Buying a Home (Old) in France

In terms of the fees associated with buying a property, an ‘old’ property is one that’s over five years old that has already had at least one owner. However, the term ‘old home’ usually refers to a building that’s pre-second world war and possibly hundreds of years old and which is either in need of restoration and modernisation or has already been restored.
If you want a property with abundant charm and character, a building for renovation or conversion, outbuildings, or a large plot, you must usually buy an old property. The advantages and disadvantages of buying a new home ) apply in reverse to an old home. Many old properties purchased by foreigners in France are in need of restoration, renovation or modernisation.
The most common examples are the many old farmhouses that have been neglected since they were built in the 18th or 19th centuries or even abandoned many years ago. In general, the French attitude to old buildings is one of almost total neglect until they’re literally in danger of falling down, when complete rebuilding is often necessary. In many rural areas it’s still possible to buy such a property for as little as €25,000.
When considering old properties that might be suitable, you should take vendors’ (and particularly agents’) descriptions with liberal amounts of salt: ‘à finir’ usually means there’s still plenty of work to be done; ‘habitable’ can mean ‘derelict’; ‘à rénover’ implies that major reconstruction is required; and, if anything is described as a ‘ruine’, you should be pleasantly surprised to find any walls still standing. Before spending time and money investigating old properties, you should ask a lot of questions as to their condition. ‘Partly renovated’ usually means that part of a building is habitable, i.e. at least has sanitation, but the rest is in dire need of restoration. Bear in mind also that some rural properties lack basic services such as electricity, a reliable water supply and sanitation.
Before buying a property requiring restoration or modernisation, you should consider the alternatives. An extra €20,000 or €30,000 spent on a purchase is usually better value than spending a similar amount on building work. It’s often cheaper to buy a restored or partly restored property than a ruin in need of total restoration, unless you’re going to do most of the work yourself.
CAUTION

The price of most restored properties doesn’t reflect the cost and amount of work that went into them, and many people who have restored a ruin would never do it again and advise others against it.
If you’re planning to buy a property that needs restoration or renovation, obtain an accurate estimate of the costs before signing a contract. Many foreign buyers are tempted by the low cost of old homes and believe they’re getting a wonderful bargain, without fully investigating the renovation costs. Don’t buy a derelict property unless you have the courage, determination and money to overcome the many problems you’ll certainly face.
CAUTION

Renovation or modernisation costs will invariably be higher than you imagined or planned! Taking on too large a task in terms of restoration is a common mistake among foreign buyers in all price ranges.
Unless you’re prepared to wait until you can occupy it or are willing to live in a caravan for a long time while you work on it, it’s better to spend a bit more and buy something habitable but untidy than buy a property that needs completely gutting before you can live in it.
Bear in mind also that, if you buy and restore a property with the intention of selling it for a profit, you must take into account not only the purchase price and the restoration or modernisation costs, but also the fees and taxes included in the purchase, plus capital gains tax if it’s a second home.
It’s difficult to sell an old renovated property at a higher than average market price, irrespective of the amount you’ve spent on it. The French have little interest in old restored properties, which is an important point if you need to sell an old home in a hurry in an area that isn’t popular with foreign buyers. If you want to make a profit, you’re better off buying a new home.
Nevertheless, old properties can be better value than new homes and there are still some good bargains around, although you must carefully check their quality and condition. Note also that work on a property over five years old attracts VAT at just 5.5 per cent instead of the standard 19.6 per cent. As with most things in life, you generally get what you pay for, so you shouldn’t expect a fully restored property for €50,000.
Note that, if you want a restored home, you should buy one from someone who has lovingly and sensitively restored it, rather than from someone who has transformed it out of all recognition or renovated it so badly that all the work will have to be redone.
At the other end of the scale, for those who can afford them, there’s a wealth of beautiful châteaux, manor houses (manoir and maison de maître) and water mills (moulin), many costing no more than an average four-bedroom house in many other countries. However, if you aspire to live the life of the landed gentry in your own château or farm with umpteen outbuildings and several hectares of land, bear in mind that the reason there are so many on the market (and the relatively low prices) is that the cost of upkeep is astronomical!
Community Properties
In France, properties with common elements (whether a building, amenities or land) shared with other properties are owned outright through a system called ‘co-ownership’ (copropriété), similar to owning a condominium in the US, but are referred to here as community properties to avoid confusion with part-ownership schemes such as timeshare. Community properties include apartments, townhouses, and
Almost all French properties that are part of a development are owned en copropriété. In general, the only properties that aren’t community properties are detached houses on individual plots in public streets or on rural land. Under the system of copropriété, owners of community properties own not only their homes (parties privatives) but also a share (quote-part or tantième) of the common elements (parties communes) of a building or development, including foyers, hallways, lifts, patios, gardens, roads, and leisure and sports facilities, according to the size or value of your property.
Some 45 per cent of the French population live in apartments in cities and towns. Many modern community developments are located near coastal or mountain resorts and they may offer a wide range of communal facilities, including a golf course, swimming pools, tennis and squash courts, a gymnasium or fitness club, and a restaurant. Most also have landscaped gardens, high security and a full-time caretaker (gardien/gardienne), and some even have their own ‘village’ and shops.
At the other extreme, some developments consist merely of numerous cramped, tiny studio apartments. Note that community developments planned as holiday homes may not be attractive as permanent homes. Other advantages and disadvantages of community properties are listed below. Further information about community properties can be obtained from the Association des Responsables de Copropriété (ARC), 29 rue Joseph-Python, 75020 Paris (( 01 40 30 12 82, //www.unarc.asso.fr).


