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Buying property in Gabon: scams and pitfalls

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

Gabon's natural beauty and economic stability make it an appealing destination for foreign investors in the real estate sector.

Navigating the property market in this area can be quite challenging, especially for non-local residents. There are various obstacles and unexpected problems that you might encounter if you're not cautious.

Both our customers who purchased properties there and our on-site local experts have reported a significant list of pitfalls. We've listed them all in our Gabon 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 Gabon?

The property market in Gabon is not as mature or as regulated as in Western countries, which means there are risks of non-standardized transactions and less protection for the buyer.

For example, the concept of a real estate agent as a regulated profession is not as established in Gabon as it is elsewhere. This means due diligence on agents and intermediaries becomes even more critical, as they might not be bound by a strict code of conduct or liable for misinformation.

Specifically, scams are a tangible risk in the Gabonese property market. There have been instances where buyers have been duped into purchasing land that is under dispute or does not have a clear title.

This is often due to a lack of a centralized or digitized land registry system that is common in more developed countries.

An illustration of this is when buyers discover post-purchase that the land they bought is either not zoned for residential use or is part of a protected area, which can lead to a legal quagmire and potential forfeiture of the property without compensation.

Foreigners are indeed allowed to purchase property in Gabon, but the process is peppered with bureaucratic red tape. For instance, all land purchases by foreigners must be approved by the Ministry of Housing, which can be a lengthy and opaque process.

The intricacies of local customs and language barriers can exacerbate this. Moreover, the legal system, while based on French civil law, can be sluggish and at times unpredictable. Foreigners have experienced frustration with court proceedings when disputes arise, as the courts can be slow, and outcomes are not always consistent.

Moreover, while the law provides a framework for property rights, enforcement can be inconsistent. Property boundaries are often poorly defined, and there can be conflicts over land ownership due to traditional claims that are not documented in the modern legal system.

An effective measure would be to engage a reputable local surveyor familiar with the nuances of Gabon's land allocation practices, but even this is no absolute safeguard against potential disputes.

Transparency in the property buying process in Gabon is lacking when compared to many other countries.

For instance, there is not always a clear and standardized process for conducting title searches, which can lead to surprises after the purchase. Foreign buyers are strongly advised to seek local legal counsel who can navigate the complexities of Gabonese property law and ensure that all proper searches and checks are conducted.

The government's support and regulation of the real estate market can be seen as both a boon and a bane.

On the positive side, efforts to diversify the economy have led to the promotion of investment in property and infrastructure development.

However, these regulations can be fluid and subject to change without much notice, which can impact buyers unexpectedly. For example, changes in environmental laws have retrospectively affected property developments, leading to costly modifications or cessation of projects.

Foreign buyers have reported various challenges when purchasing property in Gabon, from encountering unexpected 'development fees' levied by local authorities to facing extended delays in obtaining building permits.

These issues often arise from a lack of understanding of local practices and insufficient due diligence.

A typical mistake is underestimating the importance of cultivating relationships with local officials, which can be pivotal in navigating administrative procedures in Gabon.

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Watch out for mistakes when buying property in Gabon

The concept of "droit de superficie"

When buying residential property in Gabon, a common pitfall you might not be aware of, especially as a foreigner, is overlooking the importance of verifying the legal status of the land or property in relation to the "droit de superficie."

This is a legal concept specific to Gabon and some other Francophone countries, referring to the right to use and develop land that you do not own.

In Gabon, it's not uncommon for properties, especially in urban areas like Libreville or Port-Gentil, to be developed on land that is not formally owned by the developer. Instead, they might have the droit de superficie, which allows them to use the land for a specific period.

This is a crucial detail you should check because the rights and protections offered under this system are different from outright ownership.

If you unknowingly purchase a property where the seller only has droit de superficie, you could face challenges in the future, particularly when the term of the droit de superficie expires.

This mistake can lead to complicated legal disputes or, in the worst case, loss of the property.

To avoid this pitfall, you are advised to conduct a thorough due diligence process. This should involve verifying the land or property's title and understanding the nature of any droit de superficie attached to it.

Consulting with a local lawyer familiar with Gabonese property law is highly recommended to navigate these specifics.

"Zonage" regulations risks

Another less known but significant pitfall when buying residential property in Gabon, especially as a foreigner, is the potential complication arising from "zonage" regulations.

In Gabon, like in many countries, certain areas are designated for specific purposes – residential, commercial, industrial, etc.

