Property sales in France

A guide to buying property in France and the property sales process

A different sales system in France

Buying property in France is not the same as buying property in England... or Scotland, Ireland or Wales. Once you decide that you want to purchase a property in France it is important that you acquaint yourself with the property sales system, the cast of characters involved and their various functions, and if your French is not up to scratch, find a good translator as well (Learning French). Misunderstandings at this point can lose you a lot of money... but if you get it right, you can enjoy this exciting step towards a new life (be it full-time or part-time) in France.

Who is involved in the property sales process in France?

The people who are involved in the sales of property in France may be new to you, and they do not necessarily have a direct counterpart in the UK. Acquaint yourself with them below.

Property sales in France - the Immobilier

This is basically an estate agent, though he or she may function differently from estate agents in the UK. (French estate agents). It may be that you have chosen to buy your property in France and complete the sales process through an immobilier, and if this is the case, expect them to be keen to help you to move the sale along, as they stand to make a considerable amount of money when it all goes through! They may also jealously guard the contact with you, as the property could well be up for sale with several other agents.

Property sales in France - the Vendor

The owner of the property in France may, of course, be English, in which case you will have no problem asking your usual questions. But if, as is more likely, they are French, you may need to use a good translation service (Translation services). There is more onus on you to ask many of the necessary questions in French property sales, as there are no HIPS here yet, so make sure that you know the answers to essential questions such as how the septic tank (fosse septique) has been maintained (if there is one), has the house been subject to any flooding, etc. etc. ... (Septic tanks in France, Plumbing in France.)

Property sales in France - the Notaire

The Notaire does not have an exact equivalent in the UK, but he or she is an essential part of the sales process here in France. The conveyancing must be carried out by a Notaire. A Notaire is a representative of the government in that he or she works in their interests and has no bias to either buyer or seller. This fact notwithstanding, many British buyers prefer to instruct their own Notaire rather than to share the one used by the seller... strictly speaking there should be no need for this but there is no difficulty in so doing. If you do decide to have a second Notaire it probably won't cost you any more money, as the two Notaires will share the payment between them. It may be that you can find an English speaking Notaire, which certainly makes the whole process easier. The Notaire's job is to check that the land is registered and that the property does actually belong to the vendor, and that he or she is in a legal position to sell it. (There have been disputes over ownership of property and land in France due to French inheritance laws, so this is important.) It is usually the buyer who pays the fees of the Notaire/s.

Property sales in France - the Lawyer

The lawyer does not have an obligatory role to play in the property sales process in France, but you may be well advised to instruct one as there are some distinct gaps in the Notaire's brief that could be a source of problems in the future. A Notaire, for example, does not offer legal advice, and will not necessarily draw your attention to any drawbacks in the contract. An English speaking lawyer can save you lots of problems in the long run, although it may seem like an unnecessary expense at the time.

Property sales in France - the Financial Advisor

Here is another character to add to the list of those that are not strictly necessary in legal terms, but who may be of great help. There are many different ways of organising your finances when buying a property in France, and as French inheritance law is a minefield for the unwary, a good financial advisor can help you choose the safest options for your circumstances, guiding you through the complexities of tontine clauses and limited companies set up to avoid inheritance problems and excessive taxation. Worth considering, as it could save you a lot of worry, and be less expensive then a lawyer. (Savings and investments in France.)

Property sales in France - surveyors

There is actually no such thing as a surveyor as such in France, but the work of a surveyor can be done by an architect who is registered in the French system. (Surveyors in France). Many French believe that there is no benefit and certainly no need to have a structural survey or indeed, any sort of survey performed on a property before agreeing to buy, but there are distinct advantages in doing so. Many things that are picked up by routine surveys in the UK are missed or considered unimportant in France, the theory seeming to be that if it has stood for a hundred years or more it will probably continue to stand for another hundred! This is all well and good if you are happy to subscribe to this theory, but a survey could offer a little peace of mind as well as a bargaining tool if there are potentially expensive problems ahead.

