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Buying propery in France: practical realities

Assessing the practicalities of the project

There are not surprisingly quite a lot of practical considerations, that start only when you have found the property of your dreams. Taking account of these before you purchase the property may well save you time and money in the long run.

Consider again and carefully whether the final, renovated, property will meet your needs. Is there enough room for your children to come and stay? Is ther enough room for a separate office, and does it have ADSL? Will you be able to play the piano in the middle of the night without annoying the neighbours? Will you be too isolated?

While the actual questions will depend on your circumstances, it is very easy to get over-excited by certain aspects of a property while ignoring the practicalities. Perhaps it's easier to find an already renovated property and make do with that!?

Try and find out what the neighbours think of your renovation plans. If you hope to construct a 400 square metre villa, and there is a small traditional cottage next door, they just might object, and you probably don't want to proceed with a purchase if it means annoying all the existing inhabitants.

If there is any possible doubt about where the boundaries of the property lies, or if it is possible that there is a right of way across your property, discuss it initially at the local mairie (town hall).If you have received permission to construct the house of your dreams, will the attractive field of sunflowers opposite also soon be covered in an estate of new-build properties?

Local building rules do change frequently and haphazardly, but you should still discuss the local communes plans for building development at the local mairie. You should ask to see the 'Plan Local d'Urbanism', which in principle shows planned development for the next couple of years.

Connections to electricity, water and telephone will all be needed. If these are not already in place, ensure that you know how much they will cost. Even if electricity is in place, if the building has not been inhabited for a long time a new supply may need to be installed, in addition to complete rewiring of the property itself.

Much of rural France does not yet have mains drainage. You can read about septic tanks elsewhere on this site - and you should! In certain soil / ground conditions these can be very expensive to install in a way that complies with the regulations. If you will need access to a neighbours field for your drainage, check that the access is available.

High speed internet connections are now fairly widespread in France but many rural places do not yet have it. If you have need of such a connection, verify in advance. It will be many years before everywhere has access.

It is not possible to list all the eventualities here, although many should be covered at various places in this site. Try and think of everything and talk to everyone - the mairie, the neighbours and the estate agents will be a good start.

Decide where to live

Finding an area to live

I will assume that you already have a region of France in mind before thinking about moving. I will assume also that you have visited the area several times, in all seasons of course so you appreciate that France is not non-stop sunshine.

You know know that the area will meet your requirements in terms of climate, accessibility (airports and roads) and the facilities available in the area. I assume you haven't really, but that is how (in theory at least) you should start your search. In reality France is just too large for a working person to explore even a few areas in detail before making this decision.

In recent years, new improved transport links have opened up a lot of France that was previously inaccessible. The low-cost airlines fly to several destinations in France from several UK airports. But if you are buying somewhere ONLY because it now has good links to the UK with a low-cost airline, do bear in mind the possibility that the route may close if it is not profitable in the future.

I recommend you think carefully about year round climate if that is a large part of why you are moving or buying a second home. Nowhere in France is sat in blazing sunshine all year around, and in the south of France temperatures can fall very low in the winter. A week spent visiting in January when the temperature is -10 and there is a howling gale might deter rather a lot of people I think.

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Finding a property

Searching through property listings on the internet is a good way to start to get an idea for the property prices in an area. But on viewing, many of these properties will be close to a road, a neighbour or a pig farm. Many of the properties will simply not be very nice or will not be in a nice area. Until you actually get out to France and start looking you won't really know what to expect.

Estate agents usually have several ruins that they don't post on the internet - they prefer to show the newly renovated 'show houses', perhaps because the estate agent commission is not very much on a £30,000 wreck. So don't be put off by a seeming lack of properties in your chosen region until you have actually asked a local estate agent what they have available.

First thing is to consider the type of property that you want to buy. Generally the properties covered by the term 'properties for renovation' can be described as 'habitable but run down' or 'complete wreck'.

Habitable but run down: retains most of the fabric of the original building, has a roof and is generally dry. This type of property will usually have a greater feeling of authenticity, and there might be 'period features' to retain and restore. It is much easier to have a sense for the origins of a building if there is already a complete building to start with. This will be a big help during renovation work.

Complete wreck: this type of property will allow more of a 'clean-sheet' approach. You will have greater flexibility over the internal layout if there are currently no internal walls. It is easier to make major changes - for example underfloor heating or complete rewiring if there are no existing floors. Newly built extensions can blend harmoniously with existing walls if they are built in the same stone and repointed at the same time.

It is important to realise that cost is often not the issue when deciding what condition building to buy. You will pay less for a ruin or a complete wreck, but then spend more money on the renovation work. Renovation costs are discussed elsewhere on this site, but it is impossible to make a general statement that it is cheaper to buy a ruin - try the cost exercise on the costs page as a guideline.

You will need to look at several properties before you are able to compare adequately. It may be the case that the first one you see really is your dream home. Possible, but unlikely. Most of us can not see a complete ruin and have an immediate vision of how the finished property will look, so try to look at several 'already renovated' houses to get a feel for the local style as well. You might even find a bargain and decide not to bother with renovations!

The celebrated 'original features' (fireplaces, beams, stone sinks, quarry tile floors etc) may look shabby when you first look at the property, but later they will become the centre-piece of the room. These are very desirable! Location of the property is of paramount importance, as in all property purchases. Try not to be over-influenced by the garden, but remember that established trees are a desirable feature. A good view is worth a very great deal.

