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Buying property in Senegal: scams and pitfalls

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

Senegal's growth prospects and cultural richness are attracting more foreign buyers to its real estate market.

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

Our community of property buyers and local collaborators have communicated several issues to us. We've listed them all in our Senegal Property Pack.

This article will give you a quick overview of some of the potential pitfalls you could face.

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

Scams are perhaps not as prolific as in some other regions, but they do exist and can be sophisticated.

For example, there have been documented cases in Dakar where individuals have fallen prey to fraudulent schemes involving the sale of non-existent properties. This often occurs in the form of "ghost" listings, where a property is advertised, but the supposed seller has no legal claim to it.

Land ownership can be problematic, with the issue of property rights in rural areas being particularly complex due to customary law conflicting with formal law.

There have been cases in the Casamance region where ancestral land rights have led to disputes after property transactions.

Foreigners may find themselves navigating a landscape of ‘informal charges’ that are not documented within the legal framework. This ‘flexibility’ in the informal sector can result in foreigners paying more than local buyers for the same property.

Additionally, there is the challenge of "tontine" land holdings, a form of communal ownership that is often not well understood by outsiders and can lead to legal complications.

One costly error could be failing to ensure that a property is free from encumbrances.

For example, buyers might overlook a situation where a property in a development zone is subject to expropriation without compensation, as was the case in the past with certain developments around the new Blaise Diagne International Airport.

Senegal's legal system is based on French civil law, which does provide a structure for property rights and transactions. However, the reality on the ground is that the enforcement of these laws can be inconsistent.

Protection exists on paper, but the wheels of justice can turn slowly.

Compared to countries with more mature property markets, such as those in North America and Western Europe, Senegal's market lacks transparency. There is no equivalent to the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) found in the United States, and property records are not always digitized or easily accessible.

Dispute resolution in Senegal can be exceedingly slow. The judicial system is often bogged down with a backlog of cases.

A specific example would be the land dispute resolution mechanism, which, while legally structured, is known to be arduous and, at times, inefficient due to bureaucratic red tape.

Foreign buyers should verify all documents with the Cadastre and the land registry, conduct a thorough title search, and ensure that the 'Notaire'—a government-appointed lawyer handling property transactions—conducts all necessary checks.

An additional layer of complexity is added by the fact that some land may not be formally registered, a situation that is more common outside of urban centers.

The Senegalese government, aiming to attract foreign investment, has implemented policies such as tax breaks for developers and a somewhat streamlined process for property purchase by foreigners. However, the implementation can vary, with some initiatives, like the Special Investment Zones, facing criticisms for slow execution.

One prominent issue is the difference in perception of what constitutes ‘developed land.’

There have been reports where foreign buyers purchased land thinking it was ready for construction, only to find that local definitions include plots lacking essential services like electricity, water, and road access.

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Potential real estate buying mistakes in Senegal

"Titre foncier" or land title

One mistake you should be particularly aware of when buying residential property in Senegal is overlooking the importance of verifying the "titre foncier" or land title.

This is a unique aspect of property acquisition in Senegal and is crucial for ensuring the legality and legitimacy of the property you are purchasing.

In Senegal, a titre foncier is a definitive and incontestable title of ownership. However, it's not uncommon for properties, especially in rural areas or outskirts of cities like Dakar, to be sold without a proper titre foncier.

Sometimes, sellers might present a "bail foncier" (leasehold title) or other documents as proof of ownership, but these do not provide the same level of security and legitimacy as a titre foncier.

The context in which this mistake often occurs is in transactions where the buyer is not fully aware of the local property laws or relies heavily on verbal assurances from the seller or local intermediaries.

It's a significant issue because purchasing a property without a valid titre foncier can lead to legal disputes, potential loss of the property, and financial losses.

You should ensure that the property you're interested in has a valid titre foncier, which should be verified through proper channels like a notary or a legal advisor familiar with Senegalese property laws.

This step is particularly important if you're a foreigner, as navigating these legal waters can be more challenging without in-depth knowledge of local practices and language.

