N.B. This guide is intended for newcomers to the French property market, but there is some very important information which, even if you have some knowledge of the subject, you should find helpful. The information and advice is given in good faith for your convenience only, it is not intended to provide legal advice.
LOCATION France is a large country, roughly 2 ½ times the size of the U.K., so think carefully about the most suitable region. Some points to consider are: proximity to ports, airports or station, type of climate and countryside, activities being nearby such as skiing, golf, swimming, boating, fishing or other activities. After you have decided on the region and départment, (similar to our county), consider more local factors - town, village, or rural? If rural, do you want to be isolated? How near do you need to be to shops, bars, restaurants, schools, or perhaps a hospital?
TYPE OF PROPERTY AND CONDITION Chateau or Manoir, town or village house, farm or an apartment? Must it be detached? Do you really want to renovate? When the French say à´rénover - they usually mean it! Even the word habitable does not necessarily mean that it is habitable in the English sense of the word! Think very carefully about the work to be done and the cost. (It's usually more than anticipated!) How many rooms are required? Any special requirements such as garage, outbuildings, pool, land, courtyard, terrace etc?
PARTICULARS On our web site, we show a relatively small selection of property details from the agents we represent in many different regions / départments. Our agents have many more and, when you have registered with us for a particular area, we can refer you to the appropriate agent's web site. (We do not represent agents in all regions / départements of France). The information we receive, which in many cases is in French, is often very brief, but we will try to obtain more if required. Translations are made in good faith, and we accept no responsibility for errors. Particulars will give the general area in which a property is situated, but not a precise location. If you ask, we will check to ascertain that a particular property is still for sale prior to your visit.
BUDGET AND FINANCE Be clear about your budget, and ensure that we and the agent know what it is. See paragraph below on acquisition fees. Prices, as in the U.K., are usually negotiable. Be absolutely certain as to how you will finance your purchase before you start the process, and tell the agent if you will require a mortgage. A mortgage requirement should be included in the preliminary contract as a condition suspensive. Subject to status, Euro mortgages secured on a French property can usually be arranged. Consider whether, if your mortgage is in Euros secured on the French property, and your income is in Sterling, the exchange rate is likely to alter much. If Sterling is strong against the Euro, so well and good, but if Sterling weakens, your repayments will be higher. See Useful Contacts for a mortgage consultant who specialises in overseas mortgages. For competitive foreign exchange rates and transfers, as well as forward buying etc., see Currency under Useful Contacts.
THE AGENT AND VIEWING We only represent estate agents who are licensed by the French government, each of whom must hold a carte professionelle. A person is only legally allowed to practice estate agency if directly employed by an estate agent, or maybe is an agent commercial - in other words working under the auspices of a carte professionelle holder. (A notaire may also sell property, but is most unlikely to give the same service as an estate agent). In order that we can brief our agents in France, we need as much information as possible about your requirements, including your budget, and when you will be going to France. Unless you tell us to the contrary, it will be assumed that you will be in a position to purchase. You may be asked to sign a Mandat de Recherche d'un Bien or Bon de Visite, (see glossary), prior to seeing properties. Agents in France set aside and spend time with you so an appointment for viewing is essential. Allow plenty of time and do not try to see several agents in one day. Please let them know in good time if you have to cancel or will be late, as they might have turned down other appointments. Do not underestimate distances and remember the French "lunch hour" - it's usually from 12.00 - 14.00 hrs, and sacred!
FEES Estate agents fees are usually included in the sale price, (F.A.I.), but always check. We suggest allowing about 6.5 ½ % - 8% to be added to the purchase price to cover the notaires fees, taxes etc. (2½% - 3½% on new property). This cost is approximately the same throughout France. There will be an additional charge if a mortgage is involved. Our fees are included in the French agency fees - you do not pay any extra as a result of our introductions or advice. Do not be persuaded to pay extra fees in the U.K. or France for "additional" services which will be provided free of charge by reputable French agents Always ask if in any doubt.
CONVEYANCING The notaire ensures that the title to a property passes unencumbered from the vendor to you, the purchaser. He should be impartial and is therefore not there in an advisory capacity. He must, however, answer your questions which are relevant to the purchase, and will also carry out local searches including the equivalent of a Land Registry search. The notaire's searches are likely to be very local to the property, but you may always go to the town hall to see if there are any developments which you feel might affect your property.
