Buying in France – The Compromis de Vente

There’s one thing more frightening than signing a Compromis de Vente, and that’s signing one without your husband or children ever having seen the house. The Compromis is essentially the first of the two major contract documents in the house-buying process. Essentially once signed, the buyer has seven days to cool off and back out without having to give any reason or justification. Once the seven days have passed, the only way out is either to loose the 10% downpayment of the agreed house value, or to be able to show a refusal from the bank of a mortgage application.

I have six days to go until my neck is firmly on the line, and I have already one child who is unhappy about the idea of a bedroom with a sloping ceiling. He should perhaps consider himself fortunate. If the mortgage application does get refused, and having given the statutory 3 months notice to vacate our appartment, it could be the sloping roof of a tent and not that of a plastered ceiling that he will be looking at!


There are some major differences between the english system of house buying and that of the french. In the english one, either party can back out at any moment which also leaves the seller open to higher propositions from other buyers, and the buyer open to being gazumped. It all rests on the traditional english handshake, more often metaphorially than not.

The french system is protective to buyer and seller. The agreement on price and the committment to buy are  determined from the minute the two parties sign the Compromis de Vente. On top of this written agreement, there is always a handshake, and often rather hot and sweaty when one considers the enormity of what has just been signed! Should the seller decide to change their mind after the Compromis de Vente, they are obliged to pay the buyer twice the value of the 10% downpayment. If the house is burgled, destroyed through earthquake fallen tree or fire, the owner’s insurance is expected to pay for all repairs and the buyer has the choice to withdraw free of any loss of deposit.

It was a somewhat bizarre experience to arrive at the Notaire (solicitor) and find the seller already seated in the waiting room. But this is the french system, and both parties negotiate through the same notaire. There is no flying backwards and forwards of emails between independant solicitors, as in the UK, and none of the eventual delays caused by solicitors simply not responding to information requests. Neither is there the opportunity to start to renegotiate the price as a result of the diagnostic (survey of electrics, lead, termites,asbestos, damp  and gas issues) The diagnostic is for information only to help the buyer to be aware of any potential risks. It seemed odd to be seated around the same conference table while the notaire read through the entire contract, birth details, marriage dates, careers of the two parties, followed by the value of the loan applied for by the buyer and their persaonal savings. But since the loan application is the only valid reason for breaking the contract, the details are important and clearly have to be judged realistsic.

It was with a certain level of vulnerability that I saw my worldly wealth displayed on the overhead projector for all to see. The balance of my savings alongside the value of my mortgage application. It was only at this moment of “bearing all” to the seller that I got a view of the generation gap between modern-day France and that of my seller’s generation.

“Ouf, c’est assez important” – “Oh, that’s quite a large mortgage” stated the 87 year old Monsieur S

The notaire looked at me with some sympathy,

“C’est attendu de nos jours”  – “It’s quite normal for this day and age” he replied

“Quand même” replied Monsieur S,  “à mon jour nous avons mis un peu à coté, semaine par semaine” – “All the same, in my day we put a bit aside as we went along”

The notaire threw me another sideways look of sympathy

“C’est normal, Monsieur, N’inquiète pas” – “It’s normal, don’t worry”

but his gentle words of reassurance hit an all time low when the notaire turned to ask me when I would like to have ownership of the house. Not knowing what duration the banks took to produce a mortgage offer in France, nor what duration to expect for the administration, I suggested the typical time delay of the UK, around three months and Monsieur S nearly collapsed in his chair.

“Trois mois?” he stammered, mouth agape, “on inquiet sur le prêt, alors”.” Three months? Then you have doubts that you’ll get a mortgage, why so much time?”

“Aucun souci, Monsieur” ” No worries at all” I hastily assurred him

As I discovered, at the end of the 7 day cooling off period, the buyer has the right to 30 days to obtain a mortgage offer. And having both studied my current mortgage simulation, they both declared,

“You can do better than that”, “Il faut faire la concurrence,  Il faut les battre” “Make the banks compete against each other. Make them work for their money” and typically, as only it can happen in France, the notaire leant over with a name and a phone number,

“Tell Monsieur P that I sent you” he said handing me the name of a mortgage broker on a piece of paper.

As we were leaving Monsieur S stopped at the door,

“Si je peux reprendre le clé du jardin” ” If I can have the garden gate key back again” he said, putting out his hand for the old key he had lent me the weekend before so that my children could gather the newly fallen hazelnuts from his lawn.

I stepped out onto the street full of energy to take on the french banks, but poor Monsieur S  had a look that said he was perhaps fearing that he would wake up in a day or two and discover a family of six in a large tent in his back garden.


1. La Vie Profonde

I blame this episode in my life entirely on a proposed redundancy back in 2004 and a cheap Ryanair flight at  £1 a ticket, which coupled with a work colleague’s offer of his cottage near Pau, in the French Pyrenees, set us on a crazy quest for ‘La vie profonde’.

Having arrived at night, we awoke to that crisp cool mist of an early spring day, which clears to reveal an iridescent blue sky and the warmth of early summer. We set of towards the mountains, which lay an hour distant and lost ourselves in the small lanes of the foothills of the Pyrenees. And there we stumbled on it – a Bearnaise farmhouse, with mellow stone walls and faded blue shutters facing south across the valley with an outstanding panoramic view of the snow capped mountains. A potager lay ready for planting, and two rows of gnarled vines stood sprouting their early leaves, faithfully protected by a rose bush to forewarn of the threat of disease. Walnut and fruit trees showed the promise of a rich autumn , Arum lilies grew wild in the shady corners whilst a Magnolia shaded the paved courtyard.

 We were under it’s spell, and whilst we investigated its potential, our children ran wild in the garden and the baby sat in the sunshine patting his hand against the stone flags, himself being inspected by the owners cat. Whilst my husband haggled a price, I loaded the children into the car, and a few days later found ourselves back in the UK.

 Our English house went on the market, the Compromis de Vente was signed, the deposit paid and then we waited for our French dream to begin. The first seven years of child-raising 4 children had been challenging, and the daily commute to work tough. We were dreaming of escape, of children growing with skiing and surfing at their fingertips and being masters of our own destiny. But it wasn’t to be!

 Swiftly, we began to understand that the English housing market had suffered a serious decline, and that our house would not sell in time to meet the deadline set for the Acte de Vente. The vendor would not grant us  a stay of excecution. We either met the deadline or lost our deposit. We had to think fast and on our feet. The French agent had failed to send the 7-day cooling –off clause when he sent the original documents. To demand it now, as our legal right, meant that we recouped our deposit  – but lost the house. And so, as reality set in , the course of our lives took another swift change in direction, and the house sold to another buyer a week later.