How to Buy and Sell a House in France: Tips, Legal Information, Finding Property, French Terms; DOs and Don'ts
A Stressful Time
Buying and selling in a foreign country is bound to present its problems. Any buying and selling is stressful. When you have to take into account not only a different system but a different language, then it multiplies the stress.
This hub is designed for anyone contemplating doing such a thing in France, so that they may be aware of the procedure, the differences and any possible pitfalls. I hope it helps to make the whole experience go smoothly towards an enjoyable outcome, in order to make the most of a foreign holiday home (or maybe permanent home!) for as long as possible.
All of France to choose from!
Glossary of Terms
notaire: housing solicitor (addressed as 'Maître' meaning master)
immobilier: estate agent
diagnostics: energy & environmental ratings
compromis de vente: contract of intention to buy/sell
acte de vente: final contract of sale
mairie: town hall, seat of Mayor & his council, which exists in every community, which means in just about every village in France
Three Important Tips
Do your homework!
the areas in which you want to buy if you’re not already familiar with them,
the procedure involved, before you jump in feet first!
There is an excellent magazine called ‘Living France’ which gives advice on such subjects and has many articles of interest regarding the French way of life, the various regions, personal accounts of living there and much more.
Speak the Language!
If you’re not fluent in French, then find a friend who is, or find an ‘immobilier’ who can speak English, or employ a translator. You need to know the ins and outs of the French buying and selling system, the technical vocabulary involved and how the system differs from ours (for example, inheritance). I speak French fluently but it was quite stressful making sure that I understood everything correctly, translated it all for my partner and didn’t make mistakes! Fortunately it all went smoothly, there were no complications and our ‘notaire’ was excellent, explaining everything carefully. We did not have estate agent’s fees to pay.
Don’t make Hasty Decisions!
If you’re going to take the huge plunge of up-rooting and living permanently abroad, then do make sure that you won’t miss family and friends too much. It can be an ideal which doesn’t always live up to its expectations. Another factor to consider is health care and benefits. I’m not going into those aspects here but it’s important to think carefully about them.
Differences between France and England
A ‘notaire’ is the hugely respected law representative where house buying, selling and and any legal land or property matters are involved. He is addressed as 'Maître' rather than plain old 'Messieur'. He is a specialist in this field and does not deal with any other legal matters (e.g. divorce), whereas the title ‘solicitor’ in England refers to a legal representative who deals with a variety of matters though many do specialise in a particular field.
In France the buyer pays any estate agent involved and all notaire’s fees, whereas in England the vendor pays his/her own estate agent (if used) and both buyer and vendor pay their own solicitors. Indeed, in England, each party has to have its own solicitor to avoid conflict of interests. There is no conflict of interest in France, firstly because it is simply the buyer who pays, secondly because there are fixed rates for each part of the process, unlike in England where each solicitor can decide on his own fees (some of which I find to be outrageous!).
The only part of selling which the vendor pays for, is the ‘diagnostics’ for the house (see below).
Be aware of French inheritance laws. A property automatically goes to children, or if no children, to next of kin. A property can be divided between a remaining spouse and his/her children, between the children when both parents are deceased, or between other immediate family, in that order. It's important to make a clear will if you do not want this to happen and it can be difficult if there are any objections.
The inheritance law also means that properties sometimes have a garden which is somewhere down the road, or an allotment allocated miles away, or some clause which denotes legal access to someone else - beware! Make sure you know every legal detail about your property.
You will also be subject to capital gains tax when you sell the house. This is a percentage of the profit you make on your house sale. Should you have any improvements carried out on your house, do remember to keep authentic receipts of the work done (by accredited builders or other professionals) as these can be taken into account when calculating your profit. Capital gains tax now applies unless you have had your house for over 30 years.
Check your Structure!
Find your property -
By word of mouth:
We found ours via French friends who were connected with the family of the vendors, so we were lucky and did not have to deal via an estate agent, or ‘Immobilier’, thus avoiding extra fees.
By looking in local French papers or the windows of estate agents (Immobiliers) there:
This is a good place to start as it gives you a fair idea of the prices you can expect for the kind of property you want. You might find this cheaper than going through an English agent too!
By looking online:
There are many sites which have been set up for the English buyer (based in England or in France) but do look at their reviews as some are vastly better than others (even if they cost more). Find out about fees, whether these are dealt with separately or added to the buying price at the date of sale; in other words, what procedure that particular agent adopts. Dealing with an English agent might mean they use the percentage method as in England, so do clarify this at the start.
French estate agents’ fees are set fees depending on the final sale price of the house, rather than a percentage as it is in England. The French prices tend to be quite a bit higher, though I must say that our experience is that they are far more knowledgeable and professional. If you find an agent, the ideal is to have one who speaks both languages fluently.
There will be private sales online too. It is well worth a look at these as you will avoid estate agents’ fees by dealing direct. Don’t forget you’ll still have their solicitors fees regardless (see below). If you’re dealing directly with the vendors, you’ll also need good, fluent French.
Make sure you check the structure of the property you choose and if you have any reservations get someone reputable to look at it for you.