For pure conveyancing you do not need another lawyer. It may, however, be appropriate to have a lawyer to advise on the purchase if, for example, there is a very complicated family / inheritance situation, or perhaps a joint purchase with an unrelated person. Always discuss this with the French agent. (See Useful Contacts for recommended lawyers).
COMPROMIS When you have found the property you want to purchase, and have negotiated and agreed the price, you will be asked to sign a Compromis de Vente, (preliminary contract), which, subject to a ten day "cooling off" period, and any conditions suspensive, (see glossary), will be binding on you and the vendor, when he / she has also signed. (Occasionally, there are variations of this procedure). The compromis will usually be signed with the agent in France, but it may be signed elsewhere. If you are not certain, when signing the preliminary contract, the name or names which will be on the title deed, Acte, a clause may be inserted saying that the name or names will be advised. If you will need a mortgage to complete the purchase, you must make sure the details are on the preliminary contract, including the institution from whom you are seeking the finance. (It will become a condition suspensive).
DEPOSIT Be prepared to pay the deposit which will usually be 10% of the purchase price. The deposit will normally be paid to the notaire, but it may be paid to the agent if the agent is fully registered and bonded and holds a carte professionelle. Do not pay deposits to anyone else. Should the purchase not proceed, for example, as a result of your advising the agent and notaire in writing within the seven day "cooling off" period that you do not wish to proceed, or a condition suspensive not being met, or the mayor or S.A.F.E.R. exercising pre-emption rights, your deposit would be repaid. If you do not complete the purchase, assuming all conditions have been met, you will lose your deposit. If the vendor does not complete, your deposit would be returned and the vendor should pay you a similar amount.
COMPLETION Completion of purchase normally takes from two to three months. You will have to make sure the balance of the purchase money is in the notaires account in good time for the completion. The Acte de Vente, or Acte, (deed of sale), will be signed when the notaire has prepared the document, having ensured that everything is in order for the transfer of legal title. You may give power of attorney to another party to complete on your behalf. (Unless your French is very good, Notaires are increasingly insisting on an interpreter being present).
INSURANCE Property insurance is compulsory, and the minimum cover is for fire and third party. The agent will often be able to give good advice, but if required, we can suggest an English run French insurance brokerage, who will arrange cover anywhere in France.
INHERITANCE After many years in gestation, EU Regulation 650/2012 on "jurisdiction, applicable law, recognition and enforcement of decisions and acceptance and enforcement of authentic instruments in matters of succession and on the creation of a European Certificate of Succession" which is also referred to, more simply, as "Brussels IV" was adopted on 4th July 2012.
The purpose of Brussels IV is to facilitate the free movement of persons within the EU by removing the obstacles faced by EU citizens in asserting their rights in the context of cross-border successions (where assets of the deceased are situated in different countries). In particular it provides certainty as to which law will apply in governing a succession and also enables persons to choose the law of the country of their nationality to govern their succession. It applies to both testate successions (where a Will has been drawn up) and intestate successions (where there is no Will) but does not include tax matters.
For anyone who has had the misfortune to be involved with a cross-border estate it can be a complex and frustrating process not least because the inheritance laws of different countries may apply to different assets in the estate. The Regulation now provides a general rule that the "law applicable to the succession as a whole shall be the law of the State in which the deceased had his habitual residence at the time of death" unless the deceased (prior to his death!) chose the law of the State of which he was a national to apply in accordance with Article 22. Article 22 provides "a person may choose as the law to govern his succession as a whole the law of the State whose nationality he possesses at the time of making the choice or at the time of death." Furthermore the effect of Article 20 is that the law chosen does not need to be the law of another Member State which would therefore enable, for example, an Australian national who is habitually resident in France (for the purposes of the Regulation) to choose Australian law to apply to his estate. Article 23 provides that whichever law applies will govern the succession as a whole.
There is no definition of "habitual residence" in the Regulation although guidance can be taken from Recital 23 of the Regulation which states: "In order to determine the habitual residence, the authority dealing with the succession should make an overall assessment of the circumstances of the life of the deceased during the years preceding his death and at the time of his death, taking account of all relevant factual elements, in particular the duration and regularity of the deceased’s presence in the State concerned and the reasons for that presence. The habitual residence thus determined should reveal a close and stable connection with the State concerned taking into account the specific aims of this Regulation."
