Contract of sale in France
The process of purchasing a property in France starts with the compromis de vente.
The first step in the legal process of acquiring a French property is the compromis de vente. It not only specifies the property, the price, and the date on which contract completion is due, but may also include one or more clauses suspensives, which make it conditional on various factors. The inclusion of clauses suspensives is one reason that buyers generally sign a compromis much more quickly than they would exchange contracts in the UK or any other country, for instance - but the process then takes another two months or more to allow for all the conditions to be met.
If the conditions aren't met, then the contract is void - and you get your deposit back.
The commonest clause suspensive is the finance clause stating that the buyer will only proceed if successful in gaining finance such as a mortgage for the property. This is written into all contracts as normal, and even if you're not intending to seek finance, a notaire will probably advise you to keep it in the contract; it gives you the chance to change your mind. It's usual for the buyer to be given 45 days to obtain a mortgage offer, after which the contract will lapse - however, you could negotiate a longer period if, for instance, you're buying a property which has failed to sell once before, or which has been on the market for a while.
If you do need to withdraw from the contract, a simple letter of refusal from a single bank is sufficient proof. However, you can't finesse this - a legal case saw a buyer try to get a mortgage at a much lower rate than was specified in the contract, and the court of appeal found for the vendor; proof that you can't get a mortgage at 2% isn't proof that you can't get one at 5%.
There are a number of other standard clauses that protect the buyer. For instance, there's often a clause specifying that if the land registry search shows public utility easements which interfere with normal use of the property, the sale will not go ahead, and that if there's a debt secured on the property which is larger than the sales price, the contract will also be void.
Clauses suspensives are also useful in various other circumstances. While you are expected to have ascertained the state of the building before signing the contract - no survey is carried out as part of the proceedings - a clause suspensive is a way of addressing particular, specific issues that have been identified.
Jim decides to buy a relatively modern suburban house that needs a little refreshment - but finds it has no sewage laid on. Jim gets the vendor to agree to install a septic tank and the notaire drafts this as a condition suspensive - Jim won't have to sign the acte authentique till a SPANC-compliant tank has been plumbed in.
Mary has found a lovely big barn in the Berrichon countryside, and the price would allow her to spend money on converting it to a large open-plan living space and studio. But she'll need planning permission, so she asks if she can insert a clause suspensive; the contract will only be completed if she can get a Certificat d'Urbanisme from the mairie, allowing her permission to change the use of the building. (If the vendor doesn't agree, the notaire has told her she would be wise to walk away.) However, she's surprised to find out that she needn't get full planning permission - as long as she has the CU, she can work out the details and apply for the detailed building permit later on.
Dieter is buying an apartment in Paris which will be really lovely … once all the horrible old furniture is gone, and the piles of old newspapers are cleared out. It's bit unusual, the notaire says, but a clause suspensive could be added to make sure the vendor clears the place out before the sale goes ahead.
The more specific the language in the contract, the better. For instance, it may be wise to specify a minimum square metreage that must be allowed by the CU.
However, foreign buyers who have to sell their property abroad should note that very few vendors are willing to accept a clause making the contract conditional on their selling their existing home. Remember, a clause suspensive - other than the finance clause - is the result of a negotiation between the vendor and the buyer, so just like the price you offer for the property, it has to be acceptable to both parties.