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The Guide to Buying a Property in France

Dordogne, one of the regions in France where you can buy a property
A view of Périgord in the Dordogne, one of the many beautiful regions in France where you can buy a property.

Living in France allows you to immerse yourself in the cultural wonders, the ambiance of the land, and makes possible daily interaction with locals. When you are a brief visitor in France, experiences tend to generally be more superficial even if often enjoyable. The view from outside as a tourist can be very different from what you will experience up close when you take part in day-to-day French regional rituals. You won't know until you have lived in France for some time just how much you have grown to love the place and just how much your perspective has changed and evolved along the way. So how can you make such a life-changing move though buying a property in France? We propose here to provide you practical guidance based upon personal experience.

Some Interesting French Property Laws

The dream of living long-term in France is popular to this day, but when seeking to make it a happen you often come up against one cold and hard truth—practical reality. While the process of buying a house in France is feasible, certain idiosyncrasies are worth knowing up front regarding French property law.

For example, you may discover after having searched for and found your ideal home, placed your initial deposit, that the Mayor in town has "first priority" to buy the property before you at your agreed upon price. The French have a system to stop any "under-the-table" sales at artificially low prices with the motivation of minimizing taxes and fees calculated as a percentage of the sale price. There was a recent case in Nice, on the south coast of France, where such a discounted sale was happening on a sea-front apartment valued in the region of 600,000 euros, but which was being sold for only 10,000 euros. The mayor saw the deal and purchased it for only 10,000 euros to prevent the inappropriate deal.

Another French law is that both you as a home buyer and the seller will share the same lawyer, called the “notaire.” You don’t each have your own lawyer. The notaire must, therefore, act in the interest of both the buyer and seller.

What You Need to Consider

Here are the essential elements to consider when buying your home in France. Some may seem obvious and fundamental, but often it is only during a property visit that you realize that new essential criteria have surfaced.

Location, Location, Location

It is well worth taking the time to explore a variety of regions in France. Like many countries, there are large regional variations in the geography, demographics, dialect, as well as the psychology of the locals. The daily life of a Parisian is very different to one living in the countryside of Provence or Bretagne, for example. So travel as much as possible, do your research via other media, and then ask yourself some essential questions to decide the right region for you in France.

Do you want to live in sunshine year-round or to experience all four seasons?
Do you want to live in sunshine year-round or experience all four seasons?

What Kind of Climate Suits You?

  • The north of France is cooler and tends to have more days of rain than south, particularly the north-west in the region of Bretagne (Brittany)--which is more rugged and windswept, akin to southwestern England.
  • The west coast has a more moderate climate. The west-central area, around La Rochelle, is very popular due to the many days of sunshine, along with warmer winters. As a result, expect higher house prices in this area.
  • The central area is more mountainous, especially around the "massif central," and is more remote. Parts of the region are isolated due to the often smaller or poor roads. However, if rugged isolation is your thing and you don't need sunshine year-round, this area is stunning.
  • The north Dordogne in the south-west is a pleasant blend of warm summers without the arid dry summers of further south.
  • South-Central France is hotter and drier
  • Both the south-west corner and the south east corner are mountainous, in the Pyrenees and Alps respectively. Consider what terrain you prefer; how steep or how flat is right for you? Being mountainous, both these areas have potential for winter snow.

What Kind of Landscapes do you Prefer?

Do you prefer rolling hills, flatlands, or steeper more mountainous land?

When viewing property details for anything you may have found during your online search, generally try to do so yourself via online satellite maps or in person. It may help to take the advice of a real estate agent if they are local to the area and know the general lay of the land. But it is likely not until you visit the property that you realize whether the terrain is to your liking. In every case, before you even visit the property, try to get as many photos in advance from the online site or agent, and use Google maps street view and earth view to get a sense of every aspect of the land.

For all of the above location questions, these maps of France will help.

How Hospitable are the Locals to Foreigners?

The stereotype exists of the French as being somewhat gruff and disdaining of foreigners. While this portrayal proves largely untrue for anyone who has spent a great deal of time in the country, and I have toured France for over 10 years, it is undeniable that certain regions are more welcoming than others to those who are not French. The best way to find out how friendly your potential neighbors and the townsfolk actually are is to spend some time in local cafes and bars; it’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it. Be open to striking up any conversation you can with patrons and even the owners, and see how the conversation goes.

Love the Lingo
Love the Lingo.

Learn the Language

Yes, this is a truism, but you're not going to immerse yourself successfully in the local culture of your chosen area of France if all you've got to offer is a stiff version of pigeon English. From my experience, the quickest and easiest way to learn functional and conversational French is Paul Noble's Collins French Course, but there are scores of ways to learn online or via apps these days if don't have time to take formal classes before you arrive or upon arrival. You don’t need to speak French perfectly, but you do need the confidence that your French is conversational and understandable. An attempt to speak, along with your clear desire to learn the host's language, will be very much appreciated as a form of respect.

