Ian Morris is a building surveyor, not a lawyer, so he cannot give you legal advice (you must look elsewhere for that, see below), but hopefully the following summary will be of help

The most significant step

The most significant step in the buying process is that once you have agreed to buy a property in France you will be asked to pay a deposit, typically 10% of the purchase price, and you will be asked to sign a preliminary contract called a “Compromis de vente“, or “Promesse de vente”. This is a legal document, and by signing it you agree to buy the property “as seen” – subject only to any clauses (clauses suspensives) that both you and the vendor agree to write into the document before it is signed. Neither you nor the vendor are allowed to add any clauses or conditions after you have both signed this document.

The “compromis de vente” is usually drawn up by a Notaire, but can be prepared by an agent. You can appoint your own Notaire, but usually a single Notaire acts for both parties and has to remain impartial. However, you must at all times remember that a Notaire is not the same as a solicitor in the UK.

A Notaire is legal specialist acting on behalf of the State, appointed by the Minister of Justice to draw up an official contract on behalf of the buyer and the seller thus giving the document a guarantee of its legality and authenticity. The Notaire has a legal obligation to provide the buyer with full information on the nature and content of the signed agreement and on its effects. The Notaire’s principal role is to secure an official binding agreement on the property transaction and to collect all taxes due to the State. Unlike a solicitor dealing with a sale in the UK it is not the job of a Notaire to give “advice”.

The Compromis/Promesse does not have to be signed in France. But once it has been signed by the seller and the purchaser (or someone to whom you have given power of attorney, to sign on your behalf, the Notaire or the agent will send you a copy by registered post. You then have a period of 10 days (often referred to as the “cooling off period”) to change your mind and withdraw from the transaction. If you are one of several people buying jointly, a copy must be sent to and signed by each one. The 10 day “cooling-off period” starts running from the day after you receive a copy of the signed Compromis/Promesse; it does not start from the day you actually sign it (which is a common misconception).

Sadly, and all too often, buyers are put under unreasonable pressure to sign a Compromis/Promesse before they are ready and happy to do so. Be wary of stories like “we have a queue of other purchasers so if you want the property you must sign now” ! Wait until all of your questions been answered: Its better to be safe than sorry …

If you decide to withdraw from the purchase within the 10-day “cooling off period”, your deposit will be refunded. You don’t have to give a reason, but you must send a letter to the Notaire or the agent – by registered post – explaining that you are withdrawing from the transaction. The seller is then released from his/her obligations and is free to sell the property to someone else. If you withdraw from the purchase after the 10 day “cooling-off period” has expired you lose your deposit – and the seller may be able to take other action against you.


When to have a survey carried out

Many people try to get a pre-purchase survey done within the 10-day “cooling-off period” period. Sometimes this is feasible, sometimes it isn’t. Much will depend on other work your selected surveyor might already have in his diary, and whether access into the property can be arranged in time. It is possible to put a “subject to survey” type clause in the Compromis/Promesse (though not in those actual words, which the French don’t understand); the drafting of the clause itself could prove difficult but in any event it can be added only with the vendor’s agreement. French vendors in particular are often reluctant to agree to such a clause because most don’t understand the concept of a pre-purchase survey !

If you want to have a pre-purchase survey carried out on the property you are buying and if the vendor won’t agree to the inclusion of an appropriate “clause suspensive”, you should find out whether you can get the survey undertaken – and obtain at least a verbal report – within the 10 day “cooling-off period”, so you know where you stand. If you can’t achieve this you should be very cautious about committing yourself by signing a “compromis de vente“.

If you are in any doubt about the purchase process

French property law is different to that in the UK and in other countries and you should seriously think about appointing an English-speaking lawyer, experienced in French property law, to look after your interests.

Among other things, you will need to decide how you want to structure the ownership of the property, and this is particularly relevant to couples or unmarried partners, especially those with children, as the ownership structure will dictate how the property will pass on death. It is possible to make a final decision on this when signing the “Acte de vente” (the property transfer deed), but better to address the issue early on in case you stumble across any difficulties.

Some people think they will save money by employing a translator, instead of a lawyer, to translate the Compromis de vente into English, but will the translator realise if important clauses have been missed out of the document ?

A number of legal firms around the world specialise in advising on the purchase of French property. Click here for a list of some of those in the UK with whom Ian Morris has worked over the years.

The lawyer you engage will arrange with the Notaire to receive all of the legal paperwork on your behalf and will act only for you; they will answer your questions and look after your interests, not those of the vendor.

Diagnostic reports

Vendors of French houses and apartments are obliged under French law to commission, at their own expense, several independent reports covering certain elements of the property. Collectively these are referred to as the Dossier de Diagnostic Technique (DDT). The dossier has to be sent to the Notaire to be appended to the Compromis de vente and should be made available to you before you are asked to sign that document. Indeed, the DDT may identify problem areas which could alter your perspective on the purchase.

However, it is important to note that no part of the dossier covers any part of the “structure” of the property (e.g. the roof, the walls, the floors etc.) so it should not be regarded as a “survey” of the property

The number of reports included in the dossier has increased over the years and currently totals 10. For a complete list of the reports that could apply to the property you are buying click here.