Buying Property in France
22 August, 2017
We spend a lot of our time speaking to people who are buying property in France, whether as a second home away from the UK, or to move permanently, perhaps to start a business or of course to retire to a better quality of life.
We have put together this handy guide for those of you buying property in France, to give you a basic idea of what is involved, how to avoid the potential pitfalls, and some handy contacts to help your move go smoothly.
The guide is split into the following sections, which you can click directly to, for your bitesize guide to buying in France. Each section includes contact details you will find useful. These are simply trusted contacts we have come across over the years, rather than paid advertisers.
The French market, like the rest of Europe, has had a tricky time since the financial crisis of 2008. The market for Brits moving to France, however, remained steadier than in Spain and Greece, perhaps a reflection of the relative strength of the French economy compared to the more troubled southern countries. We British have had a love affair with French property for many years, and this steady demand compared to the boom-fuelled craze for Spanish apartments before 2008, has meant the French expatriate market has been less volatile than many.
Prices in France have not therefore been dragged down by a sudden switch between under- and over-supply. Buying in a more robust market like France has been seen by many as a big plus point, add the vicinity to home but a much more pleasant climate, and it’s easy to see why France has remained popular.
Prices do vary enormously throughout France, as you would expect in a country with such a vast and varied landscape and a contrast between coast and country, north and south, and east and west.
You probably already have some idea of where you are looking to buy, but to give you an idea of what is on the market, here are 5 very different properties in different parts of France, all listed for around €200,000 in May 2014.
Popular with Brits looking for an easily accessible bolt hole, perhaps for those channel ferry crossings with the caravan in tow, Normandy and Brittany cover much of the north west coast of France, with green fields, cattle farms, as well as pretty beaches. Moving further inland you will find the Loire Valley and the city of Orleans.
This example in Evreux, Normandy, is a 3 bedroom bungalow set in half an acre with a garage and outbuilding, and very little surrounding it to spoil the rural view.
The pocket in the north east corner of France, including the Ardennes, Alsace and Lorraine, boast beautiful forests, a strong cultural identity of their own, and include the city of Strasbourg. The borders with Germany and Switzerland make for a good central base.
In Nord-pas-de-Calais, in the Canche valley, €200,000 will buy you a 5 bedroom property 20 minutes from the coast.
Including the famous Burgundy (Bougogne) wine region, the sparsely populated central region of France also houses the Massif Central, a region which used to be volcanic, and includes many spa towns, stretching from 120 miles south of Paris all the way to near Lyon in the south.
There are plenty of Chateaus for sale in this area, but for around €200,000 you can still buy a 4 bedroom detached house with a pool in the Brenne national park area.
The glorious south west region of France spans the Dordogne, the Bordeaux wine region, and the Pyrenees mountains, and is known as the home of gastronomy as well as having sandy beaches on the coast and beautiful pine forests inland.
Unsurprisingly prices are a little higher, but in Gers, just south west of Toulouse, just over €200k will still buy you a modest 3 bedroom property with a pool.
Perhaps the most celebrated regions of France, which include the alps, the Cote d’Azur, and Provence, are found in the south east. Stretching from Lyon, the Rhone river runs to the Mediterranean, and east from there are Nice, St Tropez and the Italian border, with a superb climate and of course a short trip up to the alps.
In Nice, your €200,000 will buy you an apartment with a sea view, not far from the even higher-priced Riviera resorts.
French Estate Agents (Immobiliers) range from small, one-office outfits scattered around the countryside, to large chains operating across a region or the whole country. In all cases, before dealing with a real estate agency for buying property in France, check that they belong to a professional association, such as the UNPI, SNPI, or FNAIM. You might find it more pleasant to deal with a smaller company who specialise in the town or region you are looking in, and as a rule, French agents are reputable and thankfully there are not many horror stories to be heard. However, do your research before embarking on an inspection trip, check reviews, and ask anyone you know who has bought before whether they have had a good or bad experience. Another good idea is to visit property shows in the UK to do some research, as well as some good research time on the internet, to plan which agents you want to see over the course of your visit.
