Whether property hunting, making an offer, or signing the final Acte de Vente, there are many things to consider when buying a property in France. And once you add the difficulties of navigating French property law, signing contracts in a foreign language, and dealing with an unfamiliar property market, there is a much greater potential for things to go wrong. Our Beginner’s Guide to Buying French Property will take you through everything you need to know, but knowing what not to do can be just as important. With that in mind, here are some of the most common French property pitfalls to avoid.
Plan Ahead to Avoid Common Pitfalls
From costly renovation disasters to planning permission woes—if you’ve been dreaming about buying a house in France, you’ve likely also imagined a few nightmare scenarios along the way.
The good news is that the French conveyancing system is very well organised and secure. There is no equivalent of reported problems with non-existent title deeds (such as in Cyprus) or invalid planning permissions (such as in Spain). The vast majority of property purchases in France go smoothly, and when mistakes do happen, they are often the result of a lack of knowledge or preparation.
Common pitfalls include purchasing a property without the right documentation (for example, surveys and planning permission certificates), underestimating the costs of renovations and extra fees, and signing contracts without fully understanding the implications of French law. But all of these things can be avoided if you know what questions to ask from the start.
French Buyer’s Mistakes: During Your Property Visit
Do your research before visiting a French property and make a list of questions to ask to avoid missing anything. Here are some of the key mistakes to avoid at the decision stage:
Viewing your property through rose-tinted glasses
It’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of finding your perfect French property, but be sure to take off your rose-tinted glasses before signing anything. Survey your potential property with critical eyes—note its downsides and necessary renovations, look carefully at access (in country areas, be sure to check access rights to private land and lanes that border your property, too), consider the location and neighbourhood. Think about how the property and location will be at different times and seasons. That 100-year-old farmhouse in the heart of the countryside might be a dream under the summer sunshine, but what about in mid-winter when the access roads are flooded, it’s grey and dreary, and the nearest supermarket is an hour’s drive away? Similarly, if you’re buying a city apartment, it’s wise to visit the area on a Friday or Saturday evening, as well as on a quiet weekday afternoon.
Another good pointer is to ask why the sellers are selling. Is there some hidden or undisclosed reason for the sale, such as noisy neighbours or a nearby factory you weren’t aware of. If the previous owner has died or if the current owners are divorcing, this could lead to delays in the transaction, so it is best to know all the facts at the outset.
Being unrealistic about renovations
Don’t underestimate any work that needs undertaking, especially when buying an old property or conversion. Be sure to factor these additional costs into your budget and be realistic about what work you can carry out yourself, the timescale and costs of hiring architects and builders, and whether or not you will need planning permission. It’s best to overestimate renovation costs at this stage than end up with unexpected bills once the sale has already gone through.
Not getting the right documentation
Ensuring that the property has all the correct documentation is essential. Has the property been extended, or is it a conversion from a former agricultural building? In either case, it is important to check what planning permission was required for the work and whether all requisite consents and certificates of conformity were obtained. If the property is less than 10 years old, there should be an insurance guarantee in respect of the structure and major works. You should seek confirmation that there is a valid insurance policy (or the remaining portion of it) available for you to claim against in the event of a defect arising linked to the construction.
Always ask questions about the foul drainage system, especially in rural areas. If the property is not connected to mains drainage, a seller is required to produce a report giving details of the individual drainage system and whether it complies with current requirements. The report must be no more than three years old when the property is sold.
If the property you are considering buying is an apartment or is part of a complex with shared facilities, there will be a legal structure in place known as “une copropriété” (a co-ownership). All owners have voting rights and are entitled to attend an Annual General Meeting of the co-owners. It is essential to request a copy of the minutes of the last year’s AGM as this will give a good indication as to whether the block or complex is well managed or is fraught with problems.
Legal Pitfalls to Avoid When Buying French Property
French property sales can happen much quicker than in the UK or the United States, and if you’re crunched for time, it’s easy to get swept up in the process. Here are the key French property pitfalls to avoid during the buying procedure:
Not seeking independent advice before you purchase
All property purchases in France must be legally undertaken by a notaire, and it is standard practice for a single notaire to represent both the buyer and seller. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t appoint your own notaire, receive independent advice from a UK solicitor, or consult a French law specialist. This is especially important if your native language is English—having a bilingual specialist who can explain important legal details can be invaluable. Most, importantly: if you don’t understand what you are signing, don’t sign!
Making direct payments without your notaire
Never agree to pay any part of the purchase price directly to the seller. Always insist that the full purchase price is paid via the notaire. You will be required to make a declaration in the purchase deed confirming that the price stated in the deed is the full price and you are warned that any breach of this can lead to substantial tax penalties. You should politely ignore any suggestions from either the seller or the agent that “under the table” payments are common practice in the area. Put very simply, it is against the law.
One exception to this rule is where both the buyer and the seller are British, it is quite common for them to agree to make the sale and purchase a sterling transaction. This is permissible, and most notaries will agree to such a proposal, but only on the basis that the sale price actually passes through the account of a UK solicitor who can confirm the funds have been paid and received. Therefore paying the purchase price in sterling direct to the seller will rarely be acceptable to the notary in France.
Not budgeting for fees and taxes
As well as considering renovation works, another factor to consider in your budget are the notaire’s and agents fees, which can easily add an additional 15% onto the purchase price. Mortgage fees, solicitor’s fees, surveys, and taxes (most of these, including stamp duty, are included in the notaire’s fees) also need to be accounted for.
Not thinking about French inheritance law
One big difference for foreign buyers when buying a house in France are laws regarding inheritance. Under French law, you don’t have the same rights to choose who to leave your property to unless you insert a certain clause into the sales contract at the time of purchase, a portion of your estate will pass to your children. There are also potential inheritance tax consequences, particularly for unmarried partners purchasing a house together.
For more on this, consult our article on French property ownership. The critical thing to note is that this can only be done at the time of buying, so it is imperative that you understand your options and get professional advice before signing the contract.
Not getting a survey done
Do not believe the myth that the French don’t do surveys. French buyers generally appoint an architect, builder or other construction specialist to look over a property for them before they buy. Therefore, don’t feel nervous of telling your seller or the agent that you have decided to have a survey carried out.
Avoiding French Property Pitfalls
Being aware of the most common French property pitfalls means you can plan and prepare accordingly. The best advice is to ask lots of questions and, if possible, revisit the property on several occasions so as to have time to carry out a close inspection before signing on the dotted line!
FrenchEntrée not only has a team of dedicated professionals to aid you in your property search and purchase, but our Buying Property zone is full of practical advice for French property buyers.