Only some 50 per cent of property sales in France are handled by estate agents (agent immobilier). However, where foreign buyers are concerned, the vast majority of sales are made through agents or handled by notaires (see below). It’s common for foreigners in many countries, particularly the UK, to use an agent in their own country who works with one or more French agents. A number of French agents also advertise abroad and many have English-speaking staff (so don’t be discouraged if you don’t speak fluent French).
If you want to find an agent in a particular town or area, look under Agences Immobilières in the relevant French yellow pages (pages jaunes) available at main libraries in many countries. If using a local estate agent, it’s best to go in person. French estate agents generally don’t post or fax you property details but expect you to be there, on the spot, and to visit houses immediately.
French estate agents are regulated by law and must be professionally qualified and licensed and hold indemnity insurance. To work in his own right in France, an agent must possess a carte professionnelle, which is granted only to those with certain professional qualifications or considerable experience. The carte must be renewed annually and its number and place of issue should be shown on the agent’s letterhead.
Estate agents should also provide a financial guarantee for at least €75,000; without this, they aren’t entitled to handle clients’ money. If an agent provides a guarantee for more than this amount, the name and address of the guarantor (i.e. bank) will also be shown on his letterhead. If an agent has a lower guarantee, you should pay your deposit to the notary or another legal professional involved in the sale.
Ensure that you’re dealing with an agent who fulfils these requirements and, if in doubt, ask to see his qualifications and confirmation of the guarantees he offers.
Most French estate agents are members of a professional body, the three main ones being the Fédération Nationale de l’Immobilier (FNAIM, : http://www.fnaim.fr the leading French association of estate agents, the Syndicat National des Professionnels Immobiliers (SNPI, : http://www.snpi.com
Very few foreign agents in France possess the coveted carte professionnelle. Until recently, foreigners were permitted to act as self-employed ‘sales representatives’ (agents commerciaux) of French-registered agents, requiring no particular qualifications. This practice has now been widely outlawed, however, and you should beware of making any binding agreements with an agent commercial and certainly shouldn’t pay any money to one or any unregistered ‘property agent’ or ‘search agent’. In fact, you shouldn’t even view properties with anyone who cannot produce a carte professionnelle (or who isn’t employed by someone with one); if you have an accident while visiting a property, you won’t be able to claim unless an agent is legal and registered. If you’re dealing with an agent commercial, you should check that he’s listed on the local registre du commerce (he should have a registration number and a SIRET number) and, preferably, that the agent he represents is a member of one of the recognised professional body).
If a foreign agent refers clients to a French agent or agents, he may share his commission with the French agent(s) or charge extra for his services – in some cases a great deal extra – and you should always check what’s included (and what isn’t) in any prices quoted by foreign agents.
Marchands de Biens
A marchand de biens is a property ‘trader’ who is permitted to sell only property that he has owned for at least three months. Like developers, traders don’t need a licence to sell property and you should take legal advice before buying from a marchand de biens. In fact, this is no longer a recognised profession in France. Note, however, that some licensed estate agents are also marchands de biens.
There are no government controls on agents’ fees, although they’re obliged to post a list of charges (barème) in their offices. Fees are usually levied on a sliding scale between 5 and 10 per cent: the cheaper the property, the higher the percentage, e.g. 10 per cent on properties priced at €20,000 reducing to 5 per cent on properties costing €150,000 or more. On expensive properties an agent’s fee may be negotiable. An agent’s fees may be paid by the vendor, the buyer or be shared, although it’s normal for the vendor to pay (i.e. the fee is ‘included’ in the purchase price). A price quoted as net vendeur excludes the selling agent’s fees; commission comprise (written as C/C) indicates that the price includes the agent’s commission. Make sure when discussing the price that it’s C/C and not net vendeur.
Many foreign agents work with French agents and share the standard commission, so you usually pay no more by using a foreign agent. The agent’s fee is usually payable on completion, but may be payable sooner.
When buying, check in advance whether you need to pay commission or any extras on top of the sale price (apart from the normal fees and taxes associated with buying a property in France).
Around 15 per cent of property sales in France are negotiated by notaires (a peculiarly French official, whose functions aren’t the same as a notary or notary public), who also have a monopoly on conveyancing for all property sales in France. Notaires have a strict code of practice and aren’t, for example, permitted to display property details in their offices, which means that most have a working relationship with a number of estate agents. When a notaire is the selling agent, his ‘agency’ commission isn’t included in the asking price and is paid by the buyer, which should be taken into account when calculating the overall cost of the property. However, the ‘agency’ fees charged by a notaire are usually lower than those levied by estate agents), e.g. 5 per cent up to €50,000 and 2.5 per cent above this figure. Although there may appear to be a conflict of interest when a notaire is instructed by the seller but receives his fee from the buyer, in practice there are usually no problems. Value added tax/VAT (TVA) at 19.6 per cent must be added to all fees.
If possible, you should decide where you want to live, what sort of property you want and your budget before visiting France. Obtain details of as many properties as possible in your chosen area and make a shortlist of those you wish to view (it’s also wise to mark them on a map). Most French agents expect customers to know where they want to buy within a 30 to 40km (20 to 25mi) radius and some even expect them to narrow their choice down to certain towns or villages. If there’s one phrase estate agents dread hearing, it’s: ‘I’ll know what I want when I see it.’ If you cannot define where and what you’re looking for, at least tell the agent, so that he knows that you’re undecided. If you’re ‘window shopping’, say so. Many agents will still be pleased to show you properties, as they’re well aware that many people fall in love with (and buy) a property on the spot.
