Why France? It has been estimated that more than 150,000 Brits live permanently on the other side of the English Channel, while another 500,000 of us have holiday homes there.
The reasons aren't hard to find. Wonderful food, property that is still cheap, a slower pace of life and the sheer proximity all add up to make France one of our favourite destinations for buying.
Researchers from the Montesquieu University in Bordeaux recently touched upon another reason: they found that Britons escaping to France are driven by a nostalgia for how their own country used to be.
But while France may seem very familiar to many of us, that can be deceptive. Before taking the leap, there's a lot to find out about - everything from getting there to the practicalities of living in France.
There is no other country that has such a comprehensive network of travel connections to Britain as France. Getting to the country has never been easier, and there is a huge range of options by a combination of road, rail, air and sea.
According to the website flightmapping.com, there are 31 airports in France which have direct flights to and from Britain. Paris is clearly the hub, with flights to 24 airports in Britain. The big change in recent years, though, has been the introduction of budget flights to many smaller towns and cities across France, which have opened up whole new areas as an option for buying property. Ryanair flies to 19 locations in France at the latest count. Others with numerous flights include British Airways, easyJet, Flybe and BMI as well as Air France. Flights are often extremely cheap. The one snag, though, is that you will arrive without a car and have to hire.
For regions that are closer to Britain, such as Normandy, Brittany and the Loire, many people still find it makes sense to take the car across the Channel - which has the added advantage of being able to take a lot more with you. The ferry fleets have been rationalised in recent years in response to competition from the Channel Tunnel. But there are still more than a dozen routes operating, with sailings from Dover, Newhaven, Plymouth, Poole, Portsmouth and Weymouth. The biggest route by far is Dover-Calais, with more than 40 crossings a day in high season. The biggest operators are Brittany Ferries, P&O Ferries and SeaFrance. A full listing of crossings is on the website ferries.co.uk.
The main alternative if travelling with car is to take the Eurotunnel shuttle train, which has up to 35 crossings a day from Folkestone to Calais, with a journey time of just 35 minutes. Price-wise there's not a huge difference between the tunnel and ferry since pricing is increasingly marketing driven, though longer crossing such as Portsmouth to Brittany are more expensive.
A final - pricey - option is to take your car on the train all the way to your destination with SNCF's Motorail service. There are two routes: to Narbonne, via Brive and Toulouse; or to Nice via Avignon and St Frejus. Cars actually join the train at Calais, but it can't take tall vehicles such as people carriers.
If you're not taking the car, then the train - in the form of Eurostar followed by a connection to France's excellent TGV service - may be an option, especially if you are buying in one of the destination cities. For example, London to Marseille can take as little as seven hours, city centre to city centre.
In summer, a direct service to Avignon takes just six hours. Eurostar's direct service from St Pancras International can get you to Paris in just 2hrs 16 mins and direct trains also run to Lille, Marseille, Lyon and several other locations.
France has an excellent motorway network (and don't forget you're driving on the right). The autoroutes are in fact divided up between eight companies, and toll roads - or péages - are common. The cost can add up; in 2001 it worked out on average £7.70 per 100 miles. But when you're keen to get to your destination in a hurry, it's usually a price worth paying.
France has a comprehensive bus network, run by operators that are mainly private and regionally based. Metropolitan buses are 'autobuses', while those that travel between towns and cities are generally known as 'autocars' or simply 'les cars'. One of the main operators is Eurolines, which operates international services to 30 countries from French cities, and may prove a cheaper alternative to train or plane in some cases.
It is often said that, if you want guaranteed hot summer sunshine in France, you have to cross the Loire. It's certainly true that France has a wide range of different weather systems, reflecting its enormous size and the distance - over 1,000km - from its northernmost to southernmost extremes.
The Pas de Calais and much of Normandy has a climate little different to southern England with some rain all year round and average July temperatures around 16°C. The Côte d'Azur, by contrast, has a Mediterranean climate, with temperatures averaging in the range 17°C to 29°C in July, abundant sunshine and virtually no rain in summer.
The rest of the country fits somewhere in between. Brittany can't be depended upon for consistent good weather in summer, but it is generally warmer and sunnier than England, especially on its southern coast. The south west towards Bordeaux is not quite as warm and dry as the Mediterranean coast.
As you head eastwards inland, winters become noticeably colder as the climate becomes more influenced by the continent, particularly on higher ground such as the Massif Central. And the mountains - both Alps and Pyrenees - each have their own climate. In the Alps, summers tend to be sunny but cooler than nearby Provence. And of course, there's snow in winter, usually from December onwards. From a skier's point of view, snow in the French Alps is more reliable than in Switzerland and Austria, which provides some reassurance as far as climate change is concerned.
