How to buy a house in France

Karen Tait sets out to explains 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. Part 12: Avoiding the pitfalls

Making the move to France is a big decision that needs to be thought through. All too often people get carried away with the romance of the situation and don’t pay close enough attention to the details that lead to success or failure across the Channel. Here are some typical pitfalls, and how to avoid them.

One common mistake made by expats is to buy too large a property. It’s hard not to be tempted by big houses for offer at the price of a two-bedroom semi back in the UK. But before you jump in, consider that larger properties usually mean higher property taxes and heating costs. They require more upkeep than a smaller home, and even daily tasks like cleaning can become a real chore. If you want more space to accommodate family and friends, would they mind staying at a local B&B or g�te? Is the extra space (and expense) really necessary? The same applies to land. Being surrounded by acres of your own grounds can be very seductive. This can be a huge advantage of moving to France, but don’t underestimate the work involved to keep on top of it. If you won’t be moving full-time yet, remember that a garden can become very overgrown in your absence so you might need to pay for help. When it comes to buying a French property, it pays to get it right first time round as the costs of moving are relatively high when you take into account agents’ and notaires’ fees.

A big part of the move to France is trying something new – a fresh start. Many people swap stressful lives in a UK city for a peaceful existence in rural France. Sounds blissful but the reality of a bucolic lifestyle can be difficult to get used to. While French markets are wonderful, not being able to nip to the shops whenever you want can be annoying and engaging your neighbours in conversation can be tricky if your only sphere of reference is urban concerns.

Will you miss the theatre, opera, cinema or retail therapy or just the general hustle and bustle of city life? That quiet village that seemed so relaxing might become, dare I say it, a little boring after a while. A market town might be a good compromise.You may also be moving from a cosy house with all mod cons to a draughty old farmhouse.

Those retiring to France face a particularly big challenge. Not only have they changed their home, location and language, but they are also moving from working to a life of leisure. Make sure you have plenty to fill your days – perhaps that large garden is a good idea after all!

Holidaying and living in France are not the same thing and renting may be a solution, as a ‘try before you buy’ option to ensure you’re making the right decision. With so many things to think about when moving to France, it’s easy to say you’ll pick the language up once you’re settled. This is almost always a mistake though. There’s a big difference between ordering a meal in French and being able to speak the language sufficiently to cope once you’re living there full time.

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How will you make yourself understood when enquiring about an electricity bill over the phone? Or handling a tricky conversation with a neighbour who thinks your hedge is overgrown? How will you discuss your child’s schooling with their teacher? Or explain to the doctor the symptoms that have been making you feel unwell? You can’t rely on them to speak English, and even if they’re willing to speak Franglais with you, misunderstandings are almost inevitable. So, before you move, do as much as you can to learn the language. The more you can learn, the better your new life will be. The more you put it off, the more problems you will face.

For parents, there is an added nuance, as your children will almost certainly pick up the language faster than you, and you could find yourselves in the uncomfortable situation of not always being able to understand what’s being said – a ‘secret’ language between siblings that mum and dad don’t understand. Now that’s got to be a good reason to get the French dictionary out!

It’s not just the language that’s different in France, there’s a whole new culture to embrace of course. It’s all part of the fun but it helps to understand a few matters of French etiquette before you move to avoid a culture clash.

One of the reasons people return to the UK from France is because they are unable to make a decent living across the Channel. All too often they have moved in pursuit of the French lifestyle, without making sufficient employment plans. Unemployment is relatively high in France and it’s always going to be difficult to find a job if you’re not fluent in the language.

If you’d like to continue with your chosen career, research the options carefully and deduce whether this is realistic. Will your qualifications be recognised in France? Are there sufficient opportunities? Will there be strong competition from French jobseekers? Often expats set up their own business, typically in holiday accommodation aimed at a British market, or serving the local expat community (as a builder, for example). This can be a good solution to a lack of fluency, but again you need to do your homework and approach it as you would starting a venture in the UK or anywhere else, with full business plans and financial forecasts.

Read up on the subject as much as possible before you move – then matters such as the high social charges in France won’t come as too much of a shock! Not having budgeted sufficiently for the costs of self-employment is a recurring theme among expat circles. Note too that running several types of business can be complicated in France, as different jobs are overseen by different organisations which collect contributions. On the positive side, the relatively new auto-entrepreneur scheme has considerably simplified life for the self-employed in France.

