An architect errant looks at some of the pitfalls of building in France
Relatively few English people who buy property in France find the perfect house that needs nothing doing to it and are able to move in straight away. The great majority of property purchasers either look to find an old property, hopefully full of character, but nearly always in need of modernisation, alteration or extension or look to buy a plot on which to build a house. Both of these choices will involve you with the French planning authorities and make no mistake this relationship starts before you buy the property, not after. In this article we shall look in general terms of the things that you need to be aware of which relate to planning. The various topics will be discussed in subsequent articles.
We shall look at two typical situations, one the case of purchasing a plot on which to build a house and secondly a barn in an isolated country area. In the case of the purchase of a plot on which to build the first and obvious question is whether or not the land falls within a Constructible area. Although the estate agent may have the answer the simplest and most direct course is to make enquiries at the local Mairie. In my experience the staff at the Mairies are usually most helpful and sometimes they will converse with you in English (I have on occasions received a reply in English to a letter written in French!). If the land is constructible it may or may not have a Certificat d'Urbanisme (Outline Planning Permission). If not then ensure that the Notaire inserts a clause in the contract that the sale is subject to the granting of a C.U. It is also worth noting that the CU has a shelf life of 12 months and although unlikely may not necessarily be renewed.
Having confirmed that you are not just buying a piece of agricultural land the next item on your agenda should be to find out how big a house you can build and whether this will suit your needs. No good buying a large plot to find that you can only build a one bedroom villa if you were looking for four bedrooms. Every town and village in France has a POS or Plan d'Occupation du Sols. This is broadly equivalent to the British Town and village zoning plans but can be rather more comprehensive.A copy of the POS for the area concerned can be seen at the local Mairie. Where land is constructible the document will give a COS or Coefficient d'Occupation du Sol. This is essentially a ratio between the available land and area of the footprint of building that will be allowed on that land. Thus if you have a plot of 2000m2 and a COS of 0.1 then you will be able to have a building of 200m2. This is of course an oversimplification but it will enable you to see whether the plot will give you what you are looking for. The POS will among other things specify style of building, height, distance from road and from neighbours etc. Sometimes you may find that your plot is in a conservation area and plans may have to be submitted to the Architecte des Batiments de France who will have a final say over detail design. This will also prolongue the period required for the granting of a building permit (Permis de Construire).
In the case of our second example there are additional questions which need to be asked.
If your barn is attached to a house even if the house is not lived in then the chances of not being able to use it all as a dwelling are small, but if the barn is on its own in a remote area then other problems may arise. To a large extent these concern services. If you are several kilometres distant from the nearest habitation then the Mairie may decide that providing mains water will be too expensive and the building may be deemed non constructible. Similarly you should note that the cost of installing mains electricity can run to approx 1400 euros per pole ( poles are roughly 100m apart) A quick calculation will show that if the electricity has to come from one kilometre away then this will add £10,000 to your refurbishment costs. Another area where people who are not used to building can come unstuck is estimating the cost of turning the idyllic ruin into your dream .I recently talked to a lady who was buying a barn in Northern France for conversion. A friendly builder had told her that the cost of conversion would be no more than £15,000. Having looked at the property it became obvious that the sum mentioned would actually cover only about half of the work needed. Since the lady had already signed a compromis de vente and paid her deposit she lost several thousand pounds when she pulled out of the purchase. Caveat Emptor. Similarly beware of buying old properties with beautiful and complicated roofs,these can be very expensive to repair!
In the next article, after you have successfully completed the purchase of your property, we will look at what you need to think about when undertaking building work and some of the pitfalls to avoid.