Very Important Things to Find Out
Before you put an offer on a villa, it’s very important that you find out the following things about the property:
Diagnostics Reports & Surveys
There are a number of surveys that the seller is legally obligated to give you. They’re by no means exhaustive, and some surveyors are corrupt and will lie for the benefit of the agent or notaire, so it’s always good to get your own inspection done as well.
Requirements for the reports change over time, so it’s important that you’re up-to-date on the latest rules. For example, from July 2021 the energy consumption levels in the property can no longer be used to determine the rating (since people selling second homes were faking good ratings) and a broader analysis of the energy efficiency performance of the property now needs to be undertaken.
You should hire a CERTIBAT-certified ‘Expert de Batiment’ to inspect the villa and point out any areas for concern (like non-obvious structural problems, etc.) Your seller would not have to disclose any structural defects affecting the property that you will take in the condition in which it stands – although he is not entitled to actually hide them. This means that if, after signing a contract, you discover structural or other defects to the property or its services, you are still obliged to complete the purchase at the agreed price and cannot obtain compensation from your seller. It is, therefore, important to commission the inspection before you sign the contract.
While you’re at it, get an engineer to check the condition of the ‘vide sanitaire‘ (a cement crawl space under the villa that prevents moisture problems, which is very important on the French Riviera), the roof, and how the villa is going to hold up over time, structurally.
If the inspections reveal anomalies in the electricity, plumbing, or gas installations, it’s important to correct such problems. You should also check whether such anomalies would have any impact on your property insurance. The diagnostics need to be recent (here are the details). Here’s another guide to diagnostics reports.
Tip: The date on the diagnostics report will tell you that the property has been on the market at least since that date.
Sun & Micro-Climates
In Eze, there’s a section that locals dubbed “Dark Eze” because after 2pm it goes dark — the sun shines on the rest of Eze, but this area gets no light, as it’s in the shadow of the mountain. Villas in this area rent for less money and are harder to sell.
And while the rest of the area is enjoying a beautiful sunny day, any villa perched more than 1,000ft/300m above the sea will be engulfed in mountain cloud cover half of the time, blocking the sun and the view. That’s just something you deal with being in the Alps.
La Turbie famously gets engulfed in an extra-thick fog on many days, making hard to see more than a few meters. It’s a weird super-micro-climate.
You need this local knowledge so you don’t accidentally buy in “Dark Eze” or in “The Fog”, for example. But ask locals, not agents, of course. The next best thing is going there at all times of the day to check what it’s like.
Potential Issues with the View
Find out if the neighbor cuts his trees short so you can keep your sea view. Find out if the property between you and your view is developable (and assume that if it is, it will be) or if a tall building could one day replace the villa that stands between you and your view (in Eze, new buildings are only allowed to be 2-stories tall, but in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, newly-built 8-story apartment blocks have ruined many villas views.) In other words, look into whether your view can be blocked, as a big part of the value of a property is the view.
You can see the trend in housing taxes over time, and by area. Your agent should be able to tell you the taxes that the current owner is paying, but make sure to verify this with the Mairie. There’s also an additional wealth tax on properties over €1.3 million.
Check the historic debt of the area you are considering. This will give you an idea of if the people managing the area are overspending and you’ll eventually have to pick up the tab by way of increased property taxes.
If the villa is less than 5 years old, you’ll have to pay 20% sales tax! The notaire fees will be lower, but only by a few percent.
If the villa is old, the roof, plumbing and electrical might need to be re-done (the standards have changed a lot in the past decade), which can be expensive. Make sure to get an independent inspection and factor these into your cost analysis.
Danger (Red) Zones
If the villa you’re interested in happens to be located in a high-risk (red) zone, then:
- There is a high risk of your property eventually being damaged or destroyed by something natural, like a sink-hole (empty caverns under the ground that sometimes swallow houses), avalanche, fire, flood, etc.
- If your villa, swimming pool, outbuildings, or part of any structure is destroyed, you can NOT rebuild. Ever.
- Your insurance will be very expensive (it costs at least €3500 extra per year to properly insure a small red-zone villa worth €1 million), and insurance companies can refuse to cover you.
- You can not build anything new on the land. You can’t build a pool or addition or new terrace. If the previous owner built anything illegally, you could be forced to pay to rip it down.
- The government limits the number of bedrooms and occupants in the villa (and it may be less than you’re expecting, so you’ll need to check).
- It limits the number of banks willing to give you a mortgage.
- It makes it harder to resell.
- In some cases, it also commits you to paying for risk-prevention measures several times per year.
Being in one of these high-risk zones should lower the valuation of the property by at least 20% compared with villas in blue (managed risks; requires special permission to build anything) or white zones (no risk and no hassles).
