10 golden rules for househunting in France

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Peter-Danton de Rouffignac has spent years advising others on buying property in France. So, when looking for a place himself, he stuck to these 10 rules

As someone who normally advises others on how to locate their ideal French property, I recently found I was in the position of having to do this for myself. This meant constantly having to remind myself of the 10 golden rules that should guide every successful property search and selection. I have recently sold my apartment in an attractive marina facing the Mediterranean, a dream location but subject to a short, busy summer season, and long periods of total quiet for the other nine months of the year. Having decided I need more action all year round, I am moving to the nearest large town. A simple enough objective but after several frustrating weeks I had to sit down and re-examine my priorities and revise my plans. I hope my experience will help others going through the same process.

1. A MATTER OF TASTE

The first concerns the vast choice of properties available, even within a limited size or price range, and it is easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of houses and apartments on offer. Having filled a small dossier of agents’ specifications, I found myself rushing off in all directions to look at ground-floor conversions, apartments in smart residential blocks, a partly converted two-storey house, a fourth-floor attic in a building with no lift. All had their particular attraction, but were they the right one to buy? So, rule number one is to sit down and set out your personal list of ‘ideal’, ‘possible’ and ‘no way’ – and stick to it.

2. FAMILIARISATION

Location, location, location. Okay, that’s three rules but I quickly found that it was essential to select one or two specific areas and concentrate my searches there. I had set out with the town centre in mind but this opened up too many possibilities and I found myself looking at areas in which, realistically, I knew I would not be happy living.

I reduced this large area to just two particular quartiers, both off the main town centre, but still close enough to be able reach it with just an easy 10-minute walk. These areas I have got to know intimately, and I have reached the stage where I started talking to the locals and making friends and contacts – the people alongside whom I may eventually end up living.

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3. THE UNCHANGEABLE

Checking out the area gives you the chance to spot ‘For Sale’ boards (either private or agency), and to look at properties and how they fit into the area of your choice. Rule number three is concerned with deciding what you cannot change – such as a noisy street – and whether you can live with it or not. And this is before you look inside and decide you hate the colour of the bathroom walls, but realise that’s something you can change. Note that recent polls have shown that many buyers are put off by internal dislikes (kitchen, bathroom, flooring etc) but tend not to notice the immediate surroundings. This is a mistake.

4. ON THE GROUND

Starting your search ‘on the ground’ can be much more effective than many hours spent online or looking in estate agency windows. As a result of vendors often placing their property with several (competing) agencies, it is rare to see photographs of the exterior, and details of the property’s location may be heavily disguised. When I worked as a negotiator I had to abide by these rules and sometimes ended up taking clients to visit a property they hated on sight, even before they went through the front door! Frustrating for everyone.

5. SIZE MATTERS

How small, how large? I am quite comfortable living in a small space but because average property prices in town are much lower than where I have been living, it is tempting to dream of owning more square metres than you really need. Every extra square metre costs money in taxes, management charges and heating bills, and maybe now is a good time to think ‘minimalist’ – reducing the amount of ‘stuff’ you choose to live with, and will have to transport and store in the new location.

6. WHAT LIES BENEATH

Beware the hidden costs. Moving from a holiday resort which generates a healthy income from tourism to a town with high maintenance costs (transport, schools etc) means inevitably that local rates and charges are higher. I have already noticed a huge difference in the taxe foncière charged on apartments similar to my current one, together with building management (syndic) costs. The latter are due to more high-rise apartment blocks, needing a resident concierge and a lift, outside parking space, gardens etc, all of which have to be paid for by the residents in proportion to the size of their apartments. I have come across charges that are three or more times higher than I am used to paying, and one of my targets is a property managed by a voluntary residents’ committee (usually smaller buildings) – provided that it is not falling apart due to years of neglect!

7. PROPERTY TYPE

Be certain of what type of property you are looking for. My practical side tells me I should be looking for something on the ground floor, whereas my other side dreams of top-floor lofts ripe for conversion. As I noted under rule one, I have become more ruthless in my selection and started to rule out anything that was not ground floor. Also, in terms of access to facilities – shopping, transport, medical services etc – I need these to be within walking distance as I plan to live without a car (hiring only when needed, as I did in central London). Reasonable parking outside is also important for deliveries, visits from friends and so on.

8. DEVIL’S IN THE DETAIL

This rule concerns estate agents’ property details. They will often not tell you what you want to know, such as location (for the reasons noted above or to ‘disguise’ an unattractive location), taxes and charges as noted above, or what floor an apartment is located on. These are questions you need to ask, ideally from your prepared list of possibles and ‘no-ways’ identified at the start of your search. It should go without saying that statements like ‘ideal for first-time buyer or young couple’ are of absolutely no use whatsoever. You could be a 90-year-old granny – so what!

9. PERFECT TIMING

This rule concerns how to plan your timescale if you are trying to juggle two transactions – selling one property and with the proceeds buying another. In my own case I am trying to set a timescale for completion of my sale before committing to buying another. I have in fact broken my own rule by putting in an offer on an apartment before the present one is sold. This is because I wanted to secure an apartment which ‘ticked all my boxes’. But this has resulted in a complicated juggling act between signing the compromis de vente for both my sale and my purchase, which includes a clause ‘that the purchase is conditional on the satisfactory completion of my sale’. The intention is that on the day of completion of both transactions, I will first countersign the acte finale for my sale, at which point the purchasers’ funds will transfer to me, and I can then complete the acte finale for my purchase.

10. LOOK AHEAD

Looking to the future there may be the question of having to sell the property I am about to buy, in the case of any change in my present situation. So my advice here is to buy something that is saleable, just in case. Atypical properties need atypical buyers, and these can be thin on the ground. Better to be practical, even boring in your opinion. Goodbye open-plan loft, it was a nice dream.

Peter-Danton de Rouffignac MA LLM lives near Perpignan and advises on all aspects of French property buying and selling

www.francemedproperty.blogspot.com