How to buy a house in France
Buying a house in France is actually fairly straightforward, the only barrier may be the language. At Provence Days we live in Provence and are all either British or fluent English speakers so we can help you every step of the way.
Buying a house in France is a regulated process, with good legal protections for the buyer.
If you have bought a house in England, you will be pleased to know that there is no ‘gazumping’ (accepting a higher offer than yours) in France – once your offer is accepted, you have signed and paid your 10% deposit, the house is yours unless you change your mind. So you can reasonably expect to find a house and buy it on one trip to France.
Property surveys in France
It is not the norm in France to get a survey done before buying a house. You can get at the information by different means.
The seller must supply various reports on the state of the property, for example to do with termites, asbestos, lead, energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and local risk of natural disaster.
Usually a country property has a septic tank, and this has to have a certificate to say it has been inspected and is in compliance with regulations.
You can visit the property with a builder to get structural advice and an estimate on the cost of work needed. (We can put you in touch with builders and architects that we know and trust in Provence).
Have a good nose around a property, check for damp smells or stains, look at how old the electricity meter, fusebox and boiler are.
Or you can also get a full survey done by a chartered surveyor in France, for example the UK’s Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors does have members in France. Ask to see their professional insurance to cover yourself.
If you want to get a survey done but don’t have time before signing the contract, you can ask the notaire (notary) to add a conditional clause (clause suspensive) stating that the contract is subject to a satisfactory survey result.
Pre-contract checks or searches
In the UK your solicitor does a search to check there are no unexpected surprises to do with the property you are buying or the land around it. In France the notaire does less of this, the notaire’s job is mainly to check there is proper title to the property.
You will need to do your own enquiries about a property. First step is to go to the local mairie (town hall) and ask to see the cadastral plan (plan cadastre).
The plan cadastre shows the land of the commune split up into plots. At the mairie you can ask about any plans in the pipeline or permits to build nearby. And then if you want to cover all the bases and avoid potential surprises that may only arise after you have bought a house, you need to ask around beforehand. Here are some questions you should consider, either for the seller, the neighbours, locals or at the mairie:
Are the boundaries on the ground the same as on the plan cadastre?
Who is responsible for each boundary?
Are there any existing disputes with neighbours concerning boundaries or anything else?
Are there any rights of way over the property, or any pipes or cables belonging to other properties that run under the land?
Do you have access to the property from a road, and if it is a right of access only what are the arrangements and who is responsible for maintenance of the access?
If you will need access to a neighbour’s land to carry out work you want to do, for example a digger can only get to your back garden through the neighbour’s vineyard, will the neighbour agree to that?
Is the property connected to electricity, and if not will EDF (the electricity company) supply it and at what cost?
Is the property on drains or septic tank? If septic tank, does it have a certificate of conformity (certificat de conformité)?
Have there been any alterations and was planning permission granted?
The results of your enquiries can be brought up at your meeting with the notaire. You may want to ask for a clause to be added to the contract based on your information, for example to do with access to the property if this is not mentioned in the contract. The notaire can add clauses to a contract.
The notaire will also want to be sure of your identity, and will require not just your passport but also your birth and marriage certificates. Another requirement is proof that the property you are buying is insured – this is easily arranged.
Offre d’achat – offer to buy
An immobilier (estate agent/realtor) may ask you to sign an offre d’achat, which is a written offer on a pre-printed form, and is not legally binding. If you do this, make sure it states that the offer is conditional on the sale and purchase contract containing all the conditions that apply. It is illegal for an immobilier or seller to ask you for a deposit payment at this stage, this can only happen when you sign the sale and purchase contract.
Once your offer to buy a property is accepted, we move on to the notaire (notary public), who handles the contract part of the process. A notaire is a legal specialist and a public employee. A notaire is obliged to supply you with all information you need to sign an agreement, and check that you understand what you are signing. In France it is the norm that the same notaire acts for both buyer and seller, as the notaire is impartial. It is possible to appoint your own notaire to act for you, but that is generally less efficient. Having your own notaire does not change the price because the fee will be split between the two notaires. Using the same notaire is how the great majority of property sales are done in France.
If there are any conditional clauses in the contract (clauses suspensives) – for example the contract is agreed subject to the owner carrying out certain repairs – this could be a reason to have your own notaire acting for you, as the judgment call as to whether the repair has been correctly achieved may be difficult for one notaire to make.
