Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Brexit: EU working paper on "Citizens Rights"

The Europen Commission Task Force, which will conduct the Brexit negotians with Britain under Article 50, have issued a Working Paper outlining the "essential principles" that will guide their decisions when dealing with the human aspects - and consequences - of Brexit.

Importantly, the paper emphasises that EU nationals living in another state at the time of the announcement of withdrawal will retain the rights that they had at that moment and will include family members, students and others, anyone who works or has worked in another Member State.

These 'acquired rights' under EU law will be applicable 'for life' and the paper insists that any disputes will (continue to) be handled by the Euopean Court of justice.

The four-page document is highly specific and is accompanied by a longer (10pp) discussion on economic issues.

The documents have received virtually no coverage, other than in the British Guardain newspaper and were not discussed during the recent TV confornation between May and Corbin, despite the British elections being just a few days away.

They are the first sign of comfort for the five million or so EU nationals currently living in another Member State.

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Monday, May 22, 2017

Do I need a translator when signing French property documents?

Buying a home in France is relatively complicated and involves reading and signing several important documents (in French). They include the following:

- Offer to buy. This is your first important document that you will normally sign after visiting a property and making a formal offer to buy at or below the asking price. If the vendor agrees, he or she will countersign his/her acceptance.

- The initial contract (compromis de vente) which may include a number of conditions that must be fulfilled before it become binding - such as 'subject to survey' , 'subject to securing planning permission' etc. If these conditions are not fulfilled, the buyer may pull out and the transaction lapses, leaving the vendor with the task of securing another buyer.

- The final act which is the final sale document, based on the initial pre-contract and becomes the equivalent of the title deeds to the property (titre de propriété) and lodged with the French land registry. Copies are normally also held by the owners and Notaire who handled the transaction.

- The preliminary and final contracts will invariably include a number of supporting documents, from technical surveys to information about possible flooding etc.

- If you are buying an apartment in a shared building, recent legislation requires full reports of any works done or anticipated, details of the co-ownership management, and the scale of charges payable monthly to cover the cost of shared extras such as central heating or a lift.

The above documents may run to over a hundred pages and at first sight appear quite daunting, particularly if you have little or no knowledge of French and you are buying in France for the first time. However it should be borne in mind that most are totally standard and have been tried and tested over the years,  While many 'extras' such as a report on the risk - or not - of flooding are based on publicly available at the local mairie (town hall).

The Notaire handling the transaction will want to ensure that you understand what you are signing and in some case insist on an interpreter/translator being present for the signing, depending also on the Notaire's own proficiency or not in English.

In my view a complete translation is not necessary (and is costly) as legal language in either English or French is frequently unintelligible if you have no kowledge of law. A legally trained interpreter is often the best solution, as he or she can explain the document as the meeting proceeds - bearing in mind that the final act is very similar to the compromis de vente that you sign many weeks ago when you committed to buying the property (subject to any suspensive clauses that you may have insisted on at the time).

Another possible solution, which I normally propose,  is ask a bilingual (English/French) legal expert to review the contract(s) in draft and advise whether to sign them or not, or advise on changes. If they are based close to where you are buying they can also be present at the final signature.

And finally do not forget that the estate agent through whom you are buying the property has also overseen many similar transactions perhaps over many years 'on the job' as a negotiator and guide. His/her experience can be invaluable.

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Saturday, May 20, 2017

Furnished properties sell faster....

As any estate agent will tell you, when home hunting  potential buyers are more likely to be attracted by houses or apartments that are presented furnished rather those which have been stripped of their contents as the previous owners/sellers have already moved out. This is of course the reason why speculative housing developers invariably feature a 'show house' to give buyers an idea of what the property could like for potential purchasers.

Totally empty properties are difficult to visualise and viewers are often unable to imagine what their furniture would look like occupying the huge empty spaces around - though in fact some rooms may look smaller when empty than they actually are. Empty spaces tend to show off any minor defects - tired decor, worn or damaged floors, loose electrical fittings - that should have been put right by the previous owners before putting the property on the market.

There are a number of possible solutions if you find yourself having to sell your property in its empty state, among them the tried and tested 'home staging'. Proponents of this alternative include France's best known estate agent Stephen Plaza who in addition to owning a network of estate agencies is the star of several TV programmes such as 'Chasseurs de'appartement' (apartment hunters) and 'Maison à vendre' (house for sale) both on Channel 6. Plaza works with a number of designers and contractors who, in the worst cases, transform typical over-crowded, over-furnished pre- and post-war houses owned by our parents and grand-parents, and turns them into their light and airy modern equivalent. Typical budgets for a major transformation are often around 2 to 3 per cent of the asking price, and almost invariably result in a number of offers and a sale - including many which have languished on the market for weeks or months.  

If your home is empty but otherwise in good repair, you could employ a designer specialising in home staging who can furnish all or some of the rooms with furniture and acccessories for the occasion - say, the living room and one of the bedrooms if you are on a tight budget.  A lower cost solution is to present a computerised version on a laptop or similar showing what a room could look life when furnished. And floor plans which over the years seem to have disappeared from the details supplied by estate agents invariably help potential buyers to visualise where their furniture might fit.

When you decide to put your property on the market is the time to take photographs showing it furnished, as picture of empty rooms are almost worthless when trying to sell.

Finally, it does without saying that your pre-sale preparations should include fixing all those nagging little defects you may have been putting off for years, such as loose tiles, unfinished paintwork, dripping taps, cracked windows, and being ruthless in your de-cluttering.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Booking rental property online.....a cautionary tale

A recent entry on one of the popular forums dealing with life in France tells a worrying story of a British couple who booked a French short-stay property online only to turn up and find the property already occupied by 'friends of the owner' - who is now unwilling to compensate them or return their 3000 euros paid. The booking was made via a well known holiday booking agency - also operating online - which has apparently so far refused to intervene in the case, on the grounds that the final booking details were made directly between the parties and they are not responsible.

