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The article below has previously appeared in leading market publications or our own booklets or newsletters.

Please note that the law may have changed since the date of publication and that information given on this website does not constitute legal advice. Please read our disclaimer.

French Alpine Property

On a seasonal note we focus on buying property in the French Alps for your own use, as an investment, or both.

France is the most popular country with British holiday skiers, boarders and mountain walkers. There is enormous demand for self-catering accommodation and many Britons who invest close to the ski slopes earn high returns from letting their chalet or apartment - winter and summer - via good management agents. All the major resorts are an easy day’s drive from the Channel ports along French motorways that are generally deserted in winter. The most famous alpine ski resorts - such as Val d’Isère, Courchevel 1850, Méribel, Les 2 Alpes, Chamonix, Megève, Alpe d’Huez, Tignes or Val Thorens - can all be reached from Lyon-Satolas airport by bus (chartered by tour operators or regular coach service), taxi or car very easily and quickly. There are also convenient train options from London and Kent which get you close to your resort either overnight or in a day.

  1. Buying existing property
  2. You cannot buy French property "subject to contract" as you can in England. Instead you will be asked to sign a legally binding compromis or promesse before any local authority searches and enquiries have been made or the necessary finance obtained. An oral or written expression of serious intent is also legally enforceable so do not make any offers without first taking independent legal advice in a language which you can understand. Frustrating delays are easily avoided by instructing a bilingual legal adviser to deal with all matters by e-mail, fax or telephone. To avoid most problems make sure that your offer letter requires production to your legal adviser of:

    • A plan cadastral which clearly defines the property. The plan is broken up into parcelles each carrying a number. These numbers should be expressly referred to in the contract. If the boundaries are not clearly shown it may be worthwhile instructing a géomètre (land surveyor) to mark them out.
    • An inventory signed by the vendor setting out what is included in the purchase price, and what is not. Otherwise you may find the fitted kitchen that sold the property to you when you first viewed it is not there when you move in.
    • A copy of your vendor’s registered title deed (titre de propriété) which should be checked by your legal adviser for rights of way or other matters which might adversely affect your enjoyment of the property.
    • A draft contract for your approval. In England the main terms of a contract do not vary but in France each contract is individually prepared for particular transactions and so should be carefully checked every time. Nothing should be taken for granted. For example, you may be liable for breach of planning control even if the breach were committed by a previous owner or occupier. So insist on written confirmation that planning permission or other consent was/was not required for past construction or alteration to the external aspect, or for any change of use of the property. The contract should contain other conditions suspensives. If these are not fulfilled, the 10% deposit you are required to pay is normally refundable.
    • An apartment or other property situated in a larger development is regulated by a co-ownership agreement known as the règlement de copropriété which defines which parts are privately owned by you (e.g. heated garages, ski-lockers) and the parts which are owned in common with others (e.g. lifts, staircases). The règlement also records your rights and obligations in the copropriété, how it is managed and various annual services charges calculated. Every purchaser who signs a contract is deemed to have read and understood the règlement and is therefore legally bound by it. Always check the position with your bilingual legal adviser who will not usually recommend that you sign the contract without having a good appreciation of the contents of this and other important documents.

    You are strongly advised to organise a survey and valuation before you sign the purchase contract. Is the property prone to flood/avalanche damage? Many cheaper properties have no mains services and in rocky terrain installation can cost a small fortune. Your vendor does not usually have to disclose any structural defects affecting the property. This means that if, after signing a contract, you discover structural or other defects to the property and its equipment or services, you are still obliged to complete the purchase at the agreed price and cannot obtain compensation.

    The contracts most commonly used in France include the compromis de vente and the promesse de vente. Under a promesse the vendor is bound to sell a property but the buyer is not committed to purchase and can withdraw from the transaction before completion, subject to losing his deposit. The compromis binds both parties and a buyer who withdraws from the transaction will forfeit his deposit and, depending on the wording of the contract, may also be sued for damages and/or an order compelling him to complete the purchase.

    Never book removals or commit based on the completion date given in the contract. Although you may be ready, others may not. The notaire will require the results of his enquiries and local searches, and the authorities in France are notoriously slow in responding. The typical wait is three months, although in some cases the delay can be much shorter. The formal transfer of ownership document (acte de vente) must be signed in France. The actual completion date may not be convenient to you in which case you are able to sign a power of attorney (procuration) in favour of one of the notaire’s clerks so that the formalities can be completed.

    After completion the notaire will keep the deeds but will arrange for transfer of ownership to be registered. You should ask for an attestation d’acquisition as proof of ownership and the notaire should supply you with a certified copy of your registered acte de vente in any event.

  3. Building your own property
  4. Land suitable for building (terrain à bâtir) is hard to find in or near the French Alps. Any contract for the purchase of a lotissement or other plot should include carefully worded conditions suspensives enabling you to withdraw if planning permission is not obtained to build your specified property and connect it to the mains services. You must usually start building works within one year and complete them within 5 years of obtaining planning permission.

  5. Buying a property under construction
  6. The developer will ask you to sign a legally binding contrat préliminaire or contrat de réservation (not to be confused with an English-law reservation agreement) and pay a réservation deposit which cannot exceed 5% (only 2% if completion of building works is scheduled within 2 years, none if longer). Ownership of the land and whatever has been built on it passes to you at the time the acte de vente is signed, and you acquire ownership of the rest of the property as it is built.

    In addition to the cautions set out above, ensure that the contract provides a full legal description of your partie privative to include its surface habitable, layout and floor plans, and a notice technique sommaire detailing the building materials and domestic services/fittings to be provided.

Stephen Smith is a specialist in French property (purchases or sales), tax and estate planning and wills. For further information please contact Stephen Smith by e-mail at stephensmith@stephensmithfranceltd.com (Telephone: 01473 437186 Fax: 01473 436573).
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