Friday, July 31, 2009

French Property News, August 2009

In this month's issue I offer guidelines tips on how to get things right, whether you are buying or selling a French property.

The article includes information on where you can find the latest property price movements by sector and region, and understanding the sales mandate that vendors sign with one or more estate agents if they are selling a property. Also how to understand the various diagnostic tests that have to be carried out when a property is put on the market, and finally some guidance on what types of property sell fastest - and which don't - and how best go about buying to let. As always, I emphasise that the French property buying process is secure and highly regulated but like all major purchases, should not be contemplated without taking the relevant professional advice.

You can read the article on or in the printed version available on subscription.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Buying a French property off-plan

Buying a French property off-plan (sometimes known as 'en VEFA' or a sale of a building not yet built) has a number of attractions. These include the chance to acquire a brand new house or apartment, constructed using the latest materials and techniques; the option to change the proposed interior design, layout, decor at the time of construction; and a system of payments by stages, usually spread over 2 years from laying of the foundations to completion and hand-over - the duration of a normal building contract.

Transaction costs (notaire's fees and land registration) are less than for existing properties, though VAT/TVA is charged on the new building and makes up nearly one-fifth of the sale price.

Off-plan houses and apartments are offered by developers, some of whom (less than 20%) are major contruction groups; while others may be no more than speculators who have purchased (or at least have an option on) some land, and are basically involved in sales and marketing of the proposed development, and later supervising its construction by an independent company. They are required to have stringent financial guarantees and a project will not normally be started until at least half of the properties have been sold. In times of slowdown in the property market, this can cause delays, and most recently cancellation of proposed projects which have been mothballed until market conditions improve.

For these reasons, if you are interested in a proposed development, you can normally sign an option, sometimes without paying a holding deposit, which is little more than an expression of interest. If sales of 'lots' proceed fairly quickly, you will then be asked to sign a reservation contract, and pay up to 5% of the purchase price in order to secure your option. This will be succeeded by a formal sales contract and stage payments over the course of construction, until completion and hand-over of your property.

It is important to visit the site of the proposed development, as promoters' catalogues can look alluring when the reality may be less attractive. If a proposed development is being built in stages, you need to ensure that future constructions do not detract from, say, the view from your property. If possible you can visit a show house or apartment, or at least visit other recently constructed developments by the promoter to check the quality of design, finishing and materials.

During the last 20 years or so, French building regulations have been tightened up, particularly in areas such as sound proofing and heat insulation. So you will benefit from these, and enjoy the prospect of having no major bills for repairs and maintenance for the next 15 to 20 years, either to your individual property or the shared facilities such as a swimming pool.

New build properties come with comprehensive guarantees including the constructor's obligatory 10 year insurance against major defects, and slightly shorter term guarantees on installations and equipment.

The paperwork can be daunting and is invariably written in French, but as with all French property sales, a notaire is responsible for handling the sales transaction, and advice should be sought. New-builds are best regarded as medium to long-term investments but come with the satisfaction of owning a modern, comfortable home.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Buying your second home in France

If you decide to buy a second home in France, you will be joining some 3 million French who own a second home in addition to their 'résidence principale'. The main home may be owned or often rented, especially in cities where prices are probibitive, and the alternative is to invest at the same time in a second home as a form of investment and security in later life.

Three-quarters of second homes are located in rural area areas, where four-fifths of these are houses; whereas on the coast the preference (80%) is for an apartment in a co-ownership building. Prices are generally highest on the coast, due to the restricted amount of land available for development, reducing the further you travel inland. In selecting their second home, 40% admit that they chose a region first, then decided on the property. Most popular choices are three hours travel time from the main home. Many second homes are of course inherited and may have been in the family for several generations.

Despite the large number of second homes, they are occupied relatively infrequently, an average of just six weeks per year. However, closer to Paris and other major cities, some owners are reversing the trend and making their country home their principal residence, and only visiting the metropolis a few days a week for work. Although commuting - mainly by TGV - can reduce journey times between home and work, the French are following the worldwide trend towards working at home at least part of the time.

Second homes offer a lively sales and rental market. Over 90% of second homes are owned, but half are sold by their owners within 10 years. As families grow up and children become independent, holidays may be taken abroad or in another part of France. Over a third (1.4 million) second homes are rented out, either long term or more often as holiday lets, making the market extremely competitive. Nearly half are managed professionally, for a commission by local agents, or through longer term contracts with organisations such as Clé-Vacances.

Properties offered on long-term rental comprise mainly studios and small two-room apartments (34%), 51% are medium sized (3 - 4 rooms), and the remaining 15% have 5 or more rooms. As a general rule, the smaller the property the higher the turnover of tenants, and the corresponding wear and tear on fabric and furnishings. Larger apartments are often let unfurnished and typical tenants are longer term and comprise families with working parents and children in local schools.

(Principal source 'Tout l'Immobilier' by Nicolas Tarnaud, Marabout 2003, 2005).

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Writing a French will

If you own property in France it is a good idea to write a French will, as under current legislation, French law governs matters of inheritance of French property.

Under normal circumstances, even without a will, inheritance can be fairly straightforward if you are married and have children, as the children automatically inherit. In the exceptional case of early death, your 'ascendants' (parents) are also among a small group of what the French call 'preferred hereditaries'. Following them, brothers and sisters are involved, and so on.

Complications can arise in the case of second (or more) marriages, and if there are children from previous marriage(s), and whether for example the children have been formally adopted or not. Dying without making a will can be complicated for those left behind to sort things out.

The simplest form of French will can be handwritten (known as a 'testament olographe') and your local notaire can give you a form of words in French. The will is then registered and deposited with the notaire - it helps to make photocopies for any other people concerned - and all this can be done for less than 100 euros. More complex wills are typewritten and drafted formally, sealed and deposited with the notaire as before (probable cost around 500 - 1000 euros).

If you are single and/or without any prefered hereditaties (parents, children) you can leave your estate to someone outside the family, nominated in your will. Unfortunately, they suffer high levels of inheritance tax of 60% on your estate (unless you were in a civil union such as PACS recognised by the state) but at least they can take the remaining 40%. Without a will, the French state could intervene and take everything.

When buying your French property it is a good idea to take professional advice on how the purchase contract is worded, in order to protect the surviving spouse on the death of the first partner. The notaire can advise on this and other matters related to French inheritance.

French capital gains tax

British owners of a second home in France - that is, one that is not considered your main and principal residence - will find they are subject to French capital gains tax on the profit, if they sell the property within 15 years of its original purchase. Profit is the difference between the sale price and the original purchase price, less any applicable allowances, such as the cost of purchase (ie the notaire's fees and taxes you paid when buying) and certain building improvements you may have carried out.

The rate of CGT is currently 16% and if you sell the property within the first 5 years this is charged on 100% of the profit. During the subsequent 10 years, if you keep the property, the 'profit' is reduced each year by 10% - so that after 15 years it is reduced (for tax purposes) to Nil. As an example, in year 6, you would paid 16%on 90% of the profit, and in year 7 on 80% and so on, until year 15 when you would pay CGT of 16% on just 10% of the profit - less the alllowances noted above.

If your residence in France is considered to be your main and principal home, and you are within the French tax system as a resident, then the sale of your property does not normally attract CGT.

Before selling your home - either a principal or secondary residence - it is a good idea to consult a notaire to clarify your precise tax and residency position in France, and obtain his estimate of what taxes - if any - might apply. In any event it will be the decision of the notaire handling the sale that will primarily determine the amount of tax payable (or not) on the sale.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Seven day cooling-off period

Unfortunately we do not mean a quick dip in the Mediterranean during your annual holiday, but the seven day period of 'reflexion' that is allowed to buyers of French property, under recent changes to the country's consumer protection laws. The seven-day period runs from receipt by registered post at the buyer's home address of the pre-contract (compromis de vente), which may include a number of conditional clauses related to the property's purchase (see separate entry under Compromis de vente, for more information).

