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Podcast

What You Should Know Before Buying Property In France



 

If you’re planning to move to France and become a homeowner, you’re going to love today’s guest. Mark Sayers is the Head of the Pyrénées-Orientales team at Artaxa - a real estate agency in Perpignan. Buying property in a foreign country can be a pretty daunting task, with lots of unfamiliar processes. I know because, funnily enough, I’ve just been through it - and here in France. And I really wish I’d had this chat with Mark before we bought our home, because I would have had a much better understanding of what we were about to go through. From the best approach to house hunting in France, to making an offer - and knowing if there’s room to negotiate... what agency and notary fees to expect, and how long it typically takes before you get the keys. Mark is going to cover it all in this episode.



Carlie: Hello there. It’s Carlie with another episode of the Expat Focus podcast. If you’re planning to move to France and become a homeowner, you’re going to love today’s guest. Mark Sayers is the head of the Pyrénées-Orientales team at Artaxa, a real estate agency in Perpignan.

Buying property in a foreign country can be a pretty daunting task, with lots of unfamiliar processes. I know, because funnily enough, I’ve just been through it, and here in France, and I really wish I’d had this chat with Mark before we bought our home, because I would have had a much better understanding of what we were about to go through. From the best approach to house-hunting in France to making an offer, knowing if there’s room to negotiate what agency and notary fees to expect, and how long it typically takes before you get the keys, Mark is going to cover it all in this episode. If you have any questions for him or want to share your own French property-buying experiences, head over to expatfocus.com, follow the links to our France forum or Facebook group.

Mark, tell me briefly about your background – how long have you been involved in selling property in France?

Mark: I’ve been involved for 16 years now, as far as my background is concerned. I’ve always loved speaking French and learning French, right from when I was a schoolkid, so much so that I knew very early on that I wanted to go and study it at university. And that’s what I did at the University of Sheffield in England. Part of that university course was to spend a year in France, which was part of the reason I wanted to do it of course. And I chose to go to the University of Perpignan. So, at the age of 21, I spent a year in Perpignan. For those that don’t know Perpignan, it’s right down in the south of France, near the Spanish border, on the Mediterranean, near the ski slopes, and it’s a fantastic place to spend your time.

Carlie: Sounds very idyllic. [laughs]

Mark: It is, it’s lovely. It’s lovely. I didn’t know it at the time, I didn’t know where I was going. But I just looked on a map, it seemed as far south as you could get. And so I thought, “Yeah, that’s the place for me.” And at that point, I said, “Right, I’m going to come back here at some point in my life.” I didn’t know when that was going to be, but I was pretty sure I was coming back. And I subsequently spent 10 years living and working in London, and speaking no French whatsoever, in various jobs, which always struck me as ridiculous, but you know, you get swept along in these things.

And towards the end of those 10 years, myself and my then-girlfriend, Louise, who is now my wife, were coming to the conclusion that really we should do something with our languages. She spoke fluent French and Spanish, and I was a French speaker. So, we were thinking maybe we should actually go out and use our languages.

I got made redundant, which was a perfect reason to make a change in our lives. So we decided that if we didn’t move out to France and try and make a go of it, then we’d always wonder what would have happened had we done it. So we decided to make the move. At the time, we didn’t know what we were going to do when we got here. So, we were trying to establish what the best thing to do was. I had a friend, Steve, who was looking to buy a small hotel, bed-and-breakfast in France at the time, but he had no desire to come and live in France himself. So we got together with him, we said, “Well, listen, if you buy something, we’re perfectly happy to come out and run it for you, and that’ll be our route to France, and give us something to do when we get here.”

So we went to a property exhibition in London, French property exhibition, to see what was around, see if we could find something that he fancied buying. And it was during that exhibition that we got chatting to agents, got chatting about what they did and how they operated, and it very quickly became clear to myself and Louise that that was something that we’d be interested in doing. And I’ve got a bit of a background in property, my father ran a building company for many years, which he then developed into a property investment company. But it was really the idea of helping people to buy property in an unfamiliar system and in an unfamiliar language which really appealed to us.

So in 2003, we made the move, we moved out. It was quite a year – we moved countries, started up a business, and got married in that same year, and business was –

Carlie: Because why not do it all at once, you know?

Mark: Well, exactly, yeah. We thought, in for a penny … [laughs] There were times when we thought we’d bitten off more than we could chew, but we plowed on regardless, and we got through it.

So, we set up a business, which we called Med and Mountain Properties, and a few years down the line we merged with Artaxa, which is where I am now. So I now run the Pyrenees-Orientale team for Artaxa.

Carlie: So, Mark, you had a bit of knowledge about property before you moved to France and started working in real estate. From that perspective, of UK property, what do you think the biggest misconception is that expats have when they’re looking to buy in France?

Mark: I think if you imagine you’re sat in the UK and you’re thinking, “Maybe I should buy a property in France,” people have a dream, people have an image of what that property might look like. Which is fine – that’s the reason that a lot of people want to make the purchase in the first place. However, I think the common misconception is that that exact property exists. Of course, it’s a projection of the kind of property that you might like, but you have to be a little bit careful in thinking that you’re going to come around the corner one day and that property is going to present itself. As much as it’s a good thing to have a romantic image of what you might like to buy, and that’s very important, the reality is that you also need to be a little bit scientific about it. You can have too many requirements if you’re not careful. You can have too many stipulations.

