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French Entrée Magazine - Time to buy

Question

Could your legal expert please explain the various timescales involved when buying a property in France. I have been researching the buying process generally but am rather unsure as to what happens when! Many thanks

Answer

The first timescale to be aware of is that a typical sale and purchase in France takes 3 months from start to finish. It is rare for it to be faster than this and quite common for it to take longer.

On acceptance by the seller of your offer, there is often a flurry of activity especially if the contract (le compromis de vente) is being prepared by the estate agent (as opposed to the notary). In approximately 50% of the sales and purchases handled by my office, it is the estate agent who prepares the initial contract and the notary does not become involved until there is a binding contract in place.

The estate agent will be keen to get the parties signed up as quickly as possible and so you should be ready to react quickly, consider arranging a survey, consider taking independent legal advice on the contract and ancillary documentation and organise your 10% deposit ready to transfer to France.

This first stage of the purchase is usually completed with both parties signing the contract within one month of your offer being accepted but it can also take slightly longer, particularly if the initial contract is being prepared by a notary.

Once both parties have signed the contract, the estate agent or the notary (whichever prepared the contract) is required to post a copy of it to you by registered post from France. You then have a 7 day cooling off period starting from the day after receipt of the notice but the seller is bound as soon as he signs the contract. The buyer can withdraw from the purchase without reason during this period but must send notice of withdrawal (by registered post) before the 7 days expires.

Assuming however you are happy to proceed, you should transfer the deposit to the agent or notary before the end of the cooling off period.

The contact will specify a deadline for completion and this is expressed as "by the xxxx (date) at the latest". It is important to appreciate however that this is not a fixed date. The actual completion date could be a week either side or even longer. There is no immediate consequence of the target date being exceeded but this date does signify the from which, provided the notary is ready to complete, either party can put the other on notice that he/she must complete within say 14 days..

Following the expiry of the cooling off period, there will be a lull of a few weeks whilst the notary carries out his pre-completion formalities.

In many cases, it will be necessary for the notary to serve notice of the pending sale on the local commune and sometimes on the local agricultural body known as La SAFER. This is a formality which is required so as to "purge" any rights of pre-emption which exist. Communes and/or la SAFER are often entitled to step in and buy the property in your place. In practice this happens very rarely but the notary is required to allow them a 2 month period in which to decide. Once the notary has completed all the formalities and received a local search result and Land registry search result, assuming everything is in order, he will contact the parties to invite them to attend his office to complete. The completion date will not be imposed on you. A date and time convenient to all parties (including the estate agent) will be agreed. If you cannot attend in person, it will be necessary for you to sign a Power of Attorney appointing one of the notary's clerks to sign on your behalf.

Additional deadlines will apply if the buyer is applying for a mortgage from a French bank or if the purchase is conditional on the buyer obtaining planning authorisation for works to the property but that is a whole other topic.

This article first appeared in French Entrée Magazine issue 95 NOV/DEC 2012.

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