However, the enforcement and clarity of these zoning laws can be particularly challenging in Gabon.

For instance, you might find a property in a zone like Owendo or Akanda that seems ideal for residential purposes.

This could lead to issues such as increased traffic, noise, or even a directive to repurpose or vacate the property in the future to accommodate planned developments.

This issue might not be immediately evident, as zoning plans in Gabon are subject to change and are not always transparently communicated or easily accessible. It is crucial for you to inquire about the current and future zoning plans for any area you're considering purchasing property in.

This is especially important if you are not familiar with the local language or administrative procedures, as key information might not be readily available in other languages.

To navigate this, you should engage with a local real estate expert or a legal professional who understands the intricacies of Gabon's zoning laws and can access up-to-date information. They can help you understand the implications of zonage for your intended property and ensure that your investment is aligned with your long-term plans and the local regulations.

While this might seem like an extra step in the property buying process, it is a critical one to ensure that your investment in Gabonese real estate is secure and meets your expectations.

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"Terre Ancestrale" or ancestral land

In Gabon, a specific and often overlooked pitfall when buying residential property relates to the traditional communal land ownership system, known as "Terre Ancestrale" or ancestral land.

This system is deeply rooted in Gabon's culture and legal framework, particularly in rural and semi-urban areas.

When purchasing property in areas like Lambaréné or near smaller villages, you might encounter land that is considered Terre Ancestrale. This land is traditionally owned collectively by local communities or families, passed down through generations.

The complexity arises because such lands may not always have formal, legal titles as understood in Western property law. Instead, they are governed by customary laws and local agreements.

As a foreigner, if you're considering purchasing property that falls under this category, you should be extremely cautious.

The lack of formal documentation can lead to disputes over ownership, with multiple parties potentially claiming rights to the land. Furthermore, even if you successfully purchase the property, your ownership might be contested by family members or descendants of the original communal owners in the future.

To navigate this, you must conduct thorough due diligence.

This includes engaging with local community leaders, understanding the history of the land, and confirming the legitimacy of the seller's rights to transfer ownership. Consulting with a local lawyer who has expertise in Gabonese customary land law is crucial.

They can help you navigate the complexities of Terre Ancestrale and ensure your property rights are secure.

"Plan Cadastral" or cadastral plan

Another specific pitfall to be aware of when buying residential property in Gabon relates to the "Plan Cadastral," or cadastral plan, which is a detailed map showing the boundaries and dimensions of land parcels.

This issue arises because the cadastral plans might not always be updated regularly or accurately reflect the on-ground situation.

As a foreign buyer, it's crucial to verify the physical boundaries of the property against the official cadastral plan. This involves reviewing the documents and also conducting a physical inspection, ideally with a qualified surveyor. Obtaining the official Plan Cadastral from the relevant municipal office is a key step.

Additionally, hiring a reputable local surveyor to physically measure the property and compare it with the cadastral plan is important.

Given the bureaucratic nature of the process and potential language barriers, it's essential to engage with local professionals who can navigate the Gabonese administrative system.

Consulting with a local attorney who specializes in real estate can help you understand any discrepancies and how they might affect your property rights.

This step is particularly important in Gabon, where informal practices in property development and maintenance might lead to significant differences between official records and the actual situation on the ground.

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"Droits coutumiers" or customary rights

When buying residential property in Gabon, particularly as a foreigner, it's important to consider the potential impact of "droits coutumiers" or customary rights.

These traditional laws and practices are deeply ingrained in Gabonese culture, especially in areas outside the main cities like Libreville or Port-Gentil. Customary rights in Gabon can significantly influence property transactions. For instance, in some communities, particularly in rural or semi-urban areas, land may be governed more by local customs than formal legal processes.

This means that even if a property appears legally clear for purchase, there might still be customary claims or expectations from the local community not documented in formal legal terms.

Engaging deeply with the local community to understand any customary rights associated with the land is crucial.

Working with a local real estate agent or lawyer familiar with both the formal legal framework and the customary laws in the area is advisable.

Additionally, being respectful and considerate of local customs and practices is essential, which might involve adapting your plans for the property to accommodate these traditions.

"Taxe Foncière" or property tax

In Gabon, a specific and often subtle pitfall when buying residential property is related to the "Taxe Foncière" or property tax.

This tax, common in many countries, can have unique implications in Gabon, particularly for foreign buyers.

