Buying Property in France
Buying a house in France is a very well-regulated process; however, there are some points worth noting.
Tips for buying a house in France:
The process becomes legally binding quickly, so don't rush into signing anything too fast.
You should also bear in mind that the associated fees with buying a house (agent's and lawyer's fees and stamp duty) are high. For a second-hand property one can usually add on approximately another estimated 15% of the asking price.
There are no surveyors in France. Therefore homebuyers' surveys are not normally carried out. If you are concerned about this, you can find English speaking surveyors working in France through the Internet, or you can ask the agent to give you details of a local builder who should be able to give an estimate of how much renovations are likely to cost. Unfortunately though, many English speakers are not familiar with French architecture and building methods and thus are not the best options to survey a property.
Lastly, don’t expect state-of-the-art appliances, floor layouts, or conveniences. Part of the charm of old buildings is that they are old, and that includes the kitchens and plumbing.
How and where to buy
Obviously, where to buy is a personal choice. It is interesting to note that many French buy primarily for investment purposes in the cities; they then opt to rent in the metropolis themselves while owning another property in the village where their family comes from. It is here that they tend to spend most of their holidays.
If you are abroad and wish to begin your search, you can either look on the Internet yourself and/or appoint an agent. Alternatively you can find an intermediary company who will liaise between you and several estate agents. One advantage of using an agent is that they speak English and can lead you through each step.
As foreigners in or close to France, one buys through a notaire (lawyer) or estate agent (make sure they are member of a professional body such as FNAIM, SNPI or UNPI). It is quite usual in France that a family will ask their lawyer to sell a property for them. However, the properties presented to you will usually be properties aimed at foreigners, i.e. relatively more expensive.
Buying in Paris and other cities
Buying a property in Paris or another city is somewhat different to the rest of France. Walk the streets to find an area you like, then hunt down some agencies that look promising. You can also check out the listings and estate agents in various magazines, newspapers, and on the Internet. There is relatively little new construction in Paris, and you will most likely be looking to purchase an apartment rather than a formal house. Those apartment complexes that are being developed are usually sold when ground is first broken; in other words, you buy an apartment before it is built.
Listings are posted as À Louer (For Rent) and À Vendre (To Buy). They will also tell you what arrondissement the property is in. Perhaps most importantly, they will give you the size in square meters and the number of rooms. Most apartments in Paris are small. Studios are 100-200 square feet, some smaller. Three-bedroom apartments are frequently under 1,000 square feet.
If you are American, bear in mind that the French follow the European convention of counting the first floor as the ground floor (Rez-de-Chauseé or RdC); the second floor in American terminology is the first floor in Europe. Generally speaking, the higher the floor, the more expensive the property.
More often than not, an apartment is sold with an empty kitchen - four walls and a water outlet. There are stores that will help you design and install your own kitchen, ranging from pre-fabricated cabinets at IKEA to a kitchen created by cuisinistes. It’s worthwhile to get at least three estimates and to collect references from friends, colleagues and acquaintances.
It is also important to decide whether or not you will have a car. Parking in Paris is difficult; having a parking place can greatly increase the resale value of your place.
New versus old property in France
Location is, of course, the main determinant of the price of property around the world. A seafront property or one in a fashionable area will always attract a premium price. However, an interesting point for the expat to note is that older houses are generally LESS expensive the newly built in France – the opposite of the UK!
Buying land in France
French land prices are generally quite expensive, and in agricultural or wine-growing regions, very expensive. I have seen ruins with land advertised for less than just a plot of land by itself. Buying land can often be more tricky than buying a house, as the French tend to be very attached to their land and sometimes there are rights of way and other precedents pertaining to the use of land which have never been recorded, but which are legally binding nevertheless.
Prices of property in France
If you have any contacts in France, it is worth using the word of mouth network to initiate your house hunting. In France there is a local market which is quite separate to the formal market. Many local properties, especially in the countryside, are not advertised in any other way than having a home-made sign nailed to a fence. Only 30% of property sales occur with the help of agents, the rest are direct between buyer and seller!
The prices are also lower when French people deal with each other, as they still believe the “L’Anglais” always have plenty of spare cash.
There is a website which gives you a rough idea of what both house and land prices are in the different departments at French-Property.com.
Another useful website giving an overview of what is happening in the French property market is www.france-property-and-information.com
"A couple of years after we bought our house, we got merry with our neighbours one night who revealed the fact that the owners of our house, which we were very proud of having bought at a bargain price, had offered them our house at half the price that we paid for it. They refused, thinking it too expensive! We were quite taken aback at the time, but have since learned that not being French, we would never have been offered that price. C'est la vie."
Making the purchase
By law, the notaire (lawyer) is the only person permitted to handle conveyancing in France. Unlike the UK, the lawyer does not represent any one party's interest, he is merely engaged to ensure that the transaction is carried out in the correct legal manner. Therefore, it is quite common that the same notaire handles both the vendor's and the buyer's transaction. He gets a fee, usually between two and eight percent of the property price.
