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Buying property in Cameroon: scams and pitfalls

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Everything you need to know is included in our Cameroon Property Pack

Cameroon's growth potential and natural beauty are gaining the interest of foreign real estate investors.

However, keep in mind that the local real estate market can be tricky for non-residents.

Our community of customers, along with our local experts, has reported numerous issues. We've listed them all in our Cameroon Property Pack.

This article provides a brief overview of potential pitfalls that may arise during the property buying process in this country.

Is it safe or risky to invest in real estate in Cameroon?

Cameroon’s real estate sector, while burgeoning, does contain elements of risk, largely due to non-standardized processes and a prevalence of informal transactions, particularly in rural or undeveloped areas.

It's not uncommon to hear of incidents where buyers have been duped by fraudulent sellers who present fake documents or purport to own land they do not.

For example, a prevalent type of fraud is where a scammer, sometimes colluding with corrupt officials, presents forged land certificates, resulting in multiple individuals holding seemingly legitimate claims to the same parcel of land.

Foreigners are often seen as lucrative targets for unscrupulous individuals. There have been instances where foreign investors have been lured into purchasing land that is under customary tenure without understanding that such land, often governed by local chiefs and traditional laws, may not confer the same rights as freehold land.

This results in a foreigner potentially holding a piece of land they cannot legally develop or sell.

A costly mistake would be neglecting to research whether a property is encumbered or entangled in family disputes, which are common given the communal nature of land ownership in many Cameroonian societies.

There have been cases where family members have sold land without the consent of the extended family, leading to legal disputes after the transaction has taken place.

While Cameroonian law stipulates property rights and protections, the enforcement is inconsistently applied across different regions. For example, land registration is a legal requirement, but a significant proportion of land remains unregistered.

This leads to ambiguity in ownership that could be exploited to the detriment of a buyer.

Compared to Western standards, the property buying process in Cameroon is less transparent.

This is exemplified by the fact that there is no centralized or digital land registry. A buyer might have to go through manual records, which are sometimes incomplete or outdated, to verify the history of a property.

Disputes can drag on for years in the Cameroonian courts, which are hampered by backlogs and limited resources. Moreover, there have been reported concerns regarding impartiality within the legal system, which can affect the outcome of property disputes.

The paramount importance of due diligence cannot be overstressed. It should include a physical inspection of the property, verification of the seller's identity, and a history of the land through local records.

It is advisable to consult with local experts and legal advisors who understand both the official laws and the customary practices that might apply.

The government's role in the real estate sector has been one of both regulator and promoter. However, policies can change with political shifts, and this can affect land values and ownership rights.

A case in point is the land reform agenda that has been discussed for years but has seen limited implementation, creating uncertainty about future regulations.

Foreign investors often report frustration with the bureaucratic red tape and opaque administrative processes. Instances where land purchases by foreigners were nullified due to improper adherence to investment regulations have been noted.

The complexities of land acquisition, such as obtaining a 'land certificate' as opposed to a 'land title,' and the implications thereof, are often misunderstood by foreigners, leading to legal complications.

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Avoid these pitfalls when purchasing property in Cameroon

The concept of "Land tenure system"

When buying residential property in Cameroon, a unique and often overlooked mistake is failing to thoroughly understand and comply with the "land tenure system," particularly the distinctions between "titled" and "non-titled" land.

This aspect is deeply rooted in Cameroon's legal and cultural fabric.

In Cameroon, land is either titled, meaning it's officially registered and recognized by the government, or non-titled, which often pertains to traditional or ancestral lands governed by local customs.

As a foreigner, you should be especially cautious about purchasing non-titled land.

While it might appear more affordable or accessible, the lack of formal documentation can lead to significant legal complications in the future.

The complexity arises due to the dual land tenure system, which recognizes both statutory and customary land rights. Customary land rights are often governed by local chiefs or traditional authorities, and these lands are not always formally registered.

If you're considering purchasing such a property, it's crucial to ensure that the land is not only approved by the local community but also legally recognized by the state.

"Communal land" or "Family land"

Another specific pitfall when buying residential property in Cameroon is overlooking the importance of "family land" or "communal land" agreements, particularly in rural areas or smaller towns such as Buea or Bamenda.

This issue is unique to the Cameroonian context due to the strong communal ties and the role of extended family in property ownership.

In many cases, land in Cameroon is not just owned by an individual but by an entire family or community. This means that even if you are negotiating with a seemingly legitimate owner, there could be other family members or community elders who have a say in the land's usage and sale.

Failing to recognize and involve all the relevant stakeholders can lead to disputes or even nullification of the sale after you have made payments.

The context where this mistake might happen is especially in transactions involving rural land or properties in smaller towns, where communal and family ties are stronger.

It's a frequent issue because land transactions in these areas are often governed by unwritten customary laws and agreements, which are not immediately apparent to outsiders, including foreigners.

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"Droit de superficie" or right of superficies

A unique and often overlooked pitfall when buying residential property in Cameroon is the misinterpretation or lack of awareness of the "droit de superficie" (right of superficies).

