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House Sellers’ Guide to French Property:

More and more Brits who bought their ‘dream home’ in France are now selling up. It is not that rural France has lost its unique charm. Last year, for example, it was the world’s top destination, with over 77 million visitors. However, with increasing numbers of UK homeowners on Gallic soil, it is logical that an increasing percentage of properties for sale have British owners: people downsizing, relocating within France, moving on to a new adventure in another country, or returning to the British Isles. Just as house-hunters in France often need a ‘rough guide’, so too do sellers. It is not unheard of for a property to remain on the market for five years, so if you really want your Poitou Charentes farmhouse or Limousin cottage to sell quickly, you’ve got to do your homework.

This should have begun, ironically, even before you bought. In the UK, with the existence of a fairly well-defined property ladder, many people think ahead to their next move. Unfortunately, as soon as they cross the Channel, all too often common sense is left behind at the ferry terminal or regional airport. Of course the decision to buy in France is wonderfully irrational and, hopefully, the result of a ‘coup de coeur’, but rationalise the decision at the same time. If you buy somewhere which has been on the market for several years, it may well take just as long for you to shift, if and when you need to sell up. If poor presentation or condition was the main problem, fair enough; you can change that. If location was the sticking point, beware. Barns are particularly hard to re-sell: if you bought one because it offered a blank canvas, remember that it won’t offer those ‘endless possibilities’ to the next owner.

The most popular reasons people give me for selling are: financial problems (often connected to disastrous renovation projects or inability to find work); family complications back in the UK; failure to integrate (almost always linked to language difficulties); and, finally, what I call the ‘super size me’ syndrome. It is all too easy to be tempted by cathedral-size barns or hectares of land, but what are you going to do with them, and will anyone else want them afterwards. ‘Less is more’ often makes sense in France.

Hindsight (or, in my case, insight as a property agent), is all very well, of course. If the harsh reality is that you now want or need to sell your French property, how should you go about it? What are the common mistakes which lead to houses rotting – quite literally, sometimes – on the market? You need to ask two basic questions: ‘How?’ and ‘For how much?’.

HOW: Estate agents are a relatively new phenomenon in France. Approximately 50% of French people still try to sell privately, although the number is dropping every year. You will often see fairly crude ‘à vendre’ signs nailed to houses or gates. People also use local newspapers or shop windows to advertise property. British owners in France tend to rely on the internet to sell privately. The goal is obviously to avoid paying agency fees which in France are much higher. (In mitigation, the agency draws up the initial legal contracts, and offers a wider service than its UK equivalent). The drawbacks, though, arguably outweigh the financial benefits. Are you going to stay in the house all day, every day? It’s sod’s law that a potential buyer will ring up for further information or an appointment while you are at the weekly market or enjoying a long lunch at a local restaurant. Will they ring back? Maybe, but probably not. You run the risk of over-selling (or under-selling) your property during a visit. Who will pay for those breakages when Mr and Mrs Smith’s ‘delightful’ children rampage around the house? If you choose to use agencies, it is no cheaper to stick with one. However, having five different agency signs on the property looks really tacky and smacks of desperation. Also, with the high cost of effective publicity and advertising, why should any one agency ‘invest’ in your house when another might sell it tomorrow? Invite a number of agencies around, listen to their advice and choose one for the initial three months, trusting your ‘gut instinct’. A competent agency will contact clients who have requested a similar type of property to yours and countrywide ones will use their intranet to receive/send ‘recommendations’ from buyers looking to relocate from other regions of the country. Some also now have links or, even better, offices back in the UK. If you, personally, have renovated the property it will probably attract a fellow Brit, searching for a franglais style home. Research suggests that only 2% of people buy the property they initially enquired about, so an intuitive agent could be invaluable.

HOW MUCH FOR: An agent, when valuing your home, should offer you an ‘analyse comparative du marché’, comparing your property both to similar ones which have sold recently and others stuck on the market because they are for sale above the current market value. There are two schools of thought: some owners and agents prefer to market the property above its value, leaving plenty of room for negotiation. I prefer to negotiate with the owners beforehand, then market it at a sensible, realistic price. There are two big advantages to the latter approach: most UK-based house-hunters like and respect the fact that the price is transparent and that there is no need for UK-type bartering (i.e. the price you see is the price you pay); the other advantage is that buyers nowadays are prudent and if their budget is 200,000€ then they tend to stop looking through the brochures/website at that ceiling price. If your property has been launched – more in hope than expectation – at 220,000€ then you will simply miss out each time. Bear in mind that the first three months are vital. People are excited by properties new to the market. After that period, they will expect to get an ever-increasing scale of reduction on their purchase. ‘How long has it been for sale?’ is the most frequently asked question I receive from clients.

There are three main reasons why properties remain on the market: the three ‘p’s: presentation, promotion and price. Most houses sell (or fail to sell) themselves in the first thirty seconds of a visit. Those first impressions must be good. If you want people to see the potential of your large outbuilding, empty it of all those cardboard boxes and rubbish. In fairness, many British sellers, weaned on a diet of ‘house-doctor’ TV programmes, are quite good at presenting their homes. Unless you really are practical, avoid DIY; you will increase the value by using artisans who understand the local materials. If you have not chosen to go it alone, promotion is down to the agencies and – so long as they believe in your product – they will work hard for you; after all, their salary is mainly (or exclusively) based on commission. However, it is usually the price which is the sticking point. Agency valuations often vary wildly. Never trust an agent who offers you a figure well above all the other valuations. He is probably tempting you into going exclusively with him and – when one bears in mind that most buyers are either ‘just looking’ or are experienced – i.e. they know the market value – you are unlikely to get a sale. My last piece of advice is to ‘evict’ yourself during the visit. Agents know that ‘silence is golden’, that owners offering commentaries (or even just following along) during the tour put most buyers off. If there are any questions for you then these can be raised on the second visit. If nothing else, those initial visits will give you the opportunity to wander off to tend that long abandoned vegetable plot.

Papillon Properties Home

Rodney Marshall
May 2006



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