It’s all too easy to fall in love with the beauty and ambience of France and to sign a contract without giving it sufficient thought. If you’re uncertain, don’t allow yourself to be rushed into making a decision, by fears of an imminent price rise or because someone else is supposedly interested in a property. Although many people dream of buying a holiday or retirement home in France, it’s vital to do your homework thoroughly and avoid the ‘dream sellers’ (often fellow countrymen) who will happily prey on your ignorance and tell you anything in order to sell you a property. Many people make expensive (and even catastrophic) mistakes when buying homes in France, usually because they do insufficient research and are in too much of a hurry, often setting themselves ridiculous deadlines such as buying a home during a long weekend or a week’s holiday, although they wouldn’t dream of acting so rashly when buying a property in their home country!
It isn’t uncommon for buyers to regret their decision after a few months or years and wish they had purchased a different kind of property in a different region (or even in a different country!).
If possible, you should take advice from people who already own a house in France, from whom you can usually obtain invaluable information (often based on their own mistakes). Much of this advice is included in this book’s companion volume, Foreigners in France: Triumphs & Disasters, but you will really believe it if you hear it ‘from the horse’s mouth’! You should also read books especially written for those planning to live or work in France (such as Living and Working in France, also by David Hampshire). It helps to study specialist property magazines and newspapers, and to visit property exhibitions. There are also a number of websites where you can obtain information and advice from other expatriates.
Tip: Bear in mind that the cost of investing in a few books or magazines (and other research) is tiny compared with the expense of making a big mistake. Nevertheless, don’t believe everything you read!
The problems associated with buying property abroad have been highlighted in the last decade or so, during which the property market in many countries has gone from boom to bust and back again. From a legal viewpoint, France is one of the safest places in the world in which to buy a home, and buyers have a high degree of protection under French law, irrespective of whether they’re French citizens or foreign non-residents. Nevertheless, you should take the usual precautions regarding offers, agreements, contracts, deposits and obtaining proper title to a property.
The most common problems experienced by buyers in France include:
Buying in the wrong place – Do your homework and rent first. The wrong decision regarding location is one of the main causes of disenchantment among foreigners who have purchased property in France.
Buying a home that’s difficult or impossible to sell – If there’s a chance that you will need to sell (and recoup your investment) in the short to medium term, it’s important to buy a home that will be easy to sell. A property with broad appeal in a popular area (particularly a waterside property) usually fills the bill; it will need to be very special to sell quickly in less popular areas. A modest, reasonably priced property is likely to be much easier to sell than a large, expensive home, particularly one needing restoration or modernisation. In most areas there’s a small market for renovated rural property. There are usually many potential buyers in the €50,000 to €100,000 price range, but they become much scarcer at around €150,000 unless a property is exceptional, i.e. outstandingly attractive, in a popular area and with a superb situation. In some areas, even desirable properties remain on the market for a number of years.
Buying a house and garden much larger than you need because it seems to offer such good value – Although buying a house with umpteen rooms and several acres of land may seem like a good investment, bear in mind that, should you wish to sell, buyers may be thin on the ground (see above), particularly if the price has doubled or trebled after the cost of renovation (see below). You should think carefully about what you’re going to do with a large house and garden. Both will require a lot of maintenance, and your heating costs will be high. After you’ve installed a swimming pool, tennis court and croquet lawn, you still have a lot of change left out of even a couple of acres. Do you like gardening or are you prepared to live in a jungle? Can you afford to pay a gardener? Of course you can always plant an orchard or vineyard, create a lake or take up farming! Don’t, on the other hand, buy a property that’s too small; when you have a home in France, you will inevitably discover that you have many more relatives and friends than you realised!
Paying too much – Foreign buyers, particularly the British, are often tempted to pay more than the true market value of a property because it’s so cheap compared to a similar property in their home country and they’re reluctant to negotiate for fear of losing it. Some French vendors and agents take advantage of this tendency by asking inflated prices.
Grossly underestimating restoration and modernisation costs – A tumbledown house for €50,000 can seem a steal, but renovation can cost as much as new building, and up to three times the purchase cost, as well as taking time and causing headaches.
Buying a property for business, e.g. to convert to gîtes, and being too optimistic about the income – The letting season can be as little as 15 weeks in some areas, which means it’s difficult or impossible to cover the cost of maintaining a home, let alone make a living.
Not having an old property surveyed – As surveys aren’t usual in France, many people assume they aren’t necessary – often with disastrous consequences.
Not taking legal advice – Another common assumption among foreign buyers in France is that the notaire handling a sale will look after their interests and ensure that they don’t run into problems, which isn’t necessarily the case.
Not including necessary conditional clauses in a contract – As above, the notaire handling the sale won’t necessarily safeguard your interests by inserting provisos in the purchase contract.
Taking on too large a mortgage – French lenders are offering larger and longer mortgages, particularly to foreign buyers, which can tempt them into borrowing more than they can afford to repay.
If you’re looking for a holiday home, you may be better off not buying a house or apartment outright but may wish to consider purchasing a mobile home or investing in a scheme that restricts your occupancy of a property to a number of weeks each year, such as part-ownership, leaseback or timesharing.
Don’t rush into any of these schemes without fully researching the market, and before you’re absolutely clear about what you want and what you can realistically expect to get for your money.
Although it isn’t possible to insure against a poor decision, you can insure against certain unknown problems, such as boundary disputes, rights of way over or use of a property and planning restrictions by means of title insurance, offered by some estate agents and insurers, including UK insurers London & European (020-7929 7650, http://www.europeantitle.com).