How to buy a house in France

Karen Tait sets out to explain all you need to know about buying a house in France; from the legal system to finance options, the professionals involved to the types of property on the market, she offers essential advice to help you find your perfect French home. The latest instalment looks at finding the right property

You’ve now reached the exciting stage where you’ve decided you’re going to buy a home in France and you just need to find the perfect property. There are various ways you can go about your house-hunt and this includes choosing who you get to help you. In this issue we outline the roles of the different people involved in the sales process in France.

Estate agentYour first port of call will probably be an estate agent (agent immobilier) – either a UK agent with offices or partners in France, or a French agent. The property industry in France is strictly regulated; to work as an estate agent you must hold a carte professionnelle, which is only granted to those with considerable experience or professional qualifications. The carte professionnelle is normally on display in agency offices and details of it should be on the agency’s letterhead. The carte is stamped T’ for transaction (sales) or G’ for gestion (property management). An estate agent must have indemnity insurance and a financial guarantee to handle clients’ money. Check how much it’s for, if it’s less than the amount you’re paying, give it to a notaire instead. Never enter into negotiations with an unregistered agent, and certainly don’t hand over any money, for example, a deposit.

Most French estate agents belong to a professional body. The three main ones are the F�d�ration Nationale de l’Immobilier, the Syndicat National des Professionnels Immobiliers and the Union Nationale de la Propri�t� Immobili�re.

Agents charge commission for their services. They are free to set their own charges but these are generally around 5-10% of the sale price (so higher than in the UK). Agency fees must be displayed in their office. Normally the buyer pays the fees, but check from the outset who is liable. In adverts, frais inclus (FAI) means the fees are included, as does commission comprise, while net vendeur means they’re not. UK agents generally share fees with their French contacts and these shouldn’t be higher than if you’d gone direct to a French agent, unless you’re paying for other services too. Where the vendor pays the fees, this tends to be built into the sale price.

There are various differences in the way French estate agents operate in comparison to their UK counterparts. Firstly, they tend to be protective of property details. It is common for vendors to appoint multiple agencies (which explains why you may see the same property for sale at different prices) and agents clearly don’t want their clients to go to competitors who might charge lower fees or, indeed, directly to the vendor to avoid the fees entirely. So you’re unlikely to be given the address of a property for sale, and might not even be told the village it’s located in.

It is also common practice for an agent to ask you what your requirements are and then to present you with the properties they think will suit you. You should look upon this as a service being provided by the agent, although some British buyers find it a little frustrating. Of course, you are still free to request to see other properties they have advertised.

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When it comes to viewing properties, agents will almost always accompany you. You may be asked to sign a bon de visite; this form proves that you were shown the property by the agent and ensures they will still get their commission if you subsequently went direct to the vendor or approached another agent.

It is essential to make appointments. You’re unlikely to be able to view a property at short notice or by just turning up at the agency’s office while on holiday, for example. It’s the same as in the UK really, but almost everything is done on a more formal basis in France. Equally, don’t be surprised if you are unable to make appointments in the height of summer, when it seems that everyone, including estate agents, takes the whole month of July or August off!

Although it’s not an obligatory part of their role, French estate agents tend to provide more assistance and aftercare; for example, they may help with translation or connection to utilities, once the property has been purchased and often recommend builders or other services. Many British buyers stay in contact with their agent after the purchase, and some even become friends.

Unless you speak fluent French, you’ll want to deal with an English-speaking agent if possible. Most agents in areas that are popular with British buyers speak some English and there are plenty of expat Brits working in the industry too. Some agents who specialise in selling to English-speaking house-hunters also have mortgage and currency partners and preferred legal professionals.

Agent commercialOnly one person in the agency needs the carte professionnelle, other people may work under its umbrella as a self-employed agent commercial, which roughly translates as a sales rep. Indeed, many British people working in France within the property market are registered this way. They share the commission from a sale (typically 60/40 in favour of the card holder, although some nationwide French estate agencies such as Capi offer better terms such as 80/20 in favour of the rep). They have to register with the Greffe, which is similar to the chambre de commerce. Although not described as an estate agent, an agent commercial working within property does much of the same work and many have a lot of experience.

Property finderThe role of the property finder has become much more familiar in recent years. When you’re property hunting in your own area, you tend to know which are the good and not so good locations and generally what prices should be. When a property you like the look of comes up for sale on paper or online, it’s easy to view it to see if it lives up to expectations. But when you’re looking some distance away – and in this case, across the Channel and in a different language – and in a wide search area, it may pay to seek assistance with your property search. A property that looks perfect on a property website might be right next to a noisy road or factory, and rural properties can be some distance apart, so having someone on the ground can be a real asset.

