07 October 2008
Buying a house in France, part II
Yesterday I talked about television and movie rentals, but I forgot to mention books. It's not easy to find English-language books around Saint-Aignan. The library in our village has a few, and the library in Saint-Aignan must have even more, but I can't imagine it's a big collection. Amazon.fr is of course a good source.
Saint-Aignan's only bookstore closed down over a year ago when the woman who owned and operated it was killed by a hit-and-run driver. She and her husband were walking late at night along the main road that runs through the village where she lived, after having dinner with friends. No one has taken over the bookstore as yet.
But back to the house-buying process. When you are buying a house in France, will you have inspections done before you sign on the dotted line? You would in the U.S., that's for sure. Here, I'm not sure that is standard procedure, and I hate to admit that we didn't have any inspections done at all when we bought our house.
In France, the real estate company is required to have the house inspected for the presence of asbestos (amiante in French) and to give you the results. I know that British buyers sometimes have an architect or other expert come from the U.K. to give them a report on the structural integrity of a house they are considering purchasing. We didn't do anything. The roof looked pretty good. The windows were OK. The floors were fine and there was no evidence of excessive damp or moisture. And the price was so low we figured we couldn't go wrong.
When you look at prices, don't forget agency and notary fees, which can add up to an extra $30,000 on a house worth $200,000. The rate varies from 6% to 8% for the realtor and 7% for the notary (whose services are mandatory). You can try to buy directly from the seller without the help of an agent, but it's a long slow process if it means driving around looking for A Vendre signs.
Sometimes the agent's fee is included in the advertised purchase price, but often not. Get clear on that with your agent. When the fee is included, you might see the abbreviation F.A.I. after the price — frais d'agence inclus. I don't think notary fees are normally included in the advertised price. Notaries (notaires) also advertise houses for sale, with no realty company involvement.
Again, on a $300,000 house, you might have to pay $45,000 in fees if you use an agent, and half that if you buy through a notaire instead. And it's the buyer, not the seller who pays. In the U.S. — at least in California — it's the seller who pays the realty fees. So when we sold our house there we paid a big fee, and when we bought a house in France we paid another big fee. It was a double whammy.
Be aware that there is no equivalent of the American MLS — Mulitple Listing Service — in France either. When you go to see a real estate agent, he or she can show you only the houses that are listed with that particular agency. Agents don't deal with properties listed by agencies other than the one they work for.
What that means is that the agent is clearly not working for you, but for the seller. Be careful to look out for your own interests. And take what the agent says with a grain of salt. Agents are not responsible for the claims made by sellers, or for any misrepresentations. Is the "septic system" really a septic system? Find out. I speak from experience.
And don't pay the asking price — negotiate. Make an offer lower than asking even if your agent advises against it. The agent's fee depends on selling the property for "top euro." Sometimes houses can seem so much less expensive here than in the U.S. or the U.K. (depending on where you are coming from, and how much prices in your area have dropped recently) that it seems like just paying the asking price is the right thing to do. It almost never is. French buyers are astonished — and thrilled — when a foreigner just plunks down the money without going through a bargaining process.
Remember too that you can change your mind. If you sign an agreement to buy a property — a compromis de vente — you have 7 days before you have to decide whether to put down some money or cancel the deal. When we bought, we signed the papers and then headed back to California, knowing that we still had a week to make up our minds. Once back at home in San Francisco, we ended up deciding to go ahead and send the down payment. But we could just as easily have sent a registered letter to the realty company saying that we had had a change of heart.