Advantages

The advantages of owning a community property may include the following:
– increased security;
– lower property taxes than detached homes;
– a range of community sports and leisure facilities;
– community living with lots of social contacts and the companionship of close neighbours;
– no garden, lawn or pool maintenance;
– fewer of the responsibilities of individual home ownership.

Community properties are also often in locations where owning a single-family home would be prohibitively expensive, e.g. a popular beach-front or a town centre.


Disadvantages

The disadvantages of community properties may include the following:
– restrictive rules and regulations;
– excessive community fees (owners may have no control over increases);
– a restricting living and social environment and lack of privacy;
– noisy neighbours (particularly if neighbouring apartments are rented to holidaymakers);
– limited living and storage space;
– expensive covered or secure parking;
– acrimonious owners’ meetings, where management and factions may try to push through unpopular proposals.
Note also that communal facilities in a large development may be inundated during peak periods; for example, a large swimming pool won’t look so big when 100 people are using it, and getting a game of tennis or the use of a fitness room may be difficult.


Checks

Before buying a copropriété property, it’s wise to ask current owners about the community. For example:
– Do they like living there?
– What are the fees and restrictions?
– Which is your parking space (if any)?
– Are owners required to pay part of the taxe foncière as well as the taxe d’habitation (see Property Taxes on page 280)?
– How noisy are other residents?
– Are the recreational facilities readily accessible?
– Would they buy there again (why or why not)?
– Is the community well managed?
You may also wish to check on your prospective neighbours. Permanent residents should avoid buying in a development with a high percentage of rental units, i.e. units that aren’t owner-occupied. If you’re planning to buy an apartment not on the ground floor, you may wish to ensure that the building has an efficient lift. Upper floor apartments are both colder in winter and warmer in summer and may incur extra charges for the use of lifts. They do, however, offer more security than ground floor apartments. Note that an apartment that has apartments above and below it will generally be more noisy than a ground or top floor apartment.
Cost
Prices vary considerably with the location, for example from around €50,000 for a studio or one-bedroom apartment in an average location to hundreds of thousands of euros for a luxury apartment in a prime location. Garages and parking spaces must often be purchased separately in developments, a lock-up garage usually costing between €10,000 and €150,000 and a parking space from €3,000 to €5,000.
If you’re buying a resale property, check the price paid for similar properties in the same area or development in recent months, but bear in mind that the price you pay may have more to do with the seller’s circumstances than the price fetched by other properties.
SURVIVAL TIP