This legal concept, specific to the civil law system in countries like Cameroon, can significantly impact your property rights and usage.

The "droit de superficie" is a legal mechanism that allows someone to own a building or structure on land owned by someone else. In the Cameroonian context, this can be particularly tricky because you might purchase a house or building without necessarily owning the land on which it stands.

This situation is more common in urban areas like Douala or Yaoundé, where real estate is at a premium and such arrangements are more common.

The context in which this mistake might occur is when you buy a property without fully understanding the nature of the land tenure. This is not just a matter of checking the property title, but also understanding the specific agreements regarding the land it's built on.

To avoid this pitfall, you should meticulously review the property documents and seek clarification on whether the land and the structure on it are being sold together.

If the "droit de superficie" applies, you need to understand the terms, such as the duration of your rights to the land, any conditions or limitations on its use, and what happens when the agreement expires or is terminated.

The risks related to the "G+1 Construction Permit" requirements

In Cameroon, a unique pitfall you should be aware of when buying residential property is the risk associated with "G+1 Construction Permit" requirements.

This pitfall is particularly relevant in rapidly developing urban areas like Douala and Yaoundé.

The term "G+1" refers to a building permit that allows the construction of a ground floor plus one additional story. In Cameroon, obtaining this permit is a complex process involving multiple government departments.

The pitfall lies in purchasing a property with the intention to develop or expand it without fully understanding or securing the necessary G+1 permit. You might encounter a situation where a property is sold with the promise or implication that it can be developed or expanded vertically.

However, without a valid G+1 permit, any construction beyond the ground floor could be deemed illegal.

This is especially tricky in urban areas where space is limited and vertical expansion seems like a viable option.

To avoid this, you should thoroughly investigate the zoning laws and building regulations of the area where you intend to purchase property.

Before finalizing the purchase, confirm whether the property already has a G+1 permit or if such a permit can realistically be obtained.

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The issue related to "Chieftaincy Land"

Another specific pitfall to be aware of when buying residential property in Cameroon, particularly for foreigners, is the potential issue related to "Chieftaincy Land".

This is a unique aspect tied to Cameroon's cultural and traditional land ownership systems, particularly prevalent in rural areas and smaller communities.

In many parts of Cameroon, lands are traditionally owned or controlled by local chiefs or traditional rulers. These lands, often referred to as "Chieftaincy Lands," are governed by customary laws and practices rather than formal legal processes. The challenge arises when these lands are sold or leased without proper authority or documentation.

When looking to purchase property, especially in rural areas or communities where traditional practices are strong, you may encounter offers to buy land that is under the control of a local chief.

While such offers might seem attractive, particularly in terms of price or location, they can be fraught with risks.

The legality of such transactions can be questionable, as the chief may not have the authority to sell the land, or there might be disputes within the community about the land's ownership.

To effectively navigate the pitfalls associated with Chieftaincy Land in Cameroon, it's crucial to take a multi-faceted approach.

Firstly, verify the ownership and authority involved in the land sale to ensure that the person selling the land has the legal right to do so, which may require consultations with local government offices or community leaders. Understanding the customary laws is also vital, as each community may have its own set of rules and traditions governing land transactions.

Awareness of these customs can significantly aid in making informed decisions.

Additionally, even if a land transaction is initially based on customary practices, it's important to obtain formal documentation to formalize the agreement through legal channels, thereby protecting your investment.

Lastly, engaging with local authorities, including government officials or legal experts, is essential to ensure that all aspects of the land purchase are compliant with both customary and national laws, thus safeguarding your interests and ensuring a legitimate transaction.

The risks of "Pre-emption Rights"

In Cameroon, particularly for foreigners, understanding and navigating the issue of "Pre-emption Rights" is a crucial yet often overlooked aspect of buying residential property.

These rights, which allow certain entities such as local or traditional authorities to have the first right of refusal in property sales, can significantly impact your purchase. This situation is particularly relevant in high-demand areas or places of cultural and economic significance, such as Douala or Yaoundé.

To effectively handle this, it's important to conduct thorough research before finalizing a property purchase to determine if pre-emption rights are applicable in the area and identify who holds these rights.

Engaging with local authorities is also advisable, as discussing your intentions with them can provide valuable insights and may be necessary as part of the formal transaction process.

Including a contingency clause in your purchase agreement can offer protection, allowing for the refund of your deposit or other considerations if the sale is blocked by the exercise of these rights.

Lastly, consulting with a local lawyer experienced in Cameroonian real estate transactions is essential.

They can guide you through the complexities of pre-emption rights and ensure that your purchase complies with legal requirements, thus safeguarding your investment against unexpected legal hurdles and financial losses.

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The misuse of the "Usufruct Rights"

In Cameroon, especially for foreign investors, a subtle yet significant pitfall in the residential property market is the misunderstanding of "Usufruct Rights".

This legal concept, while common in many civil law countries, has specific nuances in the Cameroonian context that are crucial to understand.

Usufruct rights in Cameroon refer to the legal right to use and enjoy the benefits of a property owned by another person. This might arise in situations where a property is sold, but the original owner or a designated individual retains the right to use the property or receive income from it for a certain period or for their lifetime.