However, if the property purchase relies on the buyer securing a mortgage or bank loan, additional time is allowed for him to get his funds in place. This includes an initial period of 30 days to arrange a suitable mortgage and a further 15 days in which to accept or reject the finance provider's firm offer. Even at this late stage, a potential buyer could reject the loan provider's offer (interest rates too high, term too short etc) and withdraw from the transaction without penalty.

During the 30 day search period, the buyer must however demonstrate due diligence in trying to raise funds, and the notaire or the agent can insist on written proof of this, such as in letters to and from the loan provider. The buyer cannot simply sit back and do nothing, and enjoy another month or so of 'cooling off' without risking penalties. These could include paying damages to the vendor and a fee to the estate agent involved, as well as reimbursing any work already done by the notaire and others involved in the transaction.

It is invariably frustrating for vendors to see a property deal collapse due to the buyer not securing the necessary funds, and some agents and vendors try to deal only with cash buyers or at least insist that potential buyers arrive with written proof of a loan agreement in principle from their bank or mortgage provider.

It is of course possible for a transaction to collapse as a result of conditional clauses written into the pre-contract not being fulfilled - for example, planning permission not obtained or as a result of an unsatisfactory report by a surveyor. And while ones first reaction may be to attribute blame and seek remedies through the court, it can be difficult to prove bad faith (see my note on Vices Cachés). It is often wiser to turn your back on the deal and redouble your efforts to secure another buyer or find another property.

Friday, July 24, 2009

"Up to 30,000 buy-to-let investors duped"!

According to a report in today's French newspaper Le Figaro, up to 30,000 investors in buy-to-let properties now find themselves in debt and saddled with a property they find they cannot sell.

Attracted by government tax saving schemes, such as Robien and Borloo, many were persuaded by their banks and property developers to invest in apartments designed for rental, and in many cases situated hundreds of kilometres from where the investor resided. Surpisingly, less than 50% bothered to visit and check the location proposed, and were later dismayed to find that their investment turned out to be a badly built property, located in an area where people did not wish to live, and sold to them at three or four times the cost of construction.

As a result, they are now left with a property which is impossible to let and which, under the various schemes, they cannot sell for another 10 years, though many are buying on credit up to a period of 25 years. One investor stated that on a property purchased for 120,000 euros, he expected to lose 30,000 euros. Average monthly costs were also reportedly higher than predicted, at an average of 300 to 400 euros, and difficult to finance in the absence of the expected income from rentals.

Languedoc-Roussillon has not been spared and the report cites schemes in Perpignan, Béziers and Narbonne where investors have experienced difficulties. According to one of France's leading loan specialists, even under the government's latest scheme (known as Scellier) up to 90% of the developments proposed are located in towns classified as having a limited rental market.

Valuation or estimation?

There is a lot of confusion about French property valuations, when it comes to finding out what your property is 'worth' whether you are a potential buyer or seller.

Any French estate agent will offer an 'estimation' to a potential vendor in the hope that the vendor will offer the agent a mandate to market and sell the property. This is part of the process of estimating at what price the property might reasonably be expected to fetch in the current market. It is a combination of guesstimate and knowledge of local market conditions, related to the sale (or non-sale) of similar properties in the same price bracket.

A formal 'valuation' (same word in French) is conducted by a qualified 'expert immobilier' and is usually undertaken in the case of a loan or mortgage application, or for reasons of probate and inheritance.

The expert will use a number of criteria, including
- the overall image of the area where the property is located (is it sought after, declining, improving etc?)
- the location of the property (close to public transport, parking, open spaces, not too close to noisy industrial or commerical premises etc)
- the state of the building (exterior, facade, roof, entrance, public areas, stairs, lift etc)
- date of construction - older buildings are preferred to those built in the 1960s and 1970s which often lack charm, while very modern buildings which use the latest materials and techniques (sound insulation, double glazing etc) are also favoured
- the property itself (in the case of an apartment) ground floors are sometimes unpopular compared to higher floors, provided there is a lift; in all types of property, critical factors include the state of the interior décor and fittings, electrical wiring, plumbing, heating, ventilation, floors, windows, disposition of the rooms, presence or absence of a balcony or terrace, state of the garden etc.

Particularly disliked by potential buyers are DIY renovations carried out by the owner, with a preference for work undertaken by registered artisans with the requisite guarantees.

Many areas of France are designated as 'zones at risk' including flooding, rock falls, avalanches etc and these may detract from the value of a property.

All these elements are taken into consideration by the expert valuer, with weightings attach to each criteria, in order to arrive at a formal valuation. He will charge a fee for his services.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Your French estate agent

When searching for your French property you have basically three choices - to buy privately, to buy from a notaire who is licensed to handle property transactions, or to buy through an estate agent. About half of all property transactions in France are between private individuals ('entre particuliers'). Owners advertise their property for sale in one of the many specialist property magazines, in local newspapers and on the internet. The remaining 50% of transactions pass through estate agents, and a few through notaires, or at auctions or pubic sales through the court.

France is well provided with estate agencies, with until recently some 25,000 offices handling an average of 700,000 transactions annually (compared with just 14,000 agents in Britain for a market that is three times larger!). About half of these agencies are members of FNAIM, a professional membership organisation, with the remainder belonging either to a second body SNPI or operating independently.

Some French agencies are members of a national group, such as Laforet or Century 21, usually under a franchise agreement. Among the advantages claimed is that properties can be advertised all over France, whereas many smaller independent agencies argue that it is their strong local connection that is important. In my small local town, two of the agencies I use most often when searching for properties on behalf of clients, have been established for over 50 years in the region, and until recently continued to be managed by their original founders.

The profession is highly regulated under legislation dating back to the 'loi Hoquet' of 1972. Estate agents are required to have a licence from the local Prefecture which is issued only after a formal application detailing qualifications and experience, an absence of criminal record, and evidence that the agent has secured adequate public liability insurance, and a guarantee to cover any funds he might receive (such as deposits from clients, if he is licensed to receive these).

The 'carte professionnelle' is held by the owner or principal of the agency, and if he employs a negociator, that person must also hold a special permit to enable him to act on behalf of his principal. A negociator's role will include searching for and 'mandating' properties to include in the agency's list of offers, and taking clients on visits to view properties for sale, negotiating between buyers and sellers, and helping co-ordinate the transaction with the notaire.

Agents receive a percentage commission from the vendor for handling a succesful sale, under the terms of a sales mandate agreed between the vendor and the agent. The mandate may be either exclusive to a single agency or 'simple', in the latter case allowing the vendor to place the property with several agencies or even sell the property privately if he finds a buyer through his own efforts. In order to avoid any uncertainty over which agent introduced a buyer to the vendor, potential buyers are asked to sign a 'bon de visite' before accompanying the agent on visits to view properties.

Mandates are generally for an initial period of three months and then renewed periodically. They usually include a clause preventing the vendor from negotiating directly with a buyer introduced by the agency, for a period up to two years, without becoming liable to pay the agency's sales commission. Rates of commission in France tend to be higher (5 to 10 per cent) than in Britain but French agents have to cover a wide area, always accompany clients on property visits, and are burdened with high overheads.

Some estate agents also handle long and short term lettings, and the management of co-ownership properties on behalf of their owners.

New-build properties that are bought off-plan are normally marketed directly by the developer or promoter, but can also be bought through estate agents. Building land is sold either directly by its owner (or his agent), in the case of a single plot, and by the developer in the form of plots or parcels in a future housing estate (known as a 'lotissement'). Buyers can subsequently purchase a standard property from the developer's catalogue or have an architect design and supervise the construction of a purpose built property.

Les vices cachés

When buying your French property and you hear a reference to possible 'vices cachés' (literally 'hidden vices') no-one is casting doubts about about the morals of the vendor! The reference is in fact to possible hidden defects in the building structure, that may or may not be known to the owner - and if known should be disclosed to the buyer.

When a property is visited by a potential buyer or, more importantly by an estate who is thinking of taking it onto his books, obvious defects should be relatively simple to detect. These can include electrical wiring that is not up to current standards, defective plumbing and gas installations, and potentially dangerous renovations that have, for example, involved removing a supporting wall. If these are present, then there is a case for negotiating a reduction in the asking price in order to put things right, or you can walk away from the transaction and look elsewhere.

