Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Decline of the city centre

Like many towns in Britain, France is also suffering from the decline of the traditional city centre. None more so than my nearest large town Perpignan.

The problem is that Perpignan is sourrounded by out-of-town shopping centres to the north (2 large sites) and south (two sites), another on the coast road towards Canet, and a fourth off-centre site dominanted by ELeclerc.  built around huge hypermarkets such as Auchan and Carrefour. They offer one-stop shopping, ease of parking, a choice of restaurants etc all within easy walking distance, often under cover.

As a result of these huge developments and the difficulty of driving and parking in Perpignan, the town centre has lost up to 60 shops recently, plus the closure of an entire covered acrcade - due in this case to a proposed 33% increase in rents at the height of the crisis. Many streets are now neglected and whole areas turning into near-slums, despite featuring attractive old buildings crying out for restoration. A sad sight.

To the west of the city centre an ambitious shopping complex built around the new TGV station has also suffered. Named 'El centre del mon' (the centre of the world) after Salvador Dali's famous description, the centre has virtually closed down as 17 shops and boutiques have shut their doors - including Carrefour, FT-Orange, C&A and other well known names. The Spanish developers are reported as having lost €150 million over this project.

The reasons for the decline include the long, unattractive road leading to the station, which has many boarded up shops; the fact that the road is one-way; poor pedestrian access via an underground walkway; and the late (by several years) of the direct TGV link to Barcelona. The planned development of a new civic centre (with law courts etc) adjacent to the station has been cancelled due to high costs.

An enquiry has just begun into what to do with the many redundant offices and hotels built above the shopping centre, including proposals to house a new School of Law (attached to the university which is south of the centre) or to transfer some administrative offices now located in the town centre.

What is surprising that this type of urban blight can hit even small villages. My own, with a resident population of just 10 000, has a huge out-of-town complex (Intermarché) which now includes many former village centre shops and services. Reasons cited again include lack of carparking in the centre and turning the main High Street into a one-way system for through traffic - which could be re-routed round the existing four-lane bypass. As a result the village centre is slowly dying like the centre of Perpignan.


Monday, February 24, 2014

French Property News, March 2014

In this month's edition out now I have returned to the thorny question of how to ensure that you are paying more or less the right price for your French property. As is so often said, it it is all too easy to 'fall in love with a property' particularly while visiting this beautiful country on a warm summer day, and to forget the basic questions you should ask yourself - and the owner - before deciding to buy.

In addition to the basic questions such as the general state of the property and its installations, I suggest that the would be ppurchase should check the surrounding neighbourhood and try and get a feel for the location and ask themselves Is this really where I want to live? Is there room for expansion? Are the rooms laid out the way I want them? What would happen if I wanted to downsize, sell up, move on? My article also includes a checklist of praticalities from finding out about the local taxes and charges to environmental risks such as flooding, particularly in light of the recent storms in Britain and South-west France which have left many property owners in serious difficulty.

Source www.french-property-news.com French Property News is on sale in newsagents or on subscription.

Europe's 11 million empty homes

While every country worries about the shortage of available housing, recent research shows that there are 11 million empty homes across Europe, enough to accommodate the number of homeless twice over.

Sadly it is not as simple as that, and many experts point out that properties lie empty for many reasons - searching for a buyer, put on hold until property values rise, awaiting planning permission for works, waiting to start works, unable to trace owners, costs of re-possession conversion and so on. Some local authorities (such as in Birmingham) have pioneered schemes to identify and locate empty properties  and persaude their owners to negotiate financial aid from the Council to enable the property to be renovated and offered for rental. It is often through neighbours living next to or near empty properties (which can bring down the value of other properties in the area) that such properties are located and their owners traced.

The figures are nonetheless alarming and include. United Kingdom 700 000; Ireland 14 000**; France 2.4 million; Spain 3.4 million; Portugal 735 000; Italy 2 - 2.7 million; Germany 1.8 million.

As the The Guardian* article reports, many empty homes were built in the housing boom up to 2007-8 and designed to be let. Many half-completed properties have been bulldozed to prevent the property market being even further eroded. Spanish government estimâtes talk of a further 500 000 partly built properties abandonned by constructors, a relic of the days when 800 000 new dwellings were being built every year. Some Spanish régions are taking steps to reduce the number of re-possessions by banks and/or forcing them to re-let seized properties or face heavy fines if they remain empty for more than 24 months. The Irish government is taking even more drastic measures and demolishing some 40 unoccupied housing estates.

