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Holiday property investors with rose tinted spectacles

Indeed the Notaire has an obligation to ask before you sign that you understand what is written down. And you have to sign or initial every single page of a set of documents that can be 40 pages or more.

One of the most common legal problems connected with French property is the droit de passage, or right of way, especially in rural areas. Over literally hundreds of years farmers have used rights of way to access their fields. This often goes right across another property. These rights of way can't be changed without going through a lawyer.

So anyone buying a property in France should look carefully at any rights of way and make sure they understand the implications – do you really want a large combine harvester going past your bedroom window at 6am in the morning at harvest time?

Two incidents are worth mentioning. Some English people in our village bought a little house as a holiday home over ten years ago. A neighbour had a right of way up their drive to access a small field at the back. The gate at the bottom was always open.

While they used the property as a holiday home there were no problems. But when they decided a few years ago to move permanently to France they found the fact that the neighbour kept shutting their gate every time they went out became an irritation.

Then the neighbour started building a lean-to against one of their walls. She claimed it was a shelter for the goats in the field. She was totally in the wrong but she refused to take it down when asked. This has now escalated into a full scale feud with both sides, I must say, being equally stupid about it all.

The English owners are now spending thousands of pounds on legal and court fees trying to get the lean-to demolished and the arguing over the gate continues. But it should never have gotten to this stage. When they bought the house they should have established exactly what the right of way meant in terms of the gate and any shelter the field owner might want to put up.

It is still on-going. Now they have discovered that their French neighbour might not even own the field but no one seems to know who does.

The second situation is a clear case of property buyers putting on rose-tinted spectacles the moment they leave the Ferry.

An English couple have bought a lovely but derelict cottage by a fishing lake in a village in Normandy. They asked me to accompany them to the notaire. I asked if I could see the sale document before hand so that I could read it over. They didn't have a copy of it despite the fact they were going to sign it in a few days time.

They did have some documentation which I looked at. It showed that the fishing association that owned the lakes next to their property has a right of way round both lakes, including the one right next to their property.

It showed that the lake next to them was for rearing young fish and not at present used by fishermen but they did have the right to walk round it up to three metres from the waters edge. This means that where the couple planned to put their patio was right in the middle of this right of way and they could have fishermen walking within a few inches of their patio doors. They were pretty cross that the (pushy) French estate agent hadn't explained this to them.

They also had to pay towards the upkeep of the track from the road to their house, most of which is owned by the fishing association but there was no idea of what this would cost. With no water or electricity to the property they hadn't worked out the cost of connecting these services either. The mains water was a considerable distance from the house.

Although I am not a qualified expert, I was able to tell them from my own experience that it would cost a lot to connect the water. I also said they should find out far more about the right of way before buying the property.

Off we went to the Notaire and these issues were brought up. There was more bad news. The Notaire, who acts independently and is there to raise any possible legal issues as well as make sure the documents are in order, asked why they were bothered about fishermen walking 15 metres away from their house.

We pointed out that the end of the house was only three feet from the edge of the water and that the fishermen would be walking right over their proposed patio. 'No it isn't,' said the Notaire. 'Look,' he said pointing to the land plan. It clearly showed the edge of the water much further away than it actually was.

It hadn't been updated for 20 years and over time the bank had fallen into the water putting the water's edge much nearer the house. The couple, rightly in my view, refused to sign for the property that day. The woman selling didn't want the sale to go through so she offered to contact the fishing association and at her own expense pay them to give up the right of way around the breeding lake.

The Notaire thought this was a sensible option. But they were going home in two days time and were determined to buy on this trip. They went back and looked at the lake and found an old sign that said 'No Fishing'. On the strength of this they went back the next day and signed. 'If it says no fishing then that is good enough for us,' she told me.

I didn't accompany them this time. I urged them to take legal advice from an English property lawyer who deals with sales in France and even gave them the name and telephone number of one I have used. They said they would use the estate agent, who spoke some English to translate. They bought the house without even waiting for the vendor to speak to the fishing association.

Now the President of the fishing association has decided to retire at the end of this year. No one knows what the new president will decide to do with the smaller lake. But the local rumour is that he wants to expand and use both lakes for fishing.

Mains water is going to cost £10,000 to connect, that is if they can persuade the owner of the field where the nearest pipe is to let them dig up the entrance to the field. He hasn't replied to their requests. Why not, you might ask. Well, they aren't very popular with the local farmers.

First they demanded that the farmer who had cows on the land they were buying remove them immediately. He asked if he could keep them there for two weeks after the sale had gone through as that would fit in with his breeding plans. They refused and he has told all his mates about it.

Then they put a caravan on the site without consulting the local mayor's office. Although it is a touring van and not a fixed one and therefore does not require planning permission, the mayor was still miffed at not being told about it.

The caravan has been daubed with paint and the house, which had boarded up windows and doors, broken into. Who might be responsible? Gypsies, say the locals. I wouldn't be surprised if they wake up one morning to find the odd tractor blocking their drive and the driver nowhere to be seen.

Buying property in rural France is much more complicated than just signing on the line, although as the cases above show that can be difficult. I just wish people would take solid advice and leave their rose tinted spectacles on the ferry.