What are more problematic are hidden defects which are genuinely not known to the owner and not readily detectable by a casual inspection; and defects that the owner is aware of but tries to conceal from a potential buyer. Proving a vendor's bad faith may prove difficult and there is no easy way of determining in law whether he knew or not about the hidden defects.

In case of doubt it is wise to commission an expert survey (not always a 100% guarantee) particularly in the case of older buildings, and if necessary obtain estimates for making good any defects discovered, as a basis for negotiating a price reduction. Otherwise you buy the property in the state in which you found it and have little recourse in the event that hidden defects are later discovered.

Buildings that are held in co-ownership ('co-propriété) such as apartments and houses on some estates ('lotissements') are obliged to keep a record of works and renovations carried out, and you should be able to consult these. You will also get an idea of the likelihood - and cost - of any future works (such as renovating or replacing the lift) that will fall as an extra cost on the co-owners, in proportion to their share in the common parts.

In the case of new-build houses or apartments, they are covered by the developer's required guarantees - up to 10 years in the case of the building's structure, and one or two years for equipment installed.

In all cases it pays to take your time before agreeing to buy a property, making one or more return visits if necessary, including checking the neighbourhood. A noisy adjacent factory or a school playground maybe be silent at weekends or during holidays, and need to be visited on a normal weekday. Cafés and bars that may look attractive by day can become a disco nightmare after dark. It is in your interest to check, as neither the vendor nor the agent is obliged to point out anything that might discourage you from buying!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


Argelès-sur-mer where I live can perhaps be described as a typical, small French town and a pleasant place in which to settle. Some 20 kilometres south of Perpignan -reached in under half an hour by car on the fast four-lane link road, or by bus or train - the town has a resident population of just under 10,000, though this figure rises in July and August for the short summer season. The commune of Argelès includes steep hills and forests that almost touch the border with Spain, half an hour to the south, and give a clue to the town's strong Catalan influence.

Argelès-Village dates mainly from the 14th century and there are traces of old fortifications, and the beautiful village church of Notre Dame, dating from this period. Two kilometres to the east is Argelès-Plage (beach) which was grafted onto the town in the 1970s as part of the regional tourism plan for the Mediterranean coast. The beach area comprises 7 kms of sand, which is cleaned mechanically overnight, and an impressive promenade - popular with walkers, joggers and roller-bladers - which stretches all the way from the residential North Beach, past the Centre Beach where most of the seasonal commercial activites are located, and onwards to the quieter South Beach and Argelès-Port.

The beach area is not without its own history and was the site of a makeshift refugee camp in 1939 when hundreds of thousands of Spaniards fled across the border at the end of the Civil War, outnumbering the local population and creating a massive aid and support programme. The 'retirada' is commemorated in a solid stone monument just off the beach by Boulevard de la mer. Today the Beach is a popular holiday resort for families who are attracted by the clean sand and supervised activities (lifeguards are in place along the length of the beach). Every type of water sport is catered for, including swimming, diving, surfing and sailing. The Beach has won numerous Blue Flag awards for the quality of its services.

Along the South Beach are some of the original holiday villas built in the 1920s before the resort was developed.

Argelès-Port is the last of the marinas developed along this part of the Mediterranean coast during the 1980s and 90s and now offers berths for nearly a thousand leisure craft. The harbour is surrounded by modern residential apartments, each building completly different from its neighbour and not more than four storeys high. The numerous boutiques, cafés and restaurants attract a steady stream of visitors during the warm summer evenings.

Argelès offers a full range of services for permanent living, including medical clinics, X-rays, cardiologists and other specialists; good local schools; and an impressive new shopping complex just off the town centre and dominated by a Carrefour hypermarket. It is seldom necessary to make the short trip to Perpignan, but there you will find a FNAC book and record store, several hospitals and clinics, and the international airport served daily from Britain.

Buying a French property 'en viager'

Older persons living pemanently in France and concerned about their longer term financial security sometimes consider the option of selling their home 'en viager'.

This is a peculiarly French legal device which enables a buyer to invest in a property that is usually occupied by its owner/owners (though occasionally not), which comprises a down payment - known as the 'bouquet' - followed by regular monthly payments (known as the 'rente') paid to the owner/owners until their death. The purchase is a bit of a gamble and based on the life expectancy of the property's owners - put bluntly, the sooner they die, the less the property will cost the buyer.

From the owners' point of view, they benefit from the 'bouquet' and subsequent monthly 'rentes', as well as in most cases continuing to live in the property until their death. There have however been cases where the person whose house was sold 'en viager' managed to survive the buyer, whose inheritors then had to take on the burden of the montlhy 'rentes'. In one case the owner lived to over 100 while the buyer died in his 90s and never enjoyed the value of the property he was buying.

By way of example, a property valued at 100,000 euros might be offered 'en viager' with a 'bouquet' of 30,000 euros and monthly 'rentes' of between 200 and 300 euros, payable until the death of the owner(s).

Buying 'en viager' is at best a form of long term saving for the purchaser but is not without its own special risks. For the seller it can represent a source of extra income in old age and in that sense offers a measure of financial security, though at the cost of sacrificing their inheritance.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The syndic pt 2

Following my earlier post in June about the 'syndic' (the co-owners' building managers) we had our annual general meeting this morning. Among the items for discussion were the problem of cooking smells from some of the restaurants on the ground floor of our apartment building, and re-painting of the interior.

After a lot of heated discussion, it was decided that the offending restaurants should submit plans for bringing their ventilation systems up to norms, and only after approval by an independent expert, they would be given permission to proceed with the necessary work. This will involve constructing ventilation ducts up through the stairwell and installing extraction equipment and filters on the roof. Fortunately this can be largely hidden from view.

The alternative is that the co-owners would petition the court for their closure. I tried to dissuade the committee from this course of action but was out-voted, largely because it is a potential waste of money (we are on the verge of achieving a solution)and a court case could be a long drawn-out affair, with no certainty of winning. My view is that the co-owners are on weak ground as the restaurants have been in place in some cases for ten years or more, and only now have some residents decided to complain about the 'nuisance' of the smells.

Even if we won a claim for damages, which is in my view unlikely, all the restaurants are independent small family businesses, in some cases limited companies, and they would probably have to consider bankruptcy rather than pay damages. Bad enough that they are faced with a potentially large bill to cover the cost of installing correct ventilation, although it has to be admitted that they have been operating 'illegally' - though it appears with the knowledge of the management company and the local authority.

The syndic also voted for the interior decoration of the building, which is certainly needed after fiften years, and to replace the carpeting with tiles, for ease of maintenance. The outside painting was completed a year before I bought my apartment, so I was spared my contribution to that cost. Three estimates were provided, and a breakdown of each owner's contribution to the total cost, according to the number of shares they own in the building.

In an interesting display of people power, the management company's request for a three year renewal of its contract was turned down, in favour of an extension for just twelve months. The local estate agency who are the current managers have recently been taken over by a large national group and I think the idea is to see how we get on with the new management before commiting to a long-term contract.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Making an offer

One of the questions that regularly comes up in discussion forums is how to make an offer on a French property you have found and like, and wish to buy.

First, you can offer the full price and in this case, the vendor is normally obliged to sell - and you to buy. The moral here is not to make a (formal) offer on a property unless you do intend to buy (though you can later withdraw under the 7-day 'cooling-off' period); and if you are a vendor, you cannot normally refuse an offer at the full (asking) price, without making yourself liable at least for the agency's commission if you have signed a 'mandat d'achat'. The reason for the latter is that by signing the 'mandat' you instructed the agent to market your property and find a buyer, and by presenting a buyer, willing to pay your asking price, the agent has fulfilled his part of the contract, and is entitled to his remuneration.

If your offer is below the asking price, then it can be transmitted - at this stage, probably informally - to the vendor for consideration. If the vendor accepts, then the situation is similar to the one above. If the vendor refuses, the potential buyer can either raise the offer and continue negotiating, or withdraw from the negotiation, and look elsewhere.