My advice is always that people should prioritize their requirements. What are your fundamental must-haves? There will be certain criteria which, really, you can’t compromise on. So if you’re a family of three, for example, you’re unlikely to want to settle for a property which has only got one bedroom. Then, you’ll have criteria which are desirable but which maybe you could actually compromise on. Maybe you’re looking for a certain size garden, ideally, but then you find a property which has great views and everything else is great for you, and so you’re prepared to accept that the garden isn’t quite as big as you’d imagined in the first place. That’s an essential part of the property-finding process. And as I say, to labor under the misconception that the ideal property is out there somewhere is a mistake, in my view.

So, the fundamental must-haves, the ones that you can compromise on, and then there’ll be a whole load of nice-to-haves as well. We had a lady once who, we sent various property pictures out to her, and she rejected all of them. And when I spoke to her to find out why, it was because they didn’t have blue shutters. So that’s the kind of thing …

Carlie: Aw …

[laughter]

Carlie: See, this is what I blame on all those beautiful French property magazines, this misconception.

Mark: Exactly. And as I say, it’s fine to have a dream, it’s fine to project that image of your dream home, and sometimes you can make it your dream home by simply painting the shutters blue.

Carlie: [laughs] Exactly.

Mark: But if you narrow your options to that extent and you just expect to find the readymade, perfect property, then unfortunately, you’re going to be looking for quite a long time. Equally – sorry, I should add that although you can have too many criteria, not having any criteria is just as unhelpful. Sometimes, we hear the immortal phrase, “Oh, don’t worry, I’ll know it when I see it.” Well, that’s no help to us as agents, to try and find the right property for you. That just means that you’re taking a scattergun approach, you’re driving around countless properties, hoping that one of them is just going to suddenly be the one that you fall in love with. And as I say, unfortunately, it needs to be a little bit more scientific than that and you need to help your agent to help you by giving them the information that allows them to show you the right properties in the first place.

Carlie: One of our previous guests, Phil, spoke about running a B&B in the French countryside, and he spoke about … when they were choosing their French property, they actually had a checklist and a pros and cons list, and that dictated when they were narrowing down their search and deciding which place to ultimately buy.

Mark: That’s it. And again, I use this word “dream property”. And it’s not everyone’s dream to walk around with a checklist. But if you want to use your time the most effectively and give yourself the best chance of finding the ideal property for you, then that’s what you need to do. It’s by far the best way. And you won’t check all of those boxes, but if you’re ticking the majority of them, then that’s pretty good.

Carlie: Can you talk me through the typical steps involved in looking at properties through an agent in France, making the offer, settling, and so on? Is it similar to what UK expats, for example, might be used to?

Mark: There are differences, certainly. There’s also similarities of course. But if I try and take you through a little bit in chronological order, the initial step inevitably is the internet. It’s a great resource, where you’ve got a whole raft of properties which you can look at. You can very easily compare, within your price range, the kind of property that you might expect to find. And you can really get a feel for the kind of property that you might wish to purchase. Crucially, however, you should absolutely speak to the agent who is advertising that property. A good agent will seek to understand your requirements and advise you as to whether you’ve made a good choice in selecting that property or not.

So, it’s very difficult when you’re looking on the internet – you can have an idea of what a property is like. But what we find is that when we speak to people, frequently, the first property that they enquired about actually isn’t quite right for them. There may be any number of reasons why. Maybe they didn’t quite understand that it’s halfway up a mountain. Maybe it’s a little bit closer to the sea than they envisaged. Or whatever it might be. But unless you speak about that property, you can’t reassure yourself that it’s worth visiting. And it’s just as important to discount properties and make sure that you’re using your time effectively as it is to select them. So my advice is always to speak to somebody before coming out.

On that note, incidentally, it’s therefore of course important that they speak your language. It’s very difficult to communicate if you don’t speak French, you’re speaking to a French agent, that doesn’t really achieve much.

Once the conversation has been had and the agent understands your requirements, then typically, details are sent out to the buyer of various properties. And the idea is to then talk again and come up with a short list of properties that the customer would like to visit once they arrive in France. Again, it’s all about trying to maximize how effective your time is, and try and avoid wasting time trawling around looking at unsuitable properties.

When, typically, people come out to see us, they come to the office, to then go on to see the properties. But because we cover a large area, as do several other agents, it’s not always practical to meet up in the office. If you’re seeing properties which are three-quarters of an hour away from the office, we wouldn’t drag you all the way here just to go out and see those properties. So it’s fine to meet elsewhere. The visits will then take place. Again, it’s the agent’s role to be as informative as possible on the particular properties.

My advice to anybody going around visiting properties is to make notes while you do it. You may imagine that “Well, we’re only seeing two or three properties today, so I’ll remember them all.” It’s surprising how quickly they all just merge into one and you forget individual details about each, and you get confused. So make some clear notes, and make sure that you remember exactly what each property was like.

Carlie: And agents are fine if you take photos as well?

