Practical to buying a house in France

Jim and Kate want to buy a holiday home in France. But France is a big country - so they have some work to do, narrowing down their options.

Jim wants bright summers and no rain, lots of hiking paths and woods nearby, since they're both keen walkers, and a reasonably large town a short drive away - though the couple are both keen to buy a village or small town property.

Kate is more practical. She wants to buy somewhere where property is relatively inexpensive - so that rules out a lot of Provence - and where there's good tourist demand so that they'll be able to let the house out in season to help pay the bills.

They start by looking at two maps - a map of French property prices on the Notaires de France website, and a map of annual hours of sunshine on Meteo France. They note Limoges is the cheapest of the cities shown, and it's just at the point where the orange on the weather map starts getting more red, showing more sunshine.

Kate starts looking for houses around Limoges on estate agents' websites. Meanwhile, Jim decides to get some books on the area out of the library, so they can spend a weekend looking at pictures of the area and perhaps narrow their search down even further. Kate immediately falls in love with pictures of the Plateau de Millevaches and its granite villages, but notes that a lot of the houses for sale need renovation; they don't really want to get involved with a big project. However, the good news is that all the properties they see are very affordable. Kate looks at holiday rentals in the area and does a few sums to see just how much they might be able to make renting a house out for two months a year.



The process of finding a house

At this point, they're ready to think about visiting France and looking at some properties with an agent. There are a number of English-speaking agents in the area, so they decide to go with one which has a number of properties in the area.

The agent asks whether they've thought about what square metreage of house and what extent of garden they want - they haven't. However Jim points out that as they both work, they won't be there for the whole summer, so ease of maintenance could be an issue if the garden is too big. They point out that they'd like a house that will make a good holiday let. They're also quizzed about whether they want to see houses a little further afield.

They decide to take four days to give them more than enough time to explore the area and make sure it's right for them, and also to visit properties in a leisurely way. Kate packs her tablet so she can take pictures and notes as they visit. Three properties a day turns out to be more than enough in the remote countryside!

Two of the houses they see are too close to the main road, and one is in a rather down-at-heel village. But on day three, they see a very likely prospect, just off the main square in a quite tightly-knit little village. It needs redecorating but it's otherwise up to date. They have one more day of looking at houses, but Jim says immediately, "We may well make an offer on this one".

In the event, they offer 10% below the asking price, and their offer is accepted. Now the paperwork begins. First of all they get a summary from the agent with the compromis de vente, which they're to sign and send back. From this point they can still back out with no obligation for the next ten days. They pay a 10% deposit at this stage.

Kate has done her homework on the finances and there's a clause suspensive so that the sale will only go ahead on condition they get the finance they need. They've also added a clause that the house has to pass a structural survey - that's unusual in France but given the house is a couple of hundred years old, they're keen to have an assurance that it should keep on standing for another century or two! They instruct an RICS qualified surveyor who has moved to France though they could also use a French architect or engineer, but they're used to UK style surveys.

They have a copy of the diagnostique on their house, which shows there's no asbestos, though there is some lead-based paint on the window frames - but the electrics are up to date and the septic tank conforms to the regulations, so they won't need to spend any money on the basics. It's not a full structural survey, though, which is why they put in the extra clause suspensive and hired a local builder to. Fortunately, the house comes through with flying colours - no woodworm, no subsidence and no problems.

Kate and Jim already own a house in Birmingham on which they have a mortgage. They could buy the French place for cash, but that would leave them without much of a rainy day fund in the bank, and as Kate notes, it wouldn't be tax-efficient if they have revenue from lettings. They could refinance their UK home, but that puts their home at risk - if they get a French mortgage, it's secured on the French property. They also have a good fixed rate on their house, so they don't want to refinance at a worse rate.

They go for a French mortgage and decide to use a broker to identify the best deal. The broker warns them that they'll only get a pre-approval certificate, not a full offer, until they've actually bought the property - the bank will release the offer once they see the signed acte de vente. They're pleased to find out that French mortgage rates have much lower interest rates than in the UK, and are fixed for 25 years. But not all French banks are willing to lend on such a small amount, so the broker has to do a bit of hunting.

At this point, they're very happy that they got two things right. First, they're glad the agent warned them about the fees involved in buying - they see that what they thought was a EUR 40,000 house will actually them something over EUR 46,000 once they've paid the notaire and the mortgage fees. And they're very glad that they got a whole load of photocopies made of their passports, birth certificates, payslips, and proof of address, because they keep being asked for them. "That's France," their agent tells them - "paperasse!" (Translation: paperwork.)

Four months later, they are asked to attend the signing at the notary's office. Immediately before the signing, to their surprise, they're asked to visit the house again with the seller to check that everything's in place and the house is in the state they expect. It's not unknown for a vendor to decide to take the fitted kitchen with them! There's nothing untoward today, though, so they troop in to the notaire's office, where the whole contract is read through by the notary - and they then have to sign each of the forty-two pages of the contract.

They leave with the keys of their new French holiday home, and the attestation de propriété, which will come in useful when they're dealing with French officialdom and the next thing they need to do - opening a French bank account!