Offers can be subject to certain conditions, which will later be incorporated into the pre-contract or 'compromis de vente' (see related post) and suspensive clauses as they are known may include issues such as planning permission, structural survey, or on the buyer's side, the transaction relying on his obtaining a mortgage or bank loan.

How much to offer? How much you wish to pay for a property depends both on what you think it is worth (you have done your research and visited similar properties) and what you can afford to pay. A vendor, for his part, has his own idea (and may have taken advice) about what his property is worth, and may also be looking for a specific sum required to purchase another property. So if the potential buyer's offer is too low, the vendor may hold out for a higher price - perhaps in your view unrealistically, but that is his right.

Offers are best communicated through a third party - such as the agent or notaire - rather than conducted face to face, giving the parties time for reflexion before accepting or refusing.

Finally, if you are a vendor and selling your own home in what is popularly described as a 'buyer's market', note that potential buyers of your property may have their own ideas about what it is worth or how much they can afford. You may be tempted to dismiss them out of hand, but courtesy and firmness are demanded, even when you find yourself faced with this situation. Imagine the reactions of those vendors to whom you may yourself have proposed a derisory offer for their loved and cherished property!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Planning permission

Virtually all building works, from new-builds to renovation, require some sort of planning permission in France. Securing the necessary permissions need not be an obstacle course provided you consult the relevant planning bodies as early as possible and follow their advice.

As a first step, when buying land, you need to assure yourself that it can be built on. Agricultural land may be designated for that use only, while a plot of land within a new housing development ('lotissement') can clearly be built on, subject to final approval of the proposed structure. Home land zoned for building may be earmarked for a much needed road or public building, and not necessarily be available for housing.

By visiting your local Mairie, you can consult and copy maps and plans, and find out what land has outline planning permission or a 'certifcat d'urbanisme'. This means in theory that the land can be built on, but this is not guaranteed, and will depend on a detailed planning application being approved, and a building permit eventually being issued.

In order to ensure the success of your planning application, you can consult the area planning department (D D E), where you can talk to an official who deals specifically with your town or village, and knows the locality well. For larger projects (above 170 m²) an architect is required - and is advisable in virtually all cases (see below) - to draw up and submit plans. At this stage, your first ideas can be discussed with the D D E and if necessary altered, and their advice is invariably accurate and helpful.

Every building plot has a designated S H O N which is the maximum building surface area allowed in relation to the size of the plot. You cannot expect to plant a huge building on a tiny plot, and there will also be restrictions on height, number of storeys, proximity to the street and neighbouring properties. Further regulations concern size and position of windows (in relation to neighbouring property), balconies and terraces, swimming pools and septic tanks.

If your building project comes within a conservation area or is close to a historic monument, then the advice and permission of an organisation known as 'Batiments de France' (equivalent to English Heritage) have to be sought. Again this is best done by an experienced architect at the earliest stage, as he will be familiar with what is likely to be approved and what is not. There may be quite detailed regulations concerning types of materials that can be used, roof tiles, windows and doors, building height, slope of the roof etc.

Some smaller works such as building extensions and modernisation may only require a 'déclaration des travaux' (notice of works) rather than a request for a building permit, but it is always advisable to ask first to avoid any costly mistakes later, such as an order to dismantle the structure and start again.

The building permit ('permis de construire') is usually granted for two years and has to be renewed if you have not started the works by then. Some local authorities are more assiduous than others in checking building progress and ensuring that a building is being built according to plan. They will issue a certificate of completion at the end of the project. Some one-off taxes are payable on completion, and there will be charges for connexions to the electrical and gas services, water, sanitation and telephone.

If you live in a co-ownership building, such as a block of apartments, many alterations such as closing-in a balcony or combining two apartments to make one, also require the permission of the co-owners and the management company (known as the 'syndic'). Some syndics are more strict than others but all have rules about external painting, colour of blinds or shutters, and maintenance of the common parts (stairwells, corridors, lift, outside grounds, parking etc).

For new-builds, cost savings can be made by using an architect rather than buying your home from a developer's catalogue, and you will end up with a house that is purposely designed for you and your family. Architects can also make best use of unusual or awkward sites - such as a sloping surface - and some I have encountered have succesfully designed a three or four bedroom house on a plot of just 200m².

It goes without saying that building work shuld be carried out by properly qualified artisans who carry correct insurance and provide a 10-year guarantee. There is also a trend towards self-build, under an architect's supervision. Which ever route you choose, you need to consider the eventual attractiveness of the property to a potential buyer, should you decide to sell at some future date.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

French national holiday

Today is France's national holiday, popularly known as Bastille Day, when there are fireworks and other festivities in every town and village.

Unfortunately, some members of my distant French family choose not to celebrate, as they lost many ancestors during the revolutionary purges. Many of them were loyal officers of the French state at the time. Among them was Comte René-Annibal de Roffignac (note the different spelling) who in 1784, with the permission of King Louis XVI, entered the service of King Charles IV of Spain, as Martial at Arms.

During the Revolution, René-Annibal displayed exceptional courage and loyalty to the King of France, and in December 1792 wrote to the National Convention offering his own head, to spare the lives of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. His offer was however refused. The letter is preserved among the family's archives.

René-Annibal died in Madrid in 1807 and his portrait appears on bottles of Cognac produced at Chateau Chesnel by the present de Roffignac family.

The de Rouffignac family was established in England after the arrival in London a decade earlier of Pastor Jacob de Rouffignac, in 1685, following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes which had allowed freedom of worship for Protestants living in France. One of Jacob's sons, Guy de Rouffignac, studied medicine at Leyden in Holland, and became a well known doctor, magistrate and medical lecturer in London. He lived for a time with his family in a house in Gough Square, just off Fleet Street, that was later occuped by Dr Samuel Johnson, the well known lexicographer. Guy and his brother Peter were buried in the crypt of St Bride's, Fleet Street, being members of the parish.

Peter-Danton de Rouffignac is a direct descendant of Jacob de Rouffignac, whose coat of arms is reproduced above. Links between the two families are still being investigated by archivists but research has been hampered as a result of the destruction of many official records during the Revolution and subsequently during two World Wars and the Occupation.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Mediterranean diet

The secret of long life in this beautiful part of southern France is often attributed to the Mediterranean diet. It is true that people here do seem to live to a ripe old age, many of them fit and active in their 80s and 90s. Is it something to do with the food we eat?

It is impossible to move here and not eat well. The flat Roussioon plain, which stretches south from Perpignan to the Albères, foothills of the Pyrenees, is a rich source of fresh fruit and vegetables which are sold at local markets and some supermarkets, as well as being distributed throughout France from the wholesale market at St Charles, near Perpignan - which also supplies us with fresh produce transported overnight from Spain.

Local specialities include grapes, green and black olives (and their oil, you can visit an original press at Millas), apples, pears, lemons, and cherries from Céret; and tasty, sometimes odd-shaped, tomatoes in numerous varieties, and a whole range of salads.

Fishing is mainly confined to small local boats that sell their modest catch every morning at the quayside in ports like Argelès, St Cyprien and Canet. Collioure is especially famous for its anchovies which you can see being packed by hand in glass jars, in the two remaining factories in the town. Roussillon is also renowned for its delicatessen ('charcuterie') including a wide selection of hams and sausages.

Add to all this the local wines of Roussillon, a dozen of which have AOC certification, and you can appreciate why it is easy to eat well, and healthily. Roussillon is also recognised for its organic production of fruit, vegetables and wines, with the number of certified 'AB' producers doubling annually in the region. You can pick up guides in the local tourist offices listing organic producers, markets and shops.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

French health care

Like its high speed trains and extensive motorway network, France's health care system is admired throughout the world for its efficiency - and it is available to you when you settle in France. Under a reciprocal agreement with the British government, you can acquire the all-important 'Carte Vitale' which is your personal health card. When visiting your local doctor, specialists and other services such as X-ray departments, your electronic card is swiped automatically, and the charges ransferred to your health care provider. You 'pay as you go' but 70% is reimbursed by the French health care system, and you can take out additional insurance for the 30% balance. Note that some long-term, serious conditions - such as heart problems and cancer - are covered fully by the state.

