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Building & Renovation

Renovating a Derelict Property in France

Tuesday 03 June 2014

As what stage does the renovation of an derelict property in the countryside cease to be permitted development?

It is clear from the e-mails we get from you that many of you aspire to buying and renovating a run down old property in France.

The fact that there are a large number of such properties, frequently going for a song, makes the possibility of French property ownership an attainable objective for those on a tight budget.

In the overwhelming majority of cases the renovation of such properties raises no planning issues. Such consents that may be needed to changes to the external facade or additions are normally accommodated by the planning authority without difficulty.

However, as some of the most interesting properties are often abandoned and located in open countryside, where there are no development rights, at what stage do the planning regulations intervene to prohibit renovation of such a property?

This question was one that was recently answered in a parliamentary response by the French Planning Minister.

In his reply to the question, the Minister stated that in an area not zoned for development the renovation of such a property was permitted, provided it did not amount to a change of use, and provided it was not considered to be a 'ruin'.

Accordingly, this would ordinarily imply that barns in the countryside could not be converted to residential use unless the area was zoned for construction. The fact that the barn may have lain empty and disused for many years was not relevant; it was the initial use that was the only pertinent consideration, subject to any agreed later changes of use.

As far as the condition of the property was concerned, the Minister stated that there was no statutory definition of what constituted a 'ruin', which could only be defined on a case by case.

Thus, in relation to works carried out on a house constructed in the 19th Century, which had lost all its windows, doors and first floorboards, but which retained its four walls and the roof, it was decided in a decision in the Court of Appeal sitting in Marseille in 1998 that an existing construction still existed and that the works could proceed.

By contrast, in a decision made the Court of Appeal sitting in Bordeaux in 2001, the judges defined a 'ruin' as a building that had only one wall and its foundations. As the project would then amount to a new building, planning permission could not be granted.

The same court sitting in 2007 decided that a building where a fifth of the walls which carried half the roof had been destroyed, no longer constituted an existing building.

As usual with such analyses there needs to be a caveat, for not all local councils are going to necessarily take the view that the reconstruction of a ruin outside a development zone should not be permitted. Much will depend on the position adopted by the local mayor and of the planning regime in the locality.

Whether or not planning permission would be granted should be formally established at the time you commence the contractual process, although you it would be as well to meet with the local mayor to discuss the project before you reach this formal stage.

Note, however, whatever words may be spoken by the mayor, 'le mot du maire' does need to be in writing, so it is imperative that you obtain an appropriate planning certificate prior to signing the sale and purchase contracts.

These documents are called certificat d’urbanisme, which the notaire should furnish for you during the contract process.

Neil Vestma, who runs an architectural practice based in France comments: "Given the uncertainty over un uninhabited or derelict building, a certificat d’urbanisme or CU can be built in to the purchase documentation as a ‘condition suspensive’. If approved, this acts as an Outline Planning Permission does in the UK, guaranteeing the principle of what you want to achieve.

Once you exchange contracts the CU is submitted, either by the notaire, the estate agent or your architect. If the CU is rejected the sale falls through and your deposit is returned in full, nor are there any notaire’s or estate agents’ fees to pay. If the CU is granted, the sale goes ahead as normal."

You should not be afraid to insist on this: it is very common practice and frequently done, but you must include it in the first purchase document, the sous-seing or compromis de vente, otherwise it’s too late."

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