In Provence it is likely that notaires will speak English, certainly our local ones do, and in any case we can accompany you to translate anything if needed. You can also arrange for an official translator to work for you.
Sale and purchase contracts
There are two types of sale and purchase contract in France.
– Compromis de vente
– Promesse de vente
Compromis de vente is a two-way agreement between buyer and seller. The buyer agrees to buy a property, the owner agrees to sell, at an agreed price and subject to any conditions in the contract. The buyer puts down a 10% deposit at the signing of the compromis de vente. The buyer has a 10-day cooling off period, when you may change your mind and your 10% deposit can be returned. After this period, your deposit is non-refundable. On the other side of the coin the seller cannot accept a higher price from another bidder.
The second type of sale contract, the promesse de vente, is not a two-way agreement, it is an option to buy that the seller grants to the owner for a set period of time and agreed price. The buyer again has a 10-day cooling off period when they may withdraw, but after that if the seller decides not to buy they lose their deposit. With this type of contract you must make sure that there is a clause entitling you to enforce execution of the contract in the event that the seller changes their mind.
Of the two, the compromis de vente is the more commonly used.
Cooling off period
After signing the compromis de vente, as a buyer you have a 10-day ‘cooling off’ period when you can withdraw from the contract without penalty. The seller does not benefit from this, only the buyer.
The exception to this is if you are buying a plot of land or if you are buying through a company structure, called an SCI.
To withdraw from a sale within the cooling-off period, you need to send the immobilier or notaire a registered letter stating your intention. You don’t have to give any reason. You can also return to the notaire’s office and they can give you the necessary document to sign.
Once the cooling off period is over, the contract is binding on both parties.
Conditional clauses – clauses suspensives
A clause suspensive or conditional clause can be added to the contract (with the seller’s approval) if your offer is conditional on something, and if that condition is not met it allows you to withdraw from the purchase.
For example most commonly a conditional clause is inserted if you are applying for a mortgage/home loan. If after signing the compromis de vente you are unable to get a satisfactory mortgage, you want to be able to get out of the contract. The notaire will normally automatically add a clause suspensive if you are waiting for a mortgage to come through.
Something else to consider regarding a mortgage: it is normal in France that the compromis de vente gives you 45 days after signing to secure a mortgage – fine for a French person with job and home, but maybe a squeeze for you, so you may want to negotiate a longer time to get a mortgage, especially a French one, and have the contract amended by the notaire accordingly. Again, this is something we at Provence Days will advise you about beforehand.
Other examples of clauses suspensives are if you want to be sure you will get planning permission, or that agreed works are carried out correctly by the seller.
It is important to bring up any possible concerns when you meet with the notaire to discuss the compromis de vente, before signing.
Signing the sale agreement
You can either sign the agreement to buy a house through a realtor/estate agent (immobilier) or a notaire. The immobilier must have the carte professionelle for transactions (as Provence Days does). There is no fee for preparing and witnessing the contract. (Although the notaire may charge a fee in the event that the sale falls through on the buyer’s side, for the work done on the contract. You would be advised if this is the case beforehand.)
You will find there are times in France (unless you are fluent in French) when you will smile and nod because you are not sure what is being said, but you don’t want to bring the jollity to a halt so it can be explained to you. This is not one of those times – make sure you understand everything that is being said, and if you don’t understand anything then say so. We can be there at the meeting with the notaire to make sure everything is clear.
At Provence Days it is the notaire that is responsible for the contract part of the process. This is better for the buyer because the immobilier is acting principally for the seller, whereas the notaire is an independent and impartial public official.
When you sign the sale and purchase contract you will pay a deposit of up to 10%. It can be less than 10%, but it cannot be more. And you must only pay this to the immobilier or notaire, under no circumstances do you pay the deposit to the seller. Ideally you pay it to the notaire and it is held in escrow.
If all the conditions in the contract are met, but you decide not to go ahead with the purchase, you lose your deposit, and it may be that the seller pursues you for damages. But if you don’t go ahead because not all the conditions of the contract have been met, you are entitled to your deposit back.
If the seller defaults, you may pursue them for damages and even for an enforced sale.
