Buying Guide:

Buying Your Property in France

The Transaction in France

Buying a property in France is not like buying a property in England and Wales. With the right advice and support at the right time, however, the process need not be difficult.

The main steps of the transaction in France are:

1. Agreeing the contract. It may seem strange to an English buyer that the contract comes first in France. However, once the contract becomes binding, it provides certainty: being bound from the start means that the parties know what to expect and gazumping is almost unheard of in France. The contract tends to be negotiated and signed without a preliminary building survey being carried out.

When buying completed or older properties the initial contract is called a "compromis de vente". This commits both parties to the sale and contains all of the details of the property, the terms agreed between them, the conditions for the deposit and funding arrangements.

Where a purchaser is investing in property in the process of being built, it is common to sign a "contrat de réservation". This will stipulate the precise scheme for staged payments to be made as construction progresses.

2. On signing the initial contract, a deposit, usually of 10% of the purchase price, is payable. This is usually paid into a special account where the money is effectively blocked until completion, which takes place at signature of the acte de vente (the completion deed).

3. The seller usually signs the contract first and the document is then sent to the buyer to sign. Signature of the contract by the buyer need not be done on French soil, but when the buyer has signed, he or she must return the contract by recorded delivery to France. This is because there follows a seven-day cooling off period during which time the buyer can reflect on his or her decision and can change his or her mind without penalty. Time limits are strictly adhered to at this stage.

4. The notaire, or notary, will not start acting in the conveyancing process until the seven-day cooling off period has elapsed and the parties are bound to continue. The notary's job is very different from the job of a solicitor in England and Wales. The notary is not in private practice. He is a representative of the state and his role involves the implementation and witnessing of formal documents - including those involved in the French conveyancing process - as well as tax collection. Since the notary is instructed only after agreement by the parties has been reached, he can deal with both seller and buyer. There is no conflict of interest. The buyer can, of course, instruct a different notary, but involving two notaries will increase costs and slow down the transaction.

5. When the contract becomes binding, the notary will carry out certain checks. Examples of the sorts of checks the notary will carry out are:

  • finding out about the presence of lead, the risk of termite damage and the presence of asbestos in the building; and
  • finding out whether the land is affected by any third party rights.

6. Once the notary has carried out all the checks, the final stage of sale is signature of the acte de vente. This is usually done on French soil. It may be, however, that it is not possible for a buyer to be present in France to sign the completion deed, in addition to which, completion dates in France are notoriously changeable. If the buyer cannot be present in France at completion, the notary can prepare a power of attorney for the buyer to sign and which appoints someone - for example, the notary's clerk - to execute the acte de vente on behalf of the buyer. If a power of attorney is required, the notary should be informed as soon as possible.

Important Issues Associated with the Transaction

If England and Wales is your home jurisdiction, you need to remember that buying an immoveable asset (land or buildings) in France means that you need to keep in mind the following issues:

1. Throughout the transaction in France, the notary will focus on your état civil, or civil status. This is a concept we do not tend to deal with often in the UK, but in France it is a very important concept. Your civil status is a body of information about you, including your name, address, date of birth, a married woman's maiden name, passport numbers, nationality, birth certificate details and other such information. One of the most important aspects of a married person's civil status in France is their régime matrimonial. We have no equivalent to this in England and Wales. When couples marry in France, they can choose a matrimonial regime that will govern how assets are owned in the course of the relationship. This regime will govern who gets what, for example, on death. An English married couple buying property in France will have a French matrimonial regime attributed to them by the notary, in the absence of express instructions. This can cause untold problems in the context of an English couple's worldwide estate. It is, therefore, essential to obtain competent legal advice from an experienced lawyer/solicitor in your home country on this subject.

2. France operates a system of "forced heirship". The broad effect of these rules is that certain family members, including children, cannot be disinherited. Often, however, an English couple will want the survivor of them to inherit all (or almost all) their assets on the first death. A variety of difficult situations can be avoided by putting in place the right documents in France and in the UK at the right time. Again, this means instructing an appropriately experienced lawyer/solicitor.

3. You need to make sure that your home-country Wills are up-to-date and that you put in place French Wills. The Wills must not accidentally revoke each other and your home-country lawyer/solicitor can help with this.

4. It is essential not to forget about tax planning both in England and Wales and in France.

5. We would advise instructing a competent lawyer/solicitor, experienced in French property transactions, since the notary in France is not there to hold your hand and oversee the transaction with your best interests in mind.

The above is for information purposes only and is provided "as is" without warranty of any kind, either expressed or implied. FMP recommends you seek independent advice and accepts no liability for any loss arising from reliance upon the above information.