When choosing an agent, try to find one with expertise in your chosen area. This goes without saying, but a good trading history, prompt returning of your enquiries (still not a given in France unfortunately), an up-to-date website, and your instinct when making contact, are all indicators of how helpful the agent is likely to be through the whole process.
One difference to remember before heading over the Channel, is that in France the agent’s fees are paid by the buyer, not the seller, of a property. This means that the agent should be acting in your best interests – but at the same time they might be motivated to keep the price higher to ensure their commission is paid in full. It is not unusual to find the same property listed with different agents, so check to see if one is undercutting another – and of course always check the price they quote includes their fee too. Never be pressurised into making a purchase, and steer clear of any agent who tries to force you into a decision before you are ready.
Agency fees in France, and much of Europe, can be much higher than in the UK, so if you strike up a good relationship then don’t be afraid to be direct and ask if their commission can be reduced to help get a deal done. They will be accustomed to direct negotiation, and always remember that you are the buyer and therefore their customer!
Property prices vary wildly by region – just as in the UK – so don’t be afraid to look around and get a feel for prices before putting in a low initial offer when buying property in France either. In much of mainland Europe a seller may be too proud to reduce their asking price, but might still take an offer significantly below that asking price, so there’s nothing to lose.
The finer points of negotiation are, of course, down to you though. When making offers on a property, make sure you have checked that all relevant fees, taxes and other expenses are included – more on that later in this guide, but you should budget for 8-10% on top of the agreed purchase price for taxes, fees and expenses (less for a new build).
Useful Links – Finding a Property
A Place in the Sun Live – UK exhibitions: www.aplaceinthesun.com
Agents: there are thousands, but we can put you in touch with a trusted few in most areas. Complete our contact form and we will be happy to help.
Every property purchase in France must be administered by a local notary (Notaire), who is a government official. The French system actually makes the legal process relatively quick and efficient, since the Notaire acts to facilitate the purchase on behalf of all parties, rather than involving solicitors on both sides and the expensive to-and-fro system that has evolved in the UK. Having said that, you can employ your own solicitor too (perhaps based in the UK) if you would like some extra advice and security – in reality few people do.
As the buyer, you can appoint the Notaire for your transaction – although in practice this will be the usual representative for the town or area you are buying in. The Notaire will draw up a fairly standard contract (Compromis de Vente) which in French law is a contract binding both parties to the sale and purchase of the property. You will want to check the Compromis, as it is known, to make sure it includes any conditions of sale that you have agreed with the buyer, and this is where your own solicitor might come in handy, especially if you have any concerns over issues like access, utilities, borders, planning, and so on.
Once the Compromis is signed, a deposit of around 10% of the property price is normally payable within a few days, known as the “cooling off period”. This will usually be when you return to the UK and can arrange to make payment of the deposit amount, having checked that the Compromis does exactly what the Notaire confirmed to you. Once the cooling off period has passed and the deposit has been paid, the contract for buying property in France is legally binding on both parties.
The completion will typically be up to 3 months after the Compromis, and of course when the balancing payment is due. Both the deposit and completion payments should be made, in Euros, directly to the Notaire’s Tresorerie Public bank account.
One downside to the Notaire system is that, as an independent public official, there is no obligation for the Notaire to make comprehensive searches and checks on your behalf as the buyer, or to hold you hand through the process as your own solicitor would in UK conveyancing. Don’t forget, as the buyer, it is up to you which Notaire is used, and in fact you can appoint different one to act for you and let the seller choose their own too – which means you can rely on some more tailored advice. This practice is becoming more widespread in France and, while prolonging the process somewhat, could provide comfort as a foreign buyer.
