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Property in France

How to Find Real Estate, Buy It, And Live in It

Buying property in France is not just for movie stars and celebrities. Ordinary people with a passable knowledge of French (or a friend who speaks it) and a lot of patience can acquire a bit of magic too. But before you attempt it, arm yourself with knowledge of how to find your special place, how to buy it, and how to live in it.

Finding the Property

As you look for what you want, here are several things to bear in mind:

  • Don’t expect American state-of-the-art appliances, floor layouts, or conveniences. Part of the charm of old buildings is that they are old, and that includes the kitchens and plumbing.
  • Decide if you want a pied-à-terre (a small place where you can comfortably stay for several weeks or months at a time) or a year-round residence.
  • Generally, an apartment is sold with an empty kitchen—four walls and a water outlet. There are stores that will help you design and install your own kitchen, ranging from pre-fabricated cabinets at IKEA to a kitchen created by cuisinistes. Get at least three estimates as well as references before selecting your vendor.
  • If you will be in a city, decide whether or not you will have a car. Parking in Paris is difficult; having a parking place can greatly increase the resale value of your place.
  • France offers a wide variety of locales. Before you go to the effort of buying something, you really need to explore. Paris itself is divided into 20 arrondissements, each with its own character. If you are willing to live in the banlieue, or suburbs, prices drop dramatically. Properties in the countryside are considerably cheaper.
  • Finding the right house or flat is more complicated than in the U.S. There is no such thing as Multiple Listings in France. Only 30 percent of real estate transactions occur with the help of realtors; the rest are directly between buyer and seller. As a foreigner, you might be more comfortable working through an agent, or agent immobilier, who knows the laws of France.

Getting Started

Let’s say you’ve decided to buy an appartement in Paris. Walk the streets to find an area you like, then hunt down some agencies that look promising. You can also check out the listings and realtors in various magazines, newspapers, and on the Internet.

There is relatively little new construction in Paris. Those apartment complexes that are being developed are usually sold when ground is first broken; in other words, you basically buy an apartment two years before it is completed. Occasionally, you will find almost-completed apartments listed in newspapers and real estate magazines.If you are truly brave, you can buy a place at auction. Notices appear in newspapers such as Le Figaro and the International Herald Tribune. Let the buyer beware. At least take an architect with you when you go to look at the offering.

Reading Real Estate Listings

No matter where you find your listings, they will all be posted as À Louer (For Rent) and À Vendre (To Buy). They will also tell you what arrondissement (if in Paris) or département (if in the rest of the country) the property is located in. Perhaps most importantly, they will give you the size in square meters and the number of rooms. Most apartments in Paris are small. Studios are 100-200 square feet, some smaller. Three-bedroom apartments are frequently under 1,000 square feet.

Listings will tell you how many rooms there are other than the kitchen. A studio is one room. A one-bedroom apartment will have two pièces, or two rooms, plus the kitchen. Bedrooms are almost uniformly small, while the living rooms are comparatively large.

Bear in mind that the French follow the European convention of counting the first floor as the ground floor (Rez-de-Chauseé or RdC); the second floor in American terminology is the first floor in Europe. Generally, the higher the floor, the more expensive the property.

Closing the Deal

Once you have decided on a place you like at a mutually-agreed upon price, you and the seller sign a document known as a promesse de vente. This is a legally binding document that confirms that the seller must sell the property to the buyer. The buyer, however, has 11 days to change his mind. The seller must also provide to the buyer an accurate floor plan of the apartment or house.

All sales in France are conducted with notaires. Both the buyer and seller has his own notaire and they confirm that all aspects of the sale are done according to law.

If you are buying a condominium, there will be a set of rules that govern the building. As an owner, you are a co-proprietaire and are bound by the laws of the building. Owners collectively determine such things as whether you are allowed to install a satellite antenna on your balcony, whether the building as a whole will subscribe to cable TV, how often and how much money will be spent on repainting the walls, etc.

Do not make the mistake (as we did) of not personally reading all regulations before you sign. As a foreigner, it is advisable to hire an , or lawyer, who specializes in real estate. In case of a disagreement, you are far better off having someone who knows the law and knows how to speak French.

Tax Considerations

Before buying property in France, you should know that the Government of France has very specific inheritance laws. By law, on your death your property is divided equally between your spouse and your surviving children. There are some steps you can take to ensure that the surviving spouse can continue to live in the house or flat. Speak with a lawyer about this before you buy the property.

You will pay between 8 and10 percent in taxes and fees. If you buy an apartment less than five years old, however, you will pay only 3 to 5 percent or less. Ask also about property taxes, which tend to be less in Paris than in the country. Generally, you will be responsible for both a land and a habitation tax.

A larger question is your residency status. If you reside in France full time and earn a living here, you will become part of the French social system. The taxes are extraordinarily high (more than 50 percent). Again, you should seek the advice of a tax attorney who is familiar with both the American and French taxation systems. You can get a list of attorneys from the U.S. Consulate.

Financing Your Property

If you are able to pay cash for your new home, you will not need a mortgage, and many properties for sale in the country might well be within reach of your savings kitty. If you need a mortgage, things become a bit more complicated. A French bank will issue a mortgage to expats as long as you can show regular income. By French law the total of all of your mortgage payments worldwide cannot be more than 30 percent of your total income.Lastly, you must have mortgage insurance for a large mortgage and a physical examination at the bank’s expense.

If you do not fall neatly into an income category (e.g., you are retired without a fixed income), Banque Woolwich is a good resource. The staff are used to dealing with expats and speak excellent English (www.woolwich.co.uk).

Once you are here in France, an excellent resource is the Junior Service League of Paris. Living in France is a free publication and website, in English, that gives useful information on housing, employment, banking, insurance, etc. To absorb the flavor of a buying experience, read Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence or Francis Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun. Both give agonizingly accurate pictures of the adventure of buying property abroad.

All in all, buying property in France might seem like a daunting experience, but it is not an unpleasant one. Contrary to France’s reputation of being inhospitable to foreigners, we have found the opposite to be true. With the notable exception of a few surly cab drivers, we have found the French to be polite and helpful. And as we take our evening walks across the Alexander III bridge we can’t help but be amazed that a small part of this City of Lights belongs to us!

Finding Real Estate Listings in France

De Particulier A Particulier (From Buyer to Seller), www.pap.fr, is the most popular nationwide resource.

Demeures de France, a bi-monthly publication that specializes in upscale offerings, is in English and in French and also has an Internet site at www.demeures.com.

Demeures de Charme, www.demeures-de-charme.com, is similar to Demeures de France, and is also in English and in French.

FUSAC, www.fusac.fr, a bi-weekly free publication for English-speaking residents of Paris, has advertisements for rentals, purchases, and agencies which can help you do either. FUSAC is available at many locations around the city.

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