French property legal issues:
Take legal advice
Let’s get one thing straight when buying property for sale in Languedoc Roussillon, south France. Nothing you read here can take the place of good, old-fashioned, independent legal advice on French property legal issues. You can read all the books you like on French property legal issues, gen up online, talk to friends, chat to estate agents, but ultimately, if you’re working towards a property sale in Languedoc Roussillon, south France, you really MUST take legal advice (or risk coming seriously unstuck). As someone who writes about French property purchasing for a living, I’ve heard too many horror stories and seen too many unhappy faces: just dig a little deeper in your pocket and buy yourself the peace of mind that proper legal advice on French property legal issues can bring. For a straightforward transaction (we’re talking holiday homes and the like, not chateaux or vineyards or business opportunities), having a qualified legal eagle read through your paperwork and guide you through the buying process should cost in the region of £1,000 - £1,600, and believe me, it’s money well spent.
Finding a solicitor
At the risk of stating the obvious, you need to find a solicitor familiar with both English and French law. When I bought my current home in Languedoc Roussillon, south France, I used the services of a fantastic French woman who’s based in the UK, called Annie Guellec-Digby. She’s on +44 1604 878961, and no, I’m not on commission, but maybe I should be. It’s advisable for you to arrange a meeting with your lawyer before your property hunt begins in earnest; this way you can get advice on French property legal issues and have a think about certain key issues without any time restrictions. Your lawyer will be able to advise you about such matters as ownership of the property (different forms of ownership have varying tax and inheritance implications); how it should be paid for; minimising tax liabilities; legal requirements for developers; and the buying process itself.
The French notary public (notaire) who witnesses all property and land transactions is NOT there to give any legal advice on French property legal issues, or represent either party. You can appoint your own notaire to assist you, at no extra cost (the two notaries will share the fees), or but better still, hire your own, independent lawyer.
Never sign anything you don’t understand
Unless you have a thorough understanding of French property law and all the French property legal issues concerned, never sign ANYTHING until your lawyer has looked through it. Once you have signed you will be committed to whatever the contract says. If you are asked to sign some kind of preliminary reservation contract, fax or e-mail the text to your lawyer to look through (some international solicitors and lawyers offer this as a 24-hour service).
The cooling-off period
Once you’re found the property you wish to buy agreed on a price, you will be expected to sign the preliminary sales agreement (usually called a compromis de vente). Once this has been counter-signed by the seller it’s legally binding, so don’t put pen to paper unless you are absolutely sure. Happily, there’s a seven-day cooling-off period during which you can pull out (and the vendor can’t) but don’t be tempted to use this as a safety net. Remember you can always insert let-out clauses into the preliminary sales contract in case your mortgage application is turned down, or planning permission is not granted, for example
When to pay your deposit
Buyers are sometimes asked to pay the deposit (usually 5-10% of the purchase price) as soon as they sign the compromis de vente. You can see why an agent and vendor would prefer this, but according to my legal sources, you don’t have to do this; tell them you’d prefer to pay the deposit once the seven-day cooling-off period has elapsed. It’s better for you, if not for them.
Understanding French property legal issues can also save you money: To save money in fees and taxes, buyers of French property have sometimes been asked to take part in the illegal practice of under-declaring the value of a property. The short-term saving might sound tempting, but be aware that the French authorities are cracking down on this, and if you sell the property and are forced to declare the real price, you could find yourself looking at a hefty capital gains tax bill. It’s not worth it: JUST SAY NO.
One French property legal issue you really should look out for is inheritance. French inheritance law is notoriously different to that of the UK, so be aware of the implications before signing any contracts. The usual method of owning property in France is that of indivision – meaning that each spouse owns half the property. However, the survivor does not automatically have ownership of the property after the first death, as French legal provisions ensure that when the first spouse dies, at least half their French estate goes to that person’s children. There are a number of ways of avoiding these situations, so be sure to take legal advice on all the French property legal issues most relevant to your personal circumstances.