Mark: Absolutely, yes. We’d always … if the vendor was there, if the owner of the property is there, then we’d always just check that they’re okay with that. But I’ve never had anyone refuse. Yes, absolutely, it’s all about whatever helps you to remember exactly what it was like. And as far as we’re concerned, it’s a good thing. We’d rather you took photos and then had a look at those afterwards to remind yourself than have a slightly jaded and wrong memory of what the house was like.

Carlie: We just finished our house search here in Strasburg, and my boyfriend became very good at using Google Earth to pinpoint the location of a property that he saw online, because the actual addresses aren’t listed on real estate websites, and there’s obviously a good reason for this. But some buyers, I noticed in our Expat Focus forums and Facebook groups, get a little bit uptight about the fact that they’re not given the exact address by agents or they have to sign a disclosure when they’re going through an agent. Can you explain a little bit about why that exists?

Mark: Yeah, certainly. It’s understandable that customers would like to know where the property is. As I’ve said, that’s the value of talking to an agent, is that you can establish exactly where it is and you make sure that it’s suitable for you as a consequence. The reason why agents are a little bit reluctant is because they don’t want the buyer – unscrupulous buyers – to find out where the property is, go and knock on the door, and say to the vendor, “I hear you’re selling your property. Do you want to do a deal?” And therefore, the agent has done a lot of work in marketing the property and attracting the buyer in the first place, only to then be cut out of the deal and receive nothing for it, because the transaction’s conducted between the two parties without the agent.

So, what we do … as I said, we recognize completely that people would like to know where the property is. So if someone shows an interest in a property and asks for the address, firstly, we’ll check with the vendor that that’s okay. Because it’s actually not for us to start publishing to all and sundry where exactly a property is. It could be that the vendor doesn’t want people to know. And we’d simply say to the vendor, “Just to let you know, I’m giving these details to Mr Jones,” or whoever it might be, “so if he comes knocking on your door, can you please ask him to give me a call?” The owners know that in signing a mandate for us to sell the property, that this trust exists between the two parties, that if we have legitimately attracted someone to have a look at the house, that is a client that we have a claim on, if you like. [chuckles] Sorry to use such commercial language.

Carlie: Harsh but true, yeah.

Mark: But you know, I love the job, because it enables us to help people achieve their dreams. It is a commercial operation at the same time. We’re not a charity and we can’t just do all of the work that we do for no gain whatsoever. So, when we do our job well, it’s understandable that we’d like to get paid for that service.

I can understand people completely. And especially if you ask an agent where the property is and they point-blank refuse to tell you, then I can understand that getting people’s backs up, if you like. But as long as there’s an element of trust between all the parties, everybody knows what the story is, then of course we’ll tell people where the property is.

Carlie: Yeah, makes complete sense. And as you say, this is your livelihood and your business after all. So that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

Mark: Sure. It is. [chuckles]

Carlie: So once you’ve viewed some properties and you’ve decided you want to make an offer on one in France, how do you go about that?

Mark: Well, the offer itself, generally, it’s a discussion between yourself and the agent, first of all, because the agent will have some helpful advice as to what kind of level the offer might accepted at, if you like. So normally, it’s just a case of the agent phoning the vendor, or going to see them if it’s practical, putting in the offer, and the negotiation taking place. It’s usually quite a quick process, maybe two, three phone calls at most, before a price is decided.

Sometimes, the offer is put in writing, if it’s deemed appropriate. And certainly, once the offer is accepted, then we draw up a document to confirm that the offer has been made, the offer has been accepted, and everybody is happy with the outcome.

Carlie: Now, I know back in Australia, where I’m originally from, if a house is for sale for $300,000 online, you know perfectly well that the buyer’s really not going to accept $300,000, and they’re shooting for higher than that. And obviously, there’s a big auction culture in Australia too. How does it work in terms of negotiating in France? Is the advertised price for a property generally what the homeowner is looking to receive? Are they expecting people to go higher or lower?

Mark: Generally speaking, they’re certainly not expecting people to go higher. You don’t generally see anything advertised with words such as “offers in excess of” or anything like that. It’s not impossible. I believe in certain areas of Paris, for instance, where there’s very, very sought-after areas and no shortage of buyers, that that kind of system is in place. But as a general rule throughout France, you’d expect to negotiate a price and the buyer would expect to pay a little bit below the asking price rather than the other way around. That negotiation can either take the form of simply a reduction in price or the owner might say, “Well, I would like the asking price, but why don’t I throw in the furniture,” for instance. So it is a proper negotiation, whereby the idea is that both parties are happy with the results.

What I would say is that any potential buyers should beware of people who tell them in a very generalized way, “In France, you should expect to negotiate x percent of the price.” That’s just rubbish. Every negotiation is on a case by case basis and every seller’s circumstances are different. If a seller has just recently reduced the price of their house to try and attract buyers, for instance, they’re unlikely to want to negotiate an awful lot more off the price once someone shows an interest. By the same token, someone might need to sell urgently, for whatever reason. So it becomes a little bit more urgent that they get rid of the property even if they have to accept a little bit lower than they would otherwise have done.

Whatever the circumstances, your agent should be able to guide you on that, because they should know exactly what the situation is. And for someone who is in a real hurry to buy, typically, they would like people to know that. There’s no point in someone who’s in a hurry to buy holding out for the highest price possible, because that doesn’t achieve their objectives. That means that people might have been interested at a slightly lower price, but actually, they’ve now wandered off and bought something else because they didn’t realize that the owner is trying to encourage negotiation.

