Deal or no deal

Legal expert Kathie Lacey advises a reader on signing a property purchase contract

Q When buying a house in France, can you explain how committed I will be once I sign on the dotted line. I heard that the buyer has time to change their mind but is that really true and how long would I have?G Bradbury, Wilts

A In England and Wales we are not used to signing a contract to purchase a property until we have a firm mortgage offer (if needed) and our solicitor or conveyancer has had a chance to carry out all the necessary searches. In France, on the other hand, a contract is signed much earlier on in the process and often very shortly after a prospective buyer has viewed a property and had an offer accepted. In many cases a contract will be drawn up by the estate agent handling the sale and the purchaser may feel under some pressure to sign.There are a number of safeguards under the French system that exist to protect the parties and primarily the purchaser, and these need to be understood. First there are the conditions suspensives or conditions precedent. These are conditions that are written into the contract, which need to be met in order for the transaction to proceed to completion. If the buyer requires a mortgage then this must be made the subject of a condition. Other conditions will relate to searches carried out by the notaire in relation to the property. A further safeguard for the purchaser is the seven-day cooling-off’ period or d�lai de retractation, which exists under article L271-1 of the Code de la construction et de l’habitation (the French building and housing code). The requirement of this article is that any purchaser who is not a property professional and who purchases a property for use as a dwelling must have a copy of the signed contract sent to him by recorded delivery post or some similar method, which allows the date of receipt to be determined. In the case of unmarried couples or those who are married under the equivalent of the French regime of separation de biens (this will apply to the majority of British couples) a separate copy should be sent to each of them.

Thinking timeThe buyer then has seven clear days, ie seven days from the day following that on which he receives notification of the contract, to withdraw from the purchase without having to provide any reason. The withdrawal must also be notified to the seller by recorded delivery post or similar method as is required for the original notification of the contract. During the seven-day period, a deposit can only be taken by an agent or notaire who has a suitable financial guarantee in place to ensure reimbursement in the case of withdrawal from the agreement. If the buyer withdraws then any deposit paid must be reimbursed within 21 days.This cooling-off period may seem like an ideal way to guard against an overly hasty decision or even to reserve’ a property while taking some thinking time. In practice, however, the wording of the law is open to some degree of interpretation, particularly as regards what methods of notification other than recorded delivery post may be acceptable, and also whether the notification of withdrawal has to be actually received by the seller within the seven-day period. As practice can vary from one agent or notaire to another, I would always advise a prospective purchaser not to rely on the d�lai de retractation and not to sign a contract unless and until he is certain that he wishes to purchase.Subject to the conditions suspensives, a contract signed by both parties will be fully binding on both parties once it has been properly notified to the buyer and the seven days have elapsed. Mayland Porter www.maylandporter.co.uk