France may only be a short hop across the Channel, but it is still very much a foreign country and its housing market and property laws are very different from those in the UK. If you're looking to purchase property in France you need to do some groundwork before you start.
Generally speaking, the French buy property as a home for life, not as an investment and prices have historically been static. This is starting to change in areas with a heavy British influx, but it nevertheless remains true that if you sell within three years of buying, you are unlikely to recoup your initial outlay. Be wary of buying property purely as an investment, and if you do so, make sure it's something resellable and be prepared to tie up your money for at least five years or you could be hit by punitive Capital Gains Tax when you sell.
Britons seeking a new life in France can also easily find themselves overwhelmed by the options available. Do you want a Mediterranean-style existence with summers spent by the pool, or to recapture the England of yesteryear before the motorways moved in? Try to define for yourself what you're seeking in France, then read up as much as possible about the areas you're interested in - a good French atlas helps enormously here. Spend as much time as you can in your chosen area before you buy, too: renting for a year can save you an expensive mistake later on, but if you can't do this, it's sensible to visit your chosen area at least once in winter - don't be seduced by the summer months alone.
For Brits uncertain of going it alone, many British estate agents now provide services that take you through the search and buying process from start to finish. Beth Edgell at VEF French Property says that from the outset VEF tries to ensure that buyers are realistic. "There are lots of TV programmes that give people a wrong impression of the kind and price of property that's available," says Beth. "Also, everywhere looks nice when you're on holiday, but that area may feel very different out of season when all the tourists go home. We try to ensure that people have realistic expectations."
VEF provides a comprehensive hand-holding service to buyers, from honing down their initial requirements to signing on the dotted line. "Our language and law team also takes people through complexities such as the French inheritance laws, which are radically different from English ones," says Beth.
If you prefer to go it alone, you can, of course, go directly to an area and search for a property yourself, via private sale, auction, a French estate agent or a local notaire, but only those who are fluent in the language and have some understanding of the French system should attempt a purchase without some English-language help. Auctions are a cheap way to buy but are not much used by the British (see publication 'Buying a Home in France' for details).
If you choose not to use an English estate agent, watch out for pricing. While French agents versed in selling to the British may quote prices with fees included, notaires tend to quote prices ex-fees and some French agents include their own fee but not the notaire's. Since the notaire's fee can be anything from 10 per cent to 17 per cent, that dream home might prove to be far more expensive than you at first thought. Always ask what the price includes, even if you think you know.
Whatever route you choose to buy, when the time comes, the actual conveyancing will be done by a notaire, who acts for both parties impartially. You can appoint an English lawyer specialising in international law to advise you, though the conveyancing must still be done by the notaire, and an estate agent may also be able to help with any language difficulties. Raise any concerns you have (see box) before the Compromis de Vente is drawn up, and make sure you get a copy of this in English, as you need to include in it any caveats you have about buying (for instance, permitting you to withdraw from the purchase if the property fails a termite inspection).
The good news, after all these warnings, is that buying in France is relatively quick and straightforward compared with the UK. Gazumping is possible, but costly and therefore occurs only rarely, and the purchase becomes binding early on: once the Compromis de Vente is signed and its mandatory seven-day cooling-off period has passed, it is very difficult for either party to pull out without a very good reason. From start to finish, barring problems uncovered by the legal search, etc, you could own your new French home within 12 weeks.
Once you're found your dream property, there's usually a degree of restoration to be done by the romantic Brit who's plumped for a crumbling old pile. There's nothing to stop you doing this yourself, but be very careful about whom you use to help. Building is a respected 'metier' in France and all builders must be properly qualified and give a bond on their work. If you hire someone who isn't registered, this constitutes 'black' labour and both you and the worker are liable to a hefty fine. You can use friends and family to help you, but no money must exchange hands.
French builders are usually excellent craftsmen, but there are now also English builders working all over France. Will Witt, a civil engineer who runs BlueBird building services in the Charente, says people often come to him because they're worried about making themselves understood to French builders.
"When you buy an ancient property for renovation, your building costs are as long as a piece of string," he says. "People can be totally unrealistic and they don't generally allow enough time or enough money for what needs to be done."
Part of the problem, says Will, is that because France is still an agricultural country there are many old houses and agricultural buildings for sale that would have fallen down in the UK 50-100 years ago. "People don't realise how hard these can be to turn into all-year homes," he says, "though making them liveable as summer gites isn't difficult. It's winter that catches people out: temperatures are freezing at night even this far south and you need proper central heating and insulation - not just a woodburner. And it can be hard to insulate without losing period character."
Surveys are not a normal part of French property transactions but Will recommends that buyers have a survey done before purchase, just to make it clearer how much money they will have to spend on renovation. "I do a lot of surveys for estate agents," he says, "but my honesty isn't always appreciated!"
Life in France
If you're going to live in France full time, renovated or unrenovated, there will come a day when you find yourself sitting in your living room, surrounded by packing cases, wondering what on earth you've got yourself into. Whether you're in an area stuffed with ex-pats, or the only Brit for miles around, there are certain things you should do next.
One of these is to call on the mayor at the first possible opportunity. French mayors have a lot of power, and it's a good idea to introduce yourself formally. Calling on your neighbours is also de rigeur, preferably with a bottle of whisky in tow. The French are, in general, welcoming to outsiders, and tales of being cold-shouldered are few and far between.
If you live in, or near, a village, joining in with village activities is a good way of making friends. And if you long for British company, an advert placed in the local supermarket or paper will usually result in some phone calls. Beware, however, of being sucked into an ex-pat community of people whose only common link is the English language.
There are online communities, too, where Brits exchange information and opinions - these are a good port of call when you have a question you need answering, whether it's how to change your driving licence or where to buy digestive biscuits. And if you feel that you need more help than this, a relocation service can help you over the initial hurdles.
Lisa Feay, owner of www.relocatetofrance.com, has lived in France since September 2001 and her advice is that you just can't rush things: "You simply have to stay put long enough for something as inherently slow as 'settling' to take root," she says. "I tell this to clients all the time: one day you'll wake up and you'll decide you're either going to go with it, or spend the rest of your time here pulling your hair out."
She admits that living in France is not all plain sailing. "On the bad days, I say things like: 'I moved to France not the ;ljfdjk!! 18th century!' But on the good days - and the longer you stay, the more of those there are - I simply don't say anything. Which for an old ranter and raver like me, says quite a lot!"
Buying in France on a wing and prayer can lead to either triumph or disaster, but if you go about things the right way, very soon you too could be enjoying your corner of a foreign field.