The service takes a bit of getting used to, as it is semi-privatised, and dispersed among a range of specialist services. For example, after a typical routine visit to your doctor, he may send you for an X-ray, usually available at a clinic in the same town, with the results discussed with you by a specialist almost while you are getting dressed, and a written report prepared for you and your doctor, which you take away with you as you leave. The same with blood and urine tests, undertaken the same day at a special 'labo' and the results discussed and given to you when you return a few hours later, and automatically emailed to your doctor, who probably receives them before you.

Note that, in line with the principle that it is you who are the 'customer', you have access to your own records, which you retain and take with you to your next appointment, avoding delays or possible loss in transit. Although you now have to have an appointed 'generalist' doctor, who co-ordinates your treatment and directs you to the various services (which are reimbursd by the Sécu as it is known), you can approach a specialist directly and indeed decide on your own to have a blood test or an X-ray, visit a sports clinic or an eye specialist (prior to buying spectacles, for example), all privately if you wish.

What is particularly impressive is the system's speed and efficiency. I will give you just three examples that have amazed British friengs recently moved to France:

1) A 70 year old neighbour suffering from a knee injury visited his local doctor on a Monday, and was referred to a specialist, the following day, Tuesday in our nearest large town (Perpignan). The specialist saw him at his clinic that afternon, and advised that an operation was necessary. Opening his appointment book, he sighed and said 'Sorry I can't fit you in tomorrow, will Friday be okay?'. My by then astonished friend was duly operated upon three days later, spent a pleasant few days in a private room, before returning home. He had a visiting nurse to change his dressings, followed by several weeks of physiotherapy - at a clinic a couple of streets from his home.

2) In another case a friend found himself suffering from 'flashes and floaters' in one eye and advised it might be due to a detached retina, visited his local doctor that afternoon. The doctor referred him immediately to an eye specialist in the same village, who saw him within an hour (allowing time for some eye drops to take effect). The specialist carried out a full examination and said my friend needed laser treatment, and 'could he be at his clinic in Perpignan at 10.00 o'clock tomorrow?' The next day, treatment was carried out within minutes and my friend returned home by taxi (he was advised not to drive as one eye was bandaged). Total cost was 84 euros!

3) Part of the routine of starting a new job is that you have to visit the 'médecin de travail' (work doctor) who visits every local town once or twice a week, and deals with perhaps 10 or a dozen people. A friend joined a group of youngsters starting seasonal jobs and was seen within about half an hour. Being in his sixties, the doctor advised going for some routine tests at the occupational health centre, 'next time he was in Perpignan, just phone and make an appointment the day before'. My friend duly followed this advice and arrived at 3.45 for his appointment and was seen right away. Within half an hour, he had an X-ray, cardiogram, breathing and hearing examination - tests he told the astonished medical staff he never once had been offered in the UK.......

Vive la différence!

Friday, July 10, 2009

French property, tax and inheritance

Buying a French property, either as a holiday home or permanent residence, brings you within the ambit of the French taxation system and France's complex laws regarding inheritance and succession.

Tax on sale

The main difference between holiday homes and a permanent residence is that the former is subject to added-value tax if you sell it within the first 15 years. The tax is assessed on the 'profit' from the sale, that is, the difference between what you paid for the property and the price at which you sell it, less certain costs. After five years ownership there is an automatic allowance of 10% per year, until after year 15 you can sell the property without paying any tax.

In the case of a permanent residence, if you are within the French tax system - such as working or retired - and the property is your 'main and principal home', then no tax is payable on sale. There is a general rule that you should have lived in the property for at least two years before selling, otherwise you may be construed as running a business - for example, buying a rundown property, doing it up and then re-selling. If you were to do this on a regular basis, it is almost certain the French fiscal authorities would raise questions.

Property taxes

All French-owned property is subject to taxation, the two principal ones being the 'taxe foncière' and 'taxe habitation'. They are similar to local authority taxes in Britain, and are applied on both principal and second homes. You can check the rates of tax at the time you buy a property, as too high taxes may be a deterrent. For older people, there is relief from part of the 'taxe foncière' after the age of 65 and from 'taxe habitation' if you are on a low income. After the age of 75, neither tax is payable. These apply again if you are within the French tax system, and will be applied automatically as appropriate by your local tax office.

Inheritance issues

French rules on inheritance date back to Napoleonic times and were designed to encourage people to keep property within the family. This entails a concept of 'preferred hereditaries' (children or parents) who automatically inherit regardless of whether you have made a will or not. There are complex rules for children of previous marriages, and when buying a French property as a couple you should seek the advice of the notaire about the best option to protect the spouse when one partner dies. This may involve changing (on paper!) your marriage regime to one recognised in French law, but this is fairly easily done, and will cost an additional 300 to 500 euros. You can do this after the purchase but is generally simpler at the time of buying. In all cases it offers valuable protection for the surviving spouse until his/her own death.

Unfortunately single people are currently heavily penalised under the inheritance laws and if they leave their French property to someone outside the family, he/she will be subject to 60% inheritance tax on the single person's death.

Getting round the rules

Not suprisingly, many people start examining ways to possibly reduce the burden of inheritance tax. One possible way is to buy the property using an SCI. This is a special form of property owning company, in which members of a family or a group of friends purchase a property jointly, owning shares in the company (which is the real owner of the property). If a shareholder withdraw or dies, a transfer of shares falls outside the inheritance rules as they are classed as 'moveable assets' (as opposed to 'immoveable assets' such as bricks-and-mortar).

It is also possible to purchase a French property through an (English) limited company, along the same principles as the French SCI. Shares in the company should normally be regarded as UK assets and subject to UK inheritance rules. But each case can be individually assessed by the relevant tax authorities, so formal professional advice should be obtained before choosing this option. Non-French property companies can be subject to annual taxation in France, and both the English company and the French SCI involve set-up and annual administration, together with the relevant costs.

The way ahead

Currently, the French authorities offer very little relief before inhertiance tax is levied on even low-value properties, and concerns have been expressed that these tax-free thresholds should be raised to reflect the true value of property today. Discussions are also taking place at the Europen level to change current national legislation on inheritance as applied to foreign owners of property - for example, an English couple owning a home in France. Some countries already operate special rules for foreign owners and the suggestion is that these should be extended throughout Europe by way of harmonisation.

Important: These notes are for general information only and are not a substitute for formal legal counsel, which should be sought in all cases particularly when considering atypical purchase options.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Property journalists!

As someone who is based in southern France and writes regularly about the French property scene, I keep a sharp eye on what is being written in the English newspapers, and where possible correct what I consider to be inaccuracies.

The serious daily and Sunday newspapers seem to enjoy a mix of scare headlines - Buyers abroad beware! is a typical one at the moment - while at the same time promoting yet another obscure destination in eastern Europe, where invariably the market collapses within a couple of years, and they revert to the previous headline, before moving on to eulogise about the latest overseas 'property hotspot'.

A lot of the advice given is geared to 'cashing-in' and making a quick profit on property dealing, which is rarely possible, and certainly not in France. Another favourite is reliance on British-based advisors to help you deal with the wily foreigners, and I recently had to take a paper to task over the statement 'it is difficult to find a reliable foreign estate agent'!

As I pointed out in my response, here in France estate agents are licensed by the local Prefecture, and are obliged to carry insurance and have certain university level qualifications and experience, in what is classified as a 'controlled occupation'. They can also be subject to unannounced control visits by the police and licensing authorities, as well as their professional association, such as FNAIM or SNPI.

Every property transaction is supervised by a notaire whose role is to ensure that every transaction is legal and equitable to all parties. The notaire has a second role as collector of taxes for the French government.