"Parlez-vous Anglais?" France is not the easiest country in the world to survive without speaking the language. Many French people speak excellent English, but that doesn't mean they are going to do so unless it suits them, and your pedestrian attempts at French are likely to be met with the Gallic shrug or the pout.
The campaign to defend the language of Moliere against the incursion of anglicisms such as 'le weekend' or 'le networking' also causes some citizens to bristle at speaking English. In the most touristy areas, you can get by most of the time, but if you're looking to buy in a rural backwater, you'll certainly need to speak some French unless you want to live a very solitary life.
And that's where the problems begin. The French are renowned for their regional patois and dialects, not to mention the argot (slang) of the cities. Bretons do have their own language, struggling like Welsh to survive, and there's also some Basque spoken in the Pyrenées-Atlantiques. But in most parts of France you will simply struggle to grasp what that toothless local is saying when you ask for directions.
In Provence, for example, pronunciation often has a nasal twang that takes some getting used to. If you're planning to live even part of the time in France, it is definitely worth making the effort to learn the language. You will never be able to fully appreciate the things that make France special, such as the food, unless you do so. Using franglais, the tortured synthesis of French and English, won't win you many friends on the other side of the Channel.
Key French phrases include:
- Property - La propriété
- Notary, or solicitor - Le notaire
- The sales contract - Le compromis de vente
- Planning permission - Le permis de construire
- Title deeds - Le titre de propriété
- Deposit - Un acompte
- Loan - Un emprunt
- The buyer - L'acquéreur
- The seller - Le vendeur
- An estate agent - Une agence immobilière
- An apartment - Un appartement
- A block of flats - Un immeuble
- A traditional stone house - Un bastide
- A farmhouse - Un mas/une ferme
- A large house, castle - Un châteaux
- To be restored - À restaurer
- Can be converted - À menager
The legal process
Strictly speaking, British citizens need only a passport to live and work permanently in France. The carte de séjour or resident's permit was effectively made redundant for EU citizens in 2003. However, it may be worth applying for a CDS in any case, as it acts as an identity card, and there are a number of situations such as applying for a job or banking where you may be asked to prove your identity. You should normally apply at the local Préfecture de Police and you will be required to produce documentation proving that you are resident in France.
Property ownership and the buying process
We have Napoléon Bonaparte to thank for the legal system that today determines how property is bought and sold in France. The Napoleonic Code, designed in 1804 as a rational, secular law in the wake of the Revolution, proved so successful that it was adopted by a large part of Europe over the following century.
There are significant differences between the legal systems of England and Wales (and Scotland) and that in France when it comes to buying property, not just in the process, but particularly in the area of inheritance, which mean this is an area you can't just ignore. And you need to think carefully about legal representation - it may even make sense to employ lawyers on both sides of the Channel.
The buying process in France starts, predictably, with finding a property - with the help of PrimeLocation, of course. Once you've done so and negotiated a price (remember, if the owner is French they may be expecting you as a foreigner to pay over the odds), your verbal agreement is ratified with a written compromis de vente.
This is drawn up by a notaire. The selling agent will usually nominate a notaire, who acts for both parties.However, you may wish to engage your own notaire who represents your interest, in which case the two notaires will usually agree to split the fees between them. In addition, you may wish to appoint a British solicitor to ensure that you are fully covered from every angle.
In the French process, you become committed at an earlier stage than is familiar to British buyers. The compromis is a legally binding contract that states the price you will pay, subject to a number of 'get out clauses' (clauses suspensifs). These may include, for example, your success in obtaining a mortgage or sale of your home in Britain. You can make your purchase conditional on a satisfactory survey, though surveys are not standard practice as they are in Britain.
The compromis is legally binding, subject to these conditions, and includes a date for completion, typically 60 or 90 days. However, there is a seven day cooling off period during which you can withdraw without penalty. After the seven days, you pay the deposit, 10 per cent of the total, to the notaire's account.
Between signing the compromis and completion, the notaire carries out searches on your behalf, to find out if any significant development is planned. If you are buying a property with more than one hectare of land, they consult the organisation SAFER, which is a registry of landowners throughout France, as neighbouring farmers have a pre-emptive right to buy adjoining land, which they may choose to exercise, but seldom do.
Fees and taxes
The Acte de Vente is the contract signed on completion, and it must usually be signed in the presence of the notaire, often by both parties accompanied by champagne or some small celebration. At this point, you also pay the taxes - stamp duty and communal, regional and departmental taxes add up to around seven per cent of the purchase cost - and the notaire's fee, which is fixed on a sliding scale, but is typically around one per cent.
During the conveyancing process, it is essential to address the issue of inheritance. France's highly complex succession laws give a higher degree of precedence to blood relatives; so if one partner dies, the surviving spouse does not automatically inherit, and children are entitled to a significant share of the property. This is particularly relevant for couples buying together who are not married, or where there has been a previous marriage.
