How We Didn’t Buy a House in Besançon

Jon Lewis’ charming book “How We Didn’t Buy a House in Besancon” tells the tale of challenges encountered when buying property in France. Required reading for anyone contemplating retiring here. Finally succeeding at finding his dream home, he and his wife Josée now live in the South of France, eight hours drive from Rome and quite a long way, as it turned out, from Besançon. Following is an excerpt from his book where he provides practical information for buying a house in France:

Buying Property in France
The buyer and the seller sign a document called Le Compromis de Vente (loosely, sales Contract). This defines the property, the price and the conditions suspensives (see below, Point 2). It also sets the date for the Acte Définitive, the completion document. It can be drawn up by a Notaire, but is normally drawn up by the Estate Agent if there is one involved. In this case the Compromis also provides for his considerable Agency fee. The seller declares that the house is his to sell, has been built and if appropriate modified in line with a regular building permit, will be sold free of any mortgage encumbrance, has no tenancy agreement unexpired, and that there are no undeclared servitudes (rights of way) over the property. In the case of any form of copropriété (co-ownership) or multipropriété (multi-ownership) arrangement, the appropriate monthly costs are declared.

Such declarations form part of the conditions suspensives (if any of them turn out to be false, the purchaser can withdraw). Other conditions suspensives are that, after a technical survey, no traces will be found of asbestos, lead or termites. (The French authorities are mightily obsessed with these issues). The purchaser may add any other conditions suspensives that the seller is prepared to accept.

The Compromis de Vente is a binding document. As long as all the conditions suspensives are met, the deal must go through. Even if the purchaser dies in the meantime, his héritiers are obliged to complete the purchase (although this can be insured against). The only case in which the purchaser can withdraw (other than in the point below) is if he does not get the financing for the project. In this case even the Agent loses his commission. The intention of the purchaser to seek financing for the project must be mentioned in the Compromis.

There is however the provision of the “Loi Carrez” whereby the purchaser can withdraw within seven days of receiving his copy of the Compromis by registered post. If the purchaser is a married couple, two identical copies of the Compromis will be sent in separate registered packages. The seller does not have this seven day withdrawal facility.

At this point the purchaser makes a down payment of 5-10% of the agreed purchase price, which is held by the Notaire (or Estate Agent) until the deal is completed.

The file is then passed to the Notaire to make all the necessary searches and collect the documents required for inclusion in the final contract, the Acte Définitive. The Notaire with this responsibility is nominated by the seller; the purchaser can nominate another Notaire to interact with the seller’s Notaire, but there isn’t a lot of point in this.

Between the Compromis and the Acte Définitive the Notaire must trace and document the past ownership of the land on which the property stands, and check that it has been regularly passed to the present owner. This is done through the Service Cadastrale, the Land Ownership Office (a department of the Mairie), which also provides an exact definition of the cadastral reference numbers of the property, together with certified plans and maps for inclusion in the final contract. The Notaire must also check that the house has been built in accordance with the building permit, and get a certificate of conformity to attest to this from the Mairie. He must check and document any rights of way. He must collect from the seller the famous technical reports confirming the absence of asbestos, lead and termites. He must also make enquiries of the Town Planning Office (Service d’Urbanisme, another department of the Mairie) to ensure that the property is not subject to Droits de Préemption, forced purchase by the state or the commune, to confirm that it is not (or is) a classified site within a protected area, to check whether it is in an earthquake area, on a flood plain, or on land subject to subsidence, and to make sure that, for example, a Motorway is not to be built across it nor an underground car-park beneath it.

Before the date agreed for the signing of the Acte Définitive the purchaser transfers to the Notaire the balance (90-95%) of the purchase price agreed, plus the so-called Frais de Notaire or Notaire’s expenses, amounting to around 5% of the purchase price. Little of these actually go to the Notaire, the majority being registration taxes applied by the département and commune.

If requested, the Notaire will make available to the purchaser and seller a draft copy of the Acte Définitive to read through before final signature.

The Acte Définitive is presented by the Notaire at his office on the date already foreseen in the Compromis de Vente. The formal part of the document (who, what, when, where) has already been largely covered in the Compromis de Vente and is reproduced in the Acte Définitive; the Compromis itself remains an Appendix to the Acte Définitive. The Acte is formally read out by the Notaire (who has previously offered the presence of an official translator if required), and is then signed by both parties (and individually by husband and wife in the case of married couples), with each page – there are likely to be about 50 – initialled by everybody. The keys are handed over and deep breaths are taken, particularly by the Estate Agent whose commission is now assured.