Choice of Contracts with an Agent
You have a choice of contracts with the ‘immobilier’;
a ‘Mandat Simple de Vente sans exclusivite’ which is a cheaper approach where you arrange the diagnostics but the immobilier does the rest, although other estate agents can be involved (no exclusivity).
a ‘Mandat de Vente’ which is a more expensive contract with a sole estate agent but they arrange everything for you, including the diagnostics (though you still pay for those).
Find your Notaire and the Process Begins
The French recommend using the same notaire as the vendor, which we did. It’s much easier than waiting for one to communicate with the other, like we have to do in England!
You will need to have set up a French bank account, at any high street bank. Without proof of this, you will not be able to enter into negotiations. We have found CIC to be good. The deposit and the fees will be paid from that account.
The price is set between you and the vendor, then is confirmed with the notaire. Make sure you know the exhange rate for pounds/euros as this can fluctuate quite a bit in these uncertain times and it will fix the price you agree upon.
You and the vendor each have 7 days to change your minds, then you sign the ‘compromis de vente’ which is in effect an agreement to sell/buy. Should you or the vendor decide to pull out after those 7 days, you pay a forfeit of 10% of the agreed price, unless the vendor's bank withdraws its agreement for a loan or mortgage, then it's not the vendor's fault.
All the legal searches (verification of ownership, verification of land and boundaries, etc.) are done by the notaire. Diagnostics have to be done by a separate private agent, a ‘Diagnostic Immobilier’. They deal with figures for the equivalent of the Energy Efficiency Ratings and Environmental Impact Ratings done in England. It also covers a search for asbestos and any lead. The vendor has to pay for the diagnostics separately but that is his only outlay.
The date of exchange and moving is set. On that date you and the vendor sign the ‘acte de vente’ at the notaire’s office and you are given the keys!
If you’re lucky, you will share a glass of champagne with the vendor to seal the deal and toast the house or as the French say, ‘aroser la maison’, literally meaning to ‘water the house’ and wish each other ‘bonne chance!’ As our house had no heating at the time and no furniture on which to sit, we had our champagne in our warm camper van, outside the property, with a few biscuits; maybe not ideal but it was convivial all the same.
Subsequent Difficulties or Queries
If you have any issues when you move in, such as rubbish not being cleared by the previous owner, contact the ‘notaire’ and it will be dealt with. The vendor is legally obliged to clear out anything which is not being left by agreement.
Other issues can be dealt with by the ‘mairie’. We had a discrepancy with the number of the house. The vendor thought it was no.6 but it wasn’t. The neighbour whose house was part of the original sole dwelling, therefore now semi-detached to ours is no.4. We decided to go down to the ‘mairie’ (town hall) to see if we could sort it out with the mayor, thinking that it would take days or maybe weeks. The mayor looked at the ‘plan cadastre’ (diagram of our land and boundaries), asked us if we minded being 4 bis (4B) and it was agreed and noted on the spot! We notified the notaire, he changed the deeds accordingly and that was it. France is known for lots of red tape but when you deal with the local town hall, there are many issues they have jurisdiction over, so it can be sorted out quickly.
Another case in point was the rubbish bin which should have been on the property; there wasn’t one. We asked at the ‘mairie’ what we should do about it, they made a note, said it would be dealt with and the next day we had the required bins (general + two recycling) on the doorstep! How’s that for service?
It is usually the case that you’ll use the local notaire, often the one who dealt with your purchase. The advantage there is that he will know the area, usually know the house itself as well as the council at the local mairie.
Of course, you go through the same procedure as above, except that this time you’re not paying for any agent involved and you’re not paying the notaire, it’s the turn of your buyer! What you do have to pay for is the diagnostics for the house as this is done by the private agent, as mentioned above.
When we started the process of selling, we found an ‘immobilier’ run by a lady who speaks excellent English; this has its advantages as an agent is far more conversant with the system, the specific vocabulary and the transactions. Although my French is fluent, it’s still quite hard to translate everything for my partner, so the fact that he could talk directly to her, ask questions and so on, took some the stress away from me; I didn’t have to worry that I might not have understood every technical in and out!
However, they weren't as good as it seemed, did very little to promote the property and 18 months later we ended up with a private buyer who lived just down the road! They are a local young couple with a toddler who will bring the building up to date and make it a proper home again, year in, year out; just what the house needs. The sale went through in October 2013 and we keep in touch and watch their progress!
If your transaction is with an English buyer, then you can deal in pounds sterling; if you are selling to a Frenchman, then you will be paid in euros. Make sure you know the exchange rate at the time you agree the price - that will be the amount paid.
When you gotta go ........!
The above is what we have learnt through our own experience, as well as research regarding the general procedure.
We bought in 2003 and sold in 2013, passing the job of completing the modernisation to someone else. Age and health take their toll and sadly one has to accept the limitations and move on (literally!).
We hope the new owners enjoy the place with its wonderful garden, wildlife and neighbours, as much as we have. Our last trip was a little sad but we have so many photos and memories to look back on. We've returned but only as visitors, albeit welcome ones; life moves on. Ah well......
© 2012 Ann Carr