The seller of a property is obliged to disclose all relevant information about the property, including any hidden defects (vices cachés), any easements or rights of way that apply to the property, or tenancies or licences in place.
Hidden defects: this means something major which would have affected your decision to buy. It does not apply to newly built houses, these have their own 10-year guarantee for major defects.
Easements and rights of way: an easement (servitude) is a restriction on your use of a property. The most common servitudes are a right of way across your land, a neighbour’s right to light, or a cable/pipe running across your land. The notaire will look into existing servitudes, but make sure you ask the seller in front of the notaire about any servitudes that apply to the property. This way you have a comeback later if it turns out the seller had forgotten something. Also, you should make sure that any servitude that will affect your use of the property, for example your right of access to it, is clearly stated in the contract, and that future owners will also benefit from the servitude, and not just you.
Tenancies/licences: a farmer may have an agreement to use or tend part of the land. There may even be a lodger that comes with the house. So again you should ask about this in front of the notaire. The contract should state that the property will come with vacant possession.
Fixtures and fittings
If you are including any fixtures and fittings in the purchase of a property, these should be listed and attached to the contract, and discussed in front of the notaire.
The notaire must have your cleared funds before completion can happen. Your money can be transferred to the notaire’s account, or you can pay by French cheque, in which case you need to allow plenty of time for the cheque to clear. If you have a mortgage your lender will send the notaire the funds by bank transfer.
The sale and purchase contract will state a completion date. The transfer of the property to you takes place with the deed of sale (acte authentique), which can only be prepared by the notaire. The notaire will read through the deed of sale, and again this is a time to be sure you understand everything that is being said. It is not actually necessary for you to be present at this point, you can give a friend or relative the power of attorney to sign for you, or even someone working in the notaire’s office. This would be arranged beforehand, either at the signing of the sale contract or by post.
Once the acte authentique is signed, the house is yours! The notaire will give you a receipt for the money paid, as well as an attestation, a proof of purchase, which you can use to get public utilities connected and in your name.
The whole process from making your offer to completion should take about 3 months.
The cost of buying a house
Notaire’s fees are quite high in France, although they are not actually all notaire’s fees. The notaire takes about 1% of the sale price. There are also stamp duty and other taxes to pay, all of which comes to between 7% and 10% of the sale price.
For an older house: the usual stamp duty is 5.8% of the purchase price in most departments of France, some are a little lower.
Off-plan properties: here the stamp duty is 0.7% but there is VAT at 20% to pay. Normally this VAT is included in the price of the property, and the price is stated as TTC (toutes taxes comprises), so there is no extra to pay, but verify this before committing.
New property: same as for off-plan properties, a property under 5 years of age is subject to VAT at 20% and stamp duty at 0.7%. Here it is more likely that the price does not include the 20% VAT (TTC), so check on this.
Building land: stamp duty at 0.7% and VAT at 20%. Land you can build on in France is called constructible.
In addition to these costs will be sundry expenses such as the notaire’s admin and office costs.
French terms relating to buying a house in France
acompte – deposit, sum paid in advance when buying a house in France
acte authentique – deed of sale
acte sous seing privé – private agreement in writing with no witnesses, usually taken as an agreement to buy
acte de vente – a conveyance or transfer of land or property
acquéreur/acheteur – the buyer
agence immobilière – real estate agent
agent immobilier – real estate agent
assurance habitation home insurance
attestation d’acquisition – certificate that the property purchase was completed
attestation de propriété – proof of ownership of a property
banque de consignation – the bank where the notaire places the deposits
“bon pour achat” – following signature of contract (“good for acquisition”)
cabanon Shed or small stone building
cadastre – the official French system of land registration, this is a map showing the boundaries of each plot of land, and who owns what. The local cadastre can be consulted at the mairie (town hall) of a commune.
