Contract of sale in France
The process of purchasing a property in France starts with the compromis de vente.
If you're buying a house in France, you'll need to navigate your way round the French system, which is sometimes helpful, sometimes not helpful, and sometimes downright perverse. Make sure you check all the boxes before you put your signature on the compromis de vente.
One very basic check that you need to do on rural property in particular - check the address and the boundaries against the cadastre map, which you can find at the mairie or online. It's not unknown for half the meeting in the notaire's office to be taken up redrawing the maps!
Check out French inheritance law and how it affects you.
This might alter the way you buy. Some couples buy en tontine so that French inheritance rules can be bypassed and the survivor inherits the house - French law says that children always inherit a fixed amount, but the tontine clause creates a legal fiction that the survivor has always been the sole owner of the property, so there is no inheritance to share. (It doesn't, however, let the survivor off inheritance tax - but that's another story.) Other families use an SCI corporate structure, so they hold shares in the company, not the house (it's much easier to transfer ownership of shares).
Make sure that your compromis de vente includes all relevant contract clauses. Such contract clauses in property buying process in France mean all the conditions you would like to foresee and under which you would like to close the deal. These clauses may cover finance (you won't have to complete the purchase if you can't get a mortgage), any planning permission you need, and any commitments by the vendor (such as putting in a septic tank).
Check the diagnostic, which should be given to you before you sign the compromis. It covers asbestos, lead, electrical and gas installations, and septic tank (if any), as well as termites if the property is in certain regions. If it looks as if there are major works to be done, you can walk away, ask for a price reduction, or perhaps add a clause suspensive so that the owner has to do remedial work before you sign the final contract. Be particularly careful about making sure there is either tout à l'égout (mains drainage) or a septic tank that will pass the SPANC guidelines - septic tanks can easily cost EUR 10,000 or more to install.
British buyers are often surprised that the diagnostic doesn't cover structural issues that would be mentioned in a surveyor's report, such as the roof, dry and wet rot, woodwork, or subsidence. Even if you're not going to commission a full survey, look over the property in detail, preferably with a builder or architect who can spot any problems and give you a rough guess as to what each issue might cost to put right.
Check what amount of taxe foncière and taxe d'habitation are payable on the property. Ask the agent or owner; they should be able to tell you what was charged last year. If you're buying a renovation project, of course, there may not be a taxe d'habitation (for instance for an agricultural building like an old barn) and you'll want to budget for taxes going up considerably once you've renovated the property.
If you're purchasing a flat in a coproprieté check the annual charges, and whether things are running smoothly. Be careful to check whether any major works, such as renovation or a new boiler, have been agreed but not yet carried out - you'll have to pay for them later. It's also useful, in a small building, to check whether everything's going smoothly, or whether owners are at war over whether to fix the roof or get a new one. You don't really want to inherit a battle!
If you're buying a new (less than ten years old) or recently renovated property, you should be able to see the assurance décennale which covers all building works and installations for ten years from the date they were carried out. If you move in and the electrics blow the first time you use the washing machine, or your first bath results in water pouring through the bathroom floor into your living room, you'll be covered.
UK buyers are used to getting local searches as part of conveyancing.
In France, it's up to you to check that your neighbour hasn't just got planning permission for a brand new cowshed at the end of your garden, and that your view isn't about to be cut off by a line of wind turbines. The notaire might only tell you about changes that will directly affect the property - not about changes a hundred yards up the road. Contact the mairie, and check the local papers if you can read French.
Make sure you and the vendor have agreed on fixtures and fittings. The law on what stays and what doesn't is ambiguous, and owners sometimes move along with all the light bulbs and the fitted kitchen. If you want things to stay, specify them in the agreement.
If you're buying a rural property, by the way, have a good sniff around - literally. If there's a pig farm or a big pile of chicken manure just over that hedge, better find out about it now rather than later.
Oh dear; you signed the compromis and you've just discovered a problem? Remember, you have a fourteen day cooling off period. But once that's past, you're committed!