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.

Old rooftops and chimneys in Saint-Aignan

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.


  1. I would never now buy a house in France using an estate agent – I would go straight to the notaire. But that is with the benefit of hindsight and having gone through the process once. When we were looking, we knew in theory that we could go straight to the notaire, but for first timers it seems like the more scary option. In fact, I am now sure it would not have been, and it would certainly have been cheaper and better value. We were extremely lucky in our choice of building surveyor, who is half Swiss half English and living in the next departement (so speaks French fluently), and negotiated a very good price for us (entirely above and beyond the call of duty). You've seen how much work there is to do on our house, so you can imagine a price reduction of €10K was very welcome.

    One thing we knew we did not want to do, and I would definitely not do even with hindsight, is use the sort of all purpose intermediary that so many British buyers seem to use. I feel they are expensive, and result in the buyer progressing much more slowly in terms of integrating and learning how to operate in France. We also knew from the beginning we wanted to use local tradesmen (artisans), but initially found this quite difficult to set up, as so much business of this nature is done on the telephone and speaking French on the telephone is something I still really struggle with (it's much more difficult than face to face). After a few false starts and after we had got to know a few locals, we have managed to engage artisans we like, who are now part of our social network in town too – not friends, but people we will stop and chat with at communal events and so on.

    We too had a plan about what sort of house would meet our needs rather than strictly falling in love with this building (although we care deeply about it now and are proud to be saving what turns out to be quite a significant building).

  2. Ken

    If a notaire is selling a house one is interested in, does one has to do business with him or can one hire one's own notaire to ensure that everything is "all right" with the property and papers, legally speaking.

    here twice I have used my own notary (yes in Quebec we have notaries for real estate) instead of the buyer's or the builder's of a new housing development.

  3. The Beaver, when we bought we had our notaire and the seller had hers. I think the two notaires split the 7% fee, but I'm not sure about that. I think you could have your own notary if you wanted, even if you were buy a property advertised by a different notary.

    Susan, did you end up paying the building surveyor about the same fee you would have paid an estate agent? I suppose such a third party, with expertise at evaluating properties, could negotiate a good deal for his client, as opposed to an estate agent who actually has a vested interest in selling the property at the highest possible price. That's why I say beware: the agent is working for the seller, not you the buyer.

    The problem with using a notary in the place of an agent, for us Americans, is that the process might be much lengthier. We don't have the luxury of time. The agent Walt and I used had about 300, maybe more, properties for sale in his portfolio, all within 20 km of Montrichard.

    We saw only 15 house, but those were the ones within our budget. And we saw them all in three days' time. A notary seldom has so many listings at any given moment. At least, that is my impression.

    In a way, having a house that doesn't need much work makes it harder for us to find tradesmen interested in doing the jobs we need done. The tradespeople are looking for bigger jobs that will pay more and keep them occupied for a longer stretch. Our piddly jobs are often not worth it for them. So we do what we can ourselves.

  4. The buyer and seller can choose to use different notaires or the same. The fee is a single fee for the transaction, and if there are two notaires, then the fee is split 50/50. The notaire is independent in that s/he is acting for the government, not for either the buyer or the seller – that is why there is no problem with both parties using the same notaire. S/he does not occupy the same position as a solicitor would in the UK or Australia, where each party needs a solicitor to act on their behalf and draw up and check contracts. But because the notaire takes care of the legal aspects of searches and contracts, there is no need to hire a solicitor in addition in France.

    I was not clear about the role of our building surveyor earlier – sorry. We did buy through an estate agent, who never answered emails, faxes or the telephone, or returned messages. She did not even show us the house – someone I suspect was her boyfriend did, and I don't think he even worked for the business. She did draw up the compromis de vente and take us through it quite well though. She advertised herself as speaking English, but it was pretty limited, and the fee was outrageous considering the very little she did.

    We engaged the building surveyor before agreeing to buy the property, because it was clearly very old and in poor repair. We felt that his very reasonable fee €1200 for a whole day on site plus a very comprehensive report with zillions of images was worth it in terms of giving us enough information to make a decision about whether to purchase or not. His negotiation of the price was entire above and beyond what we had engaged him to do, but was very welcome. He has a particular interest in old buildings and their sensitive restoration, and I think saw that we would treat the building in a way that he approved of, so was happy to facilitate our purchase. He basically put the frighteners on the estate agent by telling them that they would never sell the property at the asking price, because no French person would buy it and no English person would buy it because it was in town, not a fermette, and because it had a large hole in the roof and had been on the market for c.15 years already – he told them that we were their only chance of selling, so they had better come up with a price that we would agree to.


What's on your mind? Qu'avez-vous à me dire ?