All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Shifting boundaries in the rural scene.

For whatever reason, you have decided to buy a house in France. The bookshops and the net are awash with advice on how to get a mortgage, the necessity of independent legal advice in your own language, anything, in fact, that can transfer money from your pocket to that of the provider of all these good things.

I have yet to see any sensible advice on boundaries, beyond consulting the land registry map and walking the ground, but boundaries give rise to interminable problems if you are unlucky enough to have difficult neighbours.

Let us take a case. You have bought your rural idyll, a nice house with hedges round the garden, and you decide to repair the rotting chicken wire at the back of the garden to keep your pets secure. Two days later, you have an indignant neighbour on your doorstep, protesting that you are stealing his land. He will take you down the garden which you thought was yours and will show you a discoloured triangular the top of a pyramid for dwarf Pharoahs... which is well on your side of the new chicken wire, tucked neatly away under a hedge. That, he will tell you, is the boundary stone, and the boundary stone is incontestable proof of where the boundary lies.

At this point, you would do well to let him go away without argument, and do a little Sherlock Holmes work. Most difficult neighbours have a superiority complex, and this, allied to the usual rural view that anyone who does not speak good French must be an imbecile, makes them careless and gives you your opening. Check the pyramid and see whether it shows signs of being recently implanted..unnatural cleanliness is also a marker of dirty deeds behind the potting shed. Then go to where you think the boundary should be and see if the ground shows signs of disturbance...if it does, simply replace the pyramid in its' original resting place and put up two fingers to the neighbour who will be watching you from his attic window. Now it is up to him to take action if he wants to persist.

Should he do so, don't count on much help from your notaire, who drew up your purchase documents. While there is much hype about the protection offered by the notaire, it is just that...hype. The notaire's primary role is as a tax collector for the government which is why you are obliged to use one and cannot, as in the U.K. make a private sale between the parties. He will advise you to settle with the neighbour and if you still look mutinous, he will suggest that your only option is to hire a geometre, a surveyor, who will study the situation and impose a boundary on the warring parties by way of a document..a proces-verbal...which has legal force.
So, having just paid the fees for purchase, you now find yourself with another bill to pay and some uncertainty as to the outcome.

If you understood some French, you may have heard the notaire reading out something about 'bornage', which means marking out land, when you were signing the 'acte de vente' and would have thought that the land you purchased had been officially surveyed. In fact, in the context of the acte de vente, it means that the land has not been officially surveyed, thus the need to get it done in cases where there are problems.

The surveyor will take the land registry plan as his starting point, and will begin measuring from all the salient points to arrive at his view of where the boundary should be. You, the neighbour and anyone else whose boundaries are contiguous with yours will have to be present and all will have to sign the resulting document. The surveyor will then plant a modern boundary marker....less moveable than the pyramid - a round sign with the name of his firm attached to a solid lump of iron and concrete set well into the ground. Why can't the land registry plan be definitive, you might ask, since that is what the surveyor is using? Because it is a tax document and not conclusive proof of the nature and situation of the boundaries. And anyway, it it were definitive, the surveyor would be deprived of the chance to make money.

When there are real problems...such as where there are no obvious limits, you may be involved in the process by which folk memory is consulted. All the elderly people of the area will be summoned to give their views, to enable the surveyor to come to a have to watch this carefully. Village and family feuds which have nothing at all to do with you will come to the front....some elderly people may not have even been summoned if their views threaten to be contrary to your neighbour's claims....and claim and counterclaim abound. Mark you, it is a one stop introduction to the people in the area, their family history under the German occupation, and their moral and financial probity. The pity is that at this stage, your French probably won't be good enough to understand it all!

Some years ago, a British couple bought a cottage with land adjoining a farm. The boundaries on the plan were land boundary, a road on two sides, and a farm track on the other, where telegraph poles ran alongside the pathway. One year, they were walking their dogs when they noticed that the neighbour had ploughed land on their side of the track.

A mistake! The contractor hadn't understood!

The next year the contractor misunderstood again and ploughed even deeper into their land.

Not a problem!

Well, no, not for the neighbour.

The third year, they had had enough and confronted the neighbour, who assured them that it would not be in their interests to engage a surveyor as their other neighbour - the one with the land boundary - was a very difficult man and would cause trouble.

Undaunted by this propect, they summoned up a surveyor, who confirmed their original boundaries and, for good measure, found that neighbour A had also been encroaching on the land of neighbour B - the difficult one, who would cause trouble.

It was a victory, but it had to be paid for, and not only in monetary terms. They had not known their place in rural French society and accordingly suffered continual harrassment...their chickens killed by hunting dogs, their harmless moggies poisoned, the hunt hallooing round their house and shooting towards it at close range. They had their land, but never a quiet day afterwards.

It is not just private individuals who can be difficult.
Some years after I bought my first house, another British couple moved into the area, in a hamlet some three kilometres from the village. A private lane formed part of the property, running in front of their house, and local farmers found it a convenient shortcut to and from their fields. The owners were good natured, and did not close it off, but one farmer wanted to be sure, so the maire was despatched to take coffee with the new arrivals,whose grasp of French was, at that stage, rudimentary. She explained to them that ownership of the lane involved them in the costs of upkeep...obviously false as it was a private road...but that the commune was willing to help them by taking it off their hands for the symbolic price of one franc, so that they would have no worries in the future. As it seemed to change nothing, they agreed and signed over their property for one franc.
The sequel to this came some years later when the son of the cautious and enterprising farmer bought the house next door to the British couple and began a campaign of harrassment. The commune, asked to intervene, sent round a councillor who inspected the property and told the couple that the gates to their garden encroached on the commune's land.....the land they had effectively given being less than one metre from the road. They were obliged to demolish their wall and gates and rebuild them further back, in their garden.

So, to be really sure of what you are buying in France you need to ask the seller to undertake an official survey before you agree to purchase, but he probably won't be willing, fearful of what cats might escape from the bag, let alone the cost involved in recapturing them.

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