You’re not alone! Advice for solo buyers of French property
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Moving to France on your own? Already living alone in France? Buying a French holiday home by yourself? You’re not the only one, says Ruth Wood
When Annette Morris moved to France on her own a decade ago, she had visions of bonding with fellow dog walkers and befriending neighbours in the boulangerie queue. And that's what happened, only it took more time and effort than she had imagined.
"There are so many things I wish I'd known at the time, especially as a single woman," admits the marketing consultant, who moved from the Cotswolds to a quaint Languedoc village near the Canal du Midi in 2008. "What I hadn't anticipated is that the average local population was probably twice my age and any people of my age would be families unlikely to share the same pastimes as a single woman - and her dog."
You're not alone
If you live alone, you are not alone. Households in France, as in the UK, have been getting smaller for decades, due to changing lifestyles and ageing populations, and today more than one in three French homes has a sole occupant. The figure is even higher for expats in France, a whopping 37% of whom are single, according to the InterNations network.
Eleven years ago, Annette was one of them. Today, she lives in the same Hérault village, only now she shares a 200-year-old house with her partner Miles and their two dogs Skype and Duffy. She still remembers, however, what it was like to single-handedly build a new life abroad. So, with Annette's help, here is our guide to an independent life in France.
Should I rent first?
A great advantage of going it alone with French property is that you can be nimble. Don't like your home? Change it. Don't like your location? Move on. It's your life; live it your way.
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Annette was understandably nervous when she moved on her own to the south of France, but approaching the move with a 'try it and see' attitude rather than 'make or break', gave her the courage to go for it. After meeting partner Miles, they hedged their bets by renting for a few more years before committing to a house purchase. Unlike in the UK, where tenants have been left behind by rampant house price inflation over the past decade, France has seen only gentle growth in that time, at least in rural areas, so their decision was not too costly. "The rental culture is very strong," says Annette. "A lot of French people feel no pressure to purchase or get a mortgage."
One complication of renting to bear in mind however, especially if you are young or on low income, is that you may have to provide a guarantor for the rent and if so, that guarantor must be a French resident.
Where should I live?
Annette already knew the Languedoc area well when she moved here and did not spend long researching locations. Her heart was set on a small rural community where she could see the same familiar faces and become part of a predominantly French social scene. If you intend to live in France, you may come to appreciate contact with fellow Brits, if only for the easy conversation and the hugs that are 'not the done thing' in France. But as Annette says, over-reliance on them could hold back your efforts to integrate, so there is a balance to strike.
Of course, just because a town or village is popular with expats or tourists doesn't mean you won't find it oppressively quiet at times. If you plan to live there all year round, it's worth visiting in winter and talking to the locals. Check out transport links and local opening times; French businesses and community facilities tend to close for longer periods than their UK counterparts, especially in the countryside. You might have a local swimming pool that opens for only two hours a day from Easter to October, or a restaurant that serves food only at lunchtimes and Saturday evenings.
I'm retired or about to retire
Every year, property experts at Le Figaro put together rankings of the best towns and cities for retirees. They take into account the annual number of hours of sunshine, services available to older people and ease of access to health services.
Apart from the inland city of Limoges, all the places in this year's top 10 are coastal communities. Topping the 2019 rankings are Arcachon and Andernos-les-Bains, two seaside resorts that face each other across a huge bay sheltered from the Atlantic Ocean south of Bordeaux. On the Riviera, it's Cannes and nearby Mandelieu-la-Napoule that come top and, between Montpellier and Marseille, the Roman city of Arles in the Camargue wetlands.
On the Occitan coastline, the little city of Narbonne in Aude and the resort of Agde in Hérault are also tipped as retirement paradises. In northern France, Brittany triumphs, thanks to the Channel citadel of St-Malo and the medieval town of Vannes on the Gulf of Morbihan.
When it comes to cities, Nantes regularly tops quality-of-life rankings thanks to its green credentials, dynamic cultural scene and location two hours from Paris and an hour from the Atlantic coast. Breton capital Rennes and medieval château city Angers are also prized for their quality of life and friendly ambiance, while Montpellier in Hérault enjoys 300 days of sunshine a year. Strasbourg in Alsace has stunning architecture, beautiful urban parks and a European vibe, and Dijon and Nice have excellent transport connections.
How easy is it to make friends and integrate?
At French Property News, we regularly hear from readers who have been touched by the warmth and generosity of their French neighbours. But don't be downhearted if you are slow to make friends, even if you are an outgoing person. In French culture, people tend to bond slowly but surely rather than instantly over free-flowing drinks and shared secrets.
Life tends to be more family-focused than in the UK, so you might find your French friends reluctant to book a babysitter and join you on a night on the town. What Brits sometimes take to be a Gallic brusqueness or aloofness can just as easily be understood as refreshing honesty and a respect for your privacy once you have spent some time in France. Be patient and persistent and you are sure to be rewarded with loyal friends.
Buying locally and taking part in your commune's gatherings will help. Even if you come to France only for holidays, there is nothing to stop you having a stand at the annual vide grenier (car boot sale) for example or attending concerts. Anyone can attend local council meetings and any inhabitant can be elected as a member of the conseil municipal.