While using advisors based in your home country may offer a measure of comfort, they can at best only rely on information received from third parties and on documents supplied to them in a foreign language. They cannot usurp the role of the notaire. There is no substitute for doing your own research, for example at the local mairie or planning department, or using an expert on the spot to do this for you.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Half a million sales predicted in 2009

Despite the Europe-wide slowdown in property sales, latest predictions from Notaires de France are for around 500,000 sales during 2009, down from 670,000 transactions recorded in 2008. Figures exclude sales of new-build properties.

With regard to prices, as always there are wide variations across France. Houses generally are witnessing the greatest reductions although Paris and some other large towns are holding up well. Surprisingly, Nice is reporting a significant reduction (average 16.4%) in the price of larger apartments, whereas in Marseilles smaller studio apartments have fallen in price by an average of 18.3%. Similar reductions are reported in Bordeaux and Rennes.

However, the regional (Provence/Cote d'Azur) president of the estate agents' association FNAIM says the problem is that of bringing buyers and sellers together, and there is still a widespread unwillingness to commit on either side, resulting in a temporary blockage of the property market.

In my own region of Roussillon, the market has slowed down compared with previous years but there are few dramatic reductions in price as a result. Some properties have been over-valued - usually by their owners - since long before the slowdown, while correctly priced good-value houses and apartments are still selling reasonably well.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Parking and cycling

My local village, although not particularly attractive, does date from the 12th century, so it is not surprising it has not adjusted well to the car. This week however, the first of the high season, the mairie have taken things in hand and designated the long high street as a one-way zone, and created a wide, coned-off cycle lane all the way to the big shopping centre. The initial results are a bit chaotic but I imagine things are going to settle down, particularly when we revert to normal traffic loads in September after the holidays.

The town's policy and that of the whole region is very much oriented towards use of bicycles, with an increasing number of cycle lanes appearing along the sea front, and also connecting to some of the villages inland, beneath the foothills of the Pyrenees. Perpignan, the departmental capital, has recently introduced a cycle share scheme like the one in Paris.

As a further gesture to the use of public transport over private cars, the Conseil Général now subsidizes the principal local bus service, so you can travel along the coast from Cerbère, on the Spanish boarder, and on to Perpignan for a standard single fare of just 1 euro. There is also talk of introducing trams in Perpignan, where at the moment it is notoriously difficult to park, even out of season. Much of the older town centre is already pedestrianised. All making for a very civilised way of life in this lovely region.

Buy to let?

There is cerainly a thriving rental market - or more precisely, several markets - in France, depending upon where you live and what type of property you choose to buy as an investment.

The market can be roughly divided into short and long term, furnished and unfurnished. If you live in a holiday resort, rentals are likely to be seasonal and short term, and of course furnished with a view to attracting holidaymakers. The summer season is relatively short, however, and is concentrated on the months of July and August when the majority of French families take their annual break to coincide with the school holidays.

The season can be slightly longer - easter to the end of October - in some resort areas that offer more than the traditional seaside holiday fare, such as attractive countryside for walking and cycling, areas of historic interest, and places likely to attract singles and older couples outside the main holiday season. In Roussillon, for example, we have a long winter season in the nearby ski resorts as well a popular high season (July and August when rentals are at their highest), and a quieter spring and autumn which still attract visitors.

Some owners of seasonal rented accommodation try also to offer their property on an 'October to May' basis, but this is a small market and likely only to attract temporary residents, perhaps those house hunting or possibly students, if you are located close enough to a university.

Students are also good prospects for the longer term market, covering up to nine months of the year, and generally prefer furnished accommodation. Rental properties are subject to high levels of wear and tear and will require regular refurbishing between tenancies. The market is subject to frequent turnover and it is not always possible to anticipate increasing the rent every time you acquire a new tenant. Students and young people generally represent a sound market as rentals are invariably guaranteed by parents.

The long term market usually involves unfurnished properties, let for a minimum of three years renewable, and subject to considerable protections for the tenant and restrictions on the landlord. However they can prove to be a sound investment if you choose your property and location wisely. In inner city areas, there is a steady demand for smaller, less expensive apartments (studios, single- or two-bedroom); whereas in suburban and some rural areas with good transport links to a nearby city, there is a thriving market for three- or four-bedroom houses, with a garden, for occupation by families with children of school age.

The choice of location is crucial for all types of buy-to-let investments. The French government has been keen to attract investors by offering tax concessions, but several recent schemes have failed due to poor location (too far from work, schools and services), lack of public transport (rents are controlled under these schemes and designed to help the less well-off) and poor quality design and construction. Incredibly, many investors failed to visit the site of their proposed 'investment' and bought off-plan, only to discover that their property remained un-let and in many cases unsaleable.

Careful research is therefore essential, including checking the figures for rentals locally, and visiting the site of the investment to ensure that it is the sort of place you yourself would like to live. If not, ask yourself why would a tenant?

Monday, July 6, 2009

A Mediterranean property for under £100,000?

Even in a time of crisis within the European property sector, it is still possible to buy a property on France's Mediterranean coast for less than £100,000. Taking £100,000 (or 120,000 euros) as my limit, a study of the property market where I live showed that with careful selection and a little imagination, you can still purchase a beachside studio, a small apartment or even a village house close to the Mediterranean for under - sometimes well under - this target figure.

The cheapest - Perpignan

Absolutely the cheapest habitable property I identified was a ground floor studio apartment in the centre of Perpignan, situated in a pretty courtyard, not far from the cathedral and priced at just 38,000E. It was already let and producing income and therefore sensibly priced at 20 - 30 per cent less than it would be with vacant possession. For under 50,000E you can still find numerous similar properties in, for example, the St Martin quarter (south west of the town centre) - for example a third floor studio, with parking and balcony, or situated in a belle résidence near the Castillet and the Palais des Congrés overlooking a park which hosts weekly bric-à-brac markets, a large modern studio with balcony and easy street parking.

The one I liked most (now sold) was a fourth floor two-room attic apartment, with exposed brickwork and wood beams, and - a magnificent bonus - a roof terrace offering panoramic views over Perpignan. It was priced at just 59,000E and co-ownerships charges were a mere 65E per annum.

Slightly south of the centre, near Boulevard Kennedy, I found a top (fourth) floor apartment of 40m² which seemed to offer everything for occasional or permanent living, including a living room, separate kitchen, a bedroom, dressing room, combined WC and shower room, a huge terrace of 13.5m² and additional basement storage. With its white tiled floors, ideal for overlaying a wood floor, it had all you need to move into right away.

Another interesting find was a 40m² modern apartment near the University, which featured a fully equipped open-plan kitchen, white tiled floors, a balcony, reversible air conditioning for summer and winter use, private parking - all for 109,000E making it an ideal rental property that could bring in 400 - 450E monthly unfurnished.

The Mediterranean coast

Given the importance of tourism in the region, the coastal resorts north and south of Perpignan contain a mix of older apartment buildings and holiday villas, from the 1960s and 70s, primarily designed for holiday use but increasingly occupied by permanent residents who have decided to move to the sun. Some of these properties may be be starting to show their age and require modernisation, but can still be bought for as little as 70,000E - allowing sufficient budget to install double glazing and update the kitchen, bathroom and electrical installations.

The influx of tourists and permanent residents has led to a boom in apartment building, especially around the yacht marinas at Canet, St Cyprien and Port-Argelès, and many dating from 15 or 20 years ago can still be found at prices from 80,000E for a studio or small two-room apartment, in all of the three resorts.

In my search for something larger, with a garden attached, I found a typical villa 100 metres from the beach in Canet, in a complex with pool, costing 105,000E and featuring a living room, open plan kitchen, two bedrooms (one ground floor, the second under the eaves) and a 20m garden for eating out and relaxing. Further south at St Cyprien I found another pavillon de vacances in a complex with pool, which featured a living room, kitchenette, small bedroom, large sunny terrace and parking, at around the same price.

In Argelès Port studios and small apartments are in short supply and tend to command a premium. There were still one or two studios available at around 100,000E with a loggia or balcony (open or glazed-in), some with a small separate bedroom or cabine and with a designated ground level or basement parking space. Coastal villas in Argelès probably fall ouside our bedget unless you are very lucky.