carte professionnelle – this is the qualification required for an immobilier (real estate agent) to conduct business
caution – security deposit
certificat d’urbanisme – a certificate that advises on the planning information for a particular zone, such as whether you can build on it. (Not the same as actual planning consent)
cession – transfer of ownership
clause suspensive – a conditional clause in an agreement, the sale depends on the condition being met (e.g. you get financing for a purchase)
commission comprise – the agency commission is included in the price
commission non comprise – agency commission not included in the price
compromis de vente – contract of sale, the first legally binding contract in the purchase of a house in France
comptable – accountant
compte séquestre – escrow account where money can be held until certain conditions are met (used by a real estate agent in a house sale)
conseiller fiscal – financial/tax advisor
constructible – land which you can build on
convention – agreement
copropriété – co-ownership
crédit immobilier – mortgage
décennale – standard 10-year guarantee covering the work of a builder or other artisan
déménagement – moving house
dépendance – an outbuilding that comes with the house
dépôt de garantie – deposit paid when renting or buying a property
devis – estimate for work to be done
droit de passage – right of way
droit de préemption – pre-emptive right to buy
droits d’enregistrement – equivalent of stamp duty paid by the buyer
enregistrement (droits d’) – registration of the title of ownership
exclusivité – available with this agent only
expert comptable – chartered accountant
expert de batiment – surveyor
expert géomètre – land surveyor
facture – invoice
FAI (Frais Agence Inclus) – agency fees are included in the price
frais – fees
frais de dossier – lender fee for arranging the mortgage
frais de notaire – fees to be paid to the notaire in addition to the purchase price
hors taxe (HT) – not including value-added tax
hypothèque – mortgage, meaning the property secures the loan used to buy it
indivision – joint ownership
jouissance – right of possession and use of a property
local – premises
location – rental
logement – accommodation
lotissement – housing estate
“lu et approuvé” – phrase you add before your signature on a contract to state that it is “read and approved”
maçon – builder
mairie – town hall, even the smallest village has one
mandat de recherche – agreement that directs a real estate agent to look for a property for you
mandat de vente – a contract to sell, the estate agent has to have this to sell you a house
multirisques habitation – building and contents insurance
neuf – new
notaire – notary
offre d’achat /de vente – an offer to buy/sell a property, which is not legally binding
offre de prêt – mortgage offer
opposition – cancellation of payment
paiement comptant – cash payment
période d’anticipation – pre-completion period
permis de construire – planning permission
plain-pied – single storey
plus-value – capital gain realised on the sale of the property
prêt immobilier – mortgage
procuration – power of attorney
propriétaire – owner
relevé de compte – bank statement
rénové – renovated
rentabilité – profitability
RIB (relevé d’identité bancaire) – bank account details
résidence principale – main residence
résidence secondaire – not your main residence, so by implication a holiday home
résiliation – cancellation of a contract
restauré – renovated
rétraction – withdrawal from a sale agreement within the cooling-off period
SAFER – agricultural land agency with pre-emptive rights to buy land
sécurité sociale – France’s social security system
solde – balance (of a payment)
TEG (taux effectif global) – APR (annual percentage rate), the real rate of interest on a loan
TTC (toutes taxes comprises) – including VAT
TVA (taxe sur la valeur ajoutée) – VAT (value added tax)
tableau d’amortissement – monthly repayment schedule, produced by the lender when the mortgage offer is made
taux – interest rate
taux de change – currency exchange rate
taxe d’habitation – local tax levied on the occupier of a property
taxe fonciére – local tax on the ownership of property
testament – will
tontine – joint ownership
urbanisme – town planning
valeur locative – the rental value of a property
VEFA (vente en l’état futur d’achèvement) – purchase of a property that is not yet completed
vendeur – seller
vice caché – hidden defect of a house
virement – bank/wire transfer
aménagé – converted
ancien – old
à raffraîchir – needs redecorating
à rénover – needs renovating
à restaurer – to be restored (more faithfully to its original state than a renovation)
attenant – contiguous
bastide – country house, suggesting it’s more grand than a regular house
bilan (de santé immobilier) – house survey
bon état – good condition
chantier – building site
chaudière – water heater
chauffage – heating
chauffage au mazout – oil heating
chauffe-eau – hot water tank
cloison – partition
clôture – fence
compteur – meter for water, gas, electricity
crépi – the render on a building
dépendance – outbuilding
en bon état – in good condition (suggesting a house that you could move into without doing work)
fosse septique – septic tank
lotissement – housing estate
maçon – builder
mas – farm house
mitoyen – semi-detached
mur mitoyen – separating wall
pièce – room
plain pied – single storey/bungalow
plus-values – capital gains
poutre – ceiling beam
rénové – renovated
tout a l’égout – main drainage system (i.e. no septic tank)