Monday, 26 February 2007

Buying a house in France

Published July 2002

When I was considering moving to France I did some online research and found a number of Websites that offered advice about the legal and financial issues. Some proved useful; others did not but, for all of this research, nothing prepared me for what I eventually encountered. Here is a personal account of our experiences, where we ignored all the prevailing advice and dived on in regardless. If we had been more careful we might have had a smoother passage but I'm not sure whether we'd ever have completed the process.

Pinning the tail on the donkey

The first decision to make is "Where do we look?". If price is your highest priority, north is cheaper than south and rural is cheaper than coastal or cities. All pretty predictable, given that it's warmer down south. If weather is your highest priority then they say you must go south of the Loire. South west is cheaper than south east but then it doesn't have the same appeal to the Eurotrash that like to see and be seen around Nice, Antibes and Cannes. The south east is also more accessible as it's on the TGV (train grand vitesse) network and you can shoot down there from London or Paris in no time. There are pockets on the atlantic coast that seem to offer exceptional value for money but then we hit lucky and mapped these against a map nuclear power installations and the mystery was explained.

Aside from price we had a second priority - access to work. Ideally I would continue teleworking from home as I've done for the past 10 years. It is notoriously difficult for a foreigner to gain the confidence of a French employer so it was important to keep our options open. So we opted for the north where prices were accessible but where we could also telecommute to London or perhaps Brussels or Amsterdam as necessary. We decided against Brittany which is rapidly going down the road of mass tourism that we wanted to leave behind us in West Cork. Eventually we cast our eyes on Mayenne, next door to Brittany, in the northern part of the Pays de la Loire region and within striking distance of Rennes, Le Mans and Nantes.

Having a look see

Our next step was to go and have a look. We booked ourselves into a gite just over the border in Brittany which is owned by an English couple with four children. These would be company for our children and I reckoned that English-speaking hosts could be very helpful in our quest. We came for 2 weeks around Halloween and spent the first week playing hookie from our responsibilities and just driving round having a ball. The weather was great, people friendly and the countryside was wonderful and, given the time of year, empty of tourists. During our second week we did the round of estate agents (immobiliers) and visited a number of properties. We saw one wonderful place which comprised two enormous buildings big enough to be the centre for a logistical/distribution business. But it would have taken several modest fortunes to do all the necessary work and I chickened out. A couple of days before we left we viewed the property we eventually bought - a house and another small house surrounding a private courtyard with a modest back garden. Here we ignored conventional advice which is not to buy the first place you see. It was affordable and we'd have enough left over to do much of the necessary renovations - the roof was in a state and the floors needed doing, as well as the usual wiring, plumbing . . . Here we ignored the second piece of conventional advice - make sure the roof is sound.

Making an offer

When we got back to Ireland I emailed the immobilier and made an offer which was about 10 per cent less than the asking price. Communication was pretty poor overall. My patchy french wasn't up to detailed negotiations over the telephone and the immobilier relied on his secretary to prepare responses to emails - delays, delays, delays. Between one thing and another, after a couple of weeks they had accepted our offer although I wasn't sure whether it was at our price. All very vague. Next thing was we had to make another visit to France to sign the Compromis de Vente (promise to buy) and pay the deposit. Language presented a further barrier when I couldn't explain to the immobilier that I needed their bank details to transfer the deposit electronically. So we ended up flying to France at the end of a November with an envelope full of cash that we paid almost 10 per cent to convert into Francs.

Signing the Compromis de Vente

The Compromis de Vente is the first of two binding legal documents that you sign before you purchase a property in France. In it you have to stipulate any conditions that will allow you pull out of the process without forfeiting your deposit, such as getting a mortgage, getting necessary planning permission etc. It is also at this point that you have to consider french inheritance laws which seem bizarre to say the least. We inserted a clause that gets us around the local inheritance laws that would give my property, after my death, not only to my children but to my nieces and nephews and grandchildren and god knows who - probably the family cat. I'm sure it's all very sensible in french eyes but I couldn't make head or tail of it. Only time will tell whether we made a mistake here - hopefully my command of french will have improved by then.