Carlie: Speaking of being in a hurry to buy, we’ve seen a lot of it from expats in the UK wanting to get over France, particularly in the face of Brexit and the uncertainty about whether they’ll still be able to easily move after Brexit. So, how long does the settlement process typically take, from when you put in an offer and it’s accepted, and what are some ways that could possibly speed up that process?

Mark: If I could just answer that by going back slightly to what we were talking about, about the whole process.

Carlie: Absolutely.

Mark: Because I think that’s the easiest way to cover that.

So what happens post-offer? Once the offer’s accepted, the first task, either by the agent or by the notaire, is to draw up what’s called the Compromis de Vente. This is the pre-sale agreement, which sets out the agreed price and all the conditions of the sale, so that everybody knows where they are right from the word ‘go’. The idea is that both parties sign that Compromis as soon as possible, because as soon as the vendor signs, then they’re committed to selling their property, and as soon as the buyer signs, then they have a 10-day cooling-off period during which they can change their mind and they can withdraw for any reason they want, without any penalty. However, after those 10 days, the contract is binding.

That’s one reason why the system works so well in France, because at that point, both parties know where they are. We always hear horror stories from the UK, for instance, about right at the very last moment, someone who thinks that they’re moving into the property, they’ve got the deliveries arranged and everything, they arrive at the day of completion only for the seller to say, “You know what? Actually, I need another 10,000, 20,000 pounds, otherwise the deal doesn’t go ahead.”
In the UK system, that’s possible, because everything is left to the very last minute before completion takes place. In France –

Carlie: That blows my tiny mind. [laughs]

Mark: Well, mine too. And I don’t know why they don’t change it, to be honest. But I’m sure there are their reasons.

And it can work the other way around as well. A buyer might decide at the very last moment, “Actually, I’m going to reduce my offer, so take it or leave it.” And it’s not uncommon – in fact, it’s increasingly common, unfortunately. So, the system whereby, 10 days after signing the Compromis, both parties know where they are is a very good one. And the penalty for withdrawing after that date for no good reason is 10% of the purchase price. That’s quite a hefty penalty to pay. You have to be very sure that you no longer want to buy or sell the property before you forego 10% of the purchase price.

To answer your other question, once we arrive at that stage, typically between signing the Compromis and signing the Acte de Vente, which is the final contract, the completion contract, takes between two and three months. Now, that can be accelerated. During that time, there’s various things that have to happen. The buyer pays a deposit, first of all, which is normally 5%. There’s a common misconception that it’s always 10%, for some reason that I’ve never understood, but actually, the reality is that normally the buyer pays 5% deposit. And the notaire goes off and does the various checks and searches on the property and the title deeds, to make sure that there’s nothing the buyer isn’t aware of that might have an effect on whether they want to buy the property.

So, that takes a bit of time. But if a transaction is going to last the full three months, for instance, it’s usually down to one or both of two reasons. Firstly, if the buyer is applying for a mortgage, that can delay things, because the buyer really needs to keep on top of the bank, and make absolutely sure that the various steps are being completed, and not just leave them to their own devices. Because left to their own devices, the banks can really take their time, and it can delay everything.

The other reason is the droit de preemption, and this is the preemption right that, in most transactions in France, the mairie have over the property. So if the mairie, for some reason, is interested in buying the property themselves, then they have the right to do so, and in those circumstances, they declare, “We would like to buy this property,” and at that point, the vendor therefore still gets to sell to the mairie, but the buyer unfortunately can’t buy any more. The mairie being the town hall, in case anybody –

Carlie: That’s really interesting. Is it common that the mairie, the town hall might sidestep in and go, “Hey guys, actually, I want your house.”

Mark: [chuckles] It’s not common, but it happens. We had one recently whereby … there was a house in the center of a village, and the mairie have plans to build a car park, and so the house came up for sale, a buyer was found, so the notaire informed the mairie this transaction is going ahead. And the mairie decided to buy the house, so that they could, unfortunately, demolish it and build the carpark in its place.

So, it has to be for a town planning reason such as that, if you like. There has to be a good reason for it, not just because they fancy moving in themselves or what have you.

Carlie: And is this something the real estate agent may know in advance, or it really surprises everyone?

Mark: It’s not impossible for it to be common knowledge that something’s going to happen and therefore there’s a strong chance that the mairie might preempt. But generally, you wouldn’t know in advance. So it is a bit of a pain in the backside when it happens. The reason I mention it here is because the mairie by law has two months to reply to the notaire’s request as to whether they want to preempt or not. Sometimes, the mairie knows full that they don’t want to preempt, however, they just stick it to the bottom of the pile and two months elapses before anything can then proceed with the house sale. It’s not impossible for the notaire to get on top of the mairie and to ask for a response before that, but as I say, legally, they do have two months, if they want to take it, before replying, or they don’t even bother replying at all.

Carlie: Okay, so everything going well, you’ve got your loan sorted, the mairie is not interested in the property you want to buy, everything is moving along nicely in that three-month timeframe. What’s the next step?

