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Buying a home in France

Living and working in France

The complete guide to buying property in France

French Property Secrets

Process of buying a French property

In France the purchase of a French property is a regulated legal process. The laws relevant to the purchase of a French property, depend to some extent, on the type of property you buy. For example, a vineyard or farm is subject to different procedures and costs. Should the French property have more than 1 hectare the procedure is basically the same as detailed below, except that there might be intervention by the Société d'Amenagément Foncier et d'Establissement Rural (SAFER) which has an automatic right of pre-emption in order to preserve land which it feels should either continue or remain in agricultural use. SAFER rarely exercises this right, but the notaire (roughly the equivalent of a solicitor/lawyer) is under an obligation to notify the SAFER to give it the opportunity to object to the sale. Should SAFER object to the sale any agreement is null and void and you can recover the deposit paid on 'exchange'. On the assumption that you are buying a French property with 1 hectare (2.47 acres) of land or less then the procedure is as set out below.

Legal process for buying a French property

The legal side for buying a French property falls into two parts, the preliminary contract (Compromis de Vente or Sous-Seing Privé) and the completion contract (Acte de Vente).

Stage 1: Preliminary Contract (Compromis de Vente or Sous-Seing Privé)

Once a price has been agreed with the vendor both parties will sign a preliminary contract, which is legally binding for both vendor and purchaser. The preliminary contract is called a Sous-Seing Privé if it is prepared by a French estate agent, or a called a Compromis de Vente if it is prepared by the French notaire. The purchaser typically pays a deposit of 5% to 10% of the purchase price. This deposit remains 'blocked' in a special account at the notaire's office until such time as completion takes place or the purchase is aborted. At this stage the property is taken off the market.

Note: There are other kinds of less familiar contract such as the Promesse de Vente where the contract is not binding on both parties to the same extent as the Compromis de Vente. By signing it the vendors still commit themselves to selling the property to the purchasers, but this commitment takes the form of promising not to sell it to anyone else within a stated period, usually three months. A deposit of between 5% and 10% is again paid. There also exist other forms of preliminary contract such as the offre de vente, offre d'achat and an exchange de lettres - none of which are recommended in preference to the Compromis de Vente or the Promesse de Vente.

Surveys of the condition of the property you intend to purchase by professional surveyors or 'experts' are unusual in France. It is more usual to request local artisans to give an opinion as to the condition of say the roof, or the walls and for them to give quotations for the work. French buyers would be more likely to approach an architect or 'expert' but even then it is unusual for them to be asked to prepare a detailed report as has become 'de rigeur' in certain European countries. It is advisable to carry all this investigative work before signing the Compromis de Vente as once this agreement has been reached, it is legally binding on both parties.

Once the Compromis de Vente or Sous-Seing Privé has been signed there follows a period of generally 6 - 8 weeks in which the searches are carried out to ensure that the property is not subject to any imminent environmental changes and during which time the purchaser will be required to resolve the financing of the purchase. These searches and the other contractual matters are carried out by the notaire. The notaire is unlike most European Solicitors/Lawyers as they are not appointed to act for either party in the transaction but as a public official whose duty is to the State. The function of the notaire is to ensure that the transaction is carried out legally and accurately and in accordance with the proper processes and to give the transaction absolute validity that cannot be contested. Accordingly, it is unnecessary to appoint a second notaire to act for yourselves, although you may feel more 'comfortable' having your own notaire or perhaps European Lawyer to explain some of the points that arise which may be unclear as it unusual for notaire to volunteer advice.

If the purchaser intends to take out a mortgage then it is necessary for this to be declared at the time of the agreement and a substantive clause in the Compromis de Vente protects the purchaser's interests in the event that a mortgage is not made available. In this event, the sale does not proceed and the deposit is returned. In the event of the discovery of a 'planned nuisance' through the searches, the buyer can withdraw and the deposit is returned. Should, however, the purchaser break the contract, the deposit is paid to the vendor as an indemnity - conversely, should the vendor break the contract, the deposit is returned to the purchaser.

