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 (if they don’t, you can sue them later). 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 important to get your own inspection done as well (before you sign the contract.)
The diagnostics given to you by the seller need to be recent (here are the details). Here’s a guide to diagnostics reports and another guide. The seller isn’t obliged to fix defects; as the purchaser, you will be expected to pay to fix them. The obligation on the seller is simply to provide the full reports. If he/she does not do so, they remain fully responsible for defects relating to these specific matters.
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. From September 2022, sellers must get an audit that will provide a precise outline of the work needed to renovate the house so that it can achieve a rating of at least B on the DPE. In 2023, it will become mandatory to inform buyers and tenants about the risks of coastal erosion.
You 100% 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.) Make sure to hire someone that’s not too local, so there’s less chance that they’re pals with your real estate agent or notary (which may lead them to omit some flaws in their report.) Meet them near the villa, so they don’t know the address in advance and can’t work out an under-the-table deal with the real estate agent.
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.
Do not be discouraged by people who tell you there is no need to have a survey done, or that you should do it after signing a contract with the seller. Make sure you get your surveys conducted before you sign the 'compromis de vente'. Although as a buyer you have your ten day cooling off period, it’s not always possible to arrange a survey during that time. In other words, you run the risk of forfeiting your deposit should you wish to pull out at a later date, after any survey results. Still, you should definitely add ‘clauses suspensives’ to the contract that give you recompense should you change your mind about going ahead with the sale after any additional surveys are done.
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.
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
Shade: On the French Riviera, especially from Villefranche to Menton, there are many pockets where the mountains hide the sun early and/or late in the day. For example, in Eze-sur-Mer 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 much harder to sell. You can get a sense of this via Google Earth.
Clouds: And while the rest of the area is enjoying a beautiful sunny day, any villa perched more than 1,000ft/300m above the sea (above the Moyenne Corniche) will be engulfed in mountain cloud cover a quarter 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-like clouds on many days, making hard to see more than a few meters. It’s a weird super-micro-climate.
Local knowledge: 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 search for existing and past building permits on this government website (which also lets you look up property owners names, so you can find out who your neighbors are.)
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 villas worth 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.
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.
Asbestos: Many villas built before the year 2000 have asbestos problems. This is an expensive problem and a serious health hazard, which is why it has to be reported to you, as a buyer, in the diagnostics. It can take just a tiny amount of asbestos to give you mesothelioma, and it can be decades before you know you’ve been affected. It’s incurable and a particularly nasty way to go, which is why regulations are so stringent.
If you ever need to renovate or perform repairs then the asbestos has to be considered, and it increases the cost significantly. It’s also harder to resell a villa with asbestos, as many buyers don’t want to buy a villa with asbestos.
As an owner, you’re required to have the status of the asbestos audited every couple of years. Eventually it will start to crumble and you’ll be forced to replace it. The cost of safe disposal is very expensive. It requires two trained personnel to wear the correct clothing while they erect a safe changing area on site; after using specialist equipment to cut and remove asbestos they have to remove their safety clothing in the correct manner. The air at the removal site has to be filtered and measured for days until it’s deemed to be safe. A specialist has to analyze the exact type of asbestos and it has to be bagged and disposed of safely. This process can take weeks and isn’t cheap.
Remember: asbestos isn’t just on roofs — it can also be indoors, on heating pipes hidden under the floor, used to insulate walls, etc. It’s nasty, insidious stuff and you won’t know if you’re breathing it in until it’s too late.
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. While you’re there, make sure to also ask if there are any building/planning requests for properties near the villa (you can see approved projects here).
You can also consult an interactive map showing layer overlays of each individual type of risk. Here’s some more information about risk zones in France, and this website explains each of the potential risks.
Renovation Limitations & Zoning
Besides the zoning rules (as described above, if you’re in a red zone, you won’t be able to enlarge or rebuild the structure), you’ll also need to check whether a property is a listed building (monument historique), within 500m of a listed building, in a conservation area (zone de protection du patrimoine architectural urbain et paysage), or in a protected green area (you can search here to see the zoning and green area limits).
If it is, ask the local 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.
Planning permission is also key; you can insert a condition (‘clause suspensive’) into the sales contract (‘compromis de vente’) stating that the purchase is dependent on planning permission being approved.
Get at least a couple of ‘devis’ quotes (not ‘estimations’, which are not binding and therefore usually a fraction of the real cost) before you sign for the property, and have a plan for how you will proceed – will you use an architect (legally required on projects of 170sqm and above), a project manager, French or British builders and artisans, or do the work yourself?
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. Also check the planning permissions website.
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 an apartment building, 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. Keep in mind that this site is usually a couple of years out of date, so it won’t show you the most recent permits.
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 30 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! Do all this before putting your signature on an official offer.
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, or villas that aren’t on the main road, 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 (as people get more reliant on video-conference and streaming services), when you want to sell.
All forms of Internet (including satellite, 4G, VDSL, ADSL, etc.) other than fiber have outages and inconsistent speeds that make video calls difficult. They also have download 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.
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 the reasons why prices will continue to fall. Plus, supplementary guide to Russians & their impact on the French Riviera real estate market.
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 scams and secrets includes: warnings about the unethical tricks that agents, notaires, sellers, developers and builders use to get more money out of you. This is a must-read, and the whistleblower guide that those in the business don’t want you to see.
Our guide to real estate agents includes: the dishonest things agents will tell you, how real estate agencies operate, buyer’s agents and property finders, why you should avoid illegal and non-local agents, and who to trust (an important warning).
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 things to consider includes: your actual costs, issues with buying a ‘newly renovated’ villa, 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, contract pitfalls, 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.