If you feel uncomfortable with this, you can appoint your own notaire (the agent normally has a few they can recommend) and this won't cost you any more, as the fee is split between the two.
If you wish to receive independent legal advice, you should appoint a lawyer with conveyancing expertise in France in your own country, who will act solely in your interest; though many find that other than supplying a peace of mind, this extra expense is really not worthwhile.
Making an offer – Compromis de Vente
When you have found a property and are interested in making an offer, ask to see the plans of the property and its land. These are held by the local mairie or prefecture and are known as the plan cadastres. You can check that there are no plans to build close to you. If you are buying land you can determine the exact boundaries, which are often visually unclear.
Once you have made a verbal offer and the estate agent and the vendor have accepted, a preliminary contract known as the Compromis de Vente is drawn up. Although it is the preliminary contract, it is legally binding and therefore you should ensure that you understand it and that all verbal agreements are included in writing. The contract contains the following:
Personal details of buyer and seller
A description of the property
The date by which completion must take place
Clauses suspensives (see below)
The deposit, stamp duty and registration fees are paid at this point. The usual amount for a deposit is 10%, but you may be able to negotiate less.
If you are buying a flat, you automatically become a co-owner of the building and you will have rights and responsibilities pertaining to the upkeep of the building and regulations as stipulated by the owners, pertaining to for example, the erection of satellite antenna, cable tv per flat or for the whole house, etc. Make sure you have read it before signing, as the only hope of changing these rules is if you can persuade the majority of the co-owners to amend them at the next meeting.
There may be certain conditions which are important to you, and that you wish to have fulfilled prior to purchase. For example, you may want the additional land adjacent to the house; or, you may require a mortgage that is dependent on a tentative job offer. These conditions can be made part of the contract, so that if it doesn't happen, you are released from your commitment to buy the house and will receive your refund back.
It is important that all major conditions are put in as clauses suspensives, so that you are not liable to pay the penalty if the purchase is not completed. The loss of the deposit is the penalty for the buyers if they do not complete the sale. If the seller does not complete, he must normally refund the deposit and pay the same amount again to the buyer as a penalty. In this way, the deposit protects both the buyer and the seller from the other party backing out of the contract.
Once you have both signed the compromis, you have a seven day cooling-off period. During this time, you can withdraw from the sale without incurring a penalty, but the seller cannot.
Once the cooling-off period is over, the contract becomes binding for both parties.
Reports and Searches
Now the notaire begins the process of the searches on the property, including land registry rights to ownership, boundaries and rights of way. However, in France the searches do not include investigating private planning applications, so you should ask to see the plans of the area. These are held by the local mairie or prefecture and are known as the plan communale. You can check that there are no buildings planned that might prevent you enjoying your home in the way you had anticipated.
Lead, asbestos, termites, gas, electricity and energy reports are grouped together in a single report known as the Technical Diagnostic File (Dossier de Diagnostic Technique) or "DDT". The reports are all required by law and it is the responsibility of the vendor to ensure that up-to-date reports are attached to the compromis de vente. Termite reports are only necessary in some areas of France. Property vendors with swimming pools are obliged to commission a report on the safety features of the pool.
Acte de Vente and Taking Possession
It takes about 12 weeks before you sign the final Acte de Vente, also known as the Acte Authentique. Traditionally both buyer and seller were present to sign it, but you can arrange a power of attorney.
You, or your representative, should definitely see the property on the day that you are buying it, as the Acte de Vente has a clause saying ' sold as seen on signing date'!
One thing to note is that the French inheritance law supersedes the laws of your own country when it comes to French property. And the French inheritance laws are quite different from, say, the UK. Upon the death of the owner, the property is divided between spouse, parents, children and siblings! And if you are not married and your name is not on the deeds, you will find it very difficult to assert your rights in regards to the property, even if you have paid for part of it. There are ways you can get around it, but these clauses need to be incorporated into this final contract.
The final payment now needs to be made to the notaire's account, you cannot take possession before then.
The vendor is supposed to disclose any major problems with any parts of the property, such as problems with the pool, a particular wall is unsound, etc. If after your purchase you do come across a major flaw in your property which the vendor did not disclose but must have known about, you do have protection under the law, as these are hidden defects or vice caches, not allowed under French law.
You may wish to read in more detail about buying a property in France. A number of books have been written on the subject, here's a few that friends tell me are useful:
France: The Owner's Manual. This is a house-hunting guide for before you go. It contains more than 140 pages of maps, property listings, details on cost of living, healthcare, banking, residency requirements, plus contacts for buying, renting, renovating, and starting a business
Buying a House in France, David Hampshire
The Grown-Up's Guide to Living in France, Rosanne Knorr
Remember, this is not a comprehensive guide, and expats should take appropriate professional advice before embarking on this adventure!