There it is. You have made your decision, the cash is ready in the bank (or your UK property is on the market), your viewing trip tickets have been booked and you are ready to find your French property. But how does one go about buying a property in France, and is it really that much different than purchasing a property in the UK?
We have highlighted for you the key points of the legal process as well as some important elements to be kept in mind before you commit. In France it is not required to use a solicitor throughout the process, but as you are purchasing in another country and in another language (and though the French estate agent will argue to the contrary!), it is of course recommended to get legal advice early on before you find yourself committed to a purchase which would not meet your requirements.
1. Preliminary steps: French mortgage, deposit, and purchase offer
If you need a French mortgage, it is a good idea, for your peace of mind, to obtain a decision in principle from a French bank before making your offer (though the purchase will be subject to a condition that you do obtain your mortgage).
You will also have to pay a deposit very soon after signature of the preliminary sale and purchase contract, usually 5%-10% of the price of the property, so make sure you are ready to transfer it before signing, and do not hesitate to use the services of a currency dealer to make the best out of your cash.
There is no mandatory way of making an offer: some estate agents are happy with just a letter or email, and some will require you to sign a formal offer. In this event it is recommended to have a solicitor cast their eye over the document to make sure everything is in good order and you are not overly committing at this stage.
2. The most important step: the signature of the preliminary sale and purchase contract
Congratulations, your offer has been accepted! Either the Notaire (a French official tasked with supervising all sales and purchases in France) or the estate agent will draft a preliminary sale and purchase contract (often called “compromis”) for your signature. It is important to be aware that in France you are very quickly legally committed to the purchase, and this is why you cannot just sign this contract without making sure everything has been taken into account. Do you have a specific requirement for your purchase, for example you want to be sure that you will be able to build this swimming pool you have been dreaming of, or you have noticed some issues with the property that you and the seller have agreed would be sorted out before completion? This will have to be included in the contract, as once your 10 day cooling-off period has expired you will not be able to withdraw from the purchase without having to pay penalties or forfeit your deposit.
You will be provided before signature with a set of diagnostic survey reports which will cover topics such as the presence of lead, asbestos, termites, state of the electrics etc. Those reports contain valuable information, but note that unlike in the UK you will not be provided with a full structural survey, and that it is not customary to make the contract dependent on a satisfactory result, so think about commissioning one very early in the process if this is of particular importance to you.
3. Completion, finally!
The preliminary contract has been signed, your cooling-off period has expired, and now starts the wait (usually 2-3 months) until completion. The Notaire will be in charge of drafting the final Transfer Deed, conducting the Land Registry and town planning searches, and, once the conditions precedent are fulfilled, arranging a completion date. But there are still some points for you to consider while waiting! Will you be unable to travel to France for completion? Don’t forget to let the Notaire know as they will have to arrange for French Powers of Attorney to be drafted to be signed in front of either a solicitor or a Notary Public in the UK (and in most cases legalised), which can take some time.
You will also have to insure the property from completion, as it is mandatory in France.
Before completion, it is strongly recommended that you take legal advice from a specialist as to how to structure the ownership of your new French property and the impact of your purchase on your estate planning, as owning a property overseas in a country with a different legal system does have a major impact, often on aspects you had not yet considered. Be aware that the Notaire does not have a duty to advise you on those aspects, and they are often not specialised in cross-border matters.
Once the Transfer Deed has been signed the Notaire will provide you with a short document called an “attestation” (certificate of ownership), which will act in lieu of a Title Deed until the Land Registry processes it (a few months after completion).