The house buying process in France is secure, but you still need to have your wits about you.
Use of Notaire
As a general rule, the legal process of buying a property in France is not a complicated affair and the vast majority of transactions are concluded to the satisfaction of both sides.
Instead of solicitors on either side, a neutral quasi-governmental official (notaire) normally acts for both parties and handles the legal formalities.
Although most notaries in France are both honest and competent, their role is more limited than that of a solicitor in the UK.
Like many officials in France they are also often more concerned with form than content, so may not be as pro-active as you would wish in dealing with the process. Sometimes, if you do not ask the question, you may not always get the answer!
Moreover, in France a sale 'subject to contract' does not exist;, once you have signed the sale agreement, the legal knot is tied! Indeed, even a verbal agreement creates a contract, albeit that the absence of proof and certainty makes it difficult to enforce.
There is no additional charge in using your own notaire (unless you have specific, specialist requirements), although it may prolong the process.
Whether or not you use professional advisors, you need to make some basic pre-contract enquiries before you sign the contract.
- Question the vendor at length about the boundaries of the property, the services, taxes payable, and any rights of way.
- Meet the neighbours to find out what they are like and what they know.
- Visit the local village or town hall and, if possible, speak to the mayor; ask about prospective new developments in the locality.
- Find a reputable local builder or surveyor to look over the property, or any aspect of it that concerns you.
- Check out the price of similar properties in the area to ensure you are not paying over the odds.
- Visit the local county highways and planning department (Departemental d’l’Equipement) to check on local planning, roads, and services.
Finally, become acquainted with French inheritance laws as you have less freedom of action than you may wish on disposal of your estate, although inheritance tax is not normally a problem.
Needless to say, in order to undertake all of these tasks a proficiency in French is highly desirable! You simply cannot expect to be on top of the process if you are unable to understand or converse in the French language, no matter what level of hand holding is offered by the notaire.
If you cannot speak French find someone who can translate for you.
Moreover, you also need to have the right attitude. It is too easy to be starry eyed about buying abroad. Unless you adopt a business-like approach do not be surprised if you later come to regret decisions you have made.
Signing the Contract
Once you have concluded all the pre-contract enquiries, you can then proceed to signing the sale contract.
Authorised estate agents in France have the legal authority to manage this part of the process, but you would be well advised to insist on having the contract procedures handled entirely by a notaire.
Not only is the notaire more independent, but they should also be able to advise you about aspects of inheritance law, ownership or marital structures that you may need to consider. You will also have the opportunity to discuss other issues that may concern you in a less pressured environment.
At this stage you will also have the possibility of including any conditions precedent in the sale contract. Some will automatically be included, such as matters concerning planning and land charges, but you can also add your own. Thus, if you had made application for a mortgage to fund the purchase, completion would be conditional on your application being successful.
The vendor is obliged to declare any major hidden problems (vices cachés) with the property and if not declared, the sale could later be annulled, or the sale price reduced.
They are also obliged to arrange for surveys for asbestos, termites and lead, amongst others.
However, neither the obligation to declare hidden defects or produce survey reports can replace a thorough survey of the property, and a proper understanding of the costs of repair or renovation work.
Once the contract is signed the purchaser has a 7-day ‘cooling-off’ period during which they are able to withdraw from the contract without penalty. There is no 'cooling-off' period for a building plot.
There then follows a period of two to three months when the notaire will carry out the usual searches concerning title to the property and enquiries of public service bodies.
There are a number of rights of first refusal that need to be considered. In the case of properties in urban areas the local mairie may have a right of pre-emption on the property. In the countryside the French agricultural land agency ‘SAFER’ also have a similar right concerning land being sold.
Tenants of the property, notably farmers who may be farming some or all of the land, also have pre-emption rights.
If matters proceed satisfactorily the notaire will invite you back to their office for signing of the conveyance (the acte de vente) when cleared funds for the balance of the purchase price, plus fees, will be required.
The notaire is legally obliged to ensure you have understood the salient points of the documentation.
The purchaser is responsible for notaire fees and government taxes, which average about 7% of the sale price for an older property. They are lower for new dwellings, but VAT on the purchase price is payable in these cases. Estate agents fees can either be paid by the vendor or purchaser so this point should be clarified at an early stage with the vendor.
You can read more in our comprehensive guide to Buying Property in France.