In commenting on the incident, I reminded forum members of a case which occurred in Argels-sur-mer last year, when a non-existent property advertised online was booked by over 50 potential renters who had all paid in advance, and who all turned up on the same day to start their holiday, only to find that the property did not exist and that the street number advertised was entirely fictitious.

Not suprisingly the police and local tourist offices take this sort of incident very seriously, as it reflects badly on the reputation of the resort - and the holiday rental business in general.

The only safeguard I can suggest if you are booking a holiday rental in France is to use a local, reliable estate agency which has its office in the resort or nearby, and has the necessary credentials, such as membership of FNAIM, the estate agents' professional body. Being on-site they receive renters personally, accompany them to the property, check that everything is in order and remain on hand during your stay, just in case of any problems. They also have links to reliable tradesmen in case of emergencies such as a burst pipe or electrical failure.

Local tourist offices are very keen to protect the repuation of the area and may have lists of 'approved' rental properties that have been visited and approved, and if you experience problems during your stay, you should inform the tourist office.

Like all online purchases, holiday bookings via an online rental agency are subject to risks and the potential for fraud and property owners and potential renters should made all the checks they can before entrusting them with their money - and their annual holiday.

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Monday, May 8, 2017

Macron elected French president

There was a palpable sigh of relief all over France last night, as Emmanuel Macron was finally elected President of France, with a convincing 66 per vent of cotes cast in the second round. Even though many remain sceptical of his plans to 'revive' France, in line with the policies outlined by his group En marche there us also a feeling that 'at least it's not her' - referring to the far right Marine le Pen who gave the country another first-round scare in a close vote, as she did with the election of Francois Hollande five years ago. Some commentators are now writing that her election would have been 'chaotic for France'.

Also worrying is the high level of voter abstentions, approaching 30% of the electorate, though many are questioning the wisdom of holding an election on a Sunday, in the middle of a three-day holiday weekend in May (today is a public holiday), where many have taken advantage of the fine weather (at last) and are away from home.

Also interesting at the time Britain is learning not only that Brexit is is going to be vastly more complicated and expensive than anyone dreamed, Macron's second emphasis is on reforming and strenghtening the European Union and it will be interesting to watch this happening alongside Brexit.

France will also have to come to terms with a whole collection of new faces in politics, as Macron's likely team of future ministers, many of them unkown to the wider public, take up their positions in government. France goes to the polls again in June to elect deputies to parliament, before settling down for the summer recess and the traditional European shutdown during July and August.

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Monday, May 1, 2017

Buying a French apartment? Beware of management costs!

Buying an apartment in France, as opposed to a freehold house, may seem like an attractive low-cost alternative - until you come to add up the associated 'management fees'. Many seemingly cheap apartments can turn out to be an expensive investment.

In my home town I have been looking at lost-cost apartments, many of them located in the best part of town, facing south onto a park (the old bit of open urban space there is) and many priced at under 50,000 euros for a small studio under 25 square metres, and attractive as a 'pied à terre' or as an income earning buy-to-let investment.

Part of their attraction can include a balcony or terrace, high levels of security, sometimes a resident concierge, central heating and hot water, car parking, and a lift (many are eight storeys or more high). Occcasionaly extra amenities such as a swimming pool, gardens or tennis courts form part of the package.

All these attractive extras however come at a price. Buying an apartment in a share building involveds purchasing the freehold in your individual apartment and in addition a number of shares in the building itself - sometimes refered to as tantièmes - the quantity calculated according to the size of your apartment. You effectively own part of the freehold and details will be written into your contract of purchase - the equivalent of title deeds to your property.

Buildings may be managed by a committee of co-owners - you become one on purchase of your apartment and become entitled to vote at the annual general meeting or indeed become a member of the co-owners' committee. Within smaller buildings, day to day management as well as major decisions such as external painting or renewal of the lift, may be handled by the (voluntary) 'syndic' (committee of co-owners). This can work well for buildings comprise, say, up to ten or twelve apartments. (I currently live in a building with just four co-owners, the largest owning two whole floors, and we meet and discuss informally any needed expernditure. There are no fixed annual costs, other than the obligatory building insurance, which we all share in proportion to our share, in addition to the insurance of our invidivual apartments).

Above this figure it is more usual to employ a firm of external building managers, some of whom are part of a larger group of insurance companies, banks or property investors. And they charge for their services. Many of these organisations have come in for criticism in recent years - for overcharging, poor management and in some cases downright fraud. They succeed in getting away with it because apartment owners are not interested in how the building is run and will pay the monthly bill of charges to the managers without raising too many questions. Until active individuals or members of an alert co-owners committee start to investigate.

The first thing you will know about the level of 'building charges' will be in the state agents' details of the apartment you are interested in buying (in addition of course to local property taxes paid to the commune). And it is at this point you will realise that the 'cheap' apartment you are being shown round may be subject to management charges from 500 to over 1000 euros per year - and possibly additional costs planned in the near future, to pay for external painting or replacement of the lift.

As a general rule the larger the building the higher the cost to maintain and pay for unforeseen contingencies, and as a result the higher the charges demanded - once again in proportion to the size of your apartment. As a result, as part of your French property hunting, if you are looking at apartments you need to be fully aware of the likelihood of additional management charges, which over the years are most likely to rise, while the value of your apartment may fall.

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