Mark: As I say, once the notaire has checked that there’s nothing untoward … so, the notaire will check that there’s no rights of way over the property, for instance, that you weren’t aware of as the buyer. The notaire will check whether there’s an outstanding loan on the property, a mortgage on the property. And if there is, then the notaire will make sure that the money that the seller is receiving for the transaction is sufficient to pay off their mortgage, and there’s not going to be an outstanding amount afterwards. Otherwise, the completion can’t go ahead.

Once the notaire has completed their searches, typically, they’ll inform us, “Okay, I’m ready when you are. Let’s get together and sign the final acte,” as it’s called. The acte can be signed in person by the parties, which is the norm, and it’s quite a nice occasion to get everybody together of course, at the notaire’s office, and sign the final acte, and hand over the keys at that point to the buyers. If the buyers or the sellers aren’t available, it can also be done by power of attorney. But it does need to take place at the notaire’s office.

Typically, the buyer will take possession of the property on the day of the signing of the final acte. That’s when the champagne comes out and everybody’s happy.

Carlie: So exciting!

Mark: Yeah. [chuckles]

Carlie: Before that happens, you mentioned the notaire does checks to make sure there’s no outstanding debts on the property or any other issues. If the notaire does find something, could that be reason for the sale not to go ahead and for no one to need to pay penalty fees?

Mark: It could be, yes. It’s a little bit subjective, and the terms that are usually used are that the notaire mustn’t reveal anything which might impact the property or render it improper for its intended use, or indeed diminish the value of the property.

So, if the buyer considers that whatever news they’ve just found out – there’s a sewage plant about to be built next door, for instance, then they could legitimately say, “Well, look, as soon as I’ve bought this property, the value is going to nosedive, so therefore, I’m within my rights to refuse to buy it.” If it’s something … if there’s a school going to be built 2 km away, it might be deemed well that that doesn’t really change an awful lot, and therefore it’s not really a reason to withdraw.
So the safeguards are there, however, it does need justifying, that it would be a reason to pull out, and not just an excuse to pull out, if you like.

Carlie: Mark, another topic that comes up quite often in our forums and Facebook groups is the issue of who the notaire is working for and whether, as the buyer, you should get your own separate notary. What can you tell me about the notaire and their bias or lack of bias in this process?

Mark: [chuckles] Well, generally speaking, there’s no need to worry, I would say, in my experience. Everybody has the right to appoint their own notaire. However, 99% of our transactions take place with just the one. Generally speaking, what happens is the vendor will often appoint a notaire, and often, that makes perfect sense, because it’ll be the notaire who handled the transaction when the owner bought the property themselves, and therefore, the title deeds and all the information about the property and the owner will already be at the notaire’s office. So that makes perfect sense. If the buyer wants to appoint their own notaire as well, then they’re perfectly within their rights to do so.

What I think is important to understand when you’re comparing, for instance, with the UK system or other parts of the world, is that the notaire is a state-appointed official, if you like. So, they’re not like a solicitor – in the UK, for instance, the buyer will have a solicitor, the seller will have solicitor, those two solicitors go head to head, fighting for their client to have every single slightest desire catered for, often justifying their own expenses and fighting over things that really the buyer and the seller themselves couldn’t care less about. That might be a little bit of an exaggeration in most cases, but that is the possibility, that is the danger.

When there’s only one notaire, they are duty-bound to oversee the transaction and represent both parties. And that is, 99% of the time, what happens, as I say. If the buyer feels, for whatever reason, that they want to appoint their own notaire, then that’s fine. Things to be aware of is that it doesn’t cost any more to appoint your own notaire, because the two notaires will simply share the fees. However, it does generally mean that it might take a little bit more time, because documents have to be passed between the two notaires, everything has to be approved, and both notaires need to make sure that they’re happy with the documents.

They’re slightly less motivated, in all honesty, because they’re only getting half of the fees that they would otherwise be getting. It’s the reality of the situation. And one other thing that we find quite frequently is that it’s a little bit too easy for each notaire to blame the other one for any delays that take place. We’ll frequently phone up a notaire and say, “Where’s this document? Why haven’t we got this yet?” And they’ll say, “Oh, you need to speak to the other one.” We phone the other one, and we get passed back to the first one, and so on. That’s not the end of the world – that’s for us to manage, and that’s just part and parcel of it.

However, to sum up, I would never try to dissuade someone from appointing their own notaire, because the idea is that everybody is comfortable and everybody has peace of mind. And you have the right, as I say, to appoint your own notaire. However, in my opinion and in most of our customers’ opinions, it’s rarely necessary.

Carlie: If you don’t speak French, should you have a translator or should you ensure the notaire involved speaks English or whatever language is your native language?

Mark: When I first arrived in France, I was absolutely gobsmacked, and I remain gobsmacked today, at how many people will wander into a French agent, will sign documents to the French agent not understanding a word of what they’re signing, and then they’ll wander into the notaire’s office, and they’ll sign a legally binding contract to purchase a property, without any idea of what the [contents] are, keeping their fingers crossed and hoping for the best.

Which is something that they would never dream of doing in their own country, in their own language. So as far as I’m concerned and the service that we provide, and the whole reason why I came here in the first place – people should absolutely have someone with them that can explain to them exactly what they’re signing, can go through the contracts with a fine-tooth comb, and accompany them to the notaire’s office and make sure that no stone is left unturned.

