Of Myths and Mayors

Question

My husband and I are considering buying a property in France but are by nature very cautious. We have read different reports about what is and is not commonplace and to be expected in France. Can you dispel some of the myths for us please?

Answer

There are a number of widespread myths and if believed these can land you in very deep water. Others are less serious...

The first myth is that it is okay to pay money "under the table" to your seller and that "everyone does it". This is incorrect. Payment of monies between the parties which is not disclosed in the legal documentation is against the law and must not be done!

The second common myth is that "the French don't do surveys". Again this is nonsense. Many French buyers would arrange for a local builder or architect to look over a property for them before going ahead and others would commission a formal report from a building expert. A reasonable proportion of British buyers do in fact engage the services of a UK qualified surveyor living and working in France. So, don't be persuaded into proceeding with a purchase without a survey of some sort unless you have satisfied yourself that the structure is sound!

Another misconception which we come across regularly is that you need to sign the paperwork in France. Again this is not the case and the vast majority of documents can be signed in the UK or elsewhere in the world for that matter. Some will only need your signature whilst others may need to be signed in front of a UK solicitor who will certify your signatures. Occasionally, it is necessary for the document to be "legalised" by the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office following signature in front of a UK solicitor or notary public. This is neither a complicated nor a costly exercise but it can add a few days to the process and so needs to be planned in advance.

British clients often tell us that the French notary is a civil servant. This is somewhat misleading. The notary is a public officer who is appointed by the Minister of Justice in France. However a notary is also an independent, self employed professional just like a solicitor who provides legal services to and receives payment from his clients. Unlike in the UK however, the fees which a notary must charge are fixed by the State.

Finally, we ought to mention the practice of introducing yourselves to the local Mayor. Over the years many clients have asked us whether they ought to take a box of biscuits or a bottle of whisky when they go to visit the Mayor for the first time. There is no right or wrong answer to this. I am sure that in the small rural communes such a gesture goes down well however in the larger towns, please be aware that the Mayor is likely to have more pressing issues to deal with than welcoming newcomers to his patch!

This article first appeared in Issue 85 of French Magazine – March/April 2011

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