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Buying property in France

Although purchasing a house in France can seem like a long drawn out bureaucratic process it is in fact a much surer and structured procedure than in many other european countries. One is nearly always compelled to use the services of a state-appointed notaire (public Notary) who works for a fixed fee and more or less guarantees a fraud-free transaction. (The notaire is not necessary if the property is owned by a property company (a société civile immobilière - SCI) and the purchaser is buying the company).

The first stage is to find and visit the property. A second visit should be more thorough, in the company of a knowledgeable builder if possible. Surveyors are thin on the ground in France: builders usually give advice on the state of a house and will, if necessary, call on an 'expert' for technical advice. The vendor must pay an expert to certify the absence of termites, asbestos, radon gas etc before he can sell. Once you have agreed on a price (now that prices are on the turn you should seriously negotiate: offer up to 50% less than the asking price if you think the vendor is not sure of his ground) the next step is a 'compromis de vente' or 'sous-seing privé'. This is drawn up by the notaire and signed in his presence - accompanied by the purchaser paying a 10% deposit.

This is an extremely important document: it is in fact the final sales contract which outlines the whole transaction and the duties and obligations of the two parties. In general, before the contract can be concluded the State (and the vendor) must carry out a number of searches and controls: is a motorway planned to run through the property? Has the neighbouring farmer rights on the land for agricultural use? (possible if more than a hectare of land), has asbestos been used in the construction? etc. For his part, the purchaser should write into this document his 'clauses suspensives', the most important being the raising of a mortgage. Without such a clause the purchaser will be expected to conclude the deal just as soon as the official searches are finished.

The importance of this 'mortgage' clause cannot be over-stated. Even if you haven't envisaged a mortgage for the property you should seriously consider putting in such a clause - even for a small amount - as it is your ticket to getting out of the contract should you need to in the three months or so following the initial agreement. It works like this: the notaire will meet with you and the vendor is his office: he will ask you if you intend paying cash or will be applying for a mortgage. Normally one will opt for a mortgage of, say, 80% of the total cost (less fees). You can name a specific bank or just leave it open. The notaire will then suggest a date upon which the contract will take effect - usually two or three months ahead. This can be negotiated. Your first action should be to fire out a dozen or so official requests for a mortgage so that you have at least one official 'refusal' if you ever want to get out of the contract. Without a written refusal - on headed notepaper, signed and translated into french by a recognized translator - you could lose your 10% deposit.

Finally the big day arrives, the notaire summons both parties to his office, checks the results of the different 'searches' and proceeds to read the whole contract aloud. Then both parties sign .. and you become - instantly - the owner with full powers of possession. Assuming, of course, that you have made arrangements for the balance of the monies to arrive at the notaire's office in good time. No money = no deal and you lose your deposit. Be warned!




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