So, that’s what we do. And in answer to your question, yes, they should … translating, getting a written translation of the written documents, in all honesty, I don’t think is necessary. We never do that, and none of our clients deem it necessary once they’ve spoken to us about the documents. For a couple of reasons. A, it’s expensive. You’re talking about maybe 400 or 500 Euros to get something translated. When it is translated, it’s still in legalese. Even in English. So, the chances are it’s not going to –

Carlie: You may not understand everything anyway.

Mark: That’s right, yeah. So, what we do, as I say, is we spend a lot of time … I’ll typically spend at least an hour, an hour and a half maybe, on the phone, if people are not in France, with the contracts in front of us, going through it phrase by phrase, paragraph by paragraph, and making absolutely sure that they understand what it says, and answering any questions. And I think as long as you’ve got someone who’s prepared to do that and is competent to do that, then that’s the minimum I would suggest.

Carlie: There’s another point I want to backtrack to, because in Australia, it differs. In Australia, I always understood that when you look at a property, you’re interested in it, you need to pay the conveyancing fees, the building inspection report fees. But in France, that’s the buyer that organizes that, isn’t it?

Mark: The seller, you mean.

Carlie: The seller, yes.

Mark: That’s right, yes. Yeah. It’s another curiosity of the UK system I think, actually. And I hope I’m not getting this wrong, but generally, the buyer will pay for a survey to be done, so the building to be checked out. And if buyer then decides not to go ahead, well, they’ve spent their money and they don’t get that back obviously. And the next time a buyer comes along, they also have to get a survey done and pay for it, and what have you, and so it goes on. That’s something I’ve never quite understood.

Here in France, the seller is responsible for providing a whole raft of documents to the buyer, which cover things such as whether there’s any asbestos in the property, there’s an electrical report, on the electrical system in the property, gas report if there is one, any lead-based paint that there might be in the paintwork, any termite activity, because that’s a factor in a lot of areas of France, a natural risks report, a report on the swimming pool if there is one, and quite a comprehensive list of reports. There’s nothing structural in that. So it’s not a structural survey in the same way that you’d get in the UK. However, there are several reports.

So in answer to your question, yes, it’s the seller who’s responsible for providing those. Typically, the whole set of reports would cost usually between about 400 and 500 Euros. It’s the seller that’s responsible for providing those.

Carlie: And a bit like getting your own notaire as a buyer, could you choose to get your own construction report done if you’re curious about something else? Or should the report supplied by the seller be enough?

Mark: You certainly can get your own survey done, if you like. Here, in our area, we know a couple of surveyors who are English and used to do that [role] when they lived in England. So they’re very used to providing a comprehensive English-style survey to anybody who wants a structural report on the property. It’s not something the French would ever dream of doing. And I’ve never come across a French person who sees the point in doing so. But for our overseas customers, sometimes it’s something that they deem necessary.

Personally, I always recommend that people take it on a case-by-case basis. You might be interested in a property and have concerns about certain structural aspects. You might come across a property that was built quite recently, for instance, and actually you’ve got no concerns, and you don’t think it’s necessary. I would never push anybody in one way or another. It’s entirely up to the buyer if they want to have a survey done. One thing to be aware of is that there is a cost, and that cost would be to the buyer. There’s certainly no requirement for the seller to provide a structural survey, and therefore, the buyer would be the one that paid for it.

Carlie: I find it really interesting – you said that the French wouldn’t dream of doing their own structural survey if they were buying a property. And for me, it blows my mind, because France has buildings that are hundreds of years old. Compared to the age of property in Australia … and yet, they’re totally fine. It’s like, “Oh, I’m moving into this 500-year-old building, and don’t have a desire to check that it won’t fall down.”

Mark: No, it tends to work in completely the opposite way, to be honest. The general feeling about a property that’s stood for 500 years is, “Well, clearly it’s made of sturdy stuff. It’s not going anywhere.” [laughs] The longer it’s actually been there tends to be a sign of how long it’s still going to be there. Rightly or wrongly. That tends to be the attitude that people take.

But with the reports, you do get certain things, like the natural risks report covers whether it’s in a flood zone, if there was landslides in the vicinity, or any technological output, factories which might be polluting the soil or changing the soil in any way which might be detrimental to a property. These things are covered. But the actual bricks and mortar or stone of the property itself wouldn’t be covered in those reports.

The one I forgot to mention, incidentally, which is quite important, is what’s called the DPE, which is the energy-efficiency report. That’s a requirement for the seller to provide, and in fact, that’s the only one which is a requirement before the property is even advertised for sale. When you advertise a property, you must include the results of the energy report, so that people know right from the off what the situation is.

Carlie: Because there are some schemes where you get tax incentives to improve the energy-efficiency of your home, aren’t there?

Mark: There are, yes. And the report will cover things like that. The report will say the exact status at the moment, how well insulated the property is and what have you, and will give a value on the energy efficiency. And there’ll also be recommendations as to what you might be able to do, like put in double glazing or insulate certain parts of it. And generally speaking, if you get those things done by a professional who’s registered for the scheme, then you can get tax relief on those expenses.

