If you've never visited a real-estate website, consider yourself warned: They're deliciously addictive. There's nothing quite as tantalizing as poking around cyberspace and popping in and out of other people's maisons - homes that might soon be your own (if only in your fantasies). From a rural 17th-century cottage perched on the edge of a grassy glen to a riviera pied-à-terre equipped with a sunlit balcony built for two, a version of your French dream awaits you in the wonderful world of virtual real estate.
It takes a village to buy a home in France, and you can expect all kinds of seemingly superfluous individuals to become part of the transaction: notaires, mairies, insurance agents, and even doctors. For some mortgages, you'll need to ensure that you'll live long enough to pay for your little piece of France - this is solved with the addition of a life-insurance policy, which you can't purchase until you've had a blood test and possibly an electrocardiogram, the results of which are supposed to indicate a life span beyond the terms of your mortgage. No, this is not a joke. If you want to bypass all that, you can always pay cash. (And plenty of people do - especially for those €50,000-and-under boltholes.)
You're bound to find yourself looking at one or two "fixer uppers" throughout the process, and one thing you'll notice right away is that no two are alike. Some "fixer uppers" are veritable shacks with dirt floors and a resident family of pigeons. If the ad says the 20,000 euro cottage is à renover (to renovate), be prepared for the worst, and maybe, just maybe, it won't be that bad. The "to renovate" possibilities could simply mean they haven't yet installed the sunken bathtub in the master bath.
FINDING THE RIGHT PLACE
So where you should you begin cultivating your French roots? Before sorting that out, you'll need to be firm about what sort of use you have planned for your place. Will it be strictly somewhere for you to live, or are you envisioning an income-generating rental property? Maybe you just want to let it sit empty until you come for your two months of vacation each summer, and let friends borrow it for vacation otherwise. Buying into a retirement home where you can spend your golden years isn't a bad idea, what with the high quality of life here and the top-notch health system. But don't make the mistake that many of your predecessors have: Buy a place and plan to rent it out without considering how many others have done the same thing - and how many others are that much closer to the Mediterranean. You will have a much more challenging time finding short-term tenants for your "vacation rental" if it doesn't have quick access to leisure activities: a beach, a swimmable lake or river, or at the very least a piscine (pool) in the backyard. This is what people seek in a vacation home - not a one-room cottage in the middle of nowhere, the nearest boulangerie a 20-kilometer bike ride away. Hold on to the dream, but don't let practicality fall by the wayside.
REAL ESTATE AGENTS AND CONTRACTS
The most cursory Internet search points to an overwhelming reality: There are scads and scads of French real estate sites. The good news is that many of them cater to English-speaking shoppers. If your French is solid, even better: You'll be able to pull into any small town during your information-gathering trip, pick up the local real estate magazine from the news rack outside the immobilier's office, and get nearly instant gratification by stepping inside to inquire about that charming stone longère covered in a tangle of wild roses that caught your eye.
Like so much else in life, it all about who you know in the French real estate world. Ask around for references before settling on an agent. Some are nicer than others, and some charge heftier fees. You'll also need to engage the services of a notaire (more on that below) and a mortgage company. If you've got the resources, you can hire someone to see you through every step of the process and make the arrangements with notaries and bankers on your behalf. If you're flying solo - which is entirely possible to do, and definitely a money saver - and your language skills still aren't up to snuff, bring a good friend who speaks French to all your official rendezvous to help translate.
You'll need a French bank account, since most mortgage companies are going to want to debit the mortgage payments directly from that account. (To learn more about opening a bank account, see the Finance chapter.)
The French home-buying system is fraught with bureaucratic peculiarities, but the oddest of all is that bit about the blood test. If your mortgage is approved and you'll be borrowing more than €200,000, you'll be required to take out a life insurance policy that will cover the remaining cost of your mortgage if you're, say, suddenly swept away by a tsunami while sunbathing on the Côte d'Azur. To qualify for that policy, you'll need a blood test and possibly a urine test. Oh, and we mustn't forget about the electrocardiogram. Yes, really.
PURCHASE FEES AND TAXES
One person you'll get to know well during the property-purchasing process is the notaire. This is an independent contractor who acts as the official hand representing the state in your home-buying transaction. The stamps, seals, and signatures the notaire applies to your contrats make a document official, and the buy/sell transaction cannot be completed without this authorizing signature. The notaire's fees are not low, but they don't all go into her pocket. The bulk of what you pay to the notaire is actually local and national taxes, with the remaining fraction divided between the notaire's actual employment fees (a fixed rate determined by the government) and expenditures for things like paperwork and travel. In terms of real estate transactions, notaires collect 5 percent of the fee on sales of up to €46,000, and 2.5 percent after that. It's worth budgeting in that extra expense as you determine what you can afford to spend in France. To find a notaire, try the word-of-mouth route or visit www.notaires.fr to search an online directory in English.
Once you've found a place you love and are ready to commit, you can set the process in motion by following these steps:
- Find a notaire and secure her services.
- Sign the compromis de vente that binds the seller to the transaction and pay
a deposit of 10 percent of the purchase price.
- Mull it over and decide whether or not you have buyer's remorse within seven days (you can pull out without penalty before then).
- Apply for a mortgage. If you are rejected, try again and save the rejection notice. If you are unable to secure a mortgage, you can pull out of the agreement without penalty.
- Contact your notaire to say your mortgage has gone through and the transaction can be completed.
From start to finish, count on a good three months or more for the transaction to be completed.
French inheritance laws favor children over spouses, so if you want to ensure that any greedy offspring don't snatch up and sell your property after you die, leaving Pa or Ma out in the cold, bring this up to your notaire, who can use the right paperwork to help ensure that doesn't happen.
BUILDING AND RESTORING
As you know by now, no transaction involving the French bureaucracy is ever a cake walk. This holds true when it comes to rebuilding, renovation, and starting a housing project from scratch. Expect a long, dossierencumbered process - but one that might be very much worth the effort if it means getting the house you've always wanted.
When scouring the real-estate ads, you'll often stumble upon land for sale. If there is a "permission to build" clause built into the sale deed, you're in luck: One major hurdle has been cleared. Otherwise you'll need to solicit permission to build on your own, starting at the mairie's office with a certificat d'urbanisme. This should be done before you make your land purchase. With permission to build in hand, you'll need to start beefing up that dossier with some more paperwork: architectural drawings from an officially recognized architect, building estimates, and construction contracts.
Your local mairie can help you along the way by directing you to free services that will ease the burden of DIY. The Conseil d'Architecture d'Urbanisme et de l'Environnement (CAUE) is one such valuable resource. To find a builder, good ol' word of mouth works best, but you can also ask for recommendations at the mairie or visit the website of the builder's union, Union Nationale des Constructeurs de Maisons Individuelles (UNCMI), for direction (www.uniondesmaisonsfrancaises.org).
French contractors do things at their own pace, so it helps to know who you're hiring before you hire them. You can expect long lunch breaks, regular vacations (just like everyone else), and a "What's the big rush?" attitude on the job, but it'll eventually get done. If you're a Mr. or Ms. Bricolage (handyperson), you might consider taking on some of the work yourself.
From the book Moon Living Abroad in France by Aurelia d'Andrea. Excerpted by arrangement with Avalon Travel, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2012. For more information, visit http://www.moon.com.