Find out how many properties are for sale in a particular development; if there are many on offer, you should investigate why, as there could be management or structural problems. If you’re still keen to buy, you can use any negative aspects to drive a hard bargain.//
Under the Carrez law, the exact surface area (excluding cellars, garages, parking areas or anything less than 8m2) must be stated in the preliminary contract.
Community Fees
Owners must pay service charges for the upkeep of communal areas and for communal services. Charges are calculated according to each owner’s share of the development and not whether they’re temporary or permanent residents. For example, 20 apartments of equal size in an apartment block would each pay 5 per cent of the community fees. General charges cover such services as caretaking, upkeep of the garden and surrounds, swimming pool maintenance and refuse collection. In addition to general charges, there may also be special charges for collective services and common equipment such as lifts, central heating and hot water, which may be divided according to the share of the utility allocated to each apartment.
Check the level of general and special charges before buying an apartment. If you’re buying a resale apartment, ask to see a copy of the service charges for previous years and the minutes of the last annual general meeting, as owners may be ‘economical with the truth’ when stating service charges, particularly if they’re high. If you’re buying a holiday apartment that will be vacant for long periods (particularly in winter), don’t buy in an apartment block where heating and/or hot water charges are shared, or you’ll be subsidising your co-owners’ heating and hot water.
If necessary, owners can be assessed an additional amount to make up any shortfall of funds for maintenance or repairs. You should check the condition of the common areas (including all amenities) in an old development and whether any major maintenance or capital expense is planned for which you could be assessed. Beware of bargain apartments in buildings requiring a lot of maintenance work or refurbishment (note that properties in ski resorts usually require more maintenance than those in coastal areas). However, under French law, disclosure of impending expenditure must be made to prospective buyers before they sign a contract. Owners’ meetings can become rather heated when finances are discussed, particularly when assessments are being made to finance capital expenditure.
Fees vary considerably and can be high for luxury developments with a range of amenities such as a swimming pool and tennis courts, e.g. €1,000 per year for a two-room apartment and double this for a four-room property. However, high fees aren’t necessarily a negative point (assuming you can afford them), provided the community is well managed and maintained. The value of a community property depends to a large extent on how well the development is maintained and managed. Since January 2002, all copropriétaires have been required to pay service charges quarterly, the amount being adjusted at the end of the year when the annual accounts have been approved by the committee. Owners also have the right to make payments from a separate bank account.
The managing agent of a copropriété should send the notary handling the sale a statement of the seller’s account regarding the payment of community fees and any work in progress but not yet completed (for which owners are liable). The vendor should obtain a Certificat de l’Article 20 stating that he doesn’t owe any money to the copropriété; otherwise the notary must withhold payment to cover any fees due.
Management
The management of a copropriété is regulated by French law, and the rules and regulations are contained in a document called the Règlement de Copropriété. If you don’t understand it, you should have it explained or get it translated. All decisions relating to the management and upkeep of a community development are decided by a general committee (syndicat des copropriétaires) presided over by a manager (gérant/syndic). He’s responsible for the management, efficient daily running and the apportioning of charges relating to the building, e.g. insurance, repairs and maintenance.
The manager bills individual owners for service charges and management fees. The committee must hold a meeting at least once a year to approve a budget, discuss other matters of importance such as capital expenditure and, if necessary, appoint a new manager. Owners must be given 15 days’ notice by registered letter of the annual meeting or a special meeting and the opportunity to add items to the agenda no later than six days before the meeting. All decisions are made by a majority vote. Owners who are unable to attend may vote by proxy.
SURVIVAL TIP

If you’re planning to buy a community property, it’s important to ensure that it’s well managed and that there aren’t any major problems. If there are, you could be liable to contribute towards the cost of repairs, which could run into many thousands of euros.


Restrictions

The rules and regulations (règlement de copropriété) governing a community development allow owners to run their community in accordance with the wishes of the majority, while at the same time safeguarding the rights of the minority. Restrictions usually include such things as noise levels, the keeping of pets, renting, exterior decoration and plants (e.g. the placement of shrubs), rubbish disposal, the use of swimming pools and other recreational facilities, parking, business or professional use, and the hanging of laundry. Note that French law doesn’t allow anything to be forbidden without good reason (for example, pets may be forbidden only if they cause a nuisance to other owners), so any such restrictions may be unenforceable. You should also check whether there are any rules regarding short or long-term rentals or leaving a property unoccupied for any length of time. If necessary, discuss any restrictions with residents.
Garages & Parking
A garage or private parking space isn’t usually included in the price when you buy a new apartment or townhouse in France, although secure parking is usually available at an additional cost, possibly in an underground garage. Modern detached homes usually have a basement (sous-sol) that can be used as a garage and cellar. Smaller homes usually have a single garage, while larger properties may have garaging for up to four cars. Parking isn’t usually a problem when buying an old home in a rural area, although there may not be a purpose-built garage.
When buying an apartment or townhouse in a new development, a lock-up garage usually costs an additional €10,000 or €15,000 and even a reserved parking space can cost €3,000 to €5,000. Note that the cost of a garage or parking space isn’t usually recouped when selling, although it makes a property more attractive. The cost of parking is an important consideration when buying in a town or resort in France, particularly if you have a number of cars. It may be possible to rent a garage or parking space, although this can be prohibitively expensive in cities. Bear in mind that in a large development the nearest parking area may be some distance from your home. This may be an important factor, particularly if you aren’t up to carrying heavy shopping hundreds of metres to your home and possibly up several flights of stairs.

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

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