There are a number of complexities and potential pitfalls in the French legal system when buying property. Use this guide to ensure you don’t get caught out when buying your French home.

One of the first things you will notice about legal processes in France is that there is considerable paperwork involved. This applies to all important transactions, such as buying a house, purchasing a car, making a will, and so on. The sheer amount of paperwork used in transactions in France will mean there is always a lot of signing to do!

Because of this, we recommend that you have copies of your passport, birth and marriage certificates and proof of address on your property viewing trips. All these documents are required for legal transactions in France. Having them to hand will save time.

Many British buyers in France have lost out on their dream property thanks to a lack of legal representation and knowledge of the different legal requirements.

Where does the French legal system come from?

France still very much lives by the Napoleonic Code, so it is possible that some rules may seem slightly archaic. When it comes to making your will, for example, you have what is called “reserved heirs”, who must inherit at least part of your estate. In other words, this basically means that you cannot disinherit your children. However, it is now possible to apply British law to your will. Whatever you decide, though, never underestimate the importance of instructing a bilingual solicitor qualified in French law to act on your behalf and to draw up all the documents required.

Young family consulting with French-Anglo lawyer about the French legal system

We always recommend employing your own solicitor to act on your behalf during the French overseas property purchase.

How do I choose a solicitor?

You will find that it’s worth finding this reputable, independent solicitor before you view any properties. This will place you in much better position if you find the right property and want to move fast to secure the property. Your solicitor should be independent of any developers or other interested parties too. This will mean they are representing you in the French legal system throughout the property buying process. That way, you are assured that they are acting in your best interests.

The importance of bilingualism

The property buying process in France can be difficult to understand when you don’t speak the language. We recommend finding an impartial, English- and French-speaking solicitor. They should have expert knowledge of the local area and the buying process, both in that region and throughout France.

Most importantly, many British buyers in France have lost out on their dream property thanks to a lack of legal representation and knowledge of the different legal requirements. Therefore, we highly recommend using a bilingual, experienced solicitor that you can trust, to guide you through the various legalities.

What is the role of the solicitor in the French legal system?

Employing your own solicitor to act for you is particularly helpful for complicated transactions – for example, if there are specific clauses suspensives (conditions) within the compromis (first contract). You will need to take careful note of all specific conditions stated. If these are not met, you can walk away from the purchase. A bilingual solicitor who is knows French law well will be able to advise you on this.

What is the role of the notaire in the French legal system?

The French legal system dictates that a notaire must oversee and literally rubber-stamp all property transactions. The institution of the notaire as a legal government representative that dates back hundreds of years. Essentially, they ensure that all proceedings comply with French property law and assist all parties so that the selling process runs smoothly. Moreover, the notaire oversees the transaction for both parties and ensures that the correct documentation goes to the relevant authorities. That said, unlike your solicitor, they are not there to represent your specific requirements throughout the buying process.

What is the process for contracts in the French legal system?

There are several steps to completing the legal and contract processes when purchasing property in France. The France Property Guide has put together a summary of how it works and what you need to do to successfully complete the process.

Before exchanging contracts

  • Bon de visite
    If you are buying through an agent, you’ll sign a bon de visite. This is normal in the French legal system. It guarantees that any offers will be made through them. Additionally, it gives them the protection of you not using another agent – or privately approaching the vendor. However, it’s not a commitment to a purchase. You can make an offer, just as you would in the UK, and the agent must put that forward to the seller.
  • Compromis de vente
    This is equivalent to the British ‘exchange’ stage. The buyer and vendor sign it to commit you both to the property transaction. Upon signing, the vendor is bound to go ahead with the sale. The buyer, on the other hand, is given a ‘cooling off period’. In other words. this is a seven-day period in which you can walk away from the process. After this period is up, the buyer is also bound to go ahead with the purchase. You must then pay 10% of the agreed purchase price as a deposit to the notaire.

Extra details

  • Clauses suspensives
    These deserve some thought, as they may permit you to withdraw from the purchase under certain circumstances. For example, if you are taking out a mortgage, the notaire will include this fact as a conditional clause. This safeguards you, because you will not be obliged to go ahead if your mortgage is turned down. Additional examples of clauses could be to do with planning permission, or ensuring certain works are carried out.
Couple handing over their keys -- make sure you know the French legal system for a successful house purchase

A bilingual solicitor will help ensure you are protected in the French legal system.

After exchanging contracts

  • Property searches
    Once the compromis de vente has been signed, the notaire will start carrying out searches on the property. Generally, these include Cadastre (Land Registry) rights to ownership, boundaries and similar. However, in the French legal system, the research doesn’t include looking at any private planning permissions close to your house. Therefore, use your local Mairie (Town Hall) to find out what, if any, recent planning applications exist.
  • Acte de vente
    Equivalent to completion in the UK, it can take two to three months to reach this stage in the French legal system. You sign it at the notaire’s office. This is the point where the buyer must pay the balance of the purchase price. Importantly, you must pay the notaire’s fees, including the estimated taxe d’habitation and taxe foncière, at the same time. After the property sale is lodged with the French government, the exact amount of taxes will be calculated. The purchaser will then either receive a rebate or have to pay a small sum of money.

Financial matters

  • Having your funds in place
    We recommend speaking to a currency provider to transfer your deposit over to France. Exchange rate movements can dramatically alter the price of your property. But, with prior planning, you can control this. France Property Guide can recommend a trusted currency exchange to help reduce the risk by locking into an exchange rate. This is useful in particular for the large payments required for a property purchase and is a sensible way to protect your budget.

For additional help with the legal process of buying in France, we can put you in touch with a trusted French-Anglo law firm.

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France Property Guide has partnered with a reputable, well known law firm, specialising in assisting buyers through the process of purchasing a property in France. Their highly qualified lawyers have an excellent reputation with our readers and are on hand to provide expert guidance on all legal matters, including inheritance laws, taxation and planning permissions. To be contacted by our recommended law firm, simply complete our short form and we will ensure they get in touch with you. Good luck with your plans!
“We used the excellent France Property Guide to research exactly how to buy a property in France and to reassure ourselves that we were on the right track. We looked to the website and to the advice that the Resource Centre gave to move ahead – the help of reliable local professionals was imperative to move things forward” Bernard and Doris Corcoran

France Property Guide readers who successfully bought their home in France

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