Transferring ownership of a property in France


Conveyancing (the legal term is conveyance, but conveyancing is more commonly used) is the processing of paperwork involved in buying and selling property and transferring the deeds of ownership.

In France, conveyancing is strictly governed by French law and can be performed only by a notaire (roughly equivalent to a notary public) authorised by the Ministry of Justice and controlled by the Chambre des Notaires. There are around 5,000 notaires offices (études) in France and some 7,500 notaires.

A notaire can act for a client anywhere in France. He (there are few women notaires) must follow a strict code of conduct and have personal insurance covering his professional responsibility and guaranteeing clients against any errors he may make. He also has a financial guarantee covering money temporarily in his safekeeping (such as deposits). A notaire represents neither the seller nor the buyer, but the French government, one of his main tasks being to ensure that all state taxes are paid on a sale.

A notaire won’t necessarily protect or act in your interests, and you should engage your own lawyer to ensure that everything is carried out to your satisfaction.

Conveyancing includes the following:

  • Checking whether the land is registered at the land registry.
  • Verifying the identity of the vendor(s) and buyer(s).
  • Verifying that the property belongs to the vendor or that he has legal authority from the owner to sell it.
  • Verfiying that the details of the property match those on the registration documents .
  • Checking that there aren’t any restrictions on the transfer of ownership, e.g. an outstanding mortgage larger than the selling price.
  • Verifying that there are no pre-emption rights (droits de préemption) or restrictive covenants over a property, such as rights of way, and informing anyone who may have such rights, who has two months in which to claim them.

The local commune may have the right to intervene and prevent the purchase, irrespective of the wishes of the seller or the buyer, and the return of your legal fees and other expenses can be a laborious procedure;

  • Obtaining a copy of the local planning rules relating to the property.
  • Checking that there are no plans to construct anything which would greatly affect the enjoyment or use of the property (see notes below).
  • Checking that the property isn’t in a flood zone (the attached certificat d’urbanisme should state this).
  • Registering the transfer of ownership (and the mortgage if applicable).

Planned Developments

A notaire checks only planned developments directly affecting a property itself and not those that may affect its value, such as a new railway line or motorway in the vicinity. Obviously a new motorway or railway that disturbs the peace of your home would be something of a disaster; on the other hand, a motorway junction or TGV station within a few kilometres may enhance its value.

Unfortunately, there’s no public service in France where you can find out this information, although you can contact the relevant departmental public works department (Direction Départementale de l’Equipement/DDE) and check building projects planned for the area (you may need to speak to people in several departments to find out about different kinds of project!). You could also ask the local residents, particularly the mayor, who usually know of anything planned that would adversely affect a property.

Even if you make all these checks, a local council may still ‘expropriate’ your property in order to build a road, school or new houses that will be ‘of benefit’ to the community!

In France, the vendor’s notaire traditionally acts for both the vendor and buyer, although a buyer can insist on using his own notaire. It doesn’t cost a buyer any more to engage his own notaire, as the two notaires work together and share the same fee. This is misleadingly called a ‘competition’ (concurrence) sale, and only one (the vendor’s) can execute the deed. Although some people consider that you should instruct your own notaire, this is rarely done, as a notaire must remain strictly impartial. One case where it would be prudent to engage your own notaire is when the vendor’s notaire is also the selling agent.

Don’t expect a notaire to speak English (few do) or any language other than French or to explain the intricacies of French property law, for which you will need to engage a lawyer. It’s also possible to take out insurance against unforeseen problems arising during a purchase.

Further reading

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