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French Entrée Magazine - The Buying Process

Once your offer to buy a property has been accepted by the seller, the initial contract will be prepared for signature. This contract will either be drafted by the estate agent or in some cases by the notary. If the estate agent prepares the contract, the notary will not be involved in the transaction until after a binding contract is already in place.

In all cases, it is important not to be pressured into signing the contract unless and until you understand what you are signing and have had any questions regarding the property fully answered.

Along with the draft contract, you should also be given a series of reports which must be provided and paid for by a seller. These reports cover the presence or absence of asbestos, termites, the risk of exposure to lead poisoning, energy efficiency, the condition of any fixed gas installation and the electrical installation. Which of these reports are compulsory will depend on the age and location of the property. In addition, a statement as to any natural or technological risks affecting the area must be provided to you. If the property is not connected to mains drainage, a drainage report must also be provided. These reports however do not constitute a structural survey and before signing the contract you should consider whether to instruct a property professional to inspect the property. It is unusual in France for a contract to be made "subject to survey" so any survey must be done and the result known before you sign.

In France, the contract is generally signed quite early in the transaction before any searches and enquiries have been made by the notary. The contract will therefore be conditional on satisfactory search results being obtained and if necessary on the buyer obtaining a mortgage offer. If any of the conditions are not met, the contract will be cancelled and the buyer will usually be entitled to recover his deposit.

Once both parties have signed the contract, the estate agent or the notary (depending on who prepared the contract) is required to serve the buyer with a seven day cooling off notice. Only the buyer gets a cooling off period. The seller is committed to the sale as soon as he signs the contract.

Once the contract has been signed and the cooling off notice served, the buyer is expected to pay a deposit. The deposit is paid either to the estate agent or to the notary. The contract will indicate who is to hold the deposit pending completion of the sale.

Once the buyer's cooling off period has expired and assuming the buyer has not withdrawn from the purchase, the notary will start to deal with the pre-completion formalities. These generally take up to two months, the main reason being something called pre-emption. When the sale of a property has been agreed and a contract signed, in many cases the notary is required to notify the local Commune and sometimes the local agricultural commission (known as the SAFER) of the pending sale to give them the chance to step in and buy the property. In practice, such a right of pre-emption is very rarely exercised but in the absence of a response from the relevant body the notary must wait a full two months before proceeding with the sale.

The notary must also check the seller's title to the property, obtain a clear local search result and a clear Land Registry search result - similar to those which a UK solicitor arranges when dealing with a purchase in the UK.

Whilst the notary deals with these aspects, a buyer who needs to secure a loan to finance his purchase must progress his application. The contract will specify a deadline by which the buyer must have obtained a mortgage offer. If the buyer fails to obtain a mortgage offer and so needs to withdraw from the purchase, he must get a letter of refusal from the banks to which he applied in order to recover his deposit. Once the notary has completed all the requisite formalities, he will draft the final deed of sale. He will also issue the buyer with a completion statement setting out the exact balance required to complete the purchase. He will also contact both parties to invite them to a completion meeting. The date of the meeting will be fixed to suit all parties and will not be imposed on the buyer. If you are unable to attend the completion meeting you can sign a Power of Attorney in the UK authorising one of the notary's clerks to sign the final deed on your behalf.

In the period between signature of the contract and the completion date, it is important for buyers to take advice on how best to structure their ownership of the French property. Inheritance rules in France are very different to those in the UK and owners do not have total freedom to leave their property to whoever they wish. Natural and adopted children are known as “reserved heirs” and are entitled to inherit property from their parents. However, with careful planning it is usually possible to structure your ownership so as to ensure that in the event of the death of one spouse or partner, the survivor becomes the sole owner of the property with the rights of any children being postponed or even denied.

If possible, you should re-inspect the property before going to sign in order to check the property has not been altered or its condition deteriorated since you first agreed to buy it. You should also check that any items of furniture included in the purchase price remain at the property. Be prepared for a fairly lengthy meeting at the notary's office and expect that the notary may insist on the presence of an interpreter (whose fee you must pay) to ensure you fully understand what you are signing.

At the end of the completion meeting the notary should give you a document (an attestation de vente) which proves that you are the new owner of the property. This is your proof of ownership until the transfer of title has been registered at the Land Registry which can take up to six months at which point the notary will send you a stamped copy of the sale deed. The original will be retained by the notary. The keys will be given to you and then you can open the champagne!

This article first appeared in French Entrée Supplement - JAN 2012.

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