Traditional village houses

To stay within our budget limits, I concentrated my researches away from the coastal towns, but still found a nice village house in Argelès-Ville (2 kms inland) at 102,000E completely renovated with an attractive fitted kitchen and a bedroom with a mezzanine. Another at Elne, a cathedral town south of Perpignan and close to St Cyprien, was on three floors, completely modernised with a fitted kitchen and three bedrooms, on sale at 125,000E but the owner was open to offers, so I have included it here.

Moving inland away from the Mediterranean coast, I found I was spoilt for choice. Even ignoring older houses 'ripe for renovation' which can be had for 50,000E upwards, adding the same amount for renovation, still brought them within our 120,000E budget.

The cheapest ready-to-move-into village houses I located were to the north-west of Perpignan (near the airport) or north-east, nearer to the coast. Two examples in the first category included a two-storey restored village house in the village of Baixas, which featured a fitted open-plan kitchen, two bedrooms, two bathrooms, laundry room and balcony, priced at 110,000E. The same agency was offering a charming 100m² house in the next village, featuring three bedrooms and a study for 118,000E. Closer to the coast in the village of Claira, I found a typical two-bedroom house for 120,000E just within ur budget.

South of Perpignan, I located a well maintained village house on three floors at Le Boulou, almost on the Spanish border, at just over 100,000E and featuring exposed beams in the attractive living room, and two bedrooms. Not far away and in the heart of wine growing country at Tresserre, there was a more modern two-bedroom house on offer at 110,000E and a second one - fully restored with two bedrooms and a large living area - at 100,00E.

Finally, still to the south but moving closer to the coast and the attractive artificial lake at Villeneuve de la Raho, in the village of Bages I located a large village house of 100m², with a living room and open-plan kitchen, a second living room or dining room, two bedrooms, airey and light with wood parquet floors, priced at 120,000E. Some finishing was needed so you could probably strike a bargain.

This list is not by any means exhaustive and includes only a small selection of the many good-value properties for sale within Roussillon. Phone calls to agencies during my research (in early 2009) confirmed that several of the more interesting properties had already been sold, yet another sign that the market is still buoyant, for virtually all types of property and all across the region.

Perpignan, departmental capital

Roussillon or Pyrénées-Orientales - see my article below about the confusion of names - tends to be dominated by the departmental capital Perpignan. With a population of around 120,000 and expanding suburbs, it is an important administrative centre, with not only an impressive mairie, but also the péfecture, a major chamber of commerce, a court house, a Palais des Congrés, the Palais des Expos, several museums, a cathedral and its own university with some 10,000 students.

Perpignan has a vibrant social and cultural life and can be reached in 30 to 45 minutes from almost every corner of Pyrénees-Orientales, thanks an efficient local road system. Perpignan's old town comprises a maze of pedestrianised streets, lined with interesting boutiques and cafés, leading to the cathedral and former convent buildings used as centres for international exhibitions such as the Visa de l'Image (photo-journalism) held in the autumn. Just off the town centre to the south is the impressive Palace of the Kings of Majorca, a reminder of the time when the whole area was under Spanish rule.

Opposite another fort, the Castillet, there is a branch of Galeries Lafayette, situated on a broad boulevard which follows the river Basse (see photo above) leading westwards towards the Palais de Justice and beyond to the refurbished Place Catalogne and impressive FNAC (major French bookstore) building. The boulevard to the east runs alongside a small park with shady plane trees which provide a nice place to rest or take a picnic after your visit to the tourist office inside the Palais des Congrés building close by.

The university is located to the south of the city centre, close to a comparatively new suburb called Moulin à Vent which also features a huge muti-sports complex with outdoor and indoor facilities. Just beyond is the major shopping complex at Porte d'Espagne centred around the Auchan hypermarket. To the north of the city is an even larger shopping centre, which includes a Carrefour hypermarket and all the major French retailers.

Perpignan is well provided with hospitals and clinics, including the Clinique St Pierre west of the town centre and the general hospital complex to the north, near the USAP rugby stadium. The main cinema has become a multiplex located on the main road south (towards Argelès-sur-mer) with easy parking.

Perpignan continues to expand, a process which began in the 1920s when the rather ugly city walls were demolished and replaced with an inner ring road, which defines the shape of the inner city today. The smartest suburbs are to the south and west towards the coast, with easy access to the resort towns of Canet, St Cyprien and Argelès. The international airport is located 10 minutes drive north of the city centre and the railway station is just off the town centre, to the west. All the main hotel groups can be found along the principal boulevards.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

What's in a name?

One of the problems of this lovely region where I live - just south of Perpignan - is that we suffer from having too many names! Hence, a few words of explanation.

First of all, we are part of Roussillon, the southern half of Languedoc-Roussillon, which is one of France's 22 administrative regions, and comprising 5 départements, each of which has its own identifying name and number (which you will still see for a while on the old-style French number plates).

The départements are: Lozère (48) to the north which includes the town of Mende and its spectacular new road bridge; Gard (30) to the north-east, with the towns of Alès and Nimes, and which borders the département of Provence-Cote d'Azur; Hérault (34) with its capital Montpellier, site of the regional préfecture and with an extensive Mediterranean coastline; Aude (11) which includes Narbonne and the walled city of Carcassonne; and finally Pyrénées-Orientales (66), literally 'eastern Pyrenees', with its capital Perpignan, a Mediterranean coastline which goes all the way south to Spain and the Costa Brava, and the Pyrenees forming a land border with Spain and Andorra, and home to a number of popular winter ski resorts.

Where Languedoc ends and Roussillon begins is a bit of a mystery, but it includes at least part of the département of Pyrénées-Orientales, which starts just north of Perpignan and stretches south to the Spanish/Andorran border.

If you arrive in Roussillon from the north by road or rail, you will pass through four of the five départements and will notice the wide differences in landscape from the wilder, more rugged hillsides of the north, which contrast with the flat Roussillon Plain, south of Perpignan, which ends at the Albères, which form the foothills of the Pyrenees. Inland to the west, Roussillon is dominated by the snow-capped Mont Canigou.

Local people are proud of their Spanish Catalan heritage, perhaps due to the fact that the area only officially joined France in 1659 when the border with Spain was move southwards from Perpignan to the Pyrenees. As a result, the area is sometimes also called French Catalonia - with Spanish Catalonia reaching south to Barcelona. There are many traces of the Spanish occupation, including the palaces of the Kings of Majorca in Perpignan and Collioure, and the impressive forts such as Salses le Chateau north of Perpignan. These were replaced by Vauban, castle builder to Louis XIV, further south in places like Le Perthus (Bellegarde) and Prats de Mollo, closer to the new border with Spain.

A line of signal towers can still be seen along the ridge of the Pyrenean foothills which warned of further Spanish incursions, using smoke by day and bonfires by night. News of invaders could reach the whole region within 20 minutes!

Saturday, July 4, 2009

French Property News - July 2009

In this month's issue I have written a piece in conjunction with a close French friend Cedric Alessandri, which is all about getting on with your French neighbours. As Cedric points out, it is helpful if you try and speak at least a little French, and understanding local customs such as how to greet someone the first time you meet, when to shake hands and the curious art of who to kiss and how many times. (Just for the record, as Cedric and I are old friends we kiss each other four times - on the cheek - when we meet and when we part).

Commenting on French people's seemingly anarchic approach to rules and regulations, Cedric sums it up by explaining "As we say here, everyone's midday is when they think it is! Which means that everyone leads their life according to their own rules".

While local customs may sometimes appear puzzling to newcomers, I have found that most misunderstandings, even disputes, between neighbours or in dealings with officialdom, are often the result of a lack of communication - and can invariably be resolved if you take the trouble to speak French and adjust to the way of life. Bon courage!

Friday, July 3, 2009

What's my property worth?

One of the main concerns of property buyers is whether they are paying the right price for the house or apartment they have finally selected in France; while for their part, owners and sellers worry about the value of their property - is it going up or down? how much can we expect to get if we sell? is this a good time or should we wait?