Carlie: Mark, real estate agents and notaires don’t work for free. So, when it comes to buying a place …

Mark: [laughs]

Carlie: I mean, it would be very generous of your guys if you did. But …

Mark: Yeah. We’ve covered that. [laughs]

Carlie: So, when it comes to buying your property in France, and you’ve got your offer, and your offer has been accepted, how much extra should you expect to be paying to cover the notary fees and the real estate agent fee?

Mark: Okay, well, the notary fees … first of all, I should mention … I’ll come back to the agent’s fees. But the agent’s fees will very frequently, normally, be included in the sale price. So whatever price you see advertised will normally include the agent’s fees. If it doesn’t include the agent’s fees, then it’ll be made very clear on the advert that this is the price of the property plus this amount of fees. So generally, the buyer doesn’t need to worry about the agent’s fees. I’ll come back to that.

The notaire’s fees is very much at the buyer’s expense. And one important thing to understand about the notaire’s fees is that although that’s the commonly used term, the recognized term for the fees, only part of that goes to the notaire him or herself. So, within the “notaire’s fees”, in inverted commas, you’re paying for the notaire’s services, but the vast majority of the fees are actually taxes which the notaire is collecting on behalf of the government and has to pass straight on. And those taxes are for the department that the property is in, and then there’s another tax for the region as well.

Carlie: Is there much room for negotiation of notaire’s fees or are they a set fee?

Mark: They’re a set fee. As I mentioned before, the notaire is a state-appointed official, in effect. And therefore, they’re not free to set their own fees in this particular circumstance. It’s considered that because the notaire’s input is compulsory in a property transaction, so you can’t buy or sell a property in France without a notaire being present, therefore they can’t decide what their own fees are. So, it’s set by the government, so the taxes and the part that the notaire receives are set across the board.

If, as an aside, you were to go to a notaire and get advice, for instance, on inheritance law or any other thing that isn’t compulsory for the notaire to provide you, then they can decide how much they want to charge you for that consultation or what have you. The way that it’s worked out is on what’s a [44:32], which is like a sliding scale. And the higher the value of the property, the lower the percentage of the notaire’s fees. So it’s difficult to give an absolute answer as to how much you’ll need to pay. But a good figure to have in mind is about 8%, including the notaire’s personal fees plus the taxes, will come to around about 8%, possibly a bit less, possibly marginally more, but 8% is a good figure to think about.

If you’re applying for a French mortgage, there’s also an element of the notaire’s input, because they have to officially register the mortgage and draw up an official document to do so. So if you’re applying for a mortgage, it’s a little bit more, maybe another percent more than you’d otherwise pay in notaire’s fees.

As far as the agent’s fees are concerned, the agents themselves are free to set their own fees. However, importantly, they must publish those fees and stick to them. Often, the agent’s fees work on a [45:39], a sliding scale as well, depending on the value of the property. But the agent must publish the fees these days, on the website, and also in the office [on the wall], so that everybody knows exactly what the fees are.

Carlie: It’s a nice and transparent process, and you know you’re dealing with a good agent if you’ve seen those fees on their website or on their office wall.

Mark: That’s right, yes. Yeah. So, the fees do vary from agent to agent. But generally, the agent’s fees would be around about 6%, something on those lines.

Carlie: It’s always an interesting debate … again, another one that comes up in expat conversations online a lot is “Oh well, is it the buyer or the seller paying the fees?” And technically, it’s the seller, but of course they’re going to work it into the price of the property, so theoretically, the buyer covers it, but it still comes out of what they receive. Really depends on how you look at it, isn’t it?

Mark: Yes, it does. It’s always a little bit difficult to explain. But essentially, the reason that it’s normally the vendor who pays the fees, the seller who pays the fees … because when we go and see a property for the first time, with a view to taking that property into our portfolio and marketing it, we’ve never met the buyer, we don’t know who the buyer might be. So it’s very difficult to say “Okay, well, I’ll take your property on, and whoever the buyer is that I find, I’ll get them to pay the fees.”

So there’s no agreement there between ourselves and the buyer, so it makes much more logical sense to say between yourself and the seller, “Okay, we’ll agree that we’ll put the property on the market for this price. A certain percentage of that are the fees. So it’ll be advertised at this price. You’ll get x amount and we’ll get the remainder as fees.” And then, a document is signed between us to agree that that’s what will happen when a buyer is found. And that’s perfectly logical.

And as I mentioned before, that means that you can then put one price for the price of the property, and the buyer knows that is the price of the property, there’s nothing to add, in agent’s fees at least, to that price. As you say, it’s not impossible for the fees to be put at the charge of the buyer, but that doesn’t actually change the overall price at all. So one way of thinking about it is if the fees are at the seller’s charge, then what it means is that the buyer pays, on the day of completion, the seller the whole of the transaction price, and then the seller pays the agent their part from that. Or if it’s the buyer that pays the fees, the buyer pays the seller what they owe the seller, and separately, the agent what they owe the agent. But the two amounts together come to exactly the same amount.

Carlie: Yeah, exactly.

Mark: In any case, the payment is done via the notaire as well. So in both of those instances, the whole sum is paid to the notaire, and then the notaire pays the seller his part and the agent his part. So it really doesn’t make any difference.