Nevertheless, for both your own benefit and that of an estate agent, you should decide in advance on certain fundamental characteristics of your desired property, including:
– the use to which it will be put (e.g. buy-to-let investment, weekend or summer holiday home, potential retirement home);
– who and how many people will occupy it for how long and at what times of year;
– how many bedrooms you’ll need;
– how much and what type of outdoor space you’ll need;
– the relative importance of services and facilities such as shops, sport and entertainment, broadband internet access.
The details provided by French estate agents are usually sparse; often there’s no photograph and, even when there is, it usually doesn’t do a property justice. In the case of many old properties in need of renovation, there isn’t a lot that can be said apart from stating the land area and the number and size of buildings. French agents who advertise in foreign journals or who work closely with overseas agents, on the other hand, usually supply colour photographs and a full description, particularly for more expensive properties.
The best agents provide an abundance of information.
Agents vary enormously in their efficiency, enthusiasm and professionalism. If an agent shows little interest in finding out exactly what you want, you should go elsewhere. Note that there are no national property listings in France, where agents jealously guard their lists of properties, although many work with overseas agents in areas popular with foreign buyers.
If you’ve made an appointment with an agent in your home country to see properties in France, make a note of their reference numbers in case the French agent hasn’t been informed (or has lost them), it isn’t unusual for a French agent’s reference numbers not to match those you’re given abroad! Some agents, particularly outside France, don’t update their records frequently and their lists may be way out of date. If you’re using a foreign agent, confirm (and reconfirm) the price and that a particular property is still available before travelling to France to view it.
It’s common practice for agents to lure potential buyers with details of idyllic properties that are no longer for sale (or never were!) and then try to sell them other properties, which may not match their requirements.
To avoid being shown unsuitable properties, make sure you know the lingo ). To begin with, when property is advertised in France, the total living area in square metres (mètres carrés) is usually stated (written as m2) and the number of rooms (pièces), including bedrooms and reception rooms (such as a lounge) but not the kitchen, bathroom(s) or toilet(s), expressed as the letter F or T followed by the number. A two-room (deux pièces) apartment (F2) has one bedroom and a three-room (trois pièces) house has two bedrooms.
When it comes to terminology, there’s a minefield of faux amis awaiting the English-speaker. For example, the word bungalow in French means a cabin or even a shed and the French for bungalow is plan pied; a villa can be almost any detached property; a pavillon is not a pavilion but a house, although this might be detached, semi-detached or even terraced. In using the word propriété, you might think you were merely saying ‘property’ in a general sense, but the French term usually refers to a large house in extensive grounds, usually with several outbuildings.
Similar misunderstandings can arise in references to features of a property. A terrasse can be a terrace or patio in the English sense but it can also be a large balcony or simply a paved area surrounding the house; a cour may be an impressive courtyard surrounded by outbuildings in which hens and geese roam or merely a space behind the house just large enough for you to hang your washing in. If a property is advertised as having dépendances, this may mean it has a barn and a pigeonnier but it could equally refer merely to a couple of sheds and a rabbit hutch. Similarly, an appartement or studio indépendant isn’t necessarily a self-contained flat but could be just a bedroom with ensuite bathroom accessible from a landing rather than via other rooms (the latter arrangement being common in older buildings).
Beware also of French property advertisements or descriptions that have been translated into ‘English’, as these often contain numerous mistranslations. It therefore pays to be as precise as possible in describing your needs, even if this means drawing pictures, and to double-check the meaning of every term before rushing off to inspect a property – especially if this involves flying halfway across the world!
In France you’re usually shown properties personally by agents and won’t be given the keys (especially to furnished properties) or be expected to deal with tenants or vendors directly. One reason is that many properties are almost impossible to find if you don’t know the area, and it isn’t unknown even for agents to get hopelessly lost when looking for properties! Many rural properties have no numbers, and street name signs are virtually non-existent.
You should make an appointment to see properties, as agents don’t like people simply turning up. If you make an appointment, you should keep it or call and cancel it. If you’re on holiday, it’s acceptable to drop in unannounced to have a look at what’s on offer, but don’t expect an agent to show you properties without an appointment. If you view properties during a holiday, it’s best to do so at the beginning so that you can return later to inspect any you particularly like a second or third time. Note that French agents and notaires don’t usually work during lunch hours and most close on Saturday afternoons and Sundays and some also on Mondays.
A French agent may ask you to sign a document (bon de visite) before showing you any properties, which is simply to protect his commission should you obtain details from another source or try to do a deal with the owner behind his back.
You should try to view as many properties as possible during the time available, but allow sufficient time to view each property thoroughly, to travel and get lost between houses, and for breaks for sustenance (it’s mandatory to have a good lunch in France). Although it’s important to see enough properties to form an accurate opinion of price and quality, don’t arrange to see too many in one day (three or four is usually enough), as it’s easy to become confused as to the merits of each property or to end up rushing from one to another wishing you’d asked more questions or had a look in the attic. If you’re shown properties that don’t meet your specifications, tell the agent immediately. You can also help the agent narrow the field by telling him exactly what’s wrong with the properties you reject.
It’s wise to make notes of both the good and bad features and take lots of photographs of the properties you like, so that you’re able to compare them later at your leisure (but keep a record of which photos are of which house!). It’s also shrewd to mark each property on a map so that, should you wish to return, you can find them without getting lost (too often).
Excerpted from “Buying a Home in France (Survival Books) by David Hampshire
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