Once you have agreed to buy a house in France, and signed the compromis de vente, you are committed to buy, or forfeit 10% of the price.
In many cases the sale will be subject to certain conditions, the most common being the ability of the buyer to raise the necessary finance if buying with a mortgage, and ensuring that permission can be granted for any vital conversion work. These are known as ‘clauses suspensives’, and by signing the compromis the buyer and seller agree to these conditions, which if they cannot be met, mean that the sale can be terminated and the deposit returned to the buyer.
The purchaser can request and negotiate the insertion of other additional Provisional conditions before the Compromis is signed e.g. vendor to service the electrical equipment or provide additional guarantees, complete building work, obtain planning approval etc – these may not be agreed to by the vendor but if they might impact your property it is worth asking for them to be inserted If anything happens that causes the sale not to proceed, and is not covered by one of these clauses, then you are liable to forfeit your deposit, so it is essential to get things right at this stage. The agent should help you here – after all, the agent is working for you, as you pay the agent’s fee. (but of course the agent is also keen to have the sale go ahead). It’s worth pointing out that if the seller defaults, he is also liable to pay you a sum equivalent to your deposit.
So whatever you do don’t let a pushy agent rush you into signing before you are ready, and you are satisfied that the house is what you want, and that you will be able to do with it what you intend. OK, there’s a 7-day cooling off period, but this isn’t a lot of time in which to check up on all those things you should have got straight before signing the paperwork.
Perhaps the most important thing is the way in which you are going to use the property. If you have bought a barn to convert into a house, has permission been granted to use it as a house?
Such permission is needed, and is getting increasingly hard to obtain. It can be refused on grounds of not having water or electricity connected, being too close to a road, too near existing agricultural buildings, or even just local policies. Even a building that may have started off as a house but has been an agricultural building for as long as anyone can remember may need permission to be changed back again. It counts for little that a neighbour may be living – literally- right next door to his cowshed. France is full of rules, and these are being added to and amended all the time. When your neighbour moved in, nobody had a rule to say that dwellings and cowsheds had to be at least 100m apart.
It’s the same with having a house with outbuildings, which you may want to convert into holiday accommodation. Permission will have to be sought.
It happens too easily and frequently that somebody pays a good price for a barn for conversion, only to find, well after the sale has completed, that permission will not be given and there was no clause covering this in the hastily-signed compromis. The buyer is then left with a derelict agricultural building worth a fraction of its original price. Don’t let this happen to you. A good agent or notaire will have some idea of what the local policy is on conversions. They can make it a condition of sale by writing into the compromise de vente that a CU (certificate d’urbanisme, equivalent to outline planning permission or change of use) can be obtained. But if the agent or notaire doesn’t know that is what you want to do, they won’t be able to protect your interests.
A visit to the local Mairie (town hall – every commune in France has one) will give you some idea about local policies. You won’t get a definitive yes – this has to be decided democratically by the local councils – but you will be told if, for example, barn conversations are a definite no-no in your commune. You should also check at the Mairie for any planning applications or approvals that may apply to land adjacent or near your plot as these will not have been revealed by the Notaire’s standard queries.
In England it is common to have a house surveyed before buying, but in France this is rare. This is partly because French mortgage lenders are not interested in what you are buying, merely your ability to repay the loan. If there are doubts about the structural condition of the house you want to buy, the best thing is to get a builder or an architect to inspect it and provide an estimate of repair costs. There are (mostly British) structural surveyors operating in France – your agent, or the notaire, should be able to tell you if there is one in your area. Any survey or inspection is normally carried out before making an offer to buy, though it may sometimes be possible to have a ‘subject to survey’ clause inserted in the compromis.
Having given due consideration to planning, do you have to get electricity and/or water connected? Will you need to install a septic tank for drainage? The cost of these can be significant, and it pays to get some idea. Again, a good agent should be able to help you find out. Local water companies are generally responsible for supply, but EdF and France Telecom (ulrn “http://www.francetelecom.com”) are national companies responsible for electricity and phone networks, respectively. The links should take you to your local offices.
Then there’s the actual cost of restoration. This will be covered in more detail elsewhere on these pages but costs, and timescales, always increase, often several times over. Can you afford this? Might you do better to opt for a house where more has been done to make it habitable?
Acte de Vente – final signing
Finally, after signing the compromis but before signing the final Acte de Vente, it is vital to get the inheritance regime right, as this cannot easily be changed afterwards and you won’t want your heirs to be responsible for high inheritance taxes (up to about 60%) if this can be avoided.
The advice of the notaire or other legal or tax advisor will be invaluable. For a married couple, and children from the current marriage, things will be straightforward. But for those in second marriages, unmarried couples, or unrelated people buying together, things can get very complicated. There are several options, including setting up a property-owning company (SCI), all of which have advantages and disadvantages.
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