What are the specifics of French law?
The French legal system is based on civil law – meaning that it is codified, and it originates from Roman law. In contrast, the English legal system of “common law” is in general terms, based on jurisprudence or case law.
The main feature of the common law system is that everything is permitted that is not expressly prohibited by law. When making a decision in the “common law” system, court judges are largely bound by the rules and other doctrines developed by earlier courts. The legal system of England is also in force in approximately 80 countries formerly part of, or influenced by, the former British Empire, from Australia to Brunei.
On the other hand, a civil law system (largely based on Roman law) is more prescriptive than its common law counterpart. In terms of a contract, for example, even if the clause is not expressly written down but is contained in the pertinent contract law code, the clause will apply. Therefore there is less of an emphasis on setting out all the clauses to the contract since the restrictions covered by law will apply even if they are not expressly mentioned.
At what point in the negotiation process am I truly committed?
Preliminary negotiations may create binding obligations as from the point at which an agreement on the price has been reached. An abrupt termination of negotiations may give rise to a claim for damages – especially if you have made your offer in writing.
However, technically you are only fully committed after you have received from the notaire, in registered mail, a copy of the signed compromis de vente (provisional sales agreement) and ten days have elapsed. Until the end of the 10-day period, French consumer protection law allows you to back out without any explanation or financial penalty (you have to do so via registered mail to the notaire).
Can I get my own notaire?
This may seem strange to foreign buyers, but the vast majority of transactions in France are handled by a single notaire. The estate agent usually recommends a local notaire.
If you feel unsure about this, you are entitled to appoint your own notaire. This will not cost you any more money, as the two notaires (yours and the seller’s) will split the fee between them. Additionally, you can choose to get independent legal advice in France or in the UK to help you with the purchase (e.g. from a non-French solicitor) – but you will be liable for their fees in addition to the notaire’s fees.
Can I get an English-speaking notaire?
Yes, some French notaires speak English – but necessarily enough o be able to explain a legal contract. So you may think of hiring a British national qualified as a notaire.
How long does the buying process take?
The whole process should take no more than three or four months from making the offer to signing the final contract ("acte authentique").
What is an SCI and how can it be useful?
An SCI (Société civile immobilière) is a property company. Although it can be used to minimise succession tax by gifting shares to your children during your lifetime, they are usually used by a group of unrelated people to purchase a property as co-owners. An SCI is meant to be non-trading, therefore it is not the right solution if you are planning to run gîtes or chambres d’hôtes as a business (more than a few weeks a year). From a UK or US tax perspective, being a director of an SCI – and therefore having free use of a property in France for holidays – can mean you could become liable for income tax on the assessed benefits in kind. Taking professional advice is essential.