Today, Richard went with a friend who's in the building trade locally, and his recommended architect, to look at the house we're thinking of buying. They were armed with the plans which - we're told - were used for constructing the top to storeys, and a tape measure.
The good news:
The house appears to be structurally sound. There's a support shown on the plans which doesn't exist in the house, but it wasn't load-bearing. There's no sign of sagging, or recent repainting, and the architect is pretty sure there's no problem as far as that goes.
The plan showed a balcony which is now part of the living room on the middle floor. However Cyprus rules seem to revolve around whether a balcony is 'covered' or not. Since the top storey would have been over the balcony, it would have been covered according to the plan; so that too isn't likely to be a problem.
The not-so-good news:
Unfortunately, the plans show a plot which is slightly larger than the actual plot, assuming the fences are in the correct places. There's a regulation which says that properties should be at least three metres away from the boundaries, other than where attached to other buildings. The original downstairs flat was built exactly to specificiations, but the plans show two alterations to it: the outside staircase which leads up to the other part of the house, and a porch extension outside the kitchen which is then built over upstairs. Both of these come to within two-and-a-half metres of the boundary. There's also a small front porch downstairs, which eats into the three metres away from the street: apparently even this isn't allowed, despite the porch making the house considerably more attractive.
Because of these things, the house cannot receive a certificate of approval. If pushed, the planning office would say it can only be done if the front porch is ripped out, the staircase is removed, and the side of the house over the kitchen porch is taken out. In other words, it's not possible to draw up legitimate plans for the house as it is at present, which is what we had hoped.
It's also not possible to put an inside staircase between the ground floor and the middle storey. Houses like this aren't constructed to take stairs, so it would be a major undertaking requiring signifiant reconstruction.
The slightly worrying news:
Apparently this is not at all unusual. Our friend estimated that at least 80% of homes in Larnaka (indeed, perhaps the whole island) are similarly not officially approved. It's not a crime to build a house which doesn't meet the regulations, and most Cypriots don't care. Brits who want totally legal houses with approval certificates find that the only way to do so is to buy land out in one of the villages, and be involved right from the start in every aspect. That's the only way of ensuring that the building matches the plans, and the boundaries are far enough away.
But even that isn't a guarantee of anything, since plans can unfortunately be forged. We know of two families who bought new houses, having checked - as they thought - every aspect, only to find months later that the planning permission was actually for somewhere else, and the land they're living on wasn't supposed to have houses at all. They're in the middle of horrible legal battles, since the developer has vanished.
In other words - if we decide not to go ahead with this house, we may well find that we simply can't find anywhere that's fully legitimate, in the area we want. And indeed, we don't think any of the houses we've seen so far fulful the requirement to be more than 3 metres away from all their boundaries. There are many, many houses locally which go right up to the street with no gap at all. I'm not even sure our current rental house could get a certificate...
The interesting rumour:
A friend has heard that the government may be announcing a temporary window of time in which any houses like this can be given certificates, simply because it's too big a problem to solve. If this is true, future houses will be more strictly monitored, but older ones that are basically sound (like this one) will be made legitimate.
The bottom line:
We don't want to sign a contract until contracts have been exchanged on our UK house, so having this one slow down isn't a bad thing from our point of view.
Deeds can be transferred without the final certificate of approval - they'll just have the slightly strange comment that there are buildings which aren't registered. It wouldn't be a problem so long as we live there.
Even if there isn't an official window for registering, the planning office will sometimes go ahead and approve houses like this which almost meet the regulations, simply to get them off their files. If they don't, we can just apply again a few years later.
It might be difficult to sell, but then again most Cypriots aren't worried by such things, and if the worst came to the worst, we'd still own the land, and that's the main cost of houses here. Buildings are basically very inexpensive. It's a nice area, and house/land price are set to rise in the next few years.
This house meets all our needs and wishes, and more.
So, we'll ask our solicitor to do whatever searches are necessary, and draw up a contract - but not hurry about it. We'll also try to check the plans at the planning office, just to ensure that there really was permission given for the two extra storeys to be built.
So at present, I think we're going to go ahead unless some major new problem occurs...