Risk-zone insurance: In red zones, insurance companies are allowed to deny you coverage. If they do cover you, it’s very expensive. If your house is damaged by a natural phenomenon and you’re lucky enough to have an insurance company willing to insure you, you should know that insurers will only process claims once a state of natural disaster has officially been declared by ministerial decree (called an ‘arrêté interministériel’, which clearly defines the zones affected and the nature of the damage), and then you have only a tight 10-calendar-day window to make a claim. The downside is that it can take months for the status to be granted, or the area covered could possibly not include your villa.
If your real estate agent downplays the seriousness of red zone warnings, or tells you that it’s “a decision made in Paris and they don’t inspect each property”, or says that almost all of French Riviera is red zone (only 5% of France is red zone) — they’re not being honest.
Below is an example of a red zone map, called ‘Plan de Zonage’ (see maps/plans here). It’s incredibly specific and there are many types of risks that are accounted for. Highly educated specialists examine each property in order to assign it to a red zone.
As a buyer, you should be informed (before sending your offer) if the villa is in a red zone, via the diagnostic reports & surveys owners are required to produce as part of the sale process. Sometimes owners or agents try to scam buyers by giving them false or outdated reports, so it’s best to check for yourself. Before buying a villa, make sure to visit the nearest Mairie or Préfecture to ask about the local risk plan and what your obligations will entail. (…and while you’re there, make sure to also ask if there are any building/planning requests for properties near the villa.)
You can also consult this website which provides information on risk areas and an interactive map showing layer overlays of each individual type of risk (although the information on the site is not always easy to interpret, and may not be entirely up-to-date). Here’s some more information about risk zones in France, and this website explains each of the potential risks.
Radon: It’s a colorless, odorless toxic radioactive gas that’s the leading cause of lung cancer next to smoking. It comes out of the ground and then builds up inside homes — and it can make you extremely sick. In areas that have high radon, there’s no way to avoid exposure. Here’s a searchable map of the areas with radon, so you know where to avoid.
Pollution and EMF: Here’s how to find out if there are toxic pollutant zones or cancer-causing electromagnetic radiation to worry about nearby.
Here are some simple ways to see past satellite images of the area so you can see how it’s changed over time (and if that trash on the adjacent property is actually just “temporary”, or if there’s camping grounds nearby, etc). The easiest way is to download Google Earth Pro to view historic images.
Make sure to check (at the town’s Mairie / town hall) if the land next to the villa is buildable, and if there have been any nearby land sales in the past decade. You don’t want to buy a villa and then find out that a developer bought and divided up the land next door, and you’ll be listening to construction noises for the next decade. Or worse — that they’re planning a hotel or camping site next door.
What You’ll Actually Own
Cadastral maps are the government’s official documents showing the outline of the property boundaries and the shape of the buildings on it. You can search for them on the GeoPortail website or on the official cadastre website.
You should also check at the Town Hall to see the plans to make sure they match up with what you have seen, to make sure there weren’t any recent changes that haven’t been added to the maps yet. You don’t want to find out later that your neighbor recently purchased half of the garden you thought you were buying. For this reason, it’s worth paying to get a survey done.
Illegal Additions and Structures
This is important… If part of the villa you're considering, or the pool or any of the outbuildings, isn't shown on the cadastral map, that means it was built without proper permits / permission, and the local government could charge you a hefty fine and force you to rip that part of the villa down. In fact, that might be (secretly) why the seller is trying to get rid of the property. If the seller didn’t get proper permission, make sure they rectify the situation before the sale, and verify it directly with the local Mairie (city hall) and/or Préfecture, or don’t buy it!
You can search through historic building permits on this website, by searching for a town, then clicking on the green “see building permits” button to see the building permit history. If, for example, the agent tells you that the addition was done in 2018 and you can’t find a building permit that matches, then it was done illegally and you could be forced to pay to rip the addition down. Same thing with a pool or garage.
After 10 years, compliance is no longer required from the Mairie, but the period of appeal by third parties for a non-conformity, discovery, and causing damage, is thirty years. So if any part of the building, terrace, pool or garage was built or added within the past 30 years (and you’ll need to verify this), then you need to make sure its construction and specs were 100% legal, otherwise a spiteful neighbor could force you to tear it down.
Make sure to get a recent attestation de non contestation / certificat de conformité (a certificate confirming that the property and prior renovations conform to the local laws) — it’s important for a lot of reasons, including insurance and the ability to repair and renovate in the future. Again, verify its authenticity at the Mairie!