Ensure all documents are translated – independently (not by the agent, who acts for the seller after all), and never sign anything you don’t understand. Once the Compromis is signed and your deposit is paid, there is no turning back without risking losing your 10% if you change your mind. Do also remember that anyone in the UK giving advice on French law, while providing a useful service, is unlikely to be bound by French regulations or professional accreditations.
Useful Links – Legal Process
Directory and official site of French Notaires: www.notaires.fr
Depending on whether or not you are taking out a mortgage for your French property purchase, physically paying for your new home might be very simple, or a little more complicated.
Sending Payments to France
In the simple case, where you are a cash buyer having sold a property in the UK or having the capital available from other sources, the only thing you need to do some research on is making sure you obtain the best exchange rate when it comes to exchanging your sterling to Euros for your deposit and completion payments. Or perhaps it’s not quite that simple, as fluctuating exchange rates will constantly change the amount of sterling needed to pay for your agreed Euro purchase amount.
In this case, it is worth talking to a currency exchange specialist such as Currency Index in the early stages of your purchase. Most British buyers of French property still use their bank to transfer funds abroad, even though the process is slow and expensive. Expensive by more than you would think too, as a reputable currency exchange firm can save you up to 4% on a lump sum transfer, compared to using a bank. It really can be thousands of pounds less to use a currency broker – but do ensure they are FCA regulated and operate safeguarded client accounts for your security.
The other thing a broker such as Currency Index can help with, is fixing an exchange rate for your completion payment, at the time of your deposit payment. A “Forward Contract” is used by most of our clients buying French property, to eliminate the risk of a falling exchange rate increasing the cost of the completion payment above their budget.
View our video showing how to save money on your payments to France
For example, let’s look at buying a property in France for €250,000 in July 2012, when the Euro exchange rate was around 1.27. That gives a sterling equivalent of £196,850, so you might imagine that your 10% deposit would be £19,685, with a completion amount of £177,165 in October.
The problem that summer, was that the Euro rate fell back significantly after July, and by October was sitting around 1.22. So in fact that completion amount in sterling, would have risen to £184,426 – an increase of over £7,000 extra to find for that completion payment.
By fixing an exchange rate in July when the deposit payment was made, this risk would have been eliminated. Using a Forward Contract does require a 10% deposit, but the remaining 90% of your sterling is not tied up for the intervening time – very useful if you want to fix an exchange rate, but are awaiting proceeds of a property sale for example, to fund the bulk of the completion payment.
The phrase we hear most often when we are asked about fixing exchange rates, is “I would never buy a property in the UK without knowing the price, so why would I want to do that when buying in France?”. Fixing an exchange rate is also much simpler than it sounds, and a reputable currency specialist will be able to talk you through the options without any jargon, so you can decide the best way to buy your currency.
It is a necessary evil that you will need to exchange a large amount of sterling to Euros when buying in France, yet it is an element of the purchase that many people still leave to chance – and end up paying more as a result.
To see how much difference the exchange rate makes over a period of time, here is the approximate cost of €200,000 over the last 5 summers:
Cost of €200,000
The table shows that as well as getting a good exchange rate on any particular day, timing is also important – if exchange rates are low, there is no way to magically make them better. While unfortunately nobody has a crystal ball, at least knowing which way rates are moving and why, will allow you to make an educated decision as to when you secure your exchange rate, rather than taking a chance on a potentially expensive last minute transfer. Contact us at Currency Index for more information and an informal discussion around your options.
Useful Links – Sending Payments to France
Currency Brokers: www.currencyindex.co.uk
Mortgages for French Property
If you are taking a mortgage when buying property in France, things (initially at least) will be slightly more complex.
First of all, you will need to decide whether to take a Euro (French) or Sterling (UK) mortgage. Your choice will be limited by your circumstances – if you are remortgaging a UK property to release equity then you can organise this in the UK, but if you are taking out a French mortgage, you will likely be dealing with a French lender.
