Buying a Property in France

The process of buying a property in France is very different from doing so in the UK. One of the biggest differences is that far fewer people in France use Estate Agents. (Agencies handle only about fifty percent of all property transactions in France). Many French people will advertise their homes and properties for sale privately, and/or register them with their local Notaire. (See 'Finding a Property' for further details on Notaires.)

The Notaire's Office The South Charente is still a very rural community, where many of the local residents have not moved very far in generations. This means that many desirable properties and plots of land for sale are known to the locals and the sales will go through via word of mouth, never having been advertised anywhere.
To have a chance of finding one of these, you will need someone in your corner with an established circle of contacts.

A lot of Brits come over to France with a romantic notion of renovating an old house (we certainly did) partly because the property is so cheap and partly because of the charm and character of older-style French architecture.

And whilst the relatively low cost of buying property in the Charente does make that dream a possibility, be prepared to do a lot of work in order to get your home up to scratch.

Something we’ve found surprising since starting our renovation project is just how run-down some buildings are allowed to become. Unfortunately this is fairly typical of a lot of old French properties.

This is partly because of laws governing the inheritance of houses.

When you buy a house, your children, if you have any, are automatically entitled to an equal share after you die. As a result of this, the responsibility of maintenance falls on everyone and no-one. French families are tending not to stay in the same home or in the same town as their families, as they once used to and so generations of homes are being left without any regular upkeep. Hence you may well be able to find a large house comparatively cheaply, but do be prepared to find it in a terrible state of disrepair.

Of course if you have the time and the money to afford to renovate your home to your tailor-made specifications, then you really can have the best of all worlds.

The more relaxed way of life, an affordable cost of living and of course the more reliable weather!

The Process of Buying

The Notaire

The Notaire is a state-appointed lawyer who oversees the entire house-buying process. More often than not he or she will act on behalf of the vendor and the buyer, but you are entitled to find your own Notaire and employ a UK-based legal adviser, specialising in French law, to advise and check the paperwork, should you wish.

We found the system of a single Notaire acting on behalf of both parties very efficient and it seemed to make a lot more sense. We were, at the time, selling our house back in England and in direct comparison, the English process seemed a lot more hassle than it needed to be.

One of the obvious advantages of the Notaire is that he is state-appointed with a fixed fee*, so there is no worry of running up huge legal costs. Also, as one person is dealing with the entire sale, there isn’t the risk of documents being forgotten and holding up the process, or papers needing to be signed at the last minute before agreements are finalised.
(In fact the Notaire is also collecting taxes on behalf of the state, so his charges are not really a fee to him)

The Notaire will officially only speak in French, and any legal documentation will also be written in French.

If you don’t feel confident enough to speak the language you may wish to pay for a translator, or use our Property Finding Service. (All this is included in the package)

If you are buying through a Notaire's list, the Notaire will accompany you on any viewings of your property, which are done by appointment only.

Our Notaire was very helpful and sympathetic to our needs as British buyers. Hopefully your Notaire will be equally forthcoming with any information you may need.

But be prepared to ask questions. That seems to be the advice that we have heard a lot when confronted with legal or official procedures. Generally people are more than willing to give you the information, provided you know the right questions to ask in the first place. Hopefully the information we give you here will go some way to answering them, but if you have any further enquiries, please contact us.

The Purchase

Once you’ve decided which house you want to buy and contacted your agent, sit down and work out how much it’s likely to cost, as in France it is the buyer who pays for all the fees.

Aside from the cost of the house, you will need to factor in the Notaire’s fees (usually around 6-8% of the net purchase price) as well as Agent’s fees, which can be anything between 4 and 15%. Usually the price displayed is inclusive of Agent’s fees, but look out for the letters FAI, to make sure.

If you are using an English agent, be sure to take their fees into account, as well as the price of any translators you may be expected to provide.

Seek advice when considering your offer, because unlike in England, a considerably lower offer than that advertised can cause great offence.

Ask to see the 'cadastres' - (plans of the property and lands) - before making an offer, so that you know exactly what it is you are buying. Often details in Estate Agents’ windows or at the Notaire’s office can be a little hazy.

Once you are happy about everything that you are buying, you will be asked to sign a 'compromis de vente', which is basically a first draft of the contract you are going to sign. It details information about the vendor, the buyer, what you are buying and for how much.

This is the stage where you are able to request to include any conditions of sale or withdrawal. These are called 'clauses suspensives'. For instance, a friend of ours is selling her house and the buyer has signed the compromis on the condition that the roof will not cost any more than 2000€ to repair. If it does, they will be able to retract from the sale without any forfeit.

You can include many reasonable conditions in the compromis, such as failure to acquire a mortgage, denial of planning permission or negative reports from pest investigators. If at any time these conditions are not met, you are not liable to pay for anything should you wish to withdraw.

In order to get your compromis, you will need:

Your passport(s)
Birth Certificate(s)
Marriage/Divorce papers,
if applicable
Details of your loan, if you have arranged to borrow money.

Depending on what needs to be included, it can take about 3-4 weeks for your compromis to arrive. Sometimes it can be done immediately.

Once both parties have signed the compromis, you have a 7 day ‘cooling off’ period, if you are the buyer. During this time you are able to withdraw from the deal without any forfeit.

Once the 7 day period has passed, you will be asked to pay your deposit - usually about 10% of the net purchase price. (It may be more convenient for you to hand your deposit cheque to the Notaire when you sign the compromis and he will hold onto it until the cooling off period expires.)
You will lose your deposit from this point should you decide to pull out.

After the deposits have been paid, the searches on the property can begin. These include boundary rights, termite and asbestos checks, energy rating and access rights. These are organised by the Notaire, who will appoint a state authorised company and will be paid for by the vendor. So will not cost you any more money.

Surveys are not usually carried out in France (and if you see some of the older buildings on the market, it is quite clear why!) but you can organise to have one if you wish.

(We know an English-speaking French Architect who will carry out a survey on your prospective property. In addition he can give you a fairly accurate assessment of how much it will cost to renovate based on his knowledge of local building costs.

For his contact details, simply contact us.)

You will have agreed a completion date with the Notaire, and it is important that your money reaches the Notaire’s holding account (he has no access to your money) in plenty of time. If you miss the date, you risk losing your house and your deposit.

After your money has cleared, you will be ready to sign the Acte de Vente (final contract). If you are the buyer, you can arrange to have someone with your power of attorney (PoA) present to sign in your place, but there is a clause in the contract that states the property is being sold as seen on the signing date, so another viewing (by you or your PoA) would be advisable on the day you sign.

The signing takes place at the Notaire’s office, and provided all is well and everybody’s happy, the process is complete and you are free to move in!