For example, in a transaction in a city like Yaoundé or a rural area, you might purchase a property not fully aware that someone else holds usufruct rights to it.

This could mean that even though you are the legal owner, you might not have full access to the property or its benefits until the usufruct rights expire or are relinquished.

When considering purchasing property in Cameroon, it's important to navigate the issue of "Usufruct Rights" with care. You'll need to conduct a detailed review of the property's title and any associated legal documents to identify if there are any existing usufruct rights.

Understanding the terms of the usufruct is crucial, including its duration and the specific rights and obligations of the usufructuary.

You must also consider the implications of these rights on your intended use of the property.

For example, if the usufructuary has the right to live on the property, this could affect your plans for residence or development. Therefore, seeking legal advice from a professional well-versed in Cameroonian property law is a wise step to ensure that you fully understand the impact of these rights on your property purchase.

This will help prevent any future conflicts or misunderstandings regarding the property's use and enjoyment.

The concept of "Indivision"

When purchasing residential property in Cameroon, a nuanced pitfall that often escapes the attention of foreign investors is the concept of "Indivision" after the death of a property owner.

This legal term refers to a situation where property is held in common by heirs or several owners, and no individual has an exclusive right to any portion of it until it has been officially divided.

In the Cameroonian context, where extended family structures and communal ties are prevalent, the death of a property owner can result in a complex web of heirs, each with an undivided share in the property. This can become particularly complicated if the property was not clearly bequeathed or if there are conflicting claims among potential heirs.

For a foreigner purchasing property, the risk is in acquiring real estate that may fall into indivision upon the owner's death, potentially leading to disputes or legal battles among the heirs that could affect your rights and interests.

Such disputes can be prolonged and may involve customary and statutory law, making them difficult to resolve.

When you're looking to purchase residential property in Cameroon, it's essential to be mindful of the legal complexities that may arise after the death of a property owner, a situation referred to as "indivision."

This concept implies shared ownership of the property by the heirs, which can lead to intricate disputes, especially within the extended family structures common in Cameroon. Before proceeding with a property purchase, a thorough investigation of the ownership history is needed to ensure that there are no outstanding inheritance disputes.

You must confirm that the seller has an uncontested right to sell, which is not mired by potential future claims from other heirs.

Acquiring title insurance or a guarantee from the seller might offer an additional layer of security against such claims.

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"Quartiers Precaires" or "Informal Settlements"

In the Cameroonian property market, another pitfall specific to the local context is the issue of "Informal Settlements," also known as "Quartiers Precaires."

These are areas where housing has been developed without official permission, often lacking proper urban planning and sometimes even basic services. While properties in these areas may be offered at attractive prices, they can pose significant legal and logistical challenges.

The issue is particularly acute in expanding urban areas like Douala and Yaoundé, where the pressure for housing has led to the rapid growth of such settlements.

As a foreign investor, you may not be fully aware of the informal status of these neighborhoods. Investing in property here could result in legal complications, as the land titles might be disputed or not recognized by the state.

Additionally, there might be future government plans for redevelopment or regularization that could affect property rights and values.

Before purchasing property, it's imperative to verify the official status of the land, ensure that the area is recognized by municipal authorities, and that any buildings comply with urban planning regulations. It's also wise to investigate any planned government actions that may impact the area.

Engaging a local legal advisor who specializes in property law can help navigate these issues, as they will have up-to-date knowledge of any regularization processes or disputes that could affect your investment.

"Immatriculation" and its risks

In Cameroon, particularly for those unfamiliar with local real estate nuances, a significant pitfall involves the complexities surrounding "Immatriculation," or the process of registering land and obtaining a land title.

Immatriculation is a critical step in securing ownership rights, but it can be fraught with bureaucratic hurdles.

The process of immatriculation in Cameroon is notorious for being lengthy and complex. It involves several stages of verification, paperwork, and dealings with various administrative offices.

For a foreigner, the risk lies in purchasing property that has not been properly immatriculated. Without a formal land title, the property might be subject to legal challenges, or you might find it difficult to prove ownership, secure a mortgage, or sell the property in the future.

Moreover, the lack of a formal land title increases vulnerability to "land grabbing," where unscrupulous individuals or entities might claim ownership of the land or contest the validity of your purchase, leading to potential legal disputes.

In the context of buying property in Cameroon, the immatriculation process, which refers to land registration and titling, is a critical factor in securing your investment.

It's essential to confirm that the property you're interested in is properly registered and has a valid land title.

Authenticating the land title through the appropriate governmental departments is a key step in verifying that you are purchasing a legally recognized property. If the property is not yet registered, be prepared to navigate the immatriculation process. This often involves intricate legal and bureaucratic steps, for which you might need the expertise of a legal professional who is familiar with the Cameroonian land registry system.

Additionally, it's important to consider the time and financial costs associated with registering the property.

These factors can impact your overall investment timeline and budget, and should be accounted for from the outset to avoid unexpected delays or expenses.

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