Will the local authority have right of first refusal on your property when you sell it? Peter Hindley shares a lesson he learned the hard way
Don’t get caught out by your local authority’s pre-emptive purchase rights
Back in 2005, I bought a very dilapidated medieval house in the centre of the old quarter of a small town in Gers. We lived in a village nearby and I bought the house primarily for my brother and his wife who had expressed a wish to move to France. The house was in very poor condition, but it suited my brother, who was a builder with experience in restoring ancient buildings. There was also a small two-bedroom house (a former boulangerie) and garden, as part of the property. Sadly, my brother developed a brain tumour and died so he was unable to move to France. The house was therefore once more put up for sale.
All the fun of the fête Meanwhile, we cleaned out the building, which had been used as a builder’s workshop, and carried out some repairs and maintenance. I also did a great deal of research on the house, and its use over the previous 200 years.
The town held a ‘ fête des mille ans’, a festival recreating village life as it would have been 1,000 years earlier. During one of these fêtes, at the request of the commune’s organising committee, we had an ‘open house’. More than 500 people came to visit the historic house, including the maire and councillors. It was rather ironic; here was an Englishman telling French people about their local history!
Finding a buyer We did actually offer to sell the house to the commune but they declined. So we advertised the house on the forerunner to francepropertyshop.com and, after hundreds of enquiries, found a buyer, a young man with a passion for restoring old houses in France. We were delighted to find someone with a real love of old French property. He paid the deposit, and proceeded to sell his house near Limoges to complete the purchase. In order to reduce the cost of the purchase, and fund the restoration work, our buyer opted to buy the main house, but not the attached old house and garden.
When his house sale went through, he transferred the money for the purchase of the house to the notaire. A date was set for the final signing. A week before the signing, our new buyer asked if he could move some of his tools and equipment to the house, pending the signing. We agreed. After all what could go wrong?
A nasty shock The day before the signing, I got a call from the notaire’s office, asking me to go and see him urgently. The commune had decided to step in at the last minute and exercise its droit de préemption (literally, its pre-emptive purchase right). This is a legal power giving a local authority the right of first refusal to buy a property within a defined area and in circumstances in which it is deemed in the broader interests of the community. In other words, the commune had priority and the sale to our buyer could not proceed.
I had to tell our buyer. He was devastated. Grown men don’t usually cry; he did. With no home, and Christmas just around the corner, he had to gather all his tools and possessions and put them in one of our empty barns. He
He then went back to his parents’ house in the UK and never came back. His possessions remained with us, untouched, for three years!
Fighting back I then set about trying to understand what had happened and how this could have occurred. After all I had, in good faith, marketed the house. I felt I had, albeit unintentionally, destroyed this man’s dream. The details on our copy of the acte authentique (deed of sale) from when we purchased the property showed that the droit de préemption had lapsed.
I contacted Uk-based French legal consultant Lilianne Levasseur Hills. We had used her services when we first bought our house. She is a qualified notaire and now practises in the UK. She got in touch with our notaire and quickly got to the bottom of the matter.
When we’d bought the house in 2005 the droit de préemption had indeed lapsed, but two years later, in 2007, the commune had revised its plan local d’urbanisme (local development plan) and, in so doing, had redefined the area where they had automatic droit de préemption. They moved the defining line from the centre of the road in front of our house to the centre of the road to the rear of our house. They did not inform me. They were not obliged to do so; they merely had to post the minutes of the monthly meeting at which the decision was taken, on the public notice board outside the mairie.
I asked Lilianne if I could challenge the matter in the courts. She was not hopeful, but recommended an advocate who might be able to help. I had a telephone consultation with him. He was not very optimistic, but said we could challenge their failure to publicise the revised plan widely in the commune. I would have to make a payment of £3,000 to start proceedings. Having already spent over £1,000 on legal fees, I didn’t proceed with this action.
Selling to the commune I signed the acte authentique just before Christmas and left the keys to the property with the notaire. The maire, who was supposed to sign and receive the keys, did not turn up, but signed two weeks later.
As the property was now in the ownership of the commune, I expected to receive payment. I was in for a long wait. Two months after the signing I asked the notaire why I had not received payment. He said he did not know. Another two months later, and still no payment, I was informed the mairie could not make a payment as the sale had not yet been registered with the Bureau des Hypothèques (mortgage office), an administrative body now superseded by the Land Registry.
I then began to study the Code Rural, regulations covering farming rights and the use of rural land, and there I discovered that the commune had up to six months to pay the purchase price (recently reduced to four months).
I also discovered that if they did not pay the purchase price after six months and one day, I could reclaim the property by means of ‘ droit de rétrocession’. This gives the original owner or original would-be buyer the right to buy back the property if the authorities have not met the required conditions.
The final blow
Six months and one week later, I sent a letter to my notaire instructing him to exercise the droit de rétrocession. Surprise surprise; the money was paid into my account six days later. I learned later that I had made a procedural error. Had I served the notice directly to the commune, with a copy to the notaire, I would have regained the property. As it was, the notaire informed the commune of my intention and so gave them an opportunity to make the payment, thus pre-empting rétrocession. Know your friends!
The date the commune revised the local plan and regained their droit de préemption was just four months after the fête when we opened our house for visitors. Having gained possession of the house, the commune did nothing with it for four years. The roof began leaking badly and roof tiles were falling from the roof. They eventually re-roofed it. It remains empty...
I had to tell our buyer. He was devastated. Grown men don’t usually cry; he did