Arriving at the value of a property is something of a black art and depends on a number of external factors, including the current state of the market, or whether there is a shortage or excess of certain types of property in a particular area - all these in addition to the condition, location and desirability of the property itself. Estimations of what a property might fetch on the market, in current conditions, can be arrived at by comparing the sale prices of other similar properties, but no two properties are the same, and some will sell while others will not. An estate agent can give you an estimation, based on his knowledge of the local market, while a formal valuation (for probate, an inheritance, a tax declaration, a bank loan) has to be carried out by a licensed expert immobilier who will charge a fee of up to 1,000 euros for a lengthy and detailed report about the property's condition and any other factors likely to affect its value.

Location, location, location

As a rule properties in a central location with cost more than their equivalent in the countryside, as most owners and buyers need to be near work, schools, shopping centres and other services. However some (city) locations are considered more desirable than others, and factors that enhance a property's value include access to public transport, open spaces, attractive view and absence of nuisance (noisy roads, factories, an airport, restaurants etc). Areas that are unattractive and where there is a high crime rate will detract from the value of a property. High density may deter some buyers looking for peace and quiet, while they may be attracted to a suburban or rural location.

Physical condition

The physical condition of a property includes the outside space, approach and aspect (north facing is less favoured than south facing and so on) as well as the land itself - flat or sloping, landscaped, liable to subsidence or flooding. The building's physical condition will depend on its age, the quality of materials used, how well or not it has been maintained, and considerations such as exterior paintwork, quality of windows and doors, state of the roof, floors and floor coverings, condition of terraces or balconies, as well as interior fitments and installations (electrical wiring, plumbing, kitchen equipment, heating system, air conditioning being among the most important).

Particularly disliked by potential buyers are unfinished or even completed DIY alterations, while those carried out by registered artisans and carrying formal guarantees are favoured. In co-ownership buildings higher floors tend to attract more light and therefore command a premium, but only if there is a lift in good condition. An attractive apartment will lose value if it is sited in a building whose common parts (lift, corridors, entrance, garden, pool) are in a state of disrepair or neglect.

Valuing for rental

Although the same rules apply, valuing a property for rental purposes adds a further dimension if you wish to have an idea of the rental potential of a property designed for letting. Recent reports show that that many buy-to-let schemes involving new-build properties have failed, as properties were located where land was cheap and therefore remote from public transport and other facilities, thus obliging renters to be in possession of a car. As a result, some fifty French towns (including Perpignan close to where I live) have reported a surplus of un-let properties built for investment. Poor quality design, construction and finishing have been further deterrents.

Valuing for investment demands an expert knowledge of local market conditions, in order to arrive at a realistic estimate of rental potential. Independent advice and a visit to the area and the proposed development are strongly recommended.

Finally, if you are a seller and your property has languished on the market for weeks or months, the following article will give you some tips on how you can improve your chances by preparing your property for sale, often at minimal cost.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Preparing your property for sale

The concept of 'house doctoring' or 'home staging' as it is known here has been slow to take off in France, in spite of a regular TV series on Channel 6, presented by Paris-based estate agent Stephen Plaza.

What the programme shows is that virtually any property that has been slow to sell in competition with its rivals can be radicallyimproved and succeed in finding a buyer, usually within days of preparing it for sale.

Among the most common dislikes voiced by potential buyers were unfinished DIY attempts, poor decoration, bare trailing wires, missing or damaged light fittings, exposed pipes, rotting woodwork, dog smells, too much furniture, tired decor and furnishings, dirty kitchens and bathrooms, untidy gardens and garage, and general clutter and untidiness. Too much evidence of the owners' personal taste (such as a collection of sports trophies or evidence of pets) were also strong turn-offs.

What appealed most to potential buyers includes fresh paintwork in light, neutral colours; good natural lighting; absence of clutter; ultra clean bathroom and kitchen; and new, modern furniture (often hired specially for the home staging!).

Buyers, as Plaza points out, lack imagination and you cannot expect them to see through the clutter and imagine a property's 'potential'. Even a young girl's bedroom painted in pink will deter a couple with a son. Better to re-paint it in a neutral colour such as grey or beige. And grandma's antique commode will not appeal to a young couple who shop at Ikea. Buyers prefer a property where they feel they can put simply down their bags and continue living.

Most of the improvements made to homes shown in the programme cost less than 2 to 3 per cent of the sales value. All of them invariably received one or more offers on the first day they were put back on the market, often by people who had visited the same property before the transformation.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Keeping up to date

I write regularly for the British magazine 'French Property News' (Archant Publishing Group) on issues to do with living, working and buying property in France. Available on subsription from the publishers.

The forum is another useful source of information and discussion, where I also respond to questions posed by readers. I also contribute to and .

For those interested in working in France, especially under the new-self employed regime known as auto-entrepreneur, you can consult the lively discussion forum . The site has useful links to other sources of information (in French).

Property searching

Searching for your ideal French property is not easy, particularly in these days of the internet where you can come across websites offering up to 10,000 properties or more. Where on earth do you begin? Here are some guidelines:

First, you should choose your region. You may have have visited or lived in France already and have sone idea where you might like to settle or buy your second home. If you are looking at France for the first time, there is a huge range of choice - between town and country, city and village, mountains or the coast, north versus the south. Your preference may be dictated by concerns such as finding work - some jobs are scarce outside large centres of population; or alternatively you may be looking for an escape from city life and your ideal is an isolated country retreat. You may be drawn to the warm south or still hanker for the more traditional pattern of the seasons you will find in northern France.

Second, you have to consider the family. Children need to be near schools and may not take to a rural location which offers little by way of entertainment or sport (though most do if you are prepared to seek them out); elderly people may need the reassurance of nearby medical facilities, including hospitals and specialists; and everyone needs to be reasonably close to shops, a bank, a post office.

Third, are you settling or just visiting occasionally. Principal or second homes are generally cheaper in rural locations or in town centres, but vary in price from one region to another. Living in central Paris can be prohibitively expensive (but offers good rental potential if you are looking for investment) as can areas such as the Cote d'Azur, around Nice and Cannes on the Mediterranean coast, and further inland.

My own region of Languedoc-Roussillon has sometimes been called 'the poor man's Riviera' and I have no problem with that, as it still offers a wide variety of affordable properties and range of landscapes from the Mediterranean coast to the nearby Pyrenees. We are also well provided for in terms of schools and colleges, a university, excellent hospitals and specialists, and good road, rail and air connections.

Fourth, prepare for your visit. There are good times and bad times to be looking for French property. The times to avoid are generally the months of July and August, when many people are on holiday (including owners and some estate agencies), the weather can be extremely hot and roads can be congested. In holiday areas, properties may be occupied or let, and not available for viewing. Ideal times to visit are the autumn (September, October, early November) and the spring (February to May).

Fifth, don't try and visit too many properties in a single day. French estate agents tend to cover a wide area and there may be a half hour drive between properties you wish to view. Visits may take longer than planned, you may wish to go back and have another look, you need a break for lunch - when some owners, even those anxious to sell, do not welcome visits.

Sixth, on your own or do you need help? Not all agents speak English, and there is no reason why you should expect owners to speak any lanaguage other than their own. If your French is not up to scratch, you may have problems discussing the finer details of the property you are viewing, and certainly should not attempt to enter into negotiations regarding the purchase!

If you feel you need help, you can use the services of a locally based property adviser (which is what I do for a living) who can do some initial searching and suggest a short-list of properties for viewing, having already discussed with you the sort of ideal property and location you are looking for. Local knowledge is paramount which is why I confine my researches to a relatively small area of Roussillon - the southern half of Languedoc-Roussillon - more or less south of Perpignan to the Spanish border.

Because of my local contacts, built up over nearly a decade of living and working in the region, I know which agents have the best properties, who are the best negotiators, which notaires are the most helpful and efficient (and speak English), and later on, perhaps guide you on which local builder, decorator or plumber to use, based on the experiences of former clients and friends, whom I hope you will meet.

(A longer version of this article originally appeared in French Property News)