France’s SAFER (Société d’aménagement foncier et d’établissement rural)

If you are a first time buyer in France then you probably haven’t heard of ‘right of pre-emption’ (droit de préemption), or France’s SAFER (Société d’aménagement Foncier Et d’établissement Rural).

SAFER Right of Pre-emption

SAFER are a rural agency that have the right of pre-emption (droit de préemption) on most rural property that comes onto the market. In lay-mans terms, they can buy your dream house and you can’t stop them.

They have the power to buy a property on exactly the same terms as a buyer, or substitute another purchaser ie. a farmer within the first 2 months of a sale.

They can separate a property into smaller plots and sell them off as individual lots. In other words they can strip a house of all it’s land, it’s access, or outbuildings.

If SAFER do decide to step-in on the sales process, provided they are on the same terms as the to original buyer there is nothing the vendor can do about it. Only when SAFER put in a lower offer can the vendor challenge the case in court and withdraw the property from the market.

The SAFER Droit de Préemption DEADZONE

After the ‘Compromis de Vente’ has been signed, the notaites is required to advice SAFER of the forthcoming sale and give them two months notice to buy it or substitute a purchaser.

Scenario 1

If you need a mortgage on a property in France, banks have policy of not answering in the first two months. Added to this there is the 10 day cooling off and the signing of forms. This means yours finances are very unlikely to be sorted within 3 months. Chances are the ‘droit de préemption’ will expire whilst you are wait for your loan offer.

Scenario 2

However, if you were a cash buyer you are stuck in the ‘SAFER deadzone’. Your notaire will highly unlikely be responding to you as the sale cannot progress until the SAFER ‘droit de préemption’ expires. You are stuck in limbo.

In rural areas, before a Sale can progress, the 2 month SAFER period must expire.

Problems When Land is Sub-Divided

  • Power line often cross boundaries and will need to be re-routed by power companies
  • Animals may have to be herded across boundaries
  • Although the cadastral plans may show crisp boundaries lines, in reality borders may be unknown
  • There could be shared bills
  • Heavy traffic can be brought in 24/7
  • Plants such as noisy grain stores may installed and run 24/7 close your open windows

The purpose of right of pre-emption (droit de préemption)

In many rural areas there’s advantages if farms and areas of land are consolidated. By doing this, agricultural markets are regulated and stabilised.

SAFER buy property in conjunction with various environmental agencies and other government projects. SAFER have been very keen to displace owners to substitute young farmers.

Unfortunately, SAFER have always come in for massive amounts of criticism over the years for being just a glorified estate agent. They have been accused of many things including keeping properties in ruinous states and preventing regrowth in areas.

Should I worry about SAFER?

It’s not great news and even if SAFER have absolutely ZERO interest in your dream property there will be a 2 month period with absolutely no progress on your purchase.

Many will have never heard of SAFER. It’s the responsibility of a competent agent immoblier to inform buyers of this society, but so often a first time buyer hears of SAFER when a droit de préemption is served.

The vast majority of house sales go through with zero intervention from SAFER. Although SAFER have the power to ‘step-in’ on a house purchase, that is often a last resort. SAFER actually operate as a huge estate agent a snapping up prime properties suitable for farmers the moment they come on the market. They usually have a vast port-folio of properties suitable for ‘young farmers’ on their books. Therefore SAFER’s primary targets are prime locations, large farms and land for consolidation.

In many rural areas such as the Limousin, nearly 50% of properties are empty and have been so for numerous years. It is only in recent years that properties have started to sell more quickly.

What sort of Land are SAFER interested in?

Many of the properties SAFER would be interested in, us Brits might not even get to see. In rural areas of France it takes a couple of days for most of the local farming population to know a property is for sale. Property of interest to SAFER would be gone before us Brits got to hear about it.

  • Is there more than 1 hectare attached?
  • Is the land arable (suitable for growing crops)? – good income
  • Is the land pastoral (suitable for grazing animals)? – low income
  • Is the land woodland? – very long term income
  • Is the land flat and free from obstacles such as rocks, trees, pylons, hollows etc?
  • Is the adequate drainage?
  • Are the boundaries secure?
  • Has the land been maintained?
  • Is the land a regular shape and is there adequate access for large vehicles?
  • What type of soil is on the land?
  • Would purchase of the land consolidate one or more farms?
  • Is the land in a prime location?
  • Is it already a farm small-holding or could it be converted into one?
  • Is it an area rich in farm small-holdings?

The value of good arable land with great drainage and good access is much higher to a farmer than steep and rough pastoral land; especially if it hasn’t mean maintained for decades. You can’t just take everything on the published price per square meter.

If the purchase of a piece of land enables the consolidation of two or more pieces of land or gives a particular agricultural or ecological community an advantage then SAFER are likely to step in. Much land has been bought by farming co-operatives.

When land is left un-maintained, un-fertilised and un-tended then aspects like soil acidity levels, cross contamination of weeds, points of access, fences and gates etc all become a problem.

With modern machinery it’s all about fast turn-over of a harvest. If a field is steep, full of craters, boggy and an un-unusual shape then chances are a farmer isn’t going to interested. A farmer needs to program the GPS running the combined harvester and sit back while the machine does 70% of the driving. The more fields harvested in a day, the more money is made.

Often land; although rural; isn’t of great agricultural interest. Take our property it was surrounded by farmland:
Our property was in a very rural area and we also bought some additional woodland. The woodland would not be of interest to a farmer or forester as it had been un-managed for over 100 years and was relatively small. Each tree was a different species. The house would take a huge investment to make habitable. The surrounding plots; although grassland; were an un-managed irregular shape which looked like they hadn’t even been used for grazing for a few years. To get animals onto the land you’d have to cross two different private gardens. The boundaries weren’t secure. The fields would take serious investment to be of use for an kind of crop making them un-economical. Therefore this property’s value to SAFER would be somewhere between extremely low and zero – yet annoyingly, we still had to wait 2 months in the Deadzone.

We looked at two properties. The first was absolutely gorgeous and came with 12 hectares of arable land. It was on the top end of our budget. On the land were several barns. The land bordered 4 other farms. It was competitively priced. Although it had been empty for 5 years it had been completely renovated around Y2K. We asked the agent immoblier about SAFER’s droit de préemption and they deliberately avoided the question. We recon the reason the estate agent wouldn’t answer, was SAFER could be interested in this type of property. – always quiz your agent immoblier HARD about SAFER!

If you are buying a property that has at least one hectare (2.5 acres) of prime agricultural land or you are concerned about SAFER, ask your notaire or agent immoblier to include in the ‘compromis de vente‘ some ‘clauses suspensives‘. This will help with getting your deposit back more quickly.

More SAFER reading