Are you thinking of buying a home in Uzège? This series tries to answer the questions you might have. Download the full brochure here.
What’s the notaire’s role?
The notaire is a public official of the French State. His role is not only to advise clients on the transaction, but also to ensure the proper transfer of the property, and to collect taxes on behalf of the State. The notaire is required by law to act impartially, and acts for both buyer and seller. This may seem strange to foreign buyers, but the vast majority of transactions in France are handled by a single notaire.
The estate agent should be able to recommend a local notaire. If you feel unsure about this, you are entitled to appoint your own notaire. This will not cost you any more money, as the two notaires (yours and the seller’s) will split the fee between them. Additionally, you can choose to get independent legal advice in France or in the UK to help you with the purchase (e.g. from a non-French solicitor) – but you will be liable for their fees in addition to the notaire’s fees.
Once you find a property and agree a price, the actual contract process is handled by the notaire. There are two key documents you will need to sign to buy a property in France: the COMPROMIS DE VENTE (pre-sales agreement) and the ACTE AUTHENTIQUE (full contract).
Compromis de vente
The compromis de vente is an important document as it sets out the main terms of the agreement between the buyer and the seller. Normally the buyer pays a 10% deposit on signing the agreement, which is held by the notaire. The agreement has to be signed by both parties and is a legally binding agreement – the only “get out” is if one of the obligations in the conditional clauses (“conditions suspensives”) is not met.
The compromis includes a date when the acte authentique is expected to be signed. (Note that this is not legally binding and is really used as a target date which both parties aim for). For the notaire to draw up the agreement, you need to provide your passport, marriage papers and divorce papers. If you are getting a mortgage, you also need paperwork with details of the loan.
To ensure that you have undisputed ownership of the property, it is advisable to obtain a 30-year origin of title in your final conveyance deed. As a precaution, a clause should be included in your contract stating that if any inconvenient easements are discovered in these documents, you will have the right to withdraw.
A condition suspensive is one which, if not fulfilled, allows the purchaser to withdraw from the contract. This type of condition is extremely useful in protecting the interests of the buyer. For example if you wanted to have a survey carried out on the property, you could have a “condition suspensive” written into the contract so that if anything untoward was revealed by the survey, you could withdraw from the contract. Some conditions suspensives are absolutely essential. For example if the purchase of your French property is dependent on the sale of another property, then you must have a condition which allows you to withdraw if you are unable to sell the first property. Another is where a loan or mortgage is necessary for the purchase: you can stipulate the amount, duration and interest rate of the loan you require. If you are unable to obtain the loan, with the appropriate condition suspensive, you may then withdraw from the contract.
In theory there is no limit to the number of “conditions suspensives” that could be inserted in a contract provided the vendor accepts them. However, these have to be carefully drafted and they must concern something that is beyond the will of the parties to be valid.
Once you have decided to buy, you should consider, with your legal adviser, which ownership structure is suitable for you. This can be decided on between contract and completion but you will need a suitable clause in the contract in case the names that eventually go on the final conveyance deed are different to those on the contract.
Careful thought at this stage can save you an enormous amount in French income/inheritance tax later on. Each family situation is different. Your French property lawyer can help you make the best decision.
All required by law, the lead, asbestos, termites (although there are no termites in Uzège...), gas, electricity and energy reports are grouped together in a single report known as the Technical Diagnostic File (“dossier de Diagnostic Technique”). It is the obligation of the vendor to commission and pay for up-to-date (less than a year old) reports, to be attached to the compromis de vente. The notaire ensures that the law is complied with. Property vendors with swimming pools are obliged to commission a report on the safety features of the pool.
Once you have both signed the Compromis, you (the buyer) have a 7-day cooling-off period. During this time, you can withdraw from the sale with neither having to provide any explanation, nor incurring a penalty – but the seller cannot. Once the cooling-off period is over, the contract becomes binding on both parties.
Local authority searches
Once the compromis is signed, the notaire begins the legal process which includes the searches on the property: land registry rights to ownership, boundaries and rights of way.
It is important to know that in France the searches do not include looking at any private planning permissions that may exist near your house. To ensure your neighbor is not about to build a new house next to your boundary visit the local Mairie and ask to see the “plan local d’urbanisme (PLU)” and about any recent planning application – or ask the agent to obtain this information for you.
Tax and legal matters
Aside from the purchase contracts, you may have concerns about your situation with regards to inheritance law, residency issues, income and capital gains tax or other legal and tax issues, in which case you may wish to consult an English-speaking legal adviser who specializes in French property law.
At some point your agent, or the notaire, will advise you of the proposed date to sign the full contract – called the “acte authentique” or “acte de vente”. Try to attend the signing of the completion document, or arrange a power of attorney. If at all possible, view the property on the day of the signing. The final contract has a clause saying “sold as seen on signing date”, so you need to know that the property is exactly as you expect it to be, and not with floors, walls or windows missing!
What about translation?
Note that all the documents you will be asked to sign will be in French, and often contain legal terms that you may be unfamiliar with. You may find a notaire who speaks some English, and some estate agents offer translations of the compromis de vente (although this is not their primary role or responsibility). If you are uncertain about any aspects of the contract, you can obtain a professional translation either within France or in your home country. Ask the agent if they can recommend an independent translator (and remember to add the translation fees on top).
How long does it take?
The whole process should take three or four months from making the offer to signing the final contract.
Read on Part 4: money matters