One last point: don’t be tempted to work for cash in hand to avoid paying tax - if you are caught you will be punished (and if you employ artisans working in this way, you will be fined too). Many people dream of a laidback life in France, funded by running one or more g�tes, or a chambres d’h�tes/B&B business. However, it is essential to do the maths first and not just guestimate how much money you’ll make – especially if it will be your living rather than pocket money to supplement a pension, for instance. Buying an existing business should enable you to look over the accounts, but it’s important to do your own homework too. You should know at the very least what local businesses charge for holiday accommodation, how many weeks’ bookings per year you can achieve, and how the local market is performing. It might seem like an easy life but dealing with problems can be stressful and being constantly on-hand for your clients can be more wearing than you might imagine. Opening up your home to strangers is not something everyone is cut out for, but this aspect of the business is often overlooked. One of the best things about France is the great value property, but take care you’re not moving simply to get more for your money. The other factors need to be right too, your move shouldn’t be solely dictated by property. Decide what really matters to you and then choose a property and an area that meets your criteria, which may include employment opportunities, schools, hospitals, shops or restaurants. Too many people move to France thinking they’ll have a much lower cost of living, but while some things are cheaper plenty of other things are just as expensive as in the UK. Quality of life is generally agreed to be high in France though – indeed, it has come top or close to the top of several surveys comparing different countries – so make sure you’re moving for the lifestyle, and don’t make the mistake of going just because you think your money will go further across the Channel. Before making the leap to relocate, make sure all members of the family agree that it is the right thing to do. While parents probably don’t need to worry too much about a four-year-old who doesn’t seem so keen, sulky teenagers are a different matter. It doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker, but it might be best not to just ignore them but to work out ways to encourage them to feel part of and look forward to the move. It’s not uncommon for a move to France to be the dream of one half of a couple, while the other half is either tagging along a little half-heartedly or being dragged along unwillingly. Perhaps you can come to some sort of a ‘deal’ – for example, setting a certain amount of time to settle in and if you aren’t both happy by then, agreeing to move back to the UK, or renting for a while instead of buying. If you retire to France, it is perhaps inevitable that as grandchildren come along in the UK, you start to miss family more. It can be equally hard trying to take care of ageing parents back in the UK. This is a difficult one to address, especially if you hadn’t anticipated it, or if one half of a couple feels the distance more than the other. Planning ahead can help, for instance, putting aside enough funds to regularly travel back to the UK. Making sure you stay in touch with family and friends can go a long way to easing homesickness – many expats swear by Skype and webcams for regular family interaction.

Loneliness in general can be an issue, and it’s not uncommon for one half of a couple to integrate happily, while the other struggles to settle. Joining local groups and attending events is a great way to feel part of the community and make new friends, while expat organisations can be a lifeline for those who long for a conversation in their own tongue. Renovation projects are not for the fainthearted; half-finished conversions regularly come back onto the market as a result of dwindling finances or simple exhaustion. Before embarking on a renovation project make sure you have worked out costings to the final centime (and then added on a third), understand what planning permission you will need, and decide how you will do the work. Remember that work almost always costs more and takes longer than anticipated. When the time comes to sell up, some expats discover that it’s not as easy as they imagined. So, when you’re looking for a property to buy, you might want to think about how saleable it will be when the time comes to move on. One of the many great things about living in France is its State healthcare, one of the best in the world. But you shouldn’t move to France without understanding how it works, as sooner or later we all need to visit the doctor or a hospital. Unlike in the UK, treatment and medicines aren’t entirely free in France, so most people buy top-up insurance to pay for anything that isn’t covered. This is something you should remember to budget for. Also, note that you won’t automatically be able to enter the French health system. If you are retired, and in receipt of a State pension, or will be employed in France, this won’t be a problem. However, some people can be unable to access French healthcare, namely early retirees, so check out your situation before you move, then if you need insurance you will be able to budget for it in advance. (See the health focus on page 70 for more.) Not seeking professional advice is something some expats regret later on, as trying to resolve problems further down the line can be difficult or even impossible. For example, the thorny issue of inheritance. Inheritance law and tax is very different in France to the UK. If you have investments in the UK, or multiple pensions, you should probably seek financial and tax advice before you move to France. It’s said that you need to spend at least two years living in another country before you start to truly feel at home, so don’t expect everything to fall into place straight away. Having expat friends who’ve already experienced these feelings can be a great help; alternatively, expat forums are a good source of advice and reassurance. A wonderful new life could be awaiting you across the Channel, just as it has for many happy expats who’ve gone before you. The key to success in any area is to be prepared so as long as you’re aware of the potential pitfalls and how to avoid them, you should be more than okay. There will always be something you haven’t anticipated – but that’s all part of the challenge of embracing a new lifestyle, and overcoming problems can be a truly satisfying rite of passage. Bonne chance!