Property sales in France - the experts

When you buy a property in France you will find that the seller has to obtain reports from "experts" on a couple of points. They have to check the property for signs of termites (pesky little creatures that eat the wood in your house and can cause untold destruction if left unchecked), lead and asbestos. If the vendor appears to be dragging his heels over these, try to hurry him up as you cannot sign the contracts until these reports are in. There is no point in the vendor doing this in advance of the sale, as the certificates have a limited lifespan and can only be done within a certain time-scale with regard to the sale. If these things are found to be present, it is up to you as to what arrangements you make with the vendor to eradicate them. An environmental report may also be required. All of these are done at the expense of the vendor, whose responsibility it is to organise them.

Property sales in France - the buying or sales process

The sales process of property in France is also different from the system you may have been used to in the UK.

1. The offer

Once you have seen a property that you wish to buy, you make an offer... either through your estate agent if you are using one or directly to the vendor. If the offer is accepted, a Lettre d'Intention d'Achat is signed by both parties. The price is agreed, and the amount for the deposit is set... this can be anywhere from 5-10% of the price. This document prevents the vendor from showing the house to other potential buyers or accepting another offer for 30 days, in which time a date for the exchange of contracts is set. If this does not happen within 30 days the letter is considered null and void and the house is considered back on the market.

2. The expert reports

It is at this point that the expert reports are called for, as detailed above.

3. Exchange of contracts - Compromis du Vente

This is when you need the Notaire. Both parties should, ideally, be present, but it is possible to do this at a distance if it's not possible due to the two parties living in different countries. When we bought our property there was a lot of frenzied faxing and emailing of documents, then posting back once signed... but it all worked out in the end! The only time that we actually had to attend the Notaire's office in person was when we did the documentation for the tontine clause, to afford protection against the extremes of French inheritance law. If there has been an estate agent concerned, then he or she will probably be present too. The deposit is paid at this point, held by the Notaire. The contract is read, and a date set for the completion. If the buyer wishes, he can include a suspensive clause, if, for instance, he needs a loan to buy the property. This means that if the loan falls through, the sale is null and void and the buyer can pull out without penalty. In the past, this clause has been abused, allowing potential buyers to pull out for other reasons, but the authorities are tightening up on this now, so if you are going to invoke this clause, do so honestly! Otherwise, in normal circumstances, the deposit is non returnable if the buyer decides to pull out after the initial seven day period is over.

4. Cooling off period

Once the contract has been signed by both parties, there is a seven day cooling off period. During this time, either party can pull out of the sale without penalty. If, at this point, you do decide to pull out, you must notify the Notaire by recorded letter.

5. Checking the property

The next step involves the Notaire completing all the normal checks on the property... ownership etc. If the property has more than 2,500 square metres of land, it must also at this time be offered to SAFER, the French version of DEFRA. This organisation has a pre-emptive right to buy land offered for sale... but unless the land in question is of particular agricultural value it is rare that they take up this right (Land for Sale in France). This part of the process takes around three months, but you can hurry it up if need be for the sum of around €50.

6. Completion- Acte du Vente

The final part of the sales process in France is the signing of the Acte de Vente. This should take place in the presence of all parties, unless not possible when Power of Attorney needs to be given to the Notaire. The balance of the money is now due, along with a portion of the Tax Foncières which is worked out on a pro-rata basis depending on the date of the signature. (Tax in France.)

And finally... the sales process is complete!

Congratulations! You have completed the sales process and are now a French property owner. This is the first day of the rest of your life.

Additional articles which may be of interest:

Buying a French Property - The Fees
Sarkozy and French property owners
Life in France
French legal services and solicitors for those with property - business or a life in France

About the author

Joanna Simm moved to the Languedoc area of south-west France in October 2004 having found her property through French Property Links.

your questions...