"Droit de Préemption Urbain" or urban preemptive right

Another specific pitfall in buying residential property in Senegal is not fully understanding the implications of the "Droit de Préemption Urbain" (Urban Preemptive Right).

This is a legal provision unique to Senegal that allows local municipalities to have the first right to purchase property in certain urban areas before it can be sold to others. This mistake typically occurs when buying property in urban areas, especially in cities like Dakar.

If you're not aware of this, you might proceed with a purchase only to find out that the local municipality has the right to buy the property at the agreed price, which can disrupt your plans.

To avoid this, you should consult with a local real estate expert or legal advisor who can inform you whether the Droit de Préemption Urbain applies to the property you're interested in.

This step is essential, particularly in rapidly developing urban areas.

The frequency of this issue may not be high, but its impact can be significant, making it crucial to address in your due diligence process.

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"Accords Locaux" or local community agreements

A less obvious but important pitfall when buying residential property in Senegal, especially for foreigners, is underestimating the significance of local community agreements or "Accords Locaux."

In Senegal, especially in rural areas or smaller communities, there are often unwritten, traditional agreements or understandings regarding land use and ownership that are not formally documented.

This issue typically arises when purchasing land or property in areas where local customs and agreements heavily influence property rights. These local accords might dictate specific land use, boundary agreements, or even rights of way, which are not necessarily recorded in formal legal documents or recognized in the official property registration process.

To navigate this, you should engage deeply with the local community and possibly seek the assistance of a local liaison or a community leader who understands these accords.

They can provide invaluable insights into any existing local agreements that might affect your use and enjoyment of the property.

It’s important to recognize that these local accords can be as binding and impactful as formal legal agreements, especially in maintaining harmonious relations with your neighbors and the local community.

While this issue may not be widespread in urban areas like Dakar, it's more prevalent in rural or less developed regions.

The risks related to "Délégation de Paiement"

In Senegal, a specific pitfall to be aware of when buying residential property is the potential issue with "Délégation de Paiement" in property transactions.

This is particularly relevant in scenarios involving new construction projects or developments.

"Délégation de Paiement" is a practice where the buyer of a property agrees to take over the seller's debt obligations related to the property. This is common in Senegal when purchasing properties under construction or in new developments.

The buyer essentially agrees to pay the developer's remaining obligations to construction companies or other third parties as part of the property purchase deal.

Moreover, the pitfall here is that you, as the buyer, might unknowingly take on more financial liability than anticipated.

This can happen if the exact amount of the seller's debt or the terms of these debts are not clearly defined or disclosed. This situation typically occurs in fast-developing areas, like certain parts of Dakar or new suburban developments, where new construction is booming.

The issue arises more frequently in transactions involving less established developers or when buying directly from a property owner who has commissioned construction work.

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"Zone d'Urbanisme Prioritaire" or priority urban planning zones

A specific and often overlooked pitfall in buying residential property in Senegal relates to the "Zone d'Urbanisme Prioritaire" (ZUP) or Priority Urban Planning Zones.

These are specific areas designated by the Senegalese government for urban development and restructuring.

When buying property, especially in or near major cities like Dakar, you may encounter properties located within a ZUP. The key issue here is that properties in these zones can be subject to specific regulations and future urban planning projects that might not align with your intended use of the property.

For example, there might be restrictions on certain types of construction, limitations on building heights, or even plans for future road expansions that could impact your property.

The pitfall is particularly relevant if you're planning to develop or significantly alter the property.

Not being aware of the ZUP status and associated regulations can lead to unexpected complications, legal challenges, or financial losses due to project alterations required to comply with urban planning laws.

This situation arises more frequently in rapidly developing and urbanizing areas of Senegal.

"Vente en l'État Futur d'Achèvement" or VEFA

Another specific and significant pitfall when buying residential property in Senegal is related to the "Vente en l'État Futur d'Achèvement" (VEFA), or sale in the future state of completion.

