Buying a Home in France…Rent First!

Once you’ve considered possible locations for your dream home in France, you must decide on the type of property that will best suit your requirements, weigh up the purchase options and assess the fees associated with buying. 

There’s an overwhelming choice of property for sale and a buyers’ market in most areas, although less so than a decade ago. As when buying property anywhere, it’s never wise to be in too much of a hurry. Have a good look around in your chosen region and obtain an accurate picture of the types of property available, their relative values and what you can expect to get for your money. However, before doing this you should make a comprehensive list of what you want (and don’t want) from a home, so that you can narrow the field and save time on wild goose chases.

Although property in France is generally inexpensive compared with property in many other European countries, the fees associated with the purchase of properties more than five years old are the highest in Europe and add 10 to 15 per cent to the cost. To reduce the chance of making an expensive error when buying in an unfamiliar region, it’s often prudent to rent a property for a period), taking in the worst part of the year (weather-wise). This allows you to become familiar with the region and the climate, and gives you plenty of time to look for a suitable home to buy.

Wait until you find something you fall head over heels in love with and then think about it for a week or two before rushing headlong to the altar! One of the advantages of buying property in France is that there’s usually another ‘dream’ home around the next corner – and the second or third dream home is often even better than the first. However, don’t dally endlessly, as good properties at the right price don’t remain on the market for ever.

Renting Before Buying

As when making all major financial decisions, give yourself time to think. Unless you know exactly what you’re looking for and where, it’s best to rent a property for a period to reduce the risk of making a costly mistake, particularly when you’re planning to buy in an unfamiliar area.

This is even more important for those planning to set up a business in France, when it isn’t advisable to buy a home until you’re sure that your business will be a success. Renting long-term before buying is particularly prudent for anyone planning to live in France permanently.

If possible, you should rent a similar property to the one you’re planning to buy, during the time(s) of year when you plan to occupy it. The advantages of renting include the following:

– It allows you to become familiar with the climate, the amenities and the local people, to meet other foreigners who’ve made their homes in France and share their experiences, and to discover the cost of living for yourself.

– It ‘buys’ you time to find your dream home at your leisure.

– It saves tying up your capital and can be surprisingly inexpensive in many regions. You may even wish to consider renting a home in France long-term (or ‘permanently’). Some people let their family homes abroad and rent one in France for a period (you may even make a profit!).

On the other hand, the disadvantages of renting should be taken into consideration, including the following:

– Annual property price increases in most areas are higher than interest rates, which means that you may be better off tying up your money in a property than investing it while you rent.

– Taking a long-term rental before buying means in effect moving house twice within a year or two; remember that moving is one of life’s most stressful experiences!

– You may not find the type of rental property you want, which will colour your experience of living in a particular area and possibly in France generally. Most rental properties are apartments, and rural homes are rarely available for rent.

If you’re looking for a rental property for a few months, you may need to rent a holiday apartment for a week or two to allow yourself time to find one that suits you.

France has an abundance of furnished, self-catering accommodation and the widest imaginable choice. You can choose from literally thousands of cottages, apartments, villas, bungalows, mobile homes, chalets, and even châteaux and manor houses. Many short-term lets are gîtes, which literally means a shelter but is nowadays used to refer to furnished, self-catering holiday accommodation in general. A typical gîte is a small cottage or self-contained apartment with one or two bedrooms (sleeping four to eight and usually including a sofa bed in the living room), a large living room/kitchen with an open fire or stove, and a toilet and shower room.


Standards vary considerably, from dilapidated, ill-equipped cottages to luxury villas with every modern convenience. In certain parts of France, notably the overcrowded Côte d’Azur, gîtes may be concrete ‘rabbit hutches’, built to a basic standard with minimal facilities. Check whether a property has the facilities you require, in particular central heating if you’re planning to rent in winter.

Most property let on a short-term basis is intended for holidays and you’re normally limited to one or two weeks only, particularly during the peak summer season, when the rent can be prohibitive. Seasonal lets are sometimes available, but generally only in low season. If you’re planning to rent out of season, check that the property is suitable, e.g. that it’s readily accessible, that local amenities such as shops and restaurants will be open. Check also whether the owners provide any ‘support’, such as accompanying you on house-hunting trips, especially if your French is poor.

Furnished properties that aren’t holiday accommodation are sometimes available for as little as three months, but the usual minimum period is a year. The minimum rental period for unfurnished property is three years, so this is unlikely to be an option.

Finding a Rental Property
Your success or failure in finding a suitable rental property depends on many factors, not least the type of rental you’re seeking (a one-bedroom apartment is easier to find than a four-bedroom detached house), how much you want to pay and the area. France has a strong rental market in most areas, although rural properties are rarely available for long-term rental.

When looking for rented accommodation, try to avoid the months of September and October, when French people return from their summer holidays and (in university towns and cities) students are looking for accommodation.

Ways of finding a property to rent include the following:
– Visit accommodation and letting agents. Most cities and large towns have estate agents (agences immobilières) who also act as letting agents. Look under Agences de Location et de Propriétés in the yellow pages. It’s often better to deal with an agent than directly with owners, particularly with regard to contracts and legal matters. Builders and developers may also rent properties to potential buyers.

