Buying a house in France is a very well-regulated exercise. However, there are some points worth noting before beginning the process.
Tips for buying a house in France
The process becomes legally binding quickly, so expats shouldn't rush into signing anything
Bear in mind that the fees associated with buying a house are high. These can include agent's fees, lawyer's fees and even stamp duty. For a second-hand property, one can usually add on an estimated 15 percent of the asking price for these hidden costs.
Homebuyers' surveys are not normally carried out. Expats who are concerned about this can usually find English-speaking surveyors working in France through the internet. Unfortunately, many English speakers are not familiar with French architecture and building methods and are not always the best options to survey a property.
Expats should not expect state-of-the-art appliances, floor layouts, or conveniences. Part of the charm of traditional French buildings is their age, and this generally applies to the kitchens and plumbing as well.
How and where to buy property in France
Expats who wish to begin their property search in France from abroad will be able to either appoint an agent or research accommodation options on the internet. One advantage of using an agent is that they can often speak both English and French, and will be able to guide expats through each step of the process.
Foreigners already in France will be able to purchase property through a notary or an estate agent. It is recommended that expats check that all intermediary agents are members of a professional body such as FNAIM, SNPI or UNPI. Expats should also keep in mind that the properties presented to them will usually be properties aimed at foreigners, and may be relatively more expensive.
Buying property in Paris and other cities
Buying a property in Paris or another city is somewhat different from the rest of France. Expats should walk the streets to find an area they like, then hunt down some agencies that look promising. Listings and estate agents can be found in various magazines, newspapers and on the internet. There is relatively little new construction in Paris, and expats will most likely be looking to purchase an apartment rather than a formal house.
Listings are posted as À Louer (For Rent) and À Vendre (To Buy). They will also indicate which arrondissement the property is in. Perhaps most importantly, they will state the size in square meters and the number of rooms. Most apartments in Paris are small. Studios are 100 to 200 square feet, some smaller. Three-bedroom apartments are frequently under 1,000 square feet.
American expats in France should 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 would be 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. There are stores that will help design and install a customised 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 for expats to decide whether or not to purchase a car. Parking in Paris is difficult, and having a parking spot can greatly increase the resale value of a property.
Buying land in France
French land prices are generally quite expensive, particularly in agricultural or wine-growing regions. Buying land can often be more complicated than buying a house, as the French tend to be 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
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 homemade sign nailed to a fence. Only a small percentage of property sales in France occur with the help of agents and the rest are usually direct between buyer and seller.
Making the purchase
By law, the notaire is the only person permitted to handle conveyancing in France. The notaire does not represent any one party's interest and is merely engaged to ensure that the transaction is carried out in the correct legal manner. Therefore, it is common that the same notaire handles both the vendor's and the buyer's transactions for a fee that is usually between two and eight percent of the property price.
Making an offer – Compromis de Vente
Once an expat has found a property and is interested in making an offer, they should ask to see the plans for the property and its land. These are held by the local mairie or prefecture and are known as the plan cadastres.
Once a verbal offer has been made and accepted by the estate agent and the vendor a preliminary contract known as the Compromis de Vente is drawn up. Although it is only the preliminary contract, it is legally binding and therefore expats should ensure that all verbal agreements are included in writing. The contract usually contains the following:
The personal details of the buyer and seller
A description of the property
The date by which completion must take place
The deposit, stamp duty and registration fees are paid at this point. The usual amount expected for a deposit is 10 percent, but it may be possible to negotiate for less. When purchasing an apartment, buyers automatically become co-owners of the building and will have rights and responsibilities pertaining to its upkeep and regulations.
It is important that all major conditions for purchase are included in the Compromis de Vente as clauses suspensives to avoid penalties if the purchase is not completed. The loss of the deposit is usually the penalty for the buyers if they do not complete the sale. If the seller does not complete, they will 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 both the buyer and seller have signed the compromis there is a seven-day cooling-off period. During this time, the buyer can withdraw from the sale without incurring a penalty, but the seller cannot. Once the cooling-off period is over, the contract becomes legally binding for both parties.
Reports and searches
Once the cooling-off period expires, the notaire begins the process of the searches on the property. These include the land registry, rights to ownership, boundaries and rights of way. However, in France the searches do not include investigating private planning applications. As such, expats should always ask to see the plans of the greater area. These are held by the local mairie or prefecture and are known as the plan communale.
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 for 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 the final Acte de Vente is signed. Traditionally both buyer and seller are present to sign it, but expats who are not yet in the country can arrange a power of attorney. Before taking possession the final payment will need to be made to the notaire's account.
Finally, the vendor must disclose any major problems with any parts of the property, such as problems with the pool, if a particular wall is unsound, etc. If after the purchase a major flaw is found which the vendor did not disclose but must have known about, buyers do have protection as these are hidden defects or vice cachés, not allowed under French law.
*This is not a comprehensive guide, and expats should take appropriate professional advice before purchasing any property in a foreign country.