1. Some questions about buying a house in France (added 15/10/09)...

Hello - we have looked at a property in Dordogne region this weekend and being next to a lock, it is called a lock house or ecluse. There is a septic tank and well water supply with filtration system. We have asked the agent a full load of questions and are waiting answers. Your blogs on these are very informative. This house was supposedly built in 1850. How can we get historical documents on this? Can we also locate details of previous owners such as the sale price and work done installing systems? Would information on all installations such as septic tank, water filtration system, electricity be available to us? If we leave the house vacant all winter, must we do something to ensure the pipes dont freeze up and burst? Must we get a termite inspection certificate? Thanks for you help.

Our reply...

Thanks for contacting us. I have been in touch with my colleague Joanna who lives in France and she says the following:

"I would say for historical documents and details your best bet is either the Mairie or neighbours of this property who may know its history through families who have lived there... or maybe local notaires who can trace it back? There may be a society in the village who knows these things.

Their notaire should have some detail on the septic tank etc... all recent work should be disclosed as part of the sale agreement. A survey, paid for by the seller, should also be available to you which covers such issues as electrical and gas connections (do they meet current standards?) and even ecological efficiency - similar to HIPs over here.

Re: pipes in winter, most people I know either get someone to call in periodically and check things are ok, but if you don't have someone, it might be worth asking a local plumber for advice on how to prevent pipes freezing and bursting. Perhaps lagging them may help.

Yes, you must have a termite inspection, and also lead and asbestos inspection... but these inspections should be arranged by the seller of the property so you should be able to request the results of these inspections, without having to sort them out yourself."

I hope this information has been of use.

2. Some questions about purchasing property direct from the vendor (added 4/3/11)...

We are looking to buy a property in France and have found what looks to be an ideal property but it is for sale privately, direct with the vendor rather than through an agent. Can you advise who appoints the notaire in this instance and who draws up the initial contract and the final paperwork? Clearly there is a saving on the costs but as we are based in UK, our ability to manage on the ground is limited!

Our reply...

Thanks for contacting us. With regard to your query, I understand that notaires involved with property sales routinely act for both the seller and the buyer (ie: only one notaire involved). They act on behalf of the French government, and therefore do not represent either party and should remain completely impartial when sorting out the sale. Usually the seller appoints a notaire, so I would check with your seller to see if they have one lined up. The notaire would be the one drawing up contracts and sorting out the final paperwork.

Incidentally, you could also appoint your own notaire as well if you wanted, though there should be no need for this. If you did, this should not cost any more as both notaires would share the same fee.

I hope this information helps.

3. A question about a loan being agreed and finalising a sale (added 4/3/11)...

After the Exchange of Contracts or Compromis du Vente has been signed, the buyer is able to not go ahead with the sale if his loan is not agreed by the bank. If a cut-off date has been agreed re: his loan and his loan is agreed by the bank, is he obliged to sign on said cut-off date to finalise the sale??

Our reply...

Thanks for contacting us. I would think that the buyer would have to sign on the said cut-off date to finalise the sale, but as I am not an expert in these matters, I would suggest you contact a legal advisor to get accurate advice. You could perhaps use the following page from our site:

http://www.frenchpropertylinks.com/frenchlegalservices.htm

4. A question about pulling out of a house purchase (added 8/12/11)...

We are having a change of heart for purchasing a place in France, after giving a verbal offer which was accepted. We haven't received the compromis du vente for signing yet. How do we handle pulling out? Do we do it through the agent or the notaire?

Our reply...

Thanks for contacting us. I would think you could just instruct the estate agent that you no longer wish to proceed, as you have not yet reached the "Compromis du Vente" stage, though if you have details of the notaire who was due to handle your purchase, it might be courteous to let them know as well.

5. Another question about withdrawing from a house purchase (added 29/3/12)...

Just wondering, we are in end stage of buying a house in France and we have signed the compremi but never paid a 10% deposit. We have had a mortgage accepted. However our relationship is not working out and I was wondering if we can still get out the the contract? Would we have to pay any fine? So far no money has exchanged hands. Can you help or advise me? Thanking you in advance.

