The first thing to know about France is that there is an awful lot of paperwork involved in practically every transaction, whether it’s buying a house, a car, getting married, making a will etc. The second thing to remember is to go with it and ask advice where needed!
France still very much lives by the Napoleonic Code and as such some of its rules may seem slightly archaic to us. When it comes to making your will, for example, you have what is called “reserved heirs”, who must inherit at least part of your estate: you cannot disinherit your children. There is more restriction therefore on who you can leave everything to, although from this August, it will be possible to apply British law to your will, which is an option many Brits will be taking I would imagine. It’s very important to instruct a bilingual solicitor who is qualified in French law to draw up your will.
Buying a property is reasonably straightforward and in many ways is a better system than we have in the UK in that the seller is bound to sell you their property once the first contract or “Compromis de Vente” is signed. You, as the buyer, have what is called a seven day cooling off period after signing - meaning you can walk away without penalty should you to change your mind. After this though, you must pay a 10% deposit, which is held in a notaire’s account and you are then legally bound to go through with the sale.
Opening a bank account is relatively easy in France. One important point to remember is that it is illegal to go into an overdraft without prior agreement, and you can actually be blacklisted for doing this, so make sure you either have an agreed overdraft or do not go into the red!
The local mayor has a lot of regional power in France so many things can be sorted out at local level. It’s always wise to ask at the mairie for advice on improving your property in any way. As a general rule of thumb, you can do pretty much what you like to the interior but will need permission to alter the exterior - including putting in a swimming pool, terrace or altering the façade in any way. Some localities have a choice of paint colours to which you must adhere for shutters etc. too. Rules are stricter if your property is close to any historical monument or church.
Any driving infraction, such as speeding, drink driving etc. will result in the loss of points rather than adding them on – the reverse of the UK. Drink driving is taken very seriously, and the allowance is less than the UK so our advice is simply not to drink at all. You do not always lose your licence, depending on the level of alcohol in your blood, but it is definitely not worth the risk. If you do have a driving infraction you will need to change your British licence for a French one, as there is currently no reciprocal arrangement between the two countries, so the holder of a British licence will receive a fine but no points can be added.
When it comes to buying a property, normally just one notaire is used to carry out the necessary legal paperwork. The notaire is employed by the Government, and his fees take care of everything in a package: stamp duty, land registry searches, conveyancing, etc. They are normally between 6 and 8% of the purchase price of the property, and are estimated at the time of the signing of the Compromis de Vente. Very often they overestimate so when you sign the Acte de Vente (completion), you may well have some money coming back to you as you will have paid for the property and the agent’s and notaire’s fees a couple of days ahead of signing.
You are perfectly entitled to employ your own solicitor to act for you on your property purchase. You are also entitled to ask to have your own notaire. We would recommend the former, particularly if the transaction is somewhat complicated with conditions in the Compromis (“clauses suspensives”). It is very important to have the conditions down correctly as if they are not met, you will be entitled to walk away from the purchase. A bilingual solicitor well versed in French law will advise you on this. If two notaires are employed, the fee is no greater: they simply share the fee. However, since the notaire acts in the interests of legality and is not biased in favour of the seller or the buyer, we recommend having just the one, and this is usually the case in France.
There is a lot of signing to do in France due to their apparent love of paperwork! A good tip is to have with you at all times copies of your passport, birth certificate, marriage certificate and proof of address: all of these documents are so often needed for many legal transactions, and having them to hand will save you time.