This is a real estate transaction where you purchase a property that is yet to be constructed or is under construction. The unique challenge in Senegal with VEFA transactions is the risk associated with developer reliability and project completion.

In some cases, developers in Senegal may begin selling properties before obtaining all the necessary permits or securing the full financing required to complete the project.

This can lead to situations where the construction is delayed indefinitely, or the project never reaches completion, putting your investment at risk.

Moreover, this pitfall often occurs in burgeoning areas around cities like Dakar, where new development projects are frequently launched.

The issue is more prevalent with less established developers or in cases where the regulatory oversight is weaker.

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"Taxe Foncière" or property tax

A unique and often unexpected pitfall when purchasing residential property in Senegal involves the "Taxe Foncière," or property tax.

While property taxes are common worldwide, in Senegal, the calculation and assessment of this tax can be particularly complex and sometimes inconsistent, leading to unexpected costs for new property owners.

The Taxe Foncière in Senegal is calculated based on the property's value, but the assessment process can be opaque and subject to local variations.

The pitfall arises when buyers, especially those unfamiliar with the Senegalese system, assume a certain tax rate based on the purchase price or perceived property value, only to find later that the actual tax assessed is significantly higher.

This issue is most prevalent in urban and rapidly developing areas, such as Dakar and its suburbs, where property values are higher and more variable.

Inconsistency in tax assessment can result in a significant financial burden that you may not have anticipated when budgeting for the property purchase.

The concept of "Indivision"

A particularly nuanced pitfall in buying residential property in Senegal is related to the concept of "Indivision," which refers to a property jointly owned by several people without a divided share for each owner.

This situation often arises in properties inherited by multiple family members.

The challenge with properties in Indivision is that any major decision regarding the property, including its sale, requires the agreement of all co-owners.

As a buyer, you might reach an agreement with one or some of the co-owners, unaware that other co-owners have not consented to the sale. This can lead to complex legal disputes or even nullification of the sale.

This issue is particularly common in properties that have been in families for generations, where the original owner's descendants have inherited undivided interests in the property.

It's more prevalent in rural areas or in traditional communities but can also occur in urban settings.

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"Servitude de Passage" or right of way issues

Another specific pitfall in buying residential property in Senegal is related to the "Servitude de Passage" or right of way issues.

This is particularly relevant in areas where properties are closely clustered or in older neighborhoods.

The concept of "Servitude de Passage" refers to a legal right that allows one property owner to pass through another's property for access, often because their property is not directly accessible from a public road.

In Senegal, these rights of way may not always be formally documented or clearly defined, leading to potential disputes or restrictions on your property access after purchase. This issue arises more frequently in densely populated areas or in historic districts, where property layouts and access paths were established informally over time.

It's also a concern in rural areas where formal property boundaries may not be clearly demarcated.

Before purchasing a property in Senegal, especially in these types of areas, you should investigate any existing servitude de passage agreements or potential access issues. This might involve discussing with neighbors or reviewing any available property records.

It's important to have a clear understanding of how access to your property is secured and if any other properties have access rights that pass through it.

"Plans Parcellaires" or cadastral maps

In Senegal, another specific pitfall to be aware of when buying residential property is the challenge related to "Plans Parcellaires" or cadastral (land registry) maps.

The issue here is the accuracy and update status of these maps, which are essential for confirming property boundaries and ownership details.

In some cases, the Plans Parcellaires in Senegal may not be fully updated or accurately reflect the current state of land divisions and property boundaries. This can lead to disputes over property lines, or you might find that the actual size or dimensions of the property differ from what was represented at the time of sale.

This issue is particularly prevalent in rapidly developing areas or in regions where land registry systems are not robustly maintained.

It can also arise in rural areas where property boundaries have historically been more informally managed.

As a potential property buyer, you should take steps to verify the property's boundaries and dimensions against the latest available cadastral maps.

This might involve consulting with a local land surveyor or a real estate lawyer who can help you access and interpret the most recent Plans Parcellaires.

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