Vices cachés are hidden or “latent” defects of which the buyer was unaware when he agreed to buy, and which affect the anticipated use of the building to such a degree that he would not have acquired it (or would have paid a lower price) to take account of this.
Contracts state that the property is sold “as seen” (“en l’état”). However, French law provides statutory protection for a buyer against a seller who may not have disclosed important information about the condition of the property being purchased.
When is a defect considered a vice caché?
A defect would be considered latent if a non-professional buyer, having carefully inspected the building to the extent normally demonstrated by any layman, had reasonably and legitimately been unaware of it at the time of the sale. The courts consider that a buyer should have adopted a degree of vigilance when viewing and a seller would not be liable for defects which should have been apparent to the buyer without additional expert advice.
Defects which have previously been judged to be vices cachés are varied e.g. cracks in exterior walls hidden by vines, or in interior walls hidden by heavy wallpaper, the validity of planning permission where notice to discontinue works has been served on the seller, or damp/lack of damp proof course that was only visible to a buyer once the flooring had been lifted.
What are the remedies?
The decisions regarding which defects are latent or apparent are at the discretion of the courts. A time limit for commencing action does apply, however. Where a defect is uncovered, article 1648 of the French civil code permits the buyer to take legal action up to two years from the date of discovery, so prompt action is needed.
Depending on the problem uncovered, a buyer could opt to make a claim for repayment of the sale price plus damages, or to retain the property and claim an appropriate sum in reduction of the sale price. The courts would appoint experts to evaluate such sum.