Don’t forget with a Euro mortgage, while interest rates may currently be lower than in the UK, you will have to repay a fixed Euro amount each month. If your income is still sterling-based, you are therefore open to exchange rate risk over the term of your mortgage. While the cost of a few hundred Euros per month might not change significantly from month to month, over a period of years the exchange rate could move significantly against you or in your favour, making your monthly sterling payment amount quite different – something to consider if you don’t have a lot of room for manoeuvre in your monthly budget.
The most important element when borrowing in France will be the ability to prove your income. You will need to prove that your income is 3 times your debt repayment obligations, and life insurance is also mandatory on many French mortgages. Typically you will be able to borrow up to 85% of the property value, from 5 to 25 years, and you will need to pay the deposit and Notaire costs of course. Fixed, and variable loans are available, but you will struggle to find interest only or and buy-to-let products that you might be offered in the UK.
Knowing which lenders to approach will need some research. In France there are national banks, local mutuals, the nationalised Banque Postale, and international banks such as HSBC and Barclays – although surprisingly there is sometimes very little link between a UK high street bank’s operations and its French counterpart, meaning there is little advantage if you are a customer of the UK operation.
Mortgage brokers will also be able to advise, and there are plenty of UK-based companies who speciliase in helping you apply for loans, depending on your own detailed circumstances and requirements. Make sure you check for any fees, but also bear in mind that the broker may be able to get you a better deal than you would get by approaching a lender directly.
Once you have a mortgage offer, you can use it as proof of your ability to buy property (you are ‘proceedable’ to use a UK estate agent term) which will help you when viewing properties. The mortgage offer must be open for at least 30 days, and it is worth knowing that married couples or those in civil partnerships are jointly responsible for a mortgage, whichever partner’s name is on the paperwork.
Finally if you are taking a Euro mortgage but still have UK income, speak to a currency broker to make sure you set up the most efficient way to transfer money to your French account ongoing. Bank charges and poor exchange rates can easily push up the cost of your property over the course of a mortgage, even with a difference of a few pounds per month.
Your estate agent will be likely to offer you a ‘furniture pack’ which will give you all the basic furnishings, fixtures and fittings for your new home if you are starting from scratch when buying property in France. Odds are you will want to spend some time shopping locally too, but if you want to move in quickly and are not bringing a house-full of possessions with you, then a furniture pack can be a good place to start. Check for value and make sure you don’t pay over the odds, as your property agent may well be paid a commission if you use their recommended supplier.
Of course if you are moving some or all of your UK possessions to your French property, you will probably need some help from a specialist removals company who deal with overseas projects. These can be expensive, so shop around, and check some key facts:
- Are all your possessions insured while with the removal company, including while at sea, and to what limit?
- Is there a ceiling on single item value?
- How long will it take?
- Will they help with unpacking, and will you need to be present?
- Are they members of The British Association of Removers Overseas or The Association of International Removers?
As with many elements of your dream move, recommendation goes a long way, so use internet forums or any friends you know who have made the move to the mainland. Since your belongings will be away with you for some weeks, make sure you keep a list of what’s where, and don’t pack anything you might need meanwhile.
There is also the issue of ‘Letting Out’ for many Brits buying property in France, or at least many of those who are not living permanently in the new property. Don’t assume that letting your property will be easy or that it will be full 50 weeks per year – get an idea of the local rental market and be realistic. There are plenty of good websites where you can advertise your property to let, or your agent may be able to help locally.
You should inform the local mayor’s office that you are intending to let your property. Remember that a lettings agent will also be able to help with basic maintenance, cleaning and is an extra pair of eyes in your absence – at a price of course.
And don’t forget that ongoing bills will continue to accrue on your new purchase. Local taxes, utilities, maintenance and gardening will all need attention – as an expat in a foreign country, it will help to make friends and gain useful local contacts, again making sure not to pay over the odds. By now you will have a French bank account open and be able to use that to facilitate local payments even if you not present, just make sure never to bounce a cheque in France as you will quickly find this is taken much more seriously than in the UK. Again if you are letting your property through an agent they will usually offer to take care of bills for you for a small administrative charge.
