French Estate Agents
French estate agents are more highly regulated than in England, and they are also considerably more expensive. It is essential to check that any estate agent through whom you are dealing holds a numbered carte professionnelle (business card) and also a numbered professional guarantee for client funds backed by insurance.
Ideally, your estate agent should be a member of the professional association Federation Nationale de l’Immobilier (FNAIM). Anyone who regularly advertises and sells French property is acting illegally if they do not have a carte professionnelle and a guarantee backed by insurance. Many of the estate agents who advertise in England and indeed some agents operating in France are not properly registered.
The only other person legally allowed to take commission for the regular sale of properties in France is the French notaire, who is also allowed to advertise and sell properties through his office. In this instance, he will take a commission as well as the usual legal fees and duties, but the commission will not usually be as high as that charged by a French estate agent.
French estate agents are subject to greater regulation and a higher degree of responsibility than their English counterparts. They must register as French estate agents and have an identification number as well as a bank guarantee for client funds.
Nevertheless, the majority of the disputes which we have seen arise as a result of failure of communication and lack of understanding between a UK-based individual, a French agent and the vendors.
In the last few years, there have been a number of “buyer’s representatives” or unregistered agents introducing French property to UK-based purchasers. Some of the buyer’s representatives are registered and are reputable. However, some are not, and unregistered agents should be generally avoided.
French Local Authorities (the Mairie – Town Hall)
A significant difference between the purchase process in France and in England is that in England, local authority searches are carried out before the purchaser signs and releases the contract to the vendor’s solicitor.
In France, a contract for existing property, whether it is a compromis or a promesse de vente, is signed before the equivalent of local authority searches are undertaken, and such enquiries from the local authority are made by the notaire after the signing of the contract and before completion.
Completion is subject to a suspensive clause in the contract which should, but does not always, properly stipulate that if the results of the Town and Country Planning search reveal anything which adversely affects the property, then the purchaser may pull out of the proposed sale.
Provided that funds are paid through the French notaire, there should be no need undertake a separate search of the mortgages registry prior to completion, as the notaire will do this himself.
As it is not generally possible in France to undertake the equivalent of an English local authority search prior to signing the contract, the best way to protect oneself in this situation is to make enquiries of the vendor and also to make enquiries of the local town hall (_mairie_). We would always recommend that clients make such enquiries whilst on site, but we also offer this service ourselves.
It is worth knowing that the local town hall is only obliged to respond to your questions in a fairly narrow manner. For example, if a chicken farm is situated 200 metres from a property, the town hall may not necessarily mention this fact to you. They are only required to do so if the chicken farm is situated within 100 metres of your property.
Therefore, it is essential to make detailed on-site enquiries prior to signing the contract. Obviously, we would recommend that the contract be reviewed to ensure that it meets your requirements.
Surveyors in France
For whatever reason, the French rarely employ the services of a surveyor prior to purchasing a property.
Furthermore, it is unlikely that any vendor would consent to a clause in the contract of sale making the purchase conditional upon a satisfactory survey.
However, it is our view that if you have any doubts about the structural integrity of the building you are thinking of purchasing, a survey is bound to help. If this is the case, you should undertake the survey either before signing the contract or have the survey completed well within the seven-day cooling-off period.
There is no equivalent in France to the English qualified surveyor. The French have land surveyors (_geometres_); they have artisans (craftsmen) and they have experts immobiliers (experts in building). However, most French people make use of a French architect when they have questions about the structure of a building.
For most English people who wish to have a property surveyed in a fashion they are used to, and receive a report in English, the best thing to do is to use one of the several UK-qualified surveyors operating either in France or in England who specialise in French surveys.
The French Notaire
All property transactions in France must be carried out through a French notaire. A French notaire is responsible for ensuring that there is a proper transfer of title. He is also responsible for collecting all the taxes and duties due to the French fiscal authorities. So to some extent, the notaire fulfils the function of a French civil servant (_fonctionnaire_), as well being expected to look after the interests of the vendor, and often, the interests of the purchaser.
It is now possible to appoint a notaire anywhere in the country to deal with your transaction, no matter where the property concerned is located – although a notaire with some local knowledge can be useful. The notaire is often appointed by the vendor, who will often use the same notaire through whom they bought the property. That said, the notaire‘s fees and duties are usually payable by the purchaser.
It is possible to appoint your own notaire to act solely for you on a purchase. This will not cost you any more because the two notaires are obliged to share their fees between them. However, appointing your own French notaire can increase delay and misunderstanding. It can also reduce motivation, because the notaire is doing the same work for half the fee. Appointing your own notaire is only recommended if the transaction involves very large sums of money and complex issues.
French notaires are highly qualified, highly trained and highly regulated. However, most do not see it as their job to provide you with ancillary advice and assistance at all prior to signing the contract and only to a limited extent through to completion. Some notaires speak English to a reasonable standard, but the person dealing with your file (the clerk) will not necessarily have the same level or ability. We work with you and the French notaire to ensure that there are no misunderstandings and that your needs are met.