All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

The curious incident of the notaire.....

Façade d'un notaireImage by Gnaphron via Flickr

Buying property in France, you are obliged to use the services of a notaire. It's for your own good, you are told...he is a sort of watchdog...nothing gets by him.

Now, in England, I have never used a solicitor when purchasing property....long experience of the breed in other modes of legal practice convinced me that there was no way I would trust any of them with my money, my malt or my maidservant given their propensity to idleness, incompetence and inefficiency - all in slow motion, save for the demands for payment which drop on the doormat with alarming regularity.

Thus, when buying property I would do my own searches and ask my own questions, fill out the Land Registry forms and that was, fast and accurate.

Then I moved to France, that country of liberty, equality and fraternity, where the fraternity of notaires, profiting from the lack of equality which gives them the monopoly in property transactions, take liberties with their clients' rights.

Before anyone jumps on me to tell me that their notaire is wonderful, has saved them heartache and money, let me now say that either you have come across a phenomenon of nature or you don't have much French.
There have to be good notaires....I did know one once, in fact, the man who undertook my first purchase in France. He was a phenomenon of nature and I didn't have much French, let alone any understanding of French property law.

Totally plastered at the post lunch rendez-vous, he fixed the estate agent with a well oiled eye and asked how he, the estate agent, could possibly imagine that he, the notaire, could proceed with a legal transaction when the person laying down money, me, didn't understand the proceedings.

The estate agent replied that he would translate. The notaire said that that wouldn't do. He, the estate agent, had an interest in the transaction, to wit, his commission. An interlude of argey bargey then took place, in which it was clear that the estate agent would lose, since the notaire had the obstinacy of all persons in the legal profession multiplied by the effects of having drink - in quantity - taken at lunch.

The seller made the mistake of intervening to suggest calling his nephew, who taught English at the lycee. Both men turned on him to ask how that helped as the nephew might have English, but also had an interest...the family connection with the seller. He retired to his corner, in need of the towel and bucket, while the two main combatants got on with the tussle.

The estate agent said that we were all assembled and surely we could get on with things. Suppose we put a clause in the act that he had done the translation and took responsibility?

No. He didn't have the right to take responsibility.

Did we have to have an official translator?
No. Just someone competent.

But I am competent. Ask the client. She understands my English.
Doesn't matter whether she does or not. You have an interest and are barred.

This was going to last a long time...the notaire was coming out of the euphoric post lunch stage and going into grumpy mode. He turned to me and explained in clear and accurate English the nature of the problem.

I risked an intervention.

As his English was so good, could he not explain to me as we went along?
Yes - in English - he could.

Would that do?
Yes - in English - it would, if I was agreeable.

We had a wonderful afternoon. He read the acte de vente in French, as he is obliged to do, gave me a copy to read and told me what it was about in English, together with various commentaries on the family history and circumstances of the seller, who, happily ignorant of the calumny, nodded and smiled as his name was pronounced. The estage agent, fascinated, had to have several of these details explained to him in depth - in English - and the sale process was finally completed as the dusk of a winter evening set in.

Unfortunately, this notaire was on the verge of retirement and his practice was taken over by the big firm in the nearby market town, so I lost this phenomenon of nature. It was to be some years before I had any further contact with the breed and it has been downhill all the way.

As I say, they have a monopoly of property transactions and despite what anyone tells you, they are not there to protect your interests. They are there to ensure that the state has you marked down for the future as the owner of a taxable asset - thus the obligation to use their services.

Not, mark you, that all the English know this. Or they do know this and have made improvements to the system. There is a growing market of English selling among themselves and avoiding the notaire altogether which at some point will come to the attention of the authorities. Mr. Sykes will sell to Mr. Dombey in pounds sterling and will move out. Mr. Dombey will move in. The tax authorities send the bills for the taxe d'habitation and fonciere to Mr. Sykes, who tells Mr.Dombey, who pays them. What happens when Mr. Dombey sells in his turn to Mr. Smartalek will be interesting, as at some point Mr. Smartalek will get his tax bill from Mr. Sykes via Mr. Dombey and will decide not to pay it. Mr. Sykes won't have a bank account in France any more so the taxman can't seize it or freeze it, so what happens then?