Finally, make sure you have the relevant permissions and paperwork if you are permanently moving your pets, your car, or any other items which might need registering in France – obtaining permits in advance will avoid uncomfortable brushes with the authorities. The French Consulate in London is a good resource for checking what is needed.
Useful Links – Moving to France
British Association of Removers (Overseas): www.baroverseas.co.uk
Association of International Removers: www.iamovers.org
French Consulate in London: www.ambafrance-uk.org
Let’s deal with the easy part first – insurance. You will want to make sure you have sufficient insurance for your new property and its contents, especially if you are not living there all year round. There is a useful contact below based in the UK who can give you a quote and some guidance, or you can ask your estate agent for some local contacts – or again do your research online and ask others who they have used.
For most people, the most complex part of buying property in France can be understanding and coping with a new set of tax, inheritance and other financial laws. This is one area where is usually pays to take some specialist advice.
French inheritance law is very different to the UK, and if you were to die without leaving a will, your French estate might not automatically pass to your spouse for example – this is something worth investigating and getting right.
Similarly, your tax status will depend on how much time you are spending in the UK and how much in France, where your income is, and so on. If you have a UK state pension, you can arrange to have it paid directly in Euros to France if desired, but most private pensions will only generate payments in sterling, so you will need to use a currency broker to make the most of your transfers of this income across to France.
You may be entitled to a tax rebate if you have had income in the UK for part of a tax year, but likewise it may be worth your while continuing to pay National Insurance in the UK even while you are in France, to maximise your state pension. Talk to HMRC or your UK accountant who will be able to make sure you are not paying more than is required.
Your French income, if you have any, will be taxed locally at rates from 0-45% depending on the level of income, similar to the UK system but spread across ‘parts’ of each household.
Useful Links – Insurance & Tax
Intasure insurance for overseas property: www.intasure.info
HMRC guide for non-residents: www.hmrc.gov.uk/nonresidents
What are the main differences between life in the UK and France? Here we look at some of the main points to consider in healthcare, language, education and other common questions about day to day life.
France boasts one of the best-funded healthcare systems in the world (those high tax rates have some benefits), but like many other developed nations, there are current reforms in progress aimed at cutting costs. French citizens have had the luxury of access to private healthcare services subsidised by the state for some years, and costs have spiralled somewhat out of control.
Nevertheless, the standard of care is high. The state health insurance system (l’assurance maladie) is complemented by private policies (assurance complimentaire) and in order to access healthcare services, you will need to register with l’assurance maladie in the first instance. This system provides reimbursement of the cost of treatments, but only up to certain percentages, so if you want full cover you will need to add a private policy too. The state system works by use of a Carte Vitale which you present at the point of paying for any medical services for reimbursement in around a week; everyone over the age of 16 is required to obtain one.
If you have French employment you will be covered by the main State-administered scheme, but if you are retiring in France you will need to make use of the CMU (Couverture maladie universelle) which, at local level, is administered by CPAM (Caisse Primaire d’Assurance Maladie). The third possibility is that you are running your own French business, which would mean a different cover: from RSI (Regime Social des Independents).
Finally, if you are still working and living in the UK, and visiting your French property without living there permanently, a simple EHIC card issued by the NHS will cover you just as it would if you were on holiday, since your National Insurance contributions are still being made in the UK. (Make sure you always carry your EHIC card about your person, to avoid complications or delays if you need treatment.)
For those of you moving permanently when buying property in France, whichever category you fall into, you can gain initial cover under EU rules using an S1 Form, which will cover you until you enter employment or start a business, or until you register with a CPAM if you are retiring. Form S1 transfers your right to obtain healthcare, from the UK to France, without the need to make social security contributions. S1 also covers you if you are at state retirement age and taking a UK state pension, assuming you have made sufficient National Insurance contributions for the last 3 tax years.
