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French Entrée Tax & Law Quarterly - Hidden Problems In A House Purchase

Do you have a right of action against the seller of your house in France if what you bought has a major defect which wasn't apparent to you before you signed up and agreed to hand over all your money? Obviously if you bought it as it is, warts and all, the understanding will be that you were not expecting perfection.

But take the example of the Waltons, who purchased a house on the Côte d'Azur. It was a large property with a lovely view and a swimming pool; they were looking forward to spending many happy holidays there.

We recommend that you are particularly careful when buying in an unfamiliar area, especially if the seller does not live at the property, as you are unlikely to meet them more than once meaning there may be little chance to ask them about the property that they are selling.

Whereas lawyers have to check the identity of their clients before they can act for them, potential buyers don't generally have the same possibility to check the identity and good faith of the sellers. Sometimes there are suspicious circumstances that lead lawyers to advise their clients not to pursue the purchase beyond initial negotiations, but that can be the subject of another article.

The Waltons completed their purchase from a recently separated woman whose husband had transferred the house to her in its entirety. She had since left France and was living in the USA. The sale was further complicated by the involvement in the transaction of two firms of estate agents, each anxious for the contract be signed and their share of the commission confirmed.

The Waltons had the property surveyed by a reputable surveyor and the property passed the test. However there was some mention in the survey report of the tiles surrounding the pool needing to be reset.

Once the Waltons had completed their purchase and taken possession of the property they began to inspect in detail their new acquisition. It soon became apparent that the loose tiles around the swimming pool were simply an outward and visible sign of a much more serious problem. Investigation by a local builder revealed cavities beneath the tiling which indicated a lack of support for the pool.

The pool had been installed by the ex-husband of the seller who may well have been aware that he had failed to install it properly, yet had still transferred the property to his then wife.

The Waltons have since sued the ex-wife, as she hadn't disclosed any information about the problems surrounding the pool, and are now involving her ex-husband in the court action on the basis that he must have known what he was doing in building the pool, yet failed to reveal that he had not done so properly. The Waltons believe that they have been the victims of a vice caché and are now demanding a very substantial amount of money to have the pool repaired.

Articles 1641 and 1642 of the French Civil Code protect those who are victims of any such deceit and failure to disclose conditions which would have been likely to affect the decisions taken by a buyer and indeed the price that they would have paid.

Caveat emptor - buyer beware! But in certain situations there is protection for buyers who are unlucky enough to come up against a problem such as this. The outcome is as yet unknown. What is clear however is that what started out as a dream has now turned into a nightmare...

This article first appeared in French Entrée's Tax & Law Quarterly - November 2011.

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