There can be no question that actually finding a property is one of the most exciting phases of the whole process of acquiring a house in France.
The doorstep that is two inches too low to prevent the quagmire outside seeping into the house, the drainage system made of two-inch pipe that turns the courtyard into a lake when it blocks, which of course it will do several times every winter, the dripping and split gutters, the multitude of little leaks in the roof, the rising damp and the access road that has turned into a single-lane swamp. All of these delights will provide you and your partner – if you have one – with hours of after-dinner chat.
There are some serious questions to ask, though.
Do you think that you may wish to spend longer periods in residence, perhaps even living in the house permanently for a few years when you retire? Or perhaps envisage renting the house out to generate a little income?
Others have no desire to do this, and will be happy to look for their dream house in areas where a British number plate is so rare as to cause heads to turn, wishing to be close to the “real” France that they have fallen in love with. Indeed, you may even be able simply to tidy up an old house in France and leave it substantially as it is.
Sale in two ways
Houses in France are offered for sale in two ways: either by an Agence Immobilier, which may or may not be one of the services offered by a Notary Public (Notaire); However, it is quite common for the same property to be marketed through several Estate Agents, and you may be asked to sign a paper confirming that you will make your offer through the agent who lets you view the property. Indeed, since it is not exactly unheard-of for a prospective buyer to make an offer directly to the owner, in order to avoid paying agency fees, you may be asked to sign such a paper even if the house is exclusively marketed by that agent.
Houses which have remained on the books for a long time, or which the agent really does not think will sell easily, are often relegated to a huge filing cabinet full of dog-eared files. houses which form part of an estate attract inheritance tax, but no tax is payable so long as the house is being actively marketed. So it often happens that owners who would like to continue to use the house they have been left but who would rather not pay the tax, lodge the house with an estate agent at a vastly inflated price which they have no real chance of being offered. Estate agents are wise to this, and such houses often find their way onto the back shelf.
Furthermore, it is normal for an Estate Agent to make his or her own decision about the sort of house that a prospective client is looking for. The agent has no interest in repeatedly showing houses to people whom they think are unlikely to buy them; if you, as a buyer, have no clear idea what it is that you want — just that you want a house for 150,000 Euros, say — then the agent will just take a stab at what might suit you, and the chances that this will be on target are pretty slim.
Being able to say “We would like a house in a village, maximum price XX, with X bedrooms, a small garden and a garage,” will give your agent much more help and so will probably find you a house more quickly.
Having said that, there is another approach, which is just to ask the agents to show you houses up to your price limit and let them do their thing. You will see many houses, you will have endless long chats with pleasant agents, you will learn a lot about the area, and you may even stumble on a house you want to buy.
The author well remembers, after spending several days viewing properties which were completely unsuitable, sitting at the desk of a particular agent as he went through a sheaf of yet more dog-eared files. As he flipped through the pile he deliberately covered, and then attempted to conceal, the file on a house that was exactly what we were looking for, because he had decided we actually wanted something else altogether. Needless to say, after some antics in which I had to actually grab the file from his sweaty paws, that was the one we ended up buying.
This moment of hilarity was described in my book, ‘French Onion Soup!’
Private purchase of a house in France
Having said that, the author knows of several houses which were purchased privately, in one of two ways — either by the traditional method of a sign with a phone number in the window, through private adverts, and more recently through the internet. Only buy privately, and especially from another ex-pat, if you have already searched through the French Estate Agents in the areas you may want to buy in.
Once you have actually found a house that you are interested in, the next step of the procedure is to make an offer to the selling agent. For example, you may offer 100,000 Euros, on condition that the roof repairs (for example) do not exceed X, stating that if the offer is acceptable, you will engage a professional to look at the property. Believe me, the selling price will circulate the area like wildfire in August, and every builder, plumber, electrician, indeed anyone that you may ever want to employ will hear of it…
Here the buyer, or at least the buyer who has not been prudent enough to read this, will discover that in France there is no equivalent to the Building Surveyor so beloved of the British Building Societies. This presents a grave problem for the buyer who is inexperienced in looking at older houses. Therefore we strongly advise that you pay heed to the above section about bargaining, for the only real guide to the true value of a house is that it is the most you are prepared to pay for it and at the same time the least the seller is prepared to take for it.
Certain legal conditions must be included, and these include the verification of the seller’s good title to the property, that no lien is held over the property, and that nothing in the certificat d’urbanisme will prejudice the new owner’s interests, amongst others.
I would suggest that, unless you are so totally set on a particular property that you must have it and no other, you should avoid buying a house with any such legal issues.
The transfer itself
It is not usual for the seller, who may sign the Acte in advance of the transfer, to be present for the signing, but the buyer, unless prior arrangement has been made to give the Notary a legal power of Attorney, must be. In addition to themselves and the money, the buyer must present proof that the property is covered by a valid insurance policy, which the Notary must see before the Acte can go ahead, a firm means of identification such as a passport, a birth certificate, and in the case of married people, their marriage certificate.
Once the Acte has been signed on all the pages by all present, the house, all the land associated with it in the sale, and everything inside the house or on the land becomes the property of the buyer.
In addition to the purchase price the Notary will require a supplementary payment of ten percent, to cover his own fees, which the buyer pays, and the French equivalent of Stamp Duty. The seller is liable for all of the agency fees and any costs involved in meeting any agreed conditions, such as researching rights-of-way etc.