Take Mr. Sykes to court for non payment and enforce the judgement in the U.K.? What if Mr. Sykes has emigrated beyond the jurisdiction, or has just gone to ground? Send the bailiffs round to Mr. Smartalek to seize his television? Or make a forced sale of his house?
Doubtless it will all end in tears, but Mr. Sykes is happy.

No, I wouldn't touch such a business with a bargepole and neither would you, but there are people who do....and are doing. Not far from me.

Now, a notaire is supposed to protect you from all this sort of thing and you will be told that all notaires are insured, so that if they are negligent, you, the client, will be reimbursed. In your dreams. Just try finding a lawyer to represent you against a notaire.

There is a case going on at the moment brought by a couple of old ladies who sold their house at well under its actual value on the advice of an estate agency. They have sued the estate agency, who won, roughly on the grounds that they told the ladies that the house would sell at that price!

Now, when you buy a house in France, part of the acte de vente deals with sales at an undervalue - thus dealing with the under the table in cash proceedings - and part of the fee you will be charged is to contribute to the operation of the notaires' database, which enables them to contest unreasonable enquiries as to value on the part of the taxman, so you would think that the notaire might just notice a drastic undervalue, wouldn't you?
No, of course not. He is a notaire.

The old ladies then started suing the buyers, on the grounds that they haven't been paid. You might think that a notaire might just notice the absence of folding stuff, mightn't you.
No....he didn't. He is a notaire.

In the meantime, the old ladies are paying the taxe d'habitation on the property now occupied by the buyers as the appropriate tax authorities noted that the ownership was in dispute and went for the bird in the hand.

The old ladies have just lost in the regional court of appeal.

You will note two things from this cautionary tale.

The notaire, the watchdog, let the whole shemozzle go through without a bleat, let alone a growl.

Nobody is suing the notaire.

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  1. House purchase is always a hassle - too many people taking a slice. Sounds just as bad in France.

    Have a good Christmas - I have enjoyed your blog this year , and many thanks for the kind comments on mine.

  2. Mark, thank you...I enjoy your blog too! The notaire thing really annoys me...all you need is a bit of common sense and a land registry, but, of course, then no one else gets their hand in the till!

  3. well, I really doubt I will ever buy a house in France, not being crazy. But if I win the megabucks of something, I actually do have a good friend who is a notaire. And he is a kind person so my guess is he is a decent notaire too.
    And my French is improving all the time.

  4. Zuleme, there simply have to be some good ones...and if he's your friend he'll work for you anyway, not against you.
    Great about your French, too!

  5. Buying a house isn't ever easy now, is it!

    Well, thank you, for dropping by my blog! I hope we'll see more of each other now! :)

  6. I hope your notaire was worth the 11% you paid him (and the gov't). They are helpful in France because there is so much damned bureaucracy.

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

  7. Kaibee, that will be good.

    Dedene, most of what I pay when buying a house goes in the notaire isn't greedy. My point is that I could do a better job than most of them if blindfolded! Remembering that I'm out in the sticks, in the sticks of the sticks, so there aren't many high flyers around, but, even so, the cock ups I've come across myself are legion.
    Have a great time!