You will probably want to be in the countryside, but not isolated. A beautiful house with stone fireplaces and original sinks, but a 15 kilometres drive from the bakers, is usually not a good idea.

As always with an important purchase, let your heart rule your head, but not completely. Return for a second look, and a third. In the countryside this is still important. If your first visit is a calm wind less day, it may only be the second that you discover you are adjacent to a goose farm or fertiliser treatment plant. Roads that seem quiet on a tuesday afternoon in October may be dangerously fast and busy at 9.00 or in the summer tourist season. Actually write down on paper the advantages and disadvantages of the property and compare that with your wish-list.

Most properties for sale are clearly unsuitable as soon as you first see them. A week on holiday in an area is not usually sufficient to find the perfect house. I would say never, but my wife bought our house on the day she arrived in the local town - although she had spent a few weeks in the neighbouring towns first. Don't allow the estate agents to pressure you into a purchase about which you are unsure - the French estate agents are not usually high-pressure salesmen, but they do still want to sell you a house. Seldom is it actually necessary to make an offer the same day!

Legally Required pre-purchase checks

The following aspects of a property are always checked as part of the purchase of a property in France. While all renovation projects in France are going to uncover some surprises (some welcome and some not) there are some problems that you do need to know about in advance. It is the responsibility of the person selling the property to provide a report prepared by a certified specialist verifying the following items

Asbestos

This check applies to all properties with a 'permis de construire' (planning permission) dated before 1st July 1997. The most common places where asbestos is found is in insulation, especially near very hot surfaces (eg built in fireplaces), and various other roofing materials. Before panicking if you are told tht asbestos has been found you should be aware that:

- there is more than one type of asbestos

- asbestos is often found - corrugated type roofing often contained asbestos until quite recently, for example

- it is usually recommended that asbestos sheeting - a garage roof for example - is left undisturbed rather than removed. If it is in good condition there is no danger.

The asbestos survey will make specific recommendations for each incidence of asbestos that is found.

Lead

Applies to houses built before 1948 and in certain geographical areas. Your notaire will know if it applies to your property. The most common sources of lead are lead plumbing pipes and old paintwork.

The surveyor will often have a device that he can point at an old window and declare that there is a coat of lead paint underneath several coats of newer paint. As with asbestos, he will make recommendations. Typically the advice with old paint that is covered up will be to do nothing unless you - but if you ever set to with a heat gun, sander or chemical potion to strip the old windows, you might like to be aware that there is lead paint underneath and take advice at that time.

Termites

Anyone who finds termites at their property must report the find to the local maire. This is a legal requirement and enables the state to monitor affected areas.

'Termites' does not mean you have found an ant nest in the garden - termites are altogether different, they are big and destructive. They are the only wood-boring insect in a property that really should concern you a lot.

If you live in an affected area the survey will check for termites.

Surface area

The surface area of the property must be included in the sale agreement, and will be confirmed before purchase.

Gas

There is also a legal requirement to verify the condition of all gas installations at the time of purchase of a property. The law and its requirements have not yet been finalised, but if there is a gas installation at your property you should consider getting it checked either before you buy the property or before you use the installation.

Property surveys

You will already have had a good look around the property yourself. If the walls and roof look straight from all angles and there is no sign that water is entering the house through missing tiles, that eliminates the majority of possible problems straight away.

It is also quite hard to conceal ancient electrical and plumbing systems - look at the fuse board and behind the sink for a good idea if these systems are in need of replacing (not at the sockets - it is easy to put a new plug socket on old wiring).

None of these things are necessarily problems that will stop you buying a house, but you need to be aware of them before you buy or agree a price.

It is not usual in France to get a full structural survey done on a property before buying it. More usually, a local builder, roofer or whoever else is needed is taken around the property where he (sorry but 'he' is more or less always the right word here) will express opinions about the state of things. This sounds instinctively insufficient, but the long training and apprenticeship scheme and high skill level of the artisans in France means that they can usually tell very quickly whether a building needs work or not, and how much it will cost.

Given that surveys in other countries are often costly, and generally filled with exemption clauses and clauses denying responsibility, and demands for further investigations before a full opinion can be given, it is actually quite refreshing to walk around a building with a mason who will simply tell you 'that crack is not a problem' or 'you need to replace that lintel and it will cost 1000 euros' and so on.

Another example - a roof will generally either need replacing, retiling, a few tiles re-siting or no work at all. the wood will probably need treating against wood boring insects as an additional safeguard. The roofer will tell you that - what else do you need to know? A ten page report about the traces of woodworm found in the third supporting beam that may or may not still be active and certainly will never affect the structure of the house is really not especially useful, and will give you lots of sleepless nights unnecessarily.

Note that any house sold in France has to be checked for certain things that may endanger your health. These are required by law for all property sales and will form part of your purchase contract - see pre-purchase surveys for more information.

Full Structural Surveys

There are companies that do full structural surveys in France, however, if you do want one done. Often performed by UK surveyors now living in France these may give you extra peace of mind that your dream home is not about to become a pile of rubble.

More likely they will put you off ever buying a house because the list of problems will be so long, but if you have specific technical concerns about the structure it may be advised.

Of course, as always the surveyor will need to be fully registered and insured.

 
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