One thing that is slightly different – when the buyer is paying the fees, the notaire’s fees can be reduced slightly. If the buyer is paying x amount for the property plus another amount for the fees, then it’s only the x amount for the property which is used to calculate the notaire’s fees. In practice, that’s something that increasingly it’s more and more difficult to do, because what agents frequently used to do was sign a mandate with the vendor to put the charges at the vendor’s cost, and then at the last minute, when a buyer was found, flip it to the buyer to save the money on the notaire’s fees. But the government have got wise to that now, and they don’t like people doing it. So it’s increasingly difficult for that to happen.

Carlie: Mark, you’re obviously bringing an Anglophone approach to selling property in France. Another topic of discussion that comes up in our forums and Facebook groups frequently and people have a laugh over is, for example, the quality of real estate property photos that agents have on their websites. And what people see is the lack of real service from a real estate agent. In Australia, you’d have agents chasing you. If you tell them you’re interested in buying, they’d be sending you houses all the time to look at and trying to get you to come in for viewings. But it’s a very passive approach in France. Do you have much of an explanation as to why that might be the case.

Mark: Well … [chuckles] You’re absolutely right. And it’s one reason why I always say to our team, and certainly whenever anyone new comes on board, it’s not very difficult to stand out in this industry as someone who provides a good service. Because you’re right, in that there’s quite a relaxed attitude, shall we say, amongst a lot of the agents. I think there’s a couple of reasons. Firstly, as far as the photos are concerned, for instance, that comes back to the same thing that we were talking about, about not providing addresses.

Certainly in the UK market, if you saw a house advertised at say 500,000 pounds, you would expect to see a photo of that house, not just the corner of a living room or the toilet. Whereas the French take the attitude that if I show the outside of that house, then someone might be able to walk down the road, identify it, go and knock on the door, and buy the property without me. So a lot of it comes from that slight paranoia of that happening.

We take the attitude that unless you show people what it is that they’re actually enquiring about and potentially buying, then there’s no point anyway. So we do publish decent photos.

Certainly in my part of the world, which is the south of France, there is quite a relaxed attitude. And in one respect, it’s nice, because I think people can go too far, like you say, in the Australian system or in the UK. If you’re being hounded by agents, demanding to know when you’re going to be doing this, when you’re going to be doing that, that can be a bit uncomfortable. But at the same time, you do want some kind of service, and not just to be left to do all the running yourself.
Here, they tend to go a little bit too far, I would say, towards the “Well, let’s not hassle people; I’m sure if they want to buy it, they’ll let me know” kind of approach.

And we try to do something in the middle. We try to genuinely be there to help people, to find the property for them, as opposed to trying to impose any kind of property on them that might not be suitable. But we certainly don’t just leave people to wander off and look after themselves. We try and provide a service which helps people.

Carlie: Finally, Mark, what would be your top recommendations to expats starting out on their French property-buying journeys?

Mark: I would say that as much of a cliché as it is, the phrase “Location, location, location” is very important, especially when you’re not particularly familiar with the location that you’re looking to buy a property in. Someone who’s sat in the UK and thinking about where to buy in France needs to bear in mind that France has so many different landscapes, climates … it depends whether people are looking for beaches or skiing. Some areas of France are more expensive than others. You need to think about what access there is from your part of the world, to make sure that there’s an airport near enough to get there. Do you want to be near to Spain, for instance, as we are? Or Italy or whatever other countries might be bordering?

I’m frequently surprised by people who will contact us and they’ll say, “Okay, well, I’ve spent a couple of days in Normandy and then I’m coming down into Central France for a few days and then I’m going to end up in your part of the world, and I’d like to see this property, this property, and this property?” And I always say, “Well, why are you visiting properties? What good does that do?” You should spend your time driving around the area, familiarizing yourself with the location, and if you decide, “Yes, this is where I want to purchase a property,” then start looking at properties. I don’t see the sense in looking at properties, possibly even falling in love with a property, in a place where you’d never want to be.

So that would be my first piece of advice. Start with location, really narrow it down, and once you’re happy that you’ve got the right place that you want to find a property, then you’ve got a chance of finding the right property.

Secondly, I’d say, as I’ve touched on earlier before, prioritize your requirements. You need to leave as little as possible to chance. So get a bit scientific about it. Get the checklist together, and prioritize what it is that you’re looking for. And communicate that to your agent. Make sure that they know. Because otherwise, don’t be surprised when you turn up at a property and it’s nothing like what you’d hoped for. You need to make sure that they understand exactly what it is that you’re looking for. And ideally, I would suggest that means talking to an agent in your own language, whether that’s English or any other language.

And finally, once you do find yourself in the search process, if you’re actually in France and you’re physically looking at properties, if you do find a property which ticks the majority of your boxes and that you really like, then go for it. Because it’s better to choose a property, maybe compromise on a couple of little things here and there, but start enjoying the property, than to spend years looking for The One, which may or may not exist, and all the time, it’s costing you time and money and effort, where you could be just settling down into your new home and enjoying it.

Carlie: That’s it for this episode. If you’re looking for more interviews on life in France, search for our chat with Phil about renovating and running a guesthouse in the southwest of the country. We’ve also talked to Alison Lunes, who goes through French visa options. If you like what we do, please leave us a review on Apple podcasts or however you listen to the Expat Focus podcast. And I’ll catch you next time.


 


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