Aux Quatre Vents

Property Hunting

This is the most difficult and critical stage of the process. We have got to find the right property in the right location, as we have no desire to move again!

We got our first 5 property details from French Entrée. All of them were in Agde which is a bit far from the sea. Only one of them was worth visiting. It has a lot of ground, pool and development potential.

Initial Search – May 2014

We went back to Le Grau d’Agde over the period 17-25 May 2014, and stayed at Villa Littoral.

We had a viewing scheduled for the Monday morning with Julien Sanier from S’Antoni. The property we saw we both liked. It seemed to tick all of the boxes.

We then visited 9 properties through Neale from French Entrée on Tuesday and Wednesday. None of these reached the bar we had already set. They had clearly misunderstood our requirements.

We then visited another property with Julien and then revisited the first property on the Thursday. We were both very keen on it and having discussed it over lunch we put in an offer. This was rejected for being too low and the seller only came down in price by €5,000. We made a higher offer. We discussed the property with Jean and Laurent at Villa Littoral. They said that the property was over priced and needed work. They said that our offer was about what the property was worth. On the Friday our offer was rejected as the owner wouldn’t drop the price by more than €15,000. We pulled out as we were not prepared to increase our offer. We also decided to revisit our requirements.

We will be returning in June to continue our search.

French Property Learning Curve

We learned a lot from our first property finding visit. Here are our findings on aspects of French property.

French estate agents only provide a basic description and a few photographs. They never provide a floor plan - though the vendor may be able to provide one. They are also very rarely willing to provide the property’s address. They usually want potential buyers to sign a “Bon de visite” which prevents you from buying the property through another agent of directly from the vendor. The reason for all of this is that properties are usually being sold through several agents often at different asking process depending upon the agent’s fees. Agents don’t want to risk losing their commission!

Property sizes are designated by the ground area in square metres along with the total land area in square metres. There are often building restrictions that the property area is less than 0.1, 0.2 or 0.4 times the land area. These restrictions are sometimes local to a town or even to a street. It is important to verify whether it is possible to extend the building if it is required.

Beware! After the floods of the late 1990s, areas close to the sea, rivers and canals have been given designations of zone blue and zone red. Zone blue is fine and you can build on it given the existing constraints. Zone red is a disaster area. It is forbidden to do anything with zone red land. It can’t even be used as a recreational park area. Properties on red zone land can’t be extended. Many people now own zone red land which was once worth a fortune and is now is totally worthless.

Properties are often described in terms of the number of rooms (pieces). Sometimes the number of bedrooms (chambres) is also provided. A room which is below a certain size should be designated as an office (bureau) rather than as a bedroom. Agents often blur this distinction.

There are two types of bathroom. There is a salle d’eau which is a shower with a wash basin and possibly a bidet. Then there is a salle de bain which will also contain a bath.

Toilets are almost always in a separate room as many French find it distasteful to put the toilet in a salle d’eau or salle de bain. The toilet room may also contain a bidet but often not. It does make one wonder about the potential consequences of having the toilet and bidet in separate rooms!

There are several types of kitchen. A cuisine is a separate room. A cuisine Americain is a kitchen built into a living room. A cuisine été is a Summer kitchen designed for outdoor cooking. A barbecue is quite common either on a balcony or as a separate outdoor unit.

Swimming pools have to have one of three safety features. They can be fenced off with a gate. They can have a pool cover. They can be fitted with an alarm which goes off if someone, or something, enters the pool without disarming it. This does not apply to pools which are at least partially above ground.

Another thing to check for is does it have a forage – free ground water for swimming pools and watering the garden. Mains water is metered and quite expensive.

Also check if the property is connected to the town’s sewers. Many rural properties have a sceptic tank «fosse sceptique». Some sceptic tanks no longer meet building regulations. Existing owners don’t have to change them. A new owner is obliged to replace it.

Offer accepted – 16 June 2014

Negotiating the purchase price is interesting. The vendors often won’t reduce the price. The estate agents don’t want the price reduced as it cuts into their profits. Once an offer has been accepted the property is taken off the market. It will disappear from the estate agent’s listings.

The French estate agents have a bigger responsibility than their UK counterparts. UK agents basically introduce the purchaser to the vendor, act as an intermediary for any price negotiations and chase solicitors. French agents also draw up the Compromis de Vente (purchase agreement). They will also hold a deposit payable on signing the Compromis de Vente. The deposit is about 15%, usually rounded down to the nearest €10,000.

The agent will require information for drawing up the contract. They need proof of identity and information about any mortgage. This will include the mortgage amount, the lending bank, the interest rate and the term. Remember that French banks are very regionalised. Credit Agricole isn’t sufficient to name the bank. It needs to be qualified by region – Credit Agricole Normandie.

As mentioned previously, there are blue and red zones. After the floods of the late 1990s, areas of land in danger of flooding from the sea or river have been designated as red zones. It is forbidden to build anything on a red zone. Red zone land is worthless.

As we are buying part of an existing plot of land it is necessary for the land to be officially divided into separate plots ensuring that we get the 1350m2 we want. The Cadestre is the French equivalent of the UK Land Registry. Their Web site is quite good and you can get information on plots of land. Apparently the boundary will be marked out by pegs and it is an offence to move pegs until boundary walls or fences are in place. The land needs to be divided before the Compromis de Vente is signed.

Another important consideration is how the property is owned. It is important to get this right otherwise French inheritance laws can prove very expensive. One option is to create a special company called a Société Civile Immobilière (SCI) which owns the property. It is worth getting the SCI option written into the Compromis de Vente as this gives the Notaire the option of transferring ownership to an SCI on completion.

One very important thing is never sign anything than estate agent gives you, other than a Bon de Visite, without talking to a lawyer. An English speaking lawyer if you are not a fluent French speaker. We engaged Annie Digby from Guellec Digby & Co. She produced a very comprehensive list of things she would do as part of the purchase process, some of which we hadn’t thought of.

Caveat Emptor – July/August 2014

We made the decision to give the required two months’ notice on the flat on Friday, 18 July and then we flew to New York on business for five weeks.

We had requested a Certificat d’Urbanism Informatif from the agent. We finally received this important document on 4 August 2014. It describes the current regulations concerning the property. The certificate stated that the property was in both a blue and a red risk zone for flooding. Phill was concerned about this and did some investigation online. He found the PPRi document for Le Grau d’Agde area which showed the flooding risk zones. We were shocked to find that a good third of the land and about a third of the house were in the red zone for flooding risk. This means that it is impossible to build anything new or even modify the existing building. We reported our findings to the agent and to our solicitor. The agent replied with an email which didn’t make a lot of sense. The solicitor said that things that the agent had told her contradicted what the Mayor had told her. It was clear that the vendor and the agent had lied to us. We pulled out of the purchase.

We flew back to London on Saturday, 15 August and Phill flew to India on Sunday, 16 August for three weeks.

Steve immediately started the process of packing up the flat and getting quotes for putting the bulk of our stuff into storage. Phill had a flash of inspiration to move to Montpellier for an initial six months whilst looking for a place to buy. This meant that we had four weeks to find a place to live in France! We trolled the web looking for rental property in Montpellier and came across Home Away, which was very useful in narrowing what and where we wanted to live for six month. After much toing and froing with Phill in India, we found an apartment which we decided that this would be the best of the bunch. Steve contacted the owner directly, who said yes pretty much straight away as would be income for him over the winter months, when things a much quieter in the South of France. Also, rental wise, it was a lot cheaper than living in London we can assure you!