– Contact travel agents, French Government Tourist Offices (who are agents for Gîtes de France) and local tourist offices, who may deal with short-term rentals.

– Look in local newspapers and magazines, particularly expatriate publications, and foreign property publications

– Check newsletters published by churches, clubs and expatriate organisations, and their notice boards.

– Look for advertisements in shop windows and on notice boards in shopping centres, supermarkets, universities and colleges, and company offices.

– Search the internet

– Ask at the local town hall or mairie, where there may be details of properties to rent long term.

– Contact owners directly.

Rental Costs
Rental costs vary considerably according to the size and quality of a property, its age and the facilities provided. Prices are calculated according to the number of rooms (pièces), excluding the kitchen, bathroom(s), toilet(s) and other ‘utility’ rooms, and the floor area (in square metres). A one-room apartment has a combined living and sleeping room (it may have a separate kitchen and bathroom) and is called a studio. A two-room (deux-pièces) apartment usually has one bedroom, a living room, kitchen and bathroom. A three-room (trois-pièces) apartment has two bedrooms, a four-room (quatre-pièces) apartment may have three bedrooms or two bedrooms and separate dining and living rooms, and so on. The average size of a two-room apartment is around 50m2 (500ft2).

Rental prices are also based on the prevailing market value of a property (indice), and the most significant factor affecting rental prices is location: the region of France, the city and the neighbourhood. Like everywhere, rental prices in France are dictated by supply and demand and are higher in Cannes, Grenoble, Lyon and Nice than in Bordeaux, Marseille, Strasbourg and Toulouse, for example. Rental accommodation in Paris is in high demand and short supply, and the prices are among the highest in Europe and often double those in other French cities. In Paris, you should expect to pay at least €25 per m2; a tiny studio apartment of around 20m2 (215ft2) in a reasonable area costs around €500 per month, while a two or three-bedroom apartment (125m2/1,345ft2) in a fashionable arrondissement can cost up to ten times as much.

The lowest prices are found in small towns and rural areas, though there is not so much choice. As a general rule, the further a property is from a large city or town (or town centre), public transport or other facilities, the cheaper it is. In the provinces you can rent a two-bedroom apartment or cottage for €300 or less per month. Houses can be rented in most rural areas and on the outskirts of some towns; for a three-bedroom house, you can expect to pay at least €500 per month – double that in parts of Ile-de-France and the south-east, including the Alps.

Rental prices are often open to negotiation and you may be able to secure a 5 to 10 per cent reduction if there isn’t a queue of customers behind you.

Rental prices for short-term lets, e.g. less than a year, are higher than for longer lets, particularly in popular holiday areas. For short-term lets the cost is calculated on a weekly basis (Saturday to Saturday) and depends on the standard, location, number of beds and the facilities provided.//

The rent for a gîte sleeping six is typically from €250 to €350 per week in June and September, and €350 to €500 in July and August. The rent is higher for a gîte with a pool. However, when renting long-term outside the high season, you can rent a two-bedroom property for around €500 per month in most regions.

A tax known as ‘right to a lease’ (droit au bail) at 2.5 per cent is added to rental charges. In addition to rent, you may incur some or all of the following costs:

– Agency fee (frais d’agence), which is usually equivalent to two months’ rent, but may be shared between you and your landlord (some agencies charge an additional ‘inspection fee’ and/or registration fee);

– Deposit (caution) to cover any damage you might cause to the property or its furnishing or fittings, which is usually equivalent to two months’ rent, although it’s refundable if you don’t damage anything;

– Heating, electricity and water, which aren’t normally included in the rent;

– Maintenance/service charges (charges communes – see page 163);

– Residential tax (taxe d’habitation), which you must pay if your rental period includes 1st January unless your contract specifically states otherwise.

Rental Contracts
A rental contract, whether for an unfurnished or a furnished property, must be signed by all parties involved, including the agent handling the contract, if applicable. Next to their signature each party must also write the words lu et approuvé (read and approved). A contract for a furnished property is called a contrat de location de locaux meublés, while a seasonal contract is an engagement de location meublée saisonnière.

French rental laws (and protection for tenants) don’t extend to holiday lettings. For holiday letting, the parties are free to agree such terms as they see fit concerning the period, rent, deposit and the number of occupants permitted, and there’s no legal obligation on the landlord to provide a written agreement. However, you should never rent a property without a written contract, which should be drawn up or checked by a notary for long-term rentals. This is important if you wish to get a deposit returned. You should also ensure that there’s a detailed inventory (état des lieux), or you could be charged at the end of your tenancy for ‘damage’ you haven’t caused.

If you rent for more than a year, you (and the lessor) become subject to minimum notice periods (a month for the lessee, three months for the lessor), which are increased if you rent for more than three years.

In certain circumstances it’s possible to enter into a contrat de location accession, whereby you spend a period (agreed between you and the owner – known as the période de jouissance) in a property during which you decide whether or not you wish to buy it. During the ‘trial’ period, you must pay an indemnity (redevance) and all running costs, as if you were renting.

Excerpted from “Buying a Home in France” (Survival Books) by David Hamphire

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