Get a better deal abroad

The days of finding an idyllic stone farmhouse at a knockdown price in rural France are long gone. But if you do your homework, you can still get good value for your euros, says Ginetta Vedrickas
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The Independent Online

Buying a property in France is inevitably more expensive than ever before. And, despite an increase in information on the subject, many buyers still find negotiating their way through the French buying system challenging. But there are ways to help the process run more smoothly and get a better deal financially.

Buying a property in France is inevitably more expensive than ever before. And, despite an increase in information on the subject, many buyers still find negotiating their way through the French buying system challenging. But there are ways to help the process run more smoothly and get a better deal financially.

To avoid disappointment, researching your market thoroughly before starting your hunt is vital, but many agents find that buyers still come with unrealistic expectations. "We call them 'The Place in the Suns'," says Jamie Lowe of Simply Gascony. "They've been watching repeats on Sky television and haven't noticed the small print where it says 'exchange rate based on information from 2000' so when they come out they are disappointed. Their budgets can be totally ridiculous - France isn't a Third World country."

Toulouse, in the Gers where Lowe is based, now has a rapidly expanding economy, many larger firms have relocated there, and their employees are on good salaries. This, coupled with the demand from Parisians looking for second homes in the region, adds up to stiff competition for British buyers, yet Lowe still receives enquiries from buyers with budgets as low as €50,000 (£33,600). "I don't know where they've been," he says. "At one point we stopped marketing properties under €150,000 (£101,000), they simply weren't there any more, and now we're no longer selling under €200,000 (£134,400)."

Taking British buyers on inspection visits can be challenging. "They often don't have any idea what to expect. Everyone wants the classic stone house which is secluded, has outbuildings which can convert into gîtes, a couple of hectares of land and within walking distance of a boulangerie!" Lowe says that these types of houses are rare and, when they do come on to the market, they command a premium. Buyers may often have trawled the internet and seen their "dream home" for sale fairly cheaply - but there will be a reason, says Lowe. "If they are cheap it's probably because they are near serious roads or next to something which you can't see from photos."

As well as having realistic expectations, having an independent representative who is wholly on your side can often be the best way of securing a good deal, whether you're buying in France or another country. Stacks Relocation Services has just opened an office in Murcia, Spain, as it believes that, with two million Brits expected to move to the Spanish Costas in the next 10 years, there is a greater need than ever for the role of relocation agents. "A crucial element of our service is to assist clients interpret the mass of over-zealous marketing conducted by Spanish developers," says Stacks' Andrew Lupton. "We advise on prices, values, likely rental incomes and capital growth. Having found the right property, we negotiate the purchase and the price."

Using a representative will also avoid the danger of being ripped off when buying abroad. Casa Travella's property consultant Linda Travella sells property all over Italy and has this advice: "People think that by buying direct in a country they will get a better price but it simply doesn't happen. It's much better to use a representative here who will be completely on your side and act in your interests rather than acting for the vendor. One way of ensuring that you don't get a good deal is by going to the country of your choice, whether it be Italy, Spain or France, and telling everyone your business. Some buyers think this gives them an advantage but it is a surefire way of being ripped off. Not everyone is honest, and buyers can sometimes be extremely gullible."

But demand from British buyers remains high, and Simply Gascony is currently marketing a range of properties that will undoubtedly tempt many Brits. Just 10 minutes from Condom, on the Chemin de Compostela de Santiago, a house featuring a 12th-century fortified tower, 4.5 hectares of land and stunning views is on offer for €500,000 (£335,900). Another large property lying 10 minutes west of Condom that has "commanding views" of the countryside and comes with a pool, more than a hectare of land and attached outbuildings is on offer at €550,000 (£369,400). Just 10 minutes north of Lectoure in the Lomagne, a four-bedroom period property in secluded rural setting and with pool and two large separate apartments attached is for sale at €335,000 (£225,000).

Once you've found your dream house, Jamie Lowe of Simply Gascony advises that it's important to employ an English-speaking notaire to work alongside the local notaire to safeguard your interests. "This will not cost buyers a penny more, as the notaires must split the fee between themselves. Why pay more when it is already expensive buying French property?"

Emrys Williams recently bought his house through Simply Gascony and found the process "straightforward and easy". He took Lowe's advice, used an English notaire who worked alongside the seller's notaire, and completed within weeks at no extra cost and without hiring expensive lawyers or risking going it alone. "We've all heard scare stories of people who've had problems. Even people who go in with their best A-level French can't possibly understand legal terms and can easily miss something."

Jeremy Davies covers the issue of the notaire's role in his newly released book Buying Property Abroad, which contains essential advice on buying in France, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Florida. Davies agrees that buyers should always protect themselves by appointing their own English-speaking notaire: "It is vital as an absolute minimum safeguard to appoint a second notary to look after your interests. This is a common practice in France."

Bruce Faid is in the process of trying to buy a small house in the Gers region, where he hopes to retire, but admits: "It hasn't been smooth at all." After having his offer accepted, Faid initially relied on his vendor's notaire who assured him "that he was taking my interests on board as well as the seller's". Three months, and much wrangling later, Faid made an unpleasant discovery: "I realised that the notaire wasn't acting in our interests whatsoever and we very nearly came close to signing for the house but without the promised land attached." Faid now has his own notaire who is trying to untangle the mess, and he cautions others: "Definitely get your own English-speaking notaire and never sign until they say you can go ahead. It costs no more and I now wish I'd done this right from the start."

Simply Gascony: 00 33 5 62 28 02 64; www.simplygascony.com

Stacks Espana: 0871 871 4687; info@stacksrelocationspain.com

Casa Travella: 01322 660988; www.casatravella.com

Jeremy Davies' 'Buying Property Abroad', £10.99, is published by Which? Consumer Guides

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