Article 4 of the Regulation provides that the Courts of the Member State in which the deceased had his habitual residence at the time of death shall have jurisdiction to rule on the succession as a whole. The Regulation also sets out a mechanism for the issue of European Certificates of Succession. These will be issued by the authorities in the Member State in which the deceased was habitually resident and will provide proof of entitlement in the estate to all Member States. For example, the beneficiaries of a German National, who dies habitually resident in France, with assets in France, Germany and Spain will be able to deal with all the assets on the basis of the one Certificate which will be recognised not only in the country issuing it (France) but also (in this example) Germany and Spain.
The Regulation will apply to the succession of persons who die on or after 17th August 2015 although there are certain transitional provisions which are now in force and mean that if a person chooses the succession law which will be applicable prior to 17th August 2015 that choice will be valid, subject to it complying with the provisions of the Regulation. The Regulation is binding on all 27 EU member states (and here is the bad news!) except for the UK, Ireland and Denmark, although the UK and Ireland do have the option to opt in in the future.
The reason why the UK government decided not to opt in is because it would have meant the UK having to apply "claw back" provisions in the UK which it considers would cause too much uncertainty in relation to lifetime gifts. (The law of some of the Member States of the EU requires a fixed proportion of the estate of the deceased to be given to certain persons (reserved heirs) and allows for the reserved heirs to recover assets that have been given away during the lifetime of the deceased in circumstances where the lifetime gift is in excess of the fixed proportion of the deceased’s estate.)
Does Brussels IV therefore have any relevance to UK nationals? The short answer is yes. Anyone habitually resident in France could make a French Will determining UK law to apply and in so doing would avoid French inheritance rules applying to their estate. (Any choice of law provision would have to state "UK" law as that is the State relating to the nationality of British subjects but as between English, Northern Irish and Scottish law Article 36 of the Regulation provides a mechanism for resolving the question: if you wished English law to apply it would be as well to specify in your Will that you were born or brought up in England). In these circumstances and, in so far as there are assets located in any Member State (apart from the UK and Denmark) they may be administered on the basis of documentation issued by a French Notaire or French Court, applying English law. However whilst the Regulation does provide those UK nationals who are habitually resident in France with the ability to choose the applicable law and thereby enable those with both their own children and step children to treat their step-children equally with their own children, the Regulation may not assist where there are still assets in UK. Article 39 provides that "a decision given in a Member State shall be recognised in the other Member States without any special procedure being required." However because the UK has not opted in to the Regulation it is not bound by it or subject to its application. Therefore where a UK national who is habitually resident in France has chosen UK law to apply to his estate it may still be necessary to obtain a UK grant of probate to administer any UK assets.
For anyone habitually resident in the UK who owns French property a French Notaire or French Court may decide (post 17th August 2015) in accordance with Regulation 21 (1), that the law applicable to the succession is UK law (being the State in which the deceased was habitually resident). However the Regulation also provides that in circumstances where the applicable law is not the law of a Member State (and because the UK has not opted in it is not regarded as a Member State) the question of applicable law is to be referred to the private international law rules of that State except where the person has chosen the law of a State. Thus private international law rules of English law would apply French law to any property situated in France and therefore French law will always apply to French property owned by UK residents. However there would appear to be nothing to prevent an English resident from making a choice of law election under Article 22 and in these circumstances the private international law rules referred to above are disregarded by virtue of Article 34 (2).
PLANNING PERMISSION New regulations came into force on 1st October 2007 which simplified the formalities for owners, builders and professionals such as architects, setting out when planning permission for work to properties will be required, and the exceptions. In general, planning permission for external alterations has to be obtained. Some internal alterations can be made without permission, subject to compliance with local building regulations. Bear in mind that your privacy, and that of your neighbours, is more protected than in the U.K. - so do not put in new windows without getting approval. Remember that the U.K. electric ring-main system is illegal in France. Seek advice before embarking on any work, as the penalties for not doing so can be severe!