The Space Between Your Villa and the Neighbor
If you are thinking you’ll put up a tall line of trees or shrubs between you and the neighbor, you should know that the Civil Code states that there must be a minimum of 2 meters between the property boundary and a tree that is more than 2 meters tall. The minimum distance for all other plants is 50 cm. This rule only applies if no other rules or uses apply to the region or district. Your town hall will be able to provide details of local laws. Also note that the owner of a tree, even if planted at a legal distance, is liable for damage caused by trees and roots extending to neighboring properties.
Internet & Mobile Access
Does the area or villa have fiber (high-speed) internet? Here’s a map of internet speeds available (you can also search by address), and a map of the areas with fiber, and you can drill down the the exact property. If you know the exact address of the villa you’re interested in, you can check on the Orange website to see what type of Internet is available. If fiber isn’t available yet, you can check out the forecast of when it might get fiber internet. The government has a plan to make sure more areas get fiber access, but they keep pushing the deadline farther and farther, and some streets with few villas may never get fiber, so we don’t recommend you rely on that.
Keep in mind that even if your street gets fiber, not all the villas will be able to get it because of terrain type and incline issues. It's best to buy a villa that already has fiber, since if the villa doesn't already have it, there's no guarantee you'll be able to get it in the future. And not having fiber will become even more of a deal-breaker for buyers in the future, when you want to sell.
All forms of Internet (including satellite, 4G, VDSL, ADSL, etc.) other than fiber have caps, meaning that even if they say “unlimited”, after you download a certain amount of content, the speeds get throttled down to a trickle. So if you’re planning on streaming lots of video (ie. you like to ‘Netflix and chill’), or doing any video calls, you’ll likely need fiber.
It’s also good to know what the mobile / cell tower situation is for the area you’re considering. Here’s a map of the mobile coverage across France.
Besides the zoning rules (as described above, if you’re in a red zone, you won’t be able to enlarge the structure), you’ll also need to check whether a property is a listed building (monument historique) or within 500m of a listed building or in a conservation area (zone de protection du patrimoine architectural urbain et paysage).
If it is, ask the Mairie what restrictions exist, particularly regarding renovation. You will likely be prohibited from making significant alterations to the facade, for example, and you may be severely limited in your choice of materials, finishes, and even colors, which may affect not only your concept but also your budget.
Why Are They Selling?
Find out as much as you can about the situation of the vendor. Ask:
“How long has it been on the market?” (Watch out: many agents will tell you how long they have had it listed, but it could have been listed with several other agents before that… you can double-check by seeing the dates on the surveys they commissioned for the sale.)
“Why are they selling?” (Again, the answer may not be truthful… the seller is unlikely to admit that there’s a permit to surround the villa with camping, or that a high-rise will soon be built and block the view, or that there are major structural issues with the villa.) It’s up to you to check who owns the nearby plots and what they can be used for.
You can also check on this website (via the map) if it’s sold in the past 1 to 5 years, and for how much You can also check how much recent turnover there has been in neighboring buildings.
Don’t Just Trust — Verify!
The notary and agents may not be looking out for your best interests, considering they are paid a percentage of the sale price, and they only get paid if you complete the purchase for the villa. Expect this, and keep in the back of your mind that many will tell potential buyers that a villa with major mold and structural issues is “in perfect condition”. Don’t forget: It’s up to you to hire independent experts (who get paid whether you buy the villa or not) to double-check everything.
Buying a villa? Make sure to read all of our guides!
Our guide to where the market is headed includes: French Riviera real estate market predictions, current & historic pricing trends in the market, and why prices will continue to fall.
Our guide to real estate listings includes: how to find villas for sale, what to look out for, misinformation and warnings, auctions & foreclosures, buying direct from sellers, why timing is everything, and the reason why only about half of villa sales are publicly listed.
Our guide to real estate agents includes: who to trust (a warning), things agents tell you, how real estate agencies operate, and why you should avoid illegal and non-local agents.
Our guide to pricing & determining a villa’s market value includes: why there’s so much extreme overpricing, how to estimate a villa’s market value (what it’s worth), and a step-by-step guide to finding your offer price.
Our guide to important things to find out includes: diagnostic reports and surveys, sun & micro-climates, potential issues with the view, housing taxes, the age, internet and mobile access, danger (red) zones, health risks, privacy & space issues, nearby problems, what you’ll actually own, illegal additions and structures, why they’re selling, how to verify, and more.
Our guide to things to consider includes: your actual costs, learning about local crime & squatters, and questions to ask yourself.
Our guide to the buying process includes: negotiating the price & the initial offer, choosing an honest notaire, buying in the black, the official offer & deposit, using a SCI, the deposit, the cooling-off period, what to do before handing over the money, and the final signing.
Our guide for after you buy includes: insurance pitfalls, tips for second homes, renting your villa, renovating, and what to know about hiring people.