How Not To Get Scammed When Buying Property in France
See that wreck nestled in the most beautiful countryside a million miles away from anywhere? What, I hear you say, and it’s only 50,000 euros? Before you drift off into your imaginary paradise of how wonderful it would be to get away from it all while you live out your private utopia, growing your own vegetables, with lambs gambolling at your feet once you have restored that pile of stones to their former glory, STOP! You’re about to fall into the trap of buying the WRONG property and worse yet, a French estate agent will probably not advise you to come to your senses.
French estate agents don’t follow the same procedure as their British counterparts, the principal difference being that purchasers and not sellers pay them. Commission fees usually range from five percent to twelve percent or more per transaction. So if you buy a property for 50,000 euros, you will pay the commission of ten percent on top of that plus the notary fees (notaries manage the transfer of ownership and are essentially tax collectors for the state). It should be pretty obvious that since the buyer pays the agency fees and which are so steep, that agents can be unscrupulous… but more on that later.
Now let’s return to that beautiful wreck. Here are some vital criteria to consider before you part with your cash:
Firstly, agents acting on behalf of vendors are required by law to provide you with an-up-to-date diagnostic report (although many will only provide the full report at the signing of contracts). The report is paid for by the seller and is a vital tool in assessing the value of a property. For example, if there is asbestos in the walls or in the roof and if there is lead or parasites in the property, the value should reflect this. Not so! Some French agents have been known to utilise a haphazard and unsubstantiated approach when valuing property. Buyers are advised to ask as many questions as possible before making an offer to purchase.
For example, demand to see the latest diagnostic report and go through it page by page with the agent. The report is divided into the following sections: the presence of asbestos, lead, parasites, whether the property is at risk of natural disasters (earthquake, flooding) and finally the Performance Energy Report. Where agents act on behalf of the seller, they are also obliged to inform prospective buyers on the state of and type of sanitation – either septic tank or mains drainage and the obligations new owners face in complying with the law regarding antiquated systems.
The use of asbestos in the construction of property has been illegal in France since 1997. Prior to that date, it was the norm to incorporate asbestos into the walls and ceilings for insulation and in the roofing. If there is asbestos in the roofing tiles, for example, the general view is that the tiles, being on the exterior of the property, do not pose a hazard to health. However if a storm were to damage the roof, the owner would have the responsibility of removing all of the tiles and replacing the roof, which due to the specialist nature of handling asbestos can be a very costly affair.
Buyers must be informed of the presence of lead, which can be found in the paintwork inside old buildings, pipes, windows and shutters. Lead poisoning can lead to death.
Buyers must be made aware of the presence of termites or other parasites such as woodworm, which if left untreated can cause serious damage. I recently came across a property where the last diagnostic report had been conducted in 2011 and in which there was only a passing mention of woodworm in the cellar floor. An updated report was not made available and when a prospective buyer with my guiding, insisted on seeing the latest report (2015), the cellar floor had been completely destroyed by the woodworm which had gone on to infest the woodwork in the first floor as well.
The cost of treating the woodworm was estimated at 3,750 euros which the vendor, very reluctantly, was forced to knock off the asking price. This is a good example of a property having been offered for sale at an inflated price without assessing the true condition based on the presence of parasites.
As of 2012, all property disposing of private sanitation must comply with the new ruling to ensure that the system is updated to become more eco friendly and to stem any possible spread of disease. New owners of property have twelve months to comply with the requirement to upgrade a traditional septic tank and which can cost up to 8,000 euros.
Location, location, location
France is huge country that benefits from a perfectly maintained road network. A good agent will point out that while living in the sticks has its advantages (ideal for those seeking a solitary, peaceful existence), there are major drawbacks as well. Over time living in isolation can be a real drag- having to rely on a car to buy groceries because there is no public transport, being far away from schools, dentists, vets, doctors or a medical centre in case of an emergency but most importantly of all, and I’ve seen this countless times, when you want to sell your property, no one will want to buy it. In the end, the only way to offload it will be to slash the price or literally give it away. When looking to buy property in France, arm yourself with a map. Keep looking at the map and ask the agent how far the property is from a main road and the nearest town with major supermarkets, shops, train station etc.. Villages might be quaint and sweet but remember you will need basic groceries and some villages don’t even have a single shop. I’ve come across picturesque villages where the only trading outlet is a bar selling alcohol and cigarettes (which happens to close early). If you’re the type who needs to have a bit of a social life too, like learning to draw or joining the local swimming or keep fit club, ask the agent how far away those are. If you’re a Catholic and mass on Sunday is important to you, there are churches in every town and village in France but no priests; you may have to drive thirty minutes or more to the nearest mass. A bad location will affect the future value of your property and could seriously leave you out of pocket if you decide to sell. Finally, if you must buy that wreck the rule of thumb is to restore a house to a liveable standard costs around 1,500 euros per square meter. Go do the math!
This is the busiest buying season in France when many British families choose to combine their holidays with scouting for that second home. Remember, don’t be afraid to ask questions and good luck!
Samantha van Dalen is a British independent property consultant, a former Managing Director of London relocation company, Primo Relocations, with experience of selling residential property in the UK and France. She is fluent in both French and English and advises purchasers on how to get the best deal when buying in France. She can be contacted on 00 44 (0)7910 199 072