A good property finder should know the area well and have a wide network of local contacts. They usually visit the shortlisted properties and send you notes and photos to help you narrow down the choice so you only personally visit the best of the bunch. Estate agents have good local knowledge too, of course, but they have a vested interest in selling the properties.

Usually you pay a fee for the services of a property finder, but this can be set against expenses you’d otherwise spend travelling to France to see properties that don’t work out, and in fact may well be recouped if the property finder helps negotiate a lower price on the property you eventually buy. Indeed, this is a key reason to use a property finder; they should be able to achieve the best price for you. Some property finders don’t charge a fee, instead they share the commission charged by the estate agent, but this can be limiting as they may be tied to specific agents. Property finders who do charge a fee don’t share the agent’s commission, so agents are normally happy to work with them.

A property finder is on your side’. They act for you, not the vendor. They are independent and help you throughout the search process. They may know of properties not already on agents’ books or for sale privately. Many properties for sale never appear online or in newspaper/magazine ads, there may simply be an � vendre sign on the gate. Even in a buyer’s market, the best properties often sell before they actually hit the market. Using a property finder enables you to access private sales and maybe avoid agent’s fees. Once the property has been found, that’s the end of the property finder’s role, but as with many agents, they often help with other matters after the sale and they can often refer you to notaires, lawyers, surveyors, builders and other professionals.

Property finders living and working in France must be French-registered and are treated just like estate agents, ie they should have a carte professionnelle and indemnity insurance, or else work with a cardholder as an agent commmercial (in which case they still need civile responsibilit� insurance). They may also be registered with a property finder association, which have their own codes of conduct, such as the F�d�ration Nationale des Chasseurs Immobiliers, the Federation of Overseas Property Developers, Agents and Consultants or the Association of Property Finders and Buying Agents. They may also be registered with one of the estate agents’ associations mentioned.

NotaireYou cannot buy or sell a property in France without using the services of a notaire. In many ways they are similar to a UK solicitor, but they are in fact a public officer who ensures property sales are above board and collects the relevant taxes on a sale. They are also allowed to sell property, in effect to act as a selling agent, and although not all by any means take on this extra role, in some rural areas notaires still negotiate on the majority of properties. If you buy a property through a notaire, in addition to notaire’s fees which you always have to pay on a property purchase, you also pay commission to the notaire, which may be less than agency fees. This is set by the French government, and amounts to 5% of the purchase price for the first €45,735 and 2.5% thereafter (all fees are subject to VAT at 19.6%). The commission is normally paid by the buyer. There are a few advantages in using a notaire as the selling agent. They may have access to properties for sale that don’t pass through an agent’s hands – for example, some vendors use their family notaire. It may also simplify and speed up the sales and conveyancing process using one person as both negotiating agent and notaire, especially if they know the background to the property. They also have access to the Perval files which list the sale price of every property transaction in France, so they have a good overview of comparative property values. However, notaires don’t usually have as many properties for sale as estate agencies and are limited as to how they can promote these properties. They’re not allowed to advertise in French newspapers or magazines, for example, although they can display property details in the notaires’ professional magazine, their windows, on their own websites and on websites.

New-build specialist/developerEstate agencies do sell new property but it’s often sold directly by the developer or their marketing agent. Some French developers have British branches and there are UK-based companies who specialise in new-build sales. Buying off-plan in France is strictly regulated, as long as you use a fully registered and insured builder or developer. Make sure they have a bank guarantee (garantie financi�re) which ensures the property will be completed even if the developer gets into financial difficulties. When you buy off-plan, you pay for the property in stages as the building work progresses, and you sign a contrat de r�servation as opposed to the usual compromis de vente sales contract for resale property. If you buy direct from a developer, you avoid having to pay agency fees. New-build specialists tend to get paid by the developer so again there are no fees.

Marchand de biensA marchand de biens is a property dealer or trader or speculator, who can sell on property that they have owned for at least three months. They’re not bound by a carte professionnelle so extra care should be taken to check their credentials.

Private salesThere is, of course, another way to buy a property and that is to go direct to the vendor. Private sales are very common in France. You can browse adverts online and in publications such as the weekly De Particulier � Particulier. The main benefit of dealing direct with the seller is that you avoid agency fees. However, as you won’t have an agent or property finder to help and advise you, it’s essential that you fully understand the French property buying system as well as the area and its property market. LF