Take Your Time Before You Buy

The biggest mistake when seeking to buy a dream house in France is rushing. Many people fall in love with the dream, see a beautiful house, and offer the asking price before negotiating and asking all the necessary questions. People in a hurry often end up in the deep end!

Take your time buying a property in France. The process isn’t simple and you will likely make a far better decision if you slow down and work at to the pace of the French system. The French have a history of entrenched bureaucracy. Don’t drive yourself mad trying to force the French system to do something it just won't do on your terms. Roll with it. At the same time, by not rushing you can carefully consider and negotiate your purchase.

Write Your List of Property Criteria

Make a list of what you consider the essential requirements for your house in France. Be flexible and allow this to change over time. Often, with each property you visit, you will add and remove requirements to your list as you progressively realize what is most important to you relative to what is available. Similarly, your priorities will evolve regarding criteria that are "must haves" and those that are "nice to haves."

In our case, when we were initially house hunting, we wanted a property that was completely remote and with no neighbors. After visiting a few places, we figured we would rather have the option to immerse ourselves in local life along with the security of having neighbors who help each other out when necessary. We are incredibly glad we did, as we shared our last Christmas hosting for 23 people—French locals as well as new English residents.

Owner's home in France
Families eating together in France
This delightful mob consists of our two French neighbor families as well as our own. Photo credit Gite Dordogne.

Property Websites

Use the best searchable international property websites. Try Century21, Leggett Immobilier, Green Acres, or RightMove to start. Each of these sites allow you to add distinct criteria for your property, beyond just the obvious number-of-bedrooms. Do you want your future home to have a pool or to not have a pool? Do you want to live in a remote rural location, a village, or a city?

Plan Extensive and Intensive Visits to France

  • Plan as many trips as possible to France to view properties and their location as if it were a military exercise. Book your trip for 3-5 days and schedule in 3 to 5 property viewings per day (it usually takes longer to get between more properties that are rural). Contact each property's agent and book a viewing, allowing time in between viewings to get to each property. It may well take longer than you think to get from place to place, so use Google Maps to calculate the time to travel between properties.
  • Print out all property details from property search websites and write the estate agents name and contact details as well as the each property's address. If you’re running late, let the next agents know—they’ll be more helpful in the future if you respect their time.
  • Print out a map of the whole area with all the properties you will visit. Print out the Google Maps directions (if you’re not using a Sat Nav) because in some cases a mobile signal may not be 100% available.
  • As you visit each property, take notes on the sheets that you have printed so that you can refer back without experiencing memory-blend (which one had the dirty pool and which one had the barking neighbor dogs?).
  • Leave one afternoon free to wander around the general area(s) you are searching and check out the local amenities.
  • Allow at least another half-day to visit real estate agents shops and Notaires offices. There you will find some local bargains. On the international websites you will find some fantastic properties, but at the notaire’s office and often at the Mairies (mayors), you may find properties that the vendor is keen to sell rapidly—which means a much lower price. You may need to book ahead in order to view them during another trip, or if you’re lucky you may be able to squeeze the visit into your current trip.

Property Sale Timescales

In France, it is quite common for a house to take 2-3 years to sell. Any first-year economics student will tell you that either this means that it is over-priced or there are not enough buyers in the market—or both. So take advantage of the supply-demand ratio currently in the country…

Negotiate

Too many people see a property they like and offer the asking price right away. While this will keep the vendor very happy, many times you can save yourself a lot of money by simply offering a seemingly cheeky low-price offer. A friend of mine offered half of the asking price and it was accepted. Don’t be afraid to receive a "non" as a reply, and continue negotiating.

Legal Advice

The decision to get legal help is a personal decision, but doing so will provide you much peace-of-mind. You will have greater certainty that you will not be taken advantage of by a seller or agent, and that you are not buying a dud. Having experienced legal counsel on your side is wise, especially if your command of French is not yet very good. A good English/French property lawyer will talk you through the ins and outs of the French legal system. For instance, the ancient Napoleonic inheritance laws still apply by default unless you go through mitigation. You cannot simply nominate one of your children to inherit your estate. By default, your estate is split between your spouse and your children equally (i.e. 1 spouse and 3 children means each gets 1/4).

Extra Help

I recommend the excellent book by Mark Sampson, “Essential Questions to Ask When Buying A House In France." The book is available via Amazon, and is full of answers to many questions you may have contemplated after it was too late.

Related Topics
Living in France: Articles and Resources
Related Articles
How to Afford a Vacation Rental in Paris

Duncan Ritson-Elliott took a few years to purchase a somewhat run-down but large farmhouse to turn it into a beautiful farmhouse gite in the remote Dordogne countryside. Duncan also advises on best methods to buy your own gite in France. If you would like to book the gite or get help buying your own property in France, contact Duncan at his website.


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