Once you have moved permanently and registered in the French system, you should obtain the French equivalent of an EHIC, a CEAM (Carte Europeenne d’Assurance Maladie) which will cover you in other EEA countries when you travel.
The options may seem slightly complicated, so it is worth discussing this with the Department for Work & Pensions well in advance of moving to France, specially if you are unsure of your National Insurance record in recent years; the relevant contacts are below.
Dentists and opticians are also covered by the state system, without referral from a doctor, but you will find particularly with opticians that the rate of reimbursement compared to the costs can be small. Opticians will only provide reimbursed eye tests if you have a prescription from the last 3 years, otherwise you will need to visit an ophthalmologist for a full examination, and you will only receive a €15 reimbursement of the cost.
It is also worth noting that you must register with a family doctor (Medecin Traitant) to be eligible for reimbursement of healthcare costs. You will be given a form when you register for the main healthcare system, and can choose a doctor as you wish, who will then become your main route to which you receive all other medical services and treatments as is usual in the UK. If you seek treatment without a referral from the doctor, you will likely pay higher fees and receive less reimbursement.
Useful Links – Healthcare
EHIC Card applications: www.ehic.org.uk
S1 Form from HMRC: www.hmrc.gov.uk
Department for Work & Pensions: www.dwp.gov.uk
Much has been made in recent years about the efforts, lack of effort, of the British expatriate community in France. Unlike the more concentrated enclaves in Portugal and Spain, France remains fundamentally French, and as such it is a good idea to learn the language if you are considering spending a good portion of time there.
There are many classes, both traditional and online, available while you are still in the UK. If you learnt French at school you might be surprised to find how much comes back to you, but even if not a grasp of the basics will get you a long way. You will probably find that a lot of French people will reply to you in English, but they will appreciate the effort, and you are more likely to find favours forthcoming from local tradesmen and neighbours, if you are seen to make an effort to fit in to the local culture.
Furthermore, learn about the area you are moving to and its history, produce, and any local customs which might vary. Many Brits who move to France find the whole process ever more rewarding as they embrace a new culture and learn about a new place, making it part of their lives rather than just a holiday home or quiet retirement.
Useful Links – Language
Rosetta Stone self learning courses: www.rosettastone.co.uk
As a brief overview of the French education system, there are 4 main types of school up to the compulsory age of 16:
- Ecole Maternelle
- Ecole Primaire
These roughly correspond to crèche/nursery (up to age 6), primary school (up to age 11), middle school (up to age 15) and high school (up to 18).
There are generally fewer school days per year than in the UK, although the school day is likely to be longer, and in many regions school runs on Saturday mornings but not on Wednesdays. Nearly all schools will also have a child care system, available for a fee, for out of hours supervision if required for working parents.
The French education system is described between average and very good, depending on which statistics you look at, but is generally sound. If you want your children to attend French state school, you will need to register at your local mayor’s office, or if you need to register on your arrival in France you will need the education district office. Proof of birth, immunisations, residence, insurance and parents’ identity will be required.
Useful Links – Education
French Ministry of Education (in French): www.education.gouv.fr
Summary – Buying Property in France
Buying a property in France is a challenge, but one that can be overcome with some good advice, determination and good spirit. Thousands of British buyers are purchasing properties in France each year, and the overwhelming majority tell us they have enjoyed the move and have no regrets. There are likely to be hurdles along the way, but it’s a great experience, with a fabulous result – your own second home abroad away from the bustle of the UK. We hope that you have found this article useful if you are considering buying property in France; do feel free to contact us if for further help as we speak to buyers of French property every day and are likely to have heard about most problems or issues before. With some research and support, we hope that buying your French property goes smoothly and we look forward to being of service.
To contact the team at Currency Index, please see our contact us page and complete your details. We do not pass information to any third parties unless you ask us to.
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