SURVEYS & REPORTS You sometimes hear the remark "people in France don't have surveys", but as far as British buyers are concerned, this is not always correct. The French themselves hardly ever commission a pre-purchase survey, partly for historic reasons, and partly because there are few French-speaking building surveyors. However, many English-speaking buyers would not dream of buying a house in France without first obtaining a survey - provided they can find a suitable surveyor. Carried out by a properly qualified and experienced surveyor, a survey report will identify any problem areas, or potential problems, which might involve you in expense now or in the foreseeable future. It will also put any such problems into context, telling you which are serious and which are not. If nothing else it will give you confidence and peace of mind about your intended purchase. Building construction (including water supply, electricity services and, above all, drainage) in France differs from that in the UK. You should therefore choose a surveyor with proven experience and a good track record of surveying French property.
Vendors of older properties in France have a legal obligation to provide a buyer with written diagnostiques prepared by experts at the vendor's expense: In the case of houses built before 1st January 1948 a diagnostique has to be provided to identify the existence and condition of any paint in the property with a lead content in excess of 1mg/sq.cm. And in the case of houses built or converted before 1st July 1997 a diagnostique has to be provided to identify the existence and condition of any asbestos (amiante) in certain parts of the property. In about a third of France - in specific areas identified by the French government - a diagnostique has to be provided to state whether or not there is any evidence of termites in the property. (However, this diagnostique, which is valid for only six months, is not required to comment on other forms of wood-boring insects, i.e. "woodworm", that might be rampant in the property!) Diagnostiques must also be provided in respect of gas and / or electricity installations that are over 15 years old - to say whether anomalies exist.
The vendor has to provide an energy performance certificate which marks the property on a scale of A - G. (This report is for the information of the purchaser, and whilst recommendations for insulation may be made, they are not compulsory). See paragraph below on septic tanks. A law, dated 19th December 1996, (loi Carrez), states that the vendor has to produce a certificate confirming certain measurements of the property and its rooms - the estate agent will explain this in detail.
See Useful Contacts for Surveyors-en-France.
If you are concerned about the condition of a property, and unable to find a surveyor, a local legally registered builder, or maître d'oevres, might be a good source of guidance. Ask the agent for a recommendation.
WATER SUPPLY, FOSSE SEPTIQUE, (SEPTIC TANK), LAWS In 1992 a wastewater law was passed which made the town halls, or bodies appointed by them, responsible for the control and regular maintenance of septic tanks. A private (septic tank) drainage disposal system installed more than, say, 25 years ago is unlikely to comply with the new regulations, and it is a serious offence to release untreated wastewater directly into the soil or watercourses. When considering the purchase of a property, and assuming it is not on mains drainage, it would be wise to check on the size and condition of the septic tank and that it complies with the regulations - though bear in mind many vendors have absolutely no idea of the location, let alone the size or condition, of their septic tank ! The check on septic tanks will only become compulsory for vendors in 2012. However, inspectors are already operating in many areas and if the property has a "private" drainage disposal system you should ask whether it has yet been inspected and, if it has, ask for a copy of the report; it could make illuminating reading! If a property does not have a mains water supply, and its supply is from a well for example, check the quality of the supply and storage capacity.
LIVING & WORKING IN FRANCE There are many good books and guides to read, and this guide is no substitute. If you are not an E.U. citizen, for permanent residence you will need a permit - carte de séjour, obtained through the mairie, (town hall). Generally, if you spend less than 183 days a year in France, you are classed as a non-resident. You will have to pay local taxes - impôts locaux, pay income tax on income derived in France, car tax if you keep a car there - not forgetting insurance, and the usual utilities. The French Embassy web site has some helpful information on matters such as documentation requirements, health, retirement, social security etc. See Useful Contacts. We strongly advise learning, at the very least, basic French.
FRENCH LOCAL TAXES
Taxe d'habitation - this is a dwelling, or occupancy, tax levied on the persons who have the use of a habitable building and it varies according to the following factors: A) The habitable surface area. B) The standard of accommodation. C) The commune. D) The occupiers income. The Tax is paid by whoever occupies the property on the first day of January each year, owner or tenant.
Taxe fonciére - This is a tax for the occupation of the land, and is generally assessed on all properties. It is paid by the owner, based on the rental value of the property and the rate of tax is determined anually by the appropriate authority. There are actually two taxes:
1) Tax fonciére bâtie, i.e. on the building. 2) Tax fonciére non-bâtie, i.e. on the land. Sometimes a regional tax is payable, especially if the property is in a tourist area and there is heavy upkeep for public amenities such as gardens. Check when purchasing.