The process of purchasing property in France is fairly straightforward and the registration system is secure. However, as this is probably one the largest and most significant purchases you will ever make, you should not proceed without appointing your own solicitor, or notaire, whose responsibilities include advising and representing you through the whole transaction process.
Lawyers’ charges vary widely, but usually cost in the region of €800 to €2,000 for a property purchase. When selecting a solicitor, it is important that they are competent at their job, able to communicate well in English and French and ultimately is a specialist in French property law who understands the legal process.
When making an offer on a property, the estate agent or seller will request that a formal written offer, called an ‘offre d’achat’, is made. A contractual commitment effectively comes about from the moment the vendor accepts your offer for the property, subject to any conditions that may be made as part of the offer, as there is no such thing as a sale ‘subject to contract’ in France, as is the case in the UK. Do not, under any circumstances, hand over any kind of deposit to the owner or the estate agent at this stage.
Next, a sale and purchase contract needs to be prepared. There are two main different forms of contract that can be used, the ‘Promesse de Vente’ and the ‘Compromis de Vente’, which are both very similar.
The major difference between them is the process itself:
The promesse, which is effectively an option to buy the property granted to the buyer by the owner, can only take place through a notaire.
A compromis de vente, which is effectively a sale and purchase agreement, as there is a clear bilateral obligation, can be done directly between the parties, via an estate agent, or through a notaire. It is generally recommended that you use the latter.
A deposit of up to 10% of the purchase price is made on signing of the agreement, but the buyer is entitled to a seven-day cooling off period without penalty, following the signing of the contract, which is conditional.
For example, if the purchaser intends to acquire the property using a mortgage, it is important that there is a ‘condition’ that makes completion subject to a satisfactory mortgage being secured. But the contract will state a date by which a condition precedent must be met. If not realised by this date, then the seller can withdraw from the contract.
Unlike in the UK, it is uncommon to get a building survey done prior to purchase of a property in France. Consequently, most sellers and notaires will not permit a ‘subject to survey’ clause in the preliminary contract. It is therefore best to get a survey undertaken before signing the sale and purchase agreement. You could potentially use a local French building professional, engineer or architect to carry out the job.
To validate an agreement between purchases and vendor, it must be certified in a deed of sale, called an ‘Acte de Vente’, prepared and signed by the notaire. However, it can often take several months before you get to sign the deed of sale – due to the lengthy process – which officially makes you the new owner.
The notaire will verify that the title to the property is in the seller’s name and that there are no other persons with an interest in the property. French law states that the seller is liable to pay the buyer up to twice the sale price if genuine third-party interests in the property are later discovered.
The notaire will undertake a local planning search (called ‘urbanisme’) to see if there are any major developments planned. In the case of the purchase of building land or a ruin the notaire will obtain a copy of the planning certificate, called a ‘certificat d’urbanisme’, from the local planning authority.
A new plot of land for construction, being sold for the first time, requires a development permit, either a ‘déclaration préalable’ or a ‘permis d’aménager’.
Even though you may be married or living together it is, of course, a matter of choice as to whether you buy the property in a sole name or in joint names. Ownership ‘en indivision’ is typically the most common method of joint ownership and in English law is equivalent to a ‘tenancy in common’.
If you are not planning to become a French resident, it is worth considering buying property through a French civil property-holding company called SCI (‘Société Civile Immobilière’) if several unrelated people are buying a property in France, as it grants you immunity from the forced inheritance rights under French law.
The sale contract will usually feature a clause stipulating a date by which completion should take place, when the deed of sale will be signed. But if the property’s condition has deteriorated at the time the sale contract is to be signed, the purchaser is entitled to demand that the property be brought back into its original condition of when the original offer was made.
When all the enquiries have been completed and funds are in place, then you will be invited to the notaire’s office to sign the deed of sale, the ‘acte authentique’. Only notaires are authorised to prepare such a deed, which guarantees legal transfer of the property.
If you are unable to travel to France for completion, you can give a trusted relative or friend already living in France the Power of Attorney to sign on your behalf as there is no legal requirement for the buyer and seller to be present in front of the notaire to complete the formalities.
When you have signed the deed of sale, you should ask the notaire for a certificate of purchase (‘attestation’), which you can use to gain access to public services for the property. The certificate can be used to set up public utility services, such as gas, water, electricity and phone.
Upon completion, you should also receive a receipt for the money paid to the notaire for purchase of the property, as well as a copy of the deed of sale.