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Everyone gave us reasons not to buy a house in France. The impenetrable legal system. Totalitarian mayors. Unthinkable plumbing and sewage systems. The Euro! (This last, in retrospect, was probably the best reason). Everyone we knew seemed to have a friend who had had terrible trouble with a property transaction in France. Practical strangers volunteered their (mostly negative) opinions. We had bought and sold homes in London, never in France. London had not been easy. We expected the worst.

In the event, the transaction couldn’t have gone more smoothly. (I have written elsewhere about the bits that were difficult – finding the right house in the first place, and dealing with the French bank.) There are many places where you can read about the legal process of buying a house in France, including FrenchEntrée, Angloinfo and French Connections. Here are some of the books we found helpful:

These are the five top things we most enjoyed about the transaction.

  1. No gazumping! Rather wonderfully, the written purchase offer, the offre d’achat, prevents the seller from showing the house or considering any other offers after yours has been accepted. Having been gazumped (outbid after our offer was accepted) a few times in London, this started things out on a positive footing, for once.
  2. No surveyor! Surveyors feature prominently in London property exchanges, though it remains unclear to me what value they add. The sale price never seems to change, no matter what horrors the surveyor finds in the house you are buying. And there is always something that is not discovered by the surveyor – the boiler, inevitably, breaks down beyond repair the week after you move in. In France, our seller had kept excellent records of all works done on the cottage. He was a retired builder from Paris’s 16th arrondissement, and he had looked after the cottage carefully. Moreover, the French legal system requires the seller to secure independent reports on heating, electrics, asbestos and much more. Those reports were more thorough than anything we had paid a surveyor for in London.
  3. No lawyers! In UK property transactions, every step you take, every move you make is a legal one. The lawyers wrangle over which surveys can be done and which appliances are included in the sale and what will be done on which date. In France, property exchanges are overseen by the notaire, a public official who conducts searches, prepares documents, and collects the taxes. The same notaire acts for both parties. The process is heavily regulated and requires extensive disclosures from the seller, meaning we didn’t need a lawyer to secure the right documentation or set an appropriate timeline.
  4. Meet the notaire! In the UK, completion is purely a legal act, done by fax and email. It is quite possible that you might never meet the seller in the flesh. (They are running away before you discover all those faults the surveyor didn’t spot). In France, the Acte de Vente is an event. The buyer and the seller meet at the notaire’s office. Our notaire was based in a low-slung, modern building near the centre of a market town. The entrance had the feel of a GP’s office, but inside the corridors and offices were lined with traditional glass-fronted mahogany book cases that were stuffed from floor to ceiling with fat, ancient legal texts. The notaire was youngish, very tall, and utterly professional. During the previous weeks he had proven particularly effective at convincing French bank clerks to do their jobs in a timely manner. Intriguingly, there was no sign of a computer in his office. The huge desk which stretched diagonally across the room, leaving the rest of us an odd triangular space in which to arrange ourselves, was entirely covered with untidy stacks of case files. The meeting lasted about an hour. The notaire went through the paperwork section by section, checking that all was in order. Finally we all signed each page of the contract, and by the end my hand ached. And then we all shook hands with each other several times, and the notaire hurried us out and went off to greet his next appointment.
  5. Welcome home! Like sellers in London, estate agents tend to disappear from the scene once the exchange is done. In France, our estate agent – mid fifties, easy-going and athletic, always up for a drink and chat and never even a bit pushy – had made other arrangements. We would all, he announced, go back to the cottage after the completion. And so we did – the estate agent, the seller, as well as the seller’s daughter and granddaughter, a couple from down the street, and the children from next door. We drank champagne which the estate agent had arranged with the seller to chill at the cottage in advance. Boat on Seine, NormandyThere were candies and cakes for our children. Our seller, glass in hand, took us around the house again – showing us every light fixture, where the pipes were situated, how the electrics worked, hidden cupboards he had designed, and we could see how much he loved the cottage and how sad he was to leave. We knew he would be returning to the area for medical check-ups, and we invited him to visit when he did, and knew that he would. And then everyone left, and we walked down to the end of our garden and finished the champagne, watching the boats go past on the Seine.