Within France, many of these empty homes are 'located in the wrong place' for those seeking work - including the additional 2 million French holiday homes that are occupied on average for just six weeks every year either by their owners or rented to holidaymakers. In some Holiday régions, second homes can comprise up to 75% of the local housing stock.

* Rupert Neate, The Guardian, 23 February 2014. www.theguardian.com
** The figure given in the Guardian article is 400 000 but this has been challenged as incorrect. An earlier article on the Irish situation speaks of 14 000 poissibly rising to 26 000 by the end of 2014.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Disclosure by estate agents?

A recent post on a property blog* has raised the interesting question about the extent of an estate agents' duty of disclosure when offering a property for sale - how much of the bad news must he revealed to a potential buyer, particularly in the wake of the serious flooding in Britain and South western France. The question arose in response to one about the effects of the new UK 2008 consumer protection legislation on estate agents' property descriptions.

It is a question often raised in France and one that I have had to wrestle with, both during my time as a sales negotiator in a French estate agency, and more recently as a property consultant/advisor. French consumer law offer a number of built-in protections to the potential buyer and even at the stage of the pre-contract of sale (known as the 'compromis de vente') and usually running to more than 50 pages, a lot of information is written about the property.

This includes its history, its reference on the 'cadastral plan' and a copy of the expert report prepared by a specialist (paid for by the vendor) which describes the state of the electrical and plumbing installations, and the presence/absence of termites, lead, asbestos etc and an energy efficiency rating if there is a fixed heating system installed.

In addition the Notaire handling the sale will normally include information about zones liable to flooding, landslides, earthquakes etc when he does his detailed searches as to title.

It seems that the British legislation goes further than this, with an obligation to point out factors such as proximity to a motorway or a noisy factory or school, which might detract from the value of the property being sold. These are aspects that may not be pointed out by a typical French estate agent and indeed in the final sale document the buyer is warned that he/she 'purchases the property at his own risk and in the state in which he finds it'.

This puts a lot of the onus on the intending purchaser or his advisor to extend their researche into the wider location of a property, something which many buyers fail to do in the euphoria of discovering their dream home.

*Source propertynewshound.com

Monday, February 17, 2014

A home for less than €100 000?

I was delighted to come across another book by Olivier Darmon in which he has brought together in a single volume no fewer than 40 projects costing less than €100 000 (excluding land) from all over France. They all feature family homes with an average three bedrooms, a garden or outside space, and are built using the latest materials - timber, metal, glass etc - and the latest techniques for heat and sound insulation, and break the tradition of bricks and mortar.

As Darmon says in his introduction building this new type of property involves a radical change in thinking which traditionaly has regarded a dwelling as something permanent and lasting, carefully preserved and maintained, as part of the nation's heritage. New homes he - and numerous architects consulted - agree should be semi-permanent structures, capable of being expanded or changed according to the occupiers' needs over time, and even  packed up and moved to another location. Think of the many owners in Britain and France who have seen their homes seriously damaged by flooding and whose value has plummetted as a result.

At the same time, The Guardian has published an account of a new initiative by the YMCA and architect Richard Rogers to design a £30 000 flatpack house - 'suitable for housing the homeless'. It is these last words which trouble me, as they give the impression that factory built units which can be erected on site within a matter of days are only suitable for emergency situations or as a stop-gap solution to the shortage of affordable 'traditional' housing. Darmon's book proves that this is not always the case, many buyers choose to live this way, and indeed the Guardian article includes descriptions of some 'permanent' housing projects that use pre-fabricated dwellings.

There are sometimes adverse reactions from neighbours, concerned about the 'value' of their traditional homes and reluctance by local authority planning officers to approve anything that departs from their concept of the traditional house design. The good news is that home buyers are warming (literally!) to the idea of improved energy efficiency and lower costs, while architects report that planning officers are increasingly open to designs that break the traditions of permanent housing. And while France has a housing crisis, needing some half-million new homes to resolve, there may be pressure on the government to re-think their approach to non-traditional construction techniques.

For further reading:
'Maisons d'aujourhui à €100 000' Olivier Darmon, Editions Ouest-France, €24. Fully illustrated with floor plans and detailed breakdown of construction costs of each project.

www.theguardian.com Oliver Wainwright, Architecture and Design Blog, 15 February 2014 'Richard Rogers and YMCA unveil £30K homes for homeless people'.