Advice on potential French property worries - from a property surveyor
André Goddard, French property expert and Chartered Building Surveyor (RICS France), writes about some of the typical issues that can face property buyers in Languedoc. With professional advice and an awareness of the issues, it is by no means all ‘doom and gloom’.
VIVE LA DIFFERENCE
By all means approach your property purchase with caution, but don’t get bogged down with all the small defects. For France has a totally different way of building to Britain. You don’t come to a foreign country expecting sameness and the French do not have that fervent need to “keep up with the Joneses”. However, they are becoming more conscious of their property growth in value, 12-15% (2006), and with a surge in home improvements, the DIY shops here are busy places these days.
Developing a caring approach to buildings is essential to us all, whether we live in a villa or a really old village house. Neglect, insensitive alterations and small insidious ‘improvements’ often made by well intentioned but misinformed owners over different decades can ruin a building. Maintenance and refurb do not mean freezing a building in its present state for perpetuity, it does mean that historic architecture can often be adapted to meet modern requirements without losing its historic fabric.
Let me turn to the horrors the French are supposed to tolerate and we find so different from that which is familiar to us in the UK.
So there is RISING DAMP. It is prevalent in every dwelling because the French have not and do not build incorporating a physical damp course barrier to ground water. Caves, sous sols and vide sanitaires all have rising damp present due to capillary action of ground moisture into the walls and floor. Sometimes damp rises into the ceilings and up into the rooms above. The porosity of the masonry, degradation of the lime mortar, hygroscopic salt concentrations and the evaporation rate are most noticeable where these levels are high and the air is still, cold and humid. The contaminating salts will stay in the walls, absorbing moisture and causing damp, brown patches.
Nearly all buildings have cracks in them. There are many different causes of cracking, but most of them are not associated with foundation movement – cracks are much more likely to be the result of changes induced by moisture or temperature. They are not likely to be more than 5 mm wide, and making good is straightforward: repointing or applying a flexible crack sealant. Another cause of cracking may be poor construction detail and a combination of dead, live and wind loading, causing overstress and cracking of structural elements. An absence of padstone spreaders under beam bearings and no wallplates for rafters, coupled with the use of huge oversize structural timbers in a questionable structural arrangement are significant characteristics. Note that cavity walls and wall ties are not standard build here.
XYLOPHAGES, or wood-boring insects to you. Since 2001, termites are widespread in the south of France, in the regions of the Midi-Pyrénées, Nord, Languedoc-Roussillon and the Aquitaine, with a total of 56 departments affected. Timber may be attacked by several species of wood boring insects, the most widespread being the Common Furniture Beetle. Then we also have the Capricorn Beetle known in the UK as the Longhorn Beetle, of the 1950’s. Damage is caused by the larvae, which burrow through the wood for several years, five years in the cycle of the Capricorn Beetle. Rarely does wood worm affect the structural integrity of the huge timbers the French use, but Termites cause the greatest problem, getting into roof timbers and main beam bearing ends by traveling up old stone walls in the rubble filled interstices. Under the French Property Act anyone selling a house in a declared Termite region must provide an état parasitaire (report) stating whether or not Termites were found in the property.
So there’s no underfelt to run off weather penetration down into the eaves, where there may very well not be any guttering either. In the south roofs tend to be at a low acute angle, often 25°, and covered with half-round pan tiles which still drain well are not an engineered fit, showing daylight down the pitch through the gaps and giving air circulation. As the French rarely include a vapour barrier to ceilings you’ll know immediately if the roof or flashings are defective by water staining to the ceilings.
As to absent gutters, fascias and soffites at the eaves – just appreciate no need for ladder work of clearing gutters and scraping and painting maintenance. Like me, you may prefer the French decorative ‘genoise’ treatment of eaves with two or three courses of corbelled tiles.
If you overload your electrical installation KW rating a breaker switch will trigger. No big deal. Go switch it on again and be careful of running too many machines and equipment all at the same time. Or, simply review your KW rating from a choice of 3-36KW and upgrade, paying a little more for the standing charge. You can avail yourself of the Tempo supply tariff for cheaper usage and after 10pm off-peak benefit.
I think not. All villages I know are either connected to mains drainage or still in process of connection, as all Communes had to complete mains drainage works by the end of last year. In the non-collective rural zones septic tanks will prevail because homes are too isolated for mains drainage collection. If you are considering a property with an old uncertificated septic tank system, have an inspection carried out by a bureau d’étude to check land size, house size (1,000 litres per bedroom), and permeability compliance to regulation DTU 64.1 and get approval from the local mairie.
This has been a brief treatise on just a few of the salient elements of French property. The list could go on ! What I am saying is that in my professional opinion these matters are not all doom and gloom.
I survey a variety of properties, and yes, they all have defects and they are all different in construction from anything I ever experienced in Britain, but buyers continue to become more informed and careful when considering purchasing a property. It’s imperative to familiarise yourself with the potential risks, and have the appropriate survey investigation carried out.
André provides prompt pre-purchase inspections within 7 day SRU. English format. A verbal summary given the day of survey. Indemnity insurance. Further details on request by e-mail: opîts@free.fr
Copyright 2006 André Goddard