This morning we met the solicitor. Nice chap, excellent English, and in typical lawyer-ese, proceded to tell us several 'worst case' scenarios that might apply to the house we want to buy. For instance: that the upper two storeys might never have had planning permission, so might need to be pulled down. He did say that a more likely scenario was that planning permission was applied for, and perhaps obtained: however as the deeds mention buildings that aren't registered, he suspected that either they had never officially been inspected and completed, or perhaps the builder had deviated from the plans and so couldn't get a completion certificate.
He then went on to say that of course it's Cyprus, and hardly anybody does anything by the book. He said that most people build extra parts to their homes without permission, or draw up official plans and then build something different. But people don't buy and sell frequently like they do in the UK; he inherited his home from his parents, and will pass it on to his children, and yes, he too has built extra parts which aren't legalised. However, he said that if he ever did have to sell, he would get retrospective permission and a final document before putting it on the market. If we go ahead and buy, and find later that there's a problem, it may be impossible to prove that we didn't put the building up ourselves.
So, he told us that what he needs is the certificate of completion. He also needs to speak to the vendor's solicitor, or the vendor himself if he doesn't have a solicitor. But he doesn't want to deal with the estate agent, who will have mixed motives.
After that, we went to speak to the estate agent, who seemed rather frazzled. She did produce some plans for the house showing the top two storeys, and said that the vendor had 'found' his planning permission, which he had previously said was lost. She said that he admits he's made a few minor alterations to what was planned, including covering over a verandah but she didn't think it was a problem. We looked at the plans carefully, and there seemed to be more differences than that, although as we've only seen the house twice (and didn't take any measurements) it's hard to tell exactly. We think the verandah hasn't just been covered over, it's been included as part of an extension to make a dining room. We also think there's another balcony been built (the utility area outside the kitchen) that's not shown on the plans, and - possibly more worrying still - an interior wall removed which includes a load-bearing support. Cyprus houses aren't built of bricks, but of concrete pillars and steel posts, so it's not quite like the UK.
The agent insisted it's not a big deal. She said that yes, the vendor could apply for inspection and certificate, but he'd have to remove all the structures that aren't in the plans to do so - which would be quite a major undertaking, and rather a nuisance too as we like what he's done. She said that as we want to turn the building back into one house, putting internal stairs between the ground floor and middle floor, we'd have to employ an architect to do that and apply for planning permission anyway - and so it would be better to get him to draw up plans for the house as it is now, plus what we want changed, and go from there. That does make sense: there's no point getting rid of the improvements, having that made official, then applying for them and re-doing them. Equally it would be a bit silly for the vendor to employ an architect to make plans for the house as it is now, and us to employ one separately to make plans for the change we want.
But what to do? That's the problem. We chatted with a British friend who's a civil engineer and understands house structures. He said the missing pillar may not be a problem, since some supporting structures in Cyprus aren't necessary - they're just there as corners of rooms. Or it may be vital, in which case it should certainly be put back. He also said it's possible that the plans we've seen aren't the latest ones; we should go to the town planning office and ask to see the most recent ones, to see if they match what we've seen or how the house is now. We should also take an architect to the house, to look at the structure, to discuss what we want, and to find out what would work and what wouldn't.
Richard also chatted with another friend who's in the building trade, who said he knows an excellent architect who might be prepared to work for us and help sort out this problem.
It does sound as if it's not as bad as the worst-case scenario, but it's still more complicated than we had hoped. No surprises, really; we know several people who have bought houses or flats here, and none of them have had a totally straightforward purchase. It's a bit strange in a country where there's almost no violent crime or burglary, that so many people think nothing of cheating on their taxes, changing houses without plans, and generally ignoring or deceiving large agencies such as insurance companies!
We do still want to go ahead on this house. Lots of people are praying, and it does seem exactly right for us. I don't like not knowing what path is ahead, or even what step we should take next, but am trying to be confident that it's all in God's hands.