The Taxe Foncière in Gabon is calculated based on the value of the property and the land. However, the valuation methods used can be opaque and sometimes inconsistent, especially in less urbanized areas outside of major cities like Libreville or Port-Gentil. The value assessed for tax purposes may not always align with the market value or the price you paid for the property.

This discrepancy can lead to unexpected financial burdens in the form of higher or fluctuating property taxes.

Moreover, as a foreigner, it's crucial to be aware that property tax rates and assessments can change with little notice, influenced by changes in local policies or economic conditions. This unpredictability can make budgeting for ongoing property expenses challenging.

To manage this pitfall, it's advisable to conduct thorough research into the property tax situation of the area where you're buying.

Consulting with a local real estate expert or a tax consultant who understands the Gabonese property tax system can provide clarity on potential future tax obligations.

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They can also guide you on how often these assessments are updated and the usual discrepancies between market and assessed values.

The concept of "Permis d'Occupation"

When buying residential property in Gabon, especially in urban and developing areas like Libreville, Franceville, or Port-Gentil, a specific challenge is the need for a "Permis d'Occupation."

This occupancy permit is essential for legal recognition of your right to use and occupy land or property. For foreigners, obtaining this permit can be complex due to bureaucratic hurdles and potential language barriers.

The pitfall is assuming that owning or purchasing property automatically grants the right to occupy and use it.

Without a valid Permis d'Occupation, your rights to the property could be legally challenged, potentially leading to disputes or loss of property. It's important to ensure that the seller provides a valid Permis d'Occupation during the property transaction.

Additionally, engaging with local legal professionals who can guide you through the process of obtaining or verifying this permit is crucial.

"Servitudes" or easements

Another specific pitfall to be cautious of when buying residential property in Gabon involves understanding and dealing with "servitudes," or easements.

These are legal rights that allow others to use a portion of your property for specific purposes, and they can be particularly complex in Gabon due to a mix of formal and informal arrangements.

In Gabon, especially in areas undergoing rapid development or urbanization, servitudes might not be clearly documented or officially registered. For instance, you might purchase a property in a developing area of Libreville only to discover later that a local utility company has an undocumented easement to lay cables or pipes across your land.

Such situations can lead to unexpected restrictions on how you can use your property and might even necessitate modifications to your development plans.

To avoid such issues, it's crucial to conduct thorough due diligence on the property, inquire about any known servitudes, consult with neighbors and local community members, and work with a local real estate attorney.

This will help ensure you have full use of your property and avoid future legal disputes or limitations on your property rights.

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The risks related to the "Usufruit" rights

In Gabon, when buying residential property, a specific pitfall you might encounter is related to "Usufruit" rights, a concept in French civil law that is also applicable in Gabon.

Usufruit refers to the right to use and enjoy the benefits of someone else's property without owning it. It's common for properties, particularly those that are inherited, to be subject to usufruit rights.

For example, if you purchase a house in Libreville, you might discover that a family member of the previous owner has the right to live in or use the property under usufruit. This can be particularly complicated for a foreign buyer who may not be familiar with the nuances of Gabonese civil law.

Identifying any existing usufruit rights before finalizing a property purchase is crucial.

These rights are not always explicitly mentioned in the property sales documents and might require more in-depth investigation. You should thoroughly review the property's history to understand any inheritance or family agreements and consult with a local attorney experienced in Gabonese property law to check for any usufruit rights attached to the property.

Additionally, engaging with the seller and local authorities to ensure all necessary information is disclosed is important.

Being aware of and addressing usufruit rights is vital in Gabon, where family and inheritance laws often significantly influence property rights.

"Acte de Notoriété" and its risks

In Gabon, when buying residential property, a specific and important pitfall to consider is related to the "Acte de Notoriété," a legal document used to establish the heirs and rightful owners of a property, particularly in inheritance cases.

This is especially relevant in Gabon, where many properties are passed down through families.

The challenge occurs when the property you're interested in is part of an estate or has been inherited.

In such scenarios, the Acte de Notoriété should list all legal heirs, but there can be situations where not all heirs are identified, or there are unresolved disputes among heirs.

If you purchase a property under these conditions, you could find yourself embroiled in complex legal disputes over ownership, as unrecognized heirs may later emerge with claims to the property.

To navigate this issue, it's crucial to ensure that the Acte de Notoriété is complete and accurately reflects the current status of all potential heirs of the previous owner. You should also work with a local attorney who specializes in Gabonese inheritance law to thoroughly review the Acte de Notoriété.

Additionally, confirming that any disputes among heirs are fully resolved before you proceed with the purchase is vital.

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