Many parts of France have expat support groups or an association that fosters cross-cultural ties and if your dream destination doesn't have such a group, you could always set one up yourself. Many towns have a branch of Accueil Ville Française , a network of groups to help newcomers settle in.
Facebook has become an invaluable way to find ultra-local online communities and nationwide ones such as our own Living in France group. Annette is a marketing consultant for Renestance, an organisation that helps English speakers move and settle in the Languedoc-Roussillon area. "How I wish they had existed 11 years ago - it would have saved me a lot of heartache!" she says. As well as running her business lafranglaiseweb.com, Annette is admin of a Languedoc drawing and painting group, part of the Urban Sketchers community. And in 2011, she founded a business networking group, now called the J2 CoNetwork, connecting homeworkers like herself, especially English speakers. "It helped enormously in helping me connect to other people in similar circumstances," says Annette. "Some of the loveliest relationships I've developed since being here stem from those initial gatherings." Buying an apartment
If you decide to buy a home in an apartment block or holiday village, you are likely to come across the French system of co-ownership called 'copropriété'. Unlike in the UK, there is no landlord that owns the whole block of flats and from whom you lease your apartment. Instead, you are the absolute proprietor of your flat or chalet and also own a percentage of the common areas, such as stairwells, entrances and driveways. Along with the other owners, you are jointly responsible for the day-to-day management and safety of these common areas, which you do by appointing and paying a managing agent (le syndic), often a local property agent.
What if you only have a tiny studio while someone else owns a penthouse with ski locker and garage? Well, the size and facilities of your home are taken into account when calculating what percentage of the common area you own. This share is expressed as a fraction, usually a tantième (a part of 10,000 or even 100,000). The more shares you have, the greater your financial contribution to the communal coffers but also the greater your voting power at the annual general meeting when owners decide on the annual budget and the priorities for maintenance. At this meeting, owners also appoint their syndicand elect a small group within themselves to advise the syndic.
Details specifying the level of ownership of each apartment and what constitutes private or common property is set out in a rulebook called the règlement de copropriété. Your apartment will have a lot number which will appear in your buyers' contract and title deed. The rulebook is important, says Matthew Cameron, head of French legal services at Ashtons Legal. "It will drill down into the details of every cable and pipe, wall and terrace," he said. "It is prudent to review the rulebook and the AGM Minutes and accounts for the past few years before buying an apartment so that you understand what your rights and responsibilities would be. You should also be able to establish if there are any pressing works that may be necessary in the near future, or whether there any other apparent problems with the whole property."
Will I be able to get a mortgage?
Most of the nitty gritty of buying and owning a French property is the same whether you are going it alone or in a partnership. For example, French banks do not impose stricter mortgage-lending criteria on sole borrowers than on couples, says Fiona Watts of mortgage broker International Private Finance. "In fact, because there is only one person's financial and personal circumstances to examine, there is typically half the paperwork so you may get approved in half the time!"
What if my partner dies?
Even if you are buying a property with a partner, it's important to think ahead to the challenges you might face in the future, says paperwork specialist Madeline Aveson, of Aquitaine Lifestyle Solutions. "We recommend that people keep single accounts as well as a joint account as this can be blocked upon the death of a spouse," she says. "Put both names on the car papers to avoid transfer issues if a spouse dies and make sure that both names are on all utility bills."
What if I die or can no longer cope on my own?
Charlotte Macdonald, an associate solicitor specialising in cross-border law at Stone King urges sole owners to make sure they have a will in place in France to ensure their property passes as they wish on their death. "If a person dies without a will then French rules of intestacy will apply. If the person is unmarried without children and they want a favourite godchild or friend to inherit, it's very important to have a will in place," she says.
Inheritance laws in France mean that at least a proportion of a deceased person's estate must be passed down to the children, the whole amount only going to a spouse if there are none. But under a piece of EU legislation known as Brussels IV, UK residents who own French property can specify in their will that they want the law of their country of nationality (e.g. England and Wales) to apply to their French assets. Another future scenario to consider is the loss of mental capacity through an accident or long-term dementia," says Charlotte. "If you have moved across the Channel without a partner or family support network, make sure you set up a power of attorney in France, authorising someone to look after your personal and financial affairs if need be - sell your house for you, for example, or arrange funds to pay bills on an ongoing basis."
Although some French institutions will accept a power of attorney document made in the UK, most will not, says Charlotte, so it's worth visiting a French notaire and asking then to set up a mandat de protection future.
Any tax perks for single occupants?
Single residents in France don't generally have the tax advantages of married or civil partnership couples, says Debbie Bradbury, of English-speaking French accountants Sareg. This is because income tax returns and wealth tax returns are filed per household, not per person. "However, if a resident is elderly, or has a low income, then there would normally be allowances related to reduced habitation tax, or an exemption from habitation tax," she says. "The family allowance/benefits office (CAF) can also provide other benefits for single people, disabled people, the elderly etc according to certain situations and criteria."
Can I afford it?
When it comes to affordability, it's good news across the board for solo buyers. Average house prices in the vast majority of departments are lower than in north-east England, the most affordable region of the UK, especially away from the coast and major cities. Here are some of the beautiful properties on the market all over France for less than €100,000. So whether you are buying a home with someone else or going it alone with your French property dream, there is every chance that you will find 'the one' in la belle France. On y va!