Back to buying in France

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Late spring, early summer in 2020 sees us hopefully moving towards a relaxation of the lockdown rules that have so substantially changed all of our lives.  The French property market has taken a huge knock, with agents having been unable to market properties and transactions underway having been put on hold.

It is widely known that part of the process of buying a house in France requires the service of notices to various agencies.  That includes the local authority, or the local agricultural co-operative in the case of a rural property, on which notices are served to clear certain rights that could be acquired by those agencies.  The local planning department has, in general, a set period in which to respond to local search enquiries relating to a property.  All of these time periods have been extended under emergency legislation due to the coronavirus pandemic.

So while we slowly start acclimatising ourselves to new ways, and learn to interact within the health confines of social distancing, we are now seeing the market reignite.  So if your plans for finding that dream home in France were put on hold, you may soon be looking to begin your search once again.

So what will you need to consider when starting out on the search?  Property agents will, of course, be able to offer you a great deal of insight not only into the homes they are selling but also into the regions in which they work.  Similarly, the various French property and living magazines will offer invaluable background information.

All such sources will be of great help, whether in advance of or alongside extended visits to the area of your choice.  Yet that is all self-evident; it is once you have found the property, and agreed a price, that a good deal of the unknown may start: who drafts the contract, when is it signed, when do we have to pay, do we have to attend a completion meeting…? While these questions and others besides are often covered in magazine articles, it is worthwhile occasionally reviewing the basic points to ensure you will be well prepared for this journey that will probably be very new to you, even if you have bought and sold houses in the UK before.

Perhaps one of the most important questions to address can be considered well in advance of any house-hunting trip: how to structure the purchase?  This topic itself regularly features in legal articles, and I will not propose to delve in detail here.  Suffice to say that it is an issue of utmost importance.  However, simply choosing to apply ‘English law’ to your estate, and then knowing that the French house would pass on your death in accordance with the terms of your English Will is not necessarily the most suitable arrangement, even if it is now possible to apply the inheritance laws of your nationality or place of residence to your new home in France.

There are many ways of addressing this particular question, and taking into consideration also the implications of French inheritance tax which may add a further layer of complexity, it is always worth addressing this with expert solicitors in advance of the purchase.  Even if the advice is that there are no complications given your circumstances, advice itself should be of great comfort.

Looking at the purchase contract itself, many buyers are surprised that an estate agent may draft the initial contract (often known as the compromis de vente); this certainly would not happen in the UK after all.  There is, though nothing wrong with this: the contract can be prepared either by the agent or a notaire.  The final sale deed, though, must be prepared by a notaire.

Whoever drafts it there are a number of factors that will need to be included in the initial contract, besides the identity of the parties, the property details and the price.  A number of pre-contract diagnostic reports have to be supplied, prepared at the seller’s expense.  The specific reports will vary depending on the age, location, and type of property, but may include inspections for termites, asbestos, lead paint, a study of any known local natural risks (such as forest fires, flooding, avalanche…), electrical and gas system inspections.

The inspections above provide a fair amount of detail in relation to specific points, such that the buyer is deemed to be fully aware of them.  They may not, though, offer the same overview about a property as a full survey.  Surveys may not be as common in France, but they are prudent.  And there are surveyors with specific expertise in French properties.  If you are going to commission a survey for your further peace of mind, it is prudent to do so before the compromis de vente is signed.

The contract can be signed either in a meeting at the office of the notaire or by circulating it between the parties.  Yet where a notaire is drafting the compromis, is increasingly common for them to issue a draft of this, together with a power of attorney to allow for the parties to be represented at the completion meeting.  In general the representative would be one of the notaire’s staff.  That power of attorney would also allow for the final deed of sale to be completed by the representative in the same way.

If the use of powers of attorney for signature of the first contract has tended to increase over the past few years, rather than all parties signing in person, it has certainly been the standard option during the lockdown period.  Indeed some notaires have started using electronic signature methods during these times, rather than requiring face-to-face meetings.

And while the normal purchase process may slowly be getting back to normal, it could well be that completion meetings in person could in fact become obsolete.  A general consensus that there is an interest in reducing direct face to face contact might lead to notaires continuing to restrict access time.  While the completion meeting may be an amicable event, it would not be surprising to see this limited, especially where party can assert that they have fully understood the terms of a draft deed.  If that is the case, then calling upon a firm of solicitors with requisite expertise in French and English law could well be a sensible choice.

In any event, the process of buying a property in France is something you are not likely to repeat.  While there may be some similarities with what happens in the UK, there are also a number of stark differences.  Understanding what is right, and what needs to be done, can appear a daunting challenge in the absence of a good deal of research and suitable expertise.  Even more so in times of such cataclysmic change.

For individual advice, please contact our French Legal Services team on enquiry@ashtonslegal.co.uk or call 0330 404 0733.


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