Stage 2: Final Contract (Acte de Vente)

At the end of the 6 - 8 week search period, which can be extended at the agreement of both parties, the final contract, the Acte de Vente is signed at the notaire's office and the property passes to the purchaser. The purchaser must pay the balance of the purchase price (purchase price minus the deposit) plus all fees to the notaire, who then pays the vendor. It should be noted that the balance must be in the notaire's possession before the Acte de Vente contract is signed. The Acte de Vente is the equivalent to the Deeds of the property. From the signing of the Acte de Vente contract the purchaser is responsible for the insurance of all the buildings on the property. It will also be necessary to provide to the notaire before completion a copy of your birth certificate translated into French and, if applicable, a copy of a Marriage Certificate also in French.

Early advice should be sought in order to understand fully the complexities of French succession law which does not allow you to leave your share of the property to whom you wish - even if you have an existing Will. There are ways of circumnavigating these laws but if you wish to leave this French property to your heirs or other people, then it will be necessary for you to take action before the purchase is completed.

Costs related to the purchase of a French property

The purchaser of a French property is always liable to pay the provisional fees and sometimes liable to also pay the negotiation fees.

Provisional fees for the act of buying (provision pour frais d'acte d'achat)

The purchaser pays the legal fees (between 3% - 4%) and transfer taxes (4.86%) which amount to approximately 8% of the purchase price, plus any geometrist's costs that might have been incurred such as establishing boundaries, repositioning boundaries and preparing plans for the Acte de Vente. These fees are paid to the notaire on the day of signature of the Acte de Vente and are paid as an 'all encompassing' sum together with the balance of the purchase price. These fees in French are called the "Provision pour frais d'acte d'achat", which means provisional fees for the act of buying. These provisional fees are documented in the initial contract and include an estimate to the registration taxes which get paid to the government.

Note: A few months after the property has been purchased and the sale of the french property has been lodged with the French government, and exact amount of registration tax will be calculated by the French tax authorities. Depending on the initial estimate (if it was over estimated or under estimated) will depend on whether the purchaser will receive or pay a small sum of money.

If you take out a French mortgage a further cost will be passed on to you by your notaire for registering the charge of the lender with the land registry.

Negotiation fees (honoraires des négociation)

The vendor usually pays the agency's commission fees, known in French as the honoraires des négociation (fees of negotiation). Under certain exceptional circumstances these negotiation fees are paid by the purchaser, but if this is the case this should be agreed in advance and included within the Mandat, the official instruction from the Vendor to the Agent, and made known to the purchaser at the outset. Typically, the purchaser will pay these negotiation fees with lower value properties (i.e. less than €50,000). These provisional fees are documented in the initial contract and are usually around 8% of the purchase price.

Example breakdown of costs related to buying a French property

The following table shows a typical total cost breakdown of purchasing a French property for €100,000.

  Cost if liable for agent fees Cost if not liable for agent fees
Purchase price 100000 100000
Purchase tax (4.89%) 4890 4890
Notaires fees (between 3% and 4%) 3500 3500
Geometrist's costs 200 200
Estate agency fee (8%) 0 8000
Total 116,590 108,590

Differences between buying new and old French properties

Due to the high demand for new French property, most purchasers buy properties "from spec" from French property developers. This means that the purchaser will buy new French properties from the plans, and select which property they want within a particular development. Typically, purchasers who buy a new property have to make regular installments during key stages of the property development (opposed to paying for the property when it is complete), and an initial deposit of 5% to 10%. The initial deposit and regular installments vary from one French property developer to the other. The notary fees associated with buying a new property in France is typically less (approximately 3% - 4%) than the notary fees associated with buying an old property in France (approximately 8%).

Note: If you have to make regular stage payments to the French property developer you should ensure that you receive bank guaranties for each payment. These bank guaranties protect you in the unlikely event that the French property developer has financial difficulties before the property is transferred to your name.

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