For the signing appointment we flew to Paris on Friday morning and then enjoyed a really smooth ride on the TGV from Paris to Laval. Witnessing French engineering at its best reassured me again that we were doing the right thing. We arrived in Laval with half an hour to spare and took a leisurely stroll down the town to the immobiliers office. And then it got really weird. We were ushered into a fairly small office that was soon crammed with people because, unlike anything I've ever encountered before, both the buyer and the seller have to be present. In our case there were two sellers, the two of us, the immobilier and his assistant who had a smattering of English. We were all given a copy of the Compromis de Vente which contained about 15 pages of legalese which had been rather haltingly translated - at times it was hilarious. The immobilier then had to read through each word of this document and we all had to agree the content paragraph by paragraph. Then we had to hand over all manner of personal documents - passport, bank details etc. etc. which were duly copied and added to the paperwork, and then every one of us had to initial every page of the document as well as dating and signing it in several places. I began to wish for a shorter name.

What seemed an eternity but was actually two hours later we emerged from the stuffy room and went to the pub for a drink with the sellers, a brother and sister. Wiped out from the paperwork, I still couldn't get over my surprise at looking the sellers in the eye before paying over the money. I was also a bit gobsmacked because the final price on the document was lower than we had offered - in this round the language barrier worked for us. We spent a very pleasant hour with M. Majecki, the seller, who was very pleased to discover that we were not buying a holiday home but planning to live here - commenting that we were embarking on "une grande aventure". If only we'd known just how grande it was going to be!

We arranged to meet M Majecki at the house the following morning to plan out some redivision in the garden. Before that we tried to open a bank account but, although some banks were open on Saturday morning, it was impossible to open an account until Monday when we were returning home. We spent time at the house and then met up with M Majecki and his wife and little girl for a drink - we reckoned that even the most hard-nosed of conmen wouldn't bring along the wife and child if they were planning to rip you off - so we felt more comfortable with our decision by the minute.

Also that day they lit the Christmas lights in Laval and I was smitten. It's a small city, population 55,000, built on the River Mayenne which flows into the Loire. It's a fine, proud river and it was decorated with flowing cascades of light down from the medieval castle and dotted with boats with masts all illuminated. We walked across the main bridge under a canopy of lights and I marvelled at the subtle elegance and style of the french, wow. No plastic santies or garish rudolphs but a simple enhancement of the natural beauty of the location. Everyone in the town was out promenading en famille as is the french way - over and back across the bridge and around the square before retiring to a restaurant for lots of fine food.

Monday morning we hit the bank, almost literally. Turned up with all our papers and justicatifs (proofs) to be informed that we'd need an appointment. We explained our predicament - that we were leaving that day and needed to be able to transfer money to buy the house. Finally they relented and three people devoted the next twenty minutes to completing, checking and double-checking the paperwork. Another hurdle surmounted we thought - but thought can make a fool of you as we were to learn.

The waiting game

Back in wet and windy Sherkin Island, Christmas almost upon us, we had to bide our time. It takes about three months for a house sale to be processed in France - all manner of title searching and the like is carried on by the notaire behind the scenes. The Compromis de Vente gave us a date of 28 February but we had things to do before that.

We began by emailing the mairie in the little village where we were buying. This was necessary to establish relations generally as well as to enquire about necessary planning permissions and connecting to the local sewage system. They began to send me volumes of formulaires (forms) for applying for planning permission which were intimidating to say the least. Nor did it help when the cover note said you probably don't need to do these just for your info. Did we or didn't we???

We decided we'd rent a place for a few months so that we could get essential work done on the house before moving in. The immobilier couldn't help - standard lets here are for 3 years and short term lets seem to be unheard of. Eventually we got on to Gite de France and booked ourselves into a gite. Read Chateau living for that story. We decided to travel a bit early so that we'd have time to speak to people and sort out about planning permission before the sale was completed. From what we could gather, because there was a clause about it in the Compromis de Vente, even if we waived our rights nobody could sign off on the thing without satisfying this condition. Caught between a rock and a hard place perhaps.

We went to see the mairie in mid-February who immediately provided the name of a dessinateur (turned out to be a cross between an architect and a project manager) who'd do our planning application. Another day I'll write the stories about the planning and M. Raimbaud (pronounced Rambo with a handshake to match). For now it's enough to say we threw money at the problem and it went away.