  8. Been a while since I've had time to bloggy popped in for a visit, and as usual you are right on the money madame!! OMG the discussions we had following the purchase of our property--le Mr is an attorney by schooling, I'm an anal-retentive read every line of every document kind of gal so we caught our notaire out on so much stuff & forced him to correct, notate, sign & date everything! He was none to pleased I can assure you, but I was going to be damned if we had to pay him all that money & he wasn't going to be liable in writing for misinforming us! I realize we'll never succeed in suing him, but it felt good to make him actually DO some work since we did everything else :) The dingdong couldn't even get my family name (not the same as le Mr b/c I kept my own) right in the documentation & he finally got it through his thick noggin that I wasn't signing (or paying) anything until he got it right, not French (as I like to say!) the end, we love our home & find out as things proceed little things we knew he got wrong...but the major things we a fantastic holiday & hopefully 2010 brings more inter-blog happiness! the M-J family :)

  9. L.R. M-J, well, you've had other things to is the renovation coming along?
    What gets my goat is the plight of immigrants buying without much idea of what is important and what is not in a compromis and acte de's not just having a translator - who doesn't have much clue either, generally - it is understanding how the system works and where the potential pitfalls lie.
    You did your homework...not many people do, and, to be fair, not many people would know how to. When you know nothing, you don't even know what you need to ask about!

    Get the dust out of your hair and have a good winter break before it all starts again next year.

    I'd love to see a progress report on your blog. Just when you get the time, you understand...

  10. Wherever you are, house purchasing is a hideous process. Bon chance.

    And have a wonderful Noel.

  11. mrwriteon, I used to enjoy it in the U.K...but then I didn't have a solicitor to get on my nerves!
    Noel is starting out well....wishing you in your turn 'un bon continuation' and looking forward to next year's posts.

  12. We were the first clients of our notaire when she relocated to our chosen town and her first English clients anywhere - she was just as nervous as us. But as you say they are really just tax collectors for the state.

    anyway have a lovely Christmas and I'm glad you find Phil's foody blog fun.

  13. French Fancy, sympathise with her...starting out is never easy.
    I have found a lot of interesting blogs through yours...thank you!
    Enjoy yourself...loos permitting...and good luck in Chartres.

  14. Very interesting observation, as relative newbies to La Belle France we have seen many changes. Fortunately we have a super Notaire, known him since our original purchase in 2001. His English language skills have improved enormously and he has even come to our house to give us his advice FOC - he is a traditional notaire and we trust him implicitly. If we move from here we will miss his advice and also his sense of humour. Incidentally I heard from a couple that recently purchased out here who used our Notaire and the estate agents (English I hasten to add!!) employed a translator for the acte de vente... Extra fees for the client that were totally unnecessary. I hate it when I hear that English out here are taking advantage of their fellow men... I do my best to put people on the right track - but what do I know??

  15. Trisha, you have a phenomenon of nature...clearly!
    As to the English preying on the English...that's been going on for nasty.
    The problem is, that by the time people get to know someone like you, they're already in the hands of the agents....the one you bought through was good, so between her and the notaire you've had a good ride through the buying a property saga. Others haven't been so lucky.
    A lot of the problem is that taking up estate agency is about all that is left to British immigrants, given the French refusal to take them on in any other job. Some people are suited to it, others not. Thus the unneccessary translation incident.

  16. We have used a gorgeous, delicious, charming notaire for a few transactions, and been delighted with the outcome. Until last year, when the cottage that we had sold next to our house changed hands for the second time. That's when we learned that the aforesaid eye-candy had managed to sell our garden to the cottagers (excuse the term), and their garden to us. Still, we're all human, even notaires. :)

  17. nodamnblog, the local chump sold a house to Americans fairly recently together with two fields that didn't belong to it. They are not the best pleased.

  18. Blimey! How do the previous and rightful field owners feel?

  19. nodamnblog, as far as they are concerned, it's not their problem...they are the owners, their signature is not on any document so it's for the Americans to sort out with the notaire.
    The lady at the cadasdtre tells me that while the notaire says it's just a question of issuing a rectification, it seems that the Americans paid the price they did in the belief that the fields were included, so they want money back.
    If they knew what the rightful owners plan to dow ith the fields, then they'd cancel the sale, if they had any sense. Another chicken concentration camp is in the offing...right in full view of their windows.
    It's going to be a real mess. But not for the rightful owners.