate Agent
All French estate agents (Immobilier) have a legal duty to advise legal duty to advise (devoir de conseil) the buyer and vendor of any defects which affect the property. Under Article 1382 of the French “Code Civil” the Immobilier may be found negligent if their error or mistake (faute) causes someone to suffer loss or damage. The courts in France have awarded English buyers significant sums of damages against negligent Immobilier.
However, in your case, the court decides that the Immobiler was not aware of these defects and, therefore, was not liable.
The Montpellier Court of Appeal held, in 1997, that a notaire owed a special duty of care to his English client who knew nothing about French law. If you are not happy with a notaire you must formally complain to the Chambre des Notaires. They will either investigate and deal with the matter themselves, or, more frequently, recommend that you issue proceedings in the French courts.
However, your notaire is not liable as you did not take any advice from him before you signed the contract.
Clearly, you have been taken for a ride.
Most of your property’s problems arise from the fact that you did not instruct a surveyor to inspect the property (who would have advised you not to touch it) before you signed a purchase contract. Early legal advice would have advised you of all the above.