Our reply...

Thanks for contacting us. I would think it would depend on what you have signed, as to whether you will need to pay any money. I would suggest you contact the notaire to see what needs to be done, or contact a legal advisor for expert advice.

6. A question about buyers asking for last minute price reductions (added 30/10/12)...

We have a buyer for our property, they received the full diagnostic report prior to the 7-day cooling off period and proceeded with the purchase. We are now two weeks from final completiopn date and being put under pressure to make a price adjustment for electrical work that was clearly indicated in the Report. We are not happy with this situation and ask if the purchasers have any recourse other than pulling out of the sale and forfeiting their deposit.

Our reply...

Thanks for contacting us. I would think that they do not have any other recourse other than what you say, but as I obviously do not know any details of your property sale and am not an expert in these matters, I would suggest you get confirmation of this from your notaire, or contact a legal advisor.

7. A question about Notaires' fees (added 9/4/13)...

I am planning to buy a flat in the Alps area, about 130,000 Euro, age of building about 1970. Notaires are charging about 10000 Euros. Is that the right fee for that sort of property?

Our reply...

Thanks for contacting us. Our article " Buying a French Property - The Fees" (http://www.frenchpropertylinks.com/thefees.htm) goes through the fees you should expect to pay. If your 10,000 Euros includes the stamp duty and land registry fees, this sounds about right. Should you have any concerns however, do question the fees with the Notaire.

8. A question about pulling out of a house sale (added 27/5/14)...

I have had a house on the market for sale in France for over a year and someone has offered the asking price, but my circumstances have changed and I don't want to sell it. The agent is telling me I have to sell - is there a way out of it please?

Our reply...

Thanks for contacting us. I would have thought you can pull out of a house sale at any time prior to an offer being made and accepted, though you may have to pay the estate agent a fee, depending on what you have agreed with your agent and what papers you have signed with them, if any. So it would be worth checking through these first. The agents might have a clause which mentions fees involved at this stage of the proceedings.

It is also possible that you do not have to pay anything, should you pull out of the sale. It may be worth getting expert advice on this, should your agent be a problem. You may like to contact a legal adviser, perhaps using the following page from our site:

http://www.frenchpropertylinks.com/frenchlegalservices.htm

An update...

Many thanks for your advice. I did sign a contract with the estate agent and of course now they have "sold" the property they want their fee. If they don't get one from the purchaser they will look to me to pay it. So I have to pay them to stay in my own house! Will get some advice as you suggest.

9. A question about where responsibilities lie when a property sale falls through (added 8/9/14)...

The sale of our property should have been completed yesterday, but at the last minute it turns out that our "cash buyer" hasn't got the cash after all. Pretty devastating news, since we had been assured that once the compromis de vente had been signed, it would just be plain sailing. Do you think we have a legal case against the agent, or indeed the notaire, for not ascertaining that the buyer actually had the funds at his disposal when signing the compromis?

Our reply...

Thanks for contacting us though I'm sorry to hear what has happened. Not being an expert in these matters, I'm not really sure whether you may have a legal case against the agent or notaire, but it would certainly seem to be worth investigating. Perhaps you could use the following page of our site to see if they are worth pursuing:

http://www.frenchpropertylinks.com/frenchlegalservices.htm

Fees are not always charged if all that is needed is a quick answer.

An update...

Thanks very much for your reply. We are currently being told that he does have the funds but can't get at them for a few weeks, which we're hoping is the case, but if not then we may well avail ourselves of one of the firms recommended on your excellent website.

your comments...

1. A comment about the selling and buying process (added 17/3/09)...

A thing to mention that was correctly highlighted on UK TV, is the problem of agreeing to buy and who has the right to property. This may be the first buyer if the sale was agreed, even if a late buyer comes up with a better offer and pays first.

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