February 28 came and went and no meeting set for signing the Acte de Vente (act of sale) and the final deed. I began making phone calls to the auctioneers and M. Majecki and was told that there was a delay because the notaire (notary) lacked a paper. The notaire is a highly-qualified lawyer that oversees all property transactions in France. They are supposed to be impartial, representing buyer and seller equally. Another piece of advice we ignored was that we should have brought in our own notaire to represent our specific interests - this was definitely a mistake - impartial I don't think so. For almost two months the thing dragged on with people beginning to climb willingly behind the language barrier to avoid awkward questions. We were beginning to despair. We extended our stay at the gite to buy time but prices were climbing and we were nowhere nearer completion.

Despite communication difficulties it began to emerge that there were problems with loans on one of the properties. Unlike in Spain where you can buy a property and discover that you owe a fortune on it because of the borrowings of the previous owner, this type of behaviour cannot happen in France. The notaire could not allow us to buy the property until she had authenticated details of all monies owing against the property as well as agreement from creditors about repayment from the proceeds of sale. Nobody wanted to spell it out in detail to us because they were afraid that we would invoke our right to pull from the deal because of the delays. Finally, in desperation, I contacted the Maison d'Europe in Laval and asked for contact info for an English speaker that might be able to help us to understand what was going on. As luck would have it they put me on to somebody from my own home town who runs a language school here. He brought me along to a notaire friend of his the following week and stayed to translate. Between one notaire and another we got our answers quickly. There were 5 hypotheques against the little house which belonged to M Majecki's sister. To my disbelief I learned that it was perfectly believable that she had signed the Compromis de Vente without being aware of this. I had mistakenly believed a hypotheque to be a mortgage but no - it is a judgement. If you owe money to somebody in France and they cannot get it from you they take this information to a central administrator of debts where they investigate your assets and place a judgement against them - all this can be done without informing you. The hypotheque doesn't force you to sell these assets but merely gives the creditor first option on proceeds of sale - an insurance policy. Meantime, however, you could make an arrangement to make stage payments on your debt and might pay off 90 per cent over the course of a year. But until the debt is cleared the hypotheque shows the full amount that was originally entered. What a tangled web.

Anyway, things progressed more quickly after we consulted the second notaire and a couple of weeks later we were all gathered together, this time in the notaire's office, for another signing. Because M. Majecki's wife was part owner of the garden we now had 3 sellers assembled, as well as the immobilier who'd come to collect his fee, and a translator. Guess what, we hadn't been provided with the text of the Acte de Vente in advance, although the translator had received it weeks ago. This time the core document ran to over 20 pages which the translator tells me is the longest she ever saw, itemising in detail every penny that had been owed on the house. I felt that I was party to an incredible intrusion in somebody's privacy - I was just buying a house and didn't want to know the dull, sad story of the sellers financial difficulties. We also discovered that there was an unforeseen right of way issue that nearly brought the whole proceedings to a halt. However, we decided to go for it at the end of the day and there followed the same painstaking initialisation and signing of reams and reams of pages by all present, including the translator for some peculiar reason.

And then we all went to the pub for a celebratory drink.

And it's ours

The following morning we went to the house and collected the keys from M. Majecki. While there a couple of his friends dropped in with a bottle of Muscadet and we all had une petite verre of welcome standing around the courtyard discussing the renovations. One of the visitors was astonished to hear we wanted wooden doors and windows - pvc is your only man - too much work painting every year otherwise. This on a house which is hundreds of years old, and if you use good quality varnish it should survive more than one year.

Lessons learned

  • Don't be in a rush or you'll get ulcers.
  • Expect problems.
  • Get your own notaire. All the english sites recommend you find an english -peaking notaire but unless you're buying in Brittany these are rather thin on the ground.
  • Look for a local translator right at the start.
  • Speak to the mairie before you sign anything.
  • Everybody will tell you it's pas de probleme - don't believe them - this is an aspiration rather than a statement of fact.
  • Learn to love detail and paperwork.
  • If you can survive all of that, you can expect a warm welcome.

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