The main way around this is to insert a clause tontine in the Acte de Vente (it can't be done later), which transfers the property on death to the surviving spouse. Another option is to look at buying through a company. Forming a Société Civile Immobilière means that the shares of the company which actually owns the property are treated as a 'movable' asset rather than an 'immovable' one, and can be governed by British laws if you are still domiciled in Britain. In either case, you need to obtain proper legal advice.
In 2003, France had 34m main telephone lines installed, and 41.7m mobiles in use. For Brits living in France, the standard of telephone services available is not much different to that in Britain; only the names are different. France Telecom - formerly a monopoly - retains the monopoly on providing fixed lines to the home. However, there are many other options including cable, wireless, and you can choose different suppliers to pay for your actual calls. France Telecom has an English speaking service (0800 364 775 within France).
In the mobile market, France Telecom's subsidiary Orange is also the biggest player; SFR and Bouyges Telecom are the two main competitors. There are also companies specifically targeting the ex-pat market such as 0044.co.uk, which offers Anglo-friendly services on a French Orange sim card.
Broadband access is spreading fast throughout France, though the widely dispersed geography means that not every local telephone exchange has ADSL as yet. Free, formerly Wanadoo, is one of the key providers. Others are Alice, previously Tiscali, Neuf, and Club Internet. You can use most of the same equipment in France, though you may need a new modem, and you will need to re-wire any telephone connections.
France is not short of its television stations as anyone familiar with the delights of Canal Plus or M6 will know. However, many Brits clearly like to stick with the BBC and other British programming, and it's relatively easy to do so. You basically need a satellite dish and receiver - a Sky Digibox provides the most comprehensive selection of British channels. The service is not supposed to be available outside Britain, but so long as you have a British address, there is little to stop you taking your box and viewing card to France, which will give you all of BBC, ITV, Channels 4 and 5 and a host of other viewing options.
Even if you only have an occasional holiday home in France, you will almost certainly need a bank account, if only to pay bills. Getting one is relatively straightforward even for non-residents; especially if you go to the likes of Barclays or HSBC and can present British accounts to establish your identity and credit record. The main difference between banking in France and Britain is that on the other side of the Channel, there is a more conservative attitude towards credit. Bouncing cheques is against the law and can get you blacklisted. Debit cards, known as Carte Bleue, are used more widely than credit cards, both to pay for goods and to withdraw cash from ATMs.
Anybody looking to raise the money to buy a property in France has two main options: increasing the borrowing on their main home in Britain or taking out a Euro-denominated mortgage on the property in France, from a French bank.
Until a few years ago, many people took the former option, but increasingly buyers are opting for the latter. The reasons are simple: for one thing, euro mortgages - which are based on the Euribor lending rate - carry a lower interest rate. In Britain, lenders' variable rates were at the time of writing in February 2007 at around 6.75 per cent. Euro variable rates at the same time were as low as 3.7 per cent. In practice, you can expect to pay one to two per cent less than Britain.
There are some familiar British names who lend on property in France, including the likes of Barclays and HSBC as well as UCB, which was previously Abbey National's French operation, in addition to all the big French banks. You avoid hefty currency conversion costs by buying directly in euros. And if you're planning to let your property for some of the time, it will be easier to offset your mortgage payments against your profits when they are to a bank based in France, and denominated in euros.
The main risk of taking a euro loan is that the pound could devalue against the euro, and if you're servicing the loan from earnings in sterling, the costs would go up. The costs of arranging a mortgage in France are also somewhat higher than in Britain. According to one broker, the upfront cost works out at around 1.7 per cent to 2.5 per cent of the loan, though this may be offset by lower interest rates.
French banks will generally lend lower loan to value amounts than their British counterparts. The maximum you are usually allowed to borrow is 80 per cent of the purchase price. Rather than being calculated as a multiple of your gross income, as is the case in Britain, the amount you can borrow is worked out in terms of affordability. The maximum repayment allowed is worked out as 33 per cent of the joint monthly income of applicants, after fixed outgoings have been deducted.
Traditionally, home loans in France have been repayment only, though interest-only mortgages are becoming more widely available. And the term of the mortgage has traditionally been shorter than in Britain; 15 or 20 years as opposed to 25. That is also changing, as rising prices in France have made longer mortgages a necessity for some buyers.
You can also choose from a widening range of options such as discounted, fixed or capped loans. Self-certified loans, however, are not available in France.
To apply for a mortgage, you will need to have a bank account in France, to provide the compromis de vente, and to provide the usual evidence of your earnings in the form of wage slips or accounts. A number of brokers specialise in finding mortgages for British clients; they include Conti Financial Services and French Mortgage.com.
For anyone looking to move permanently or semi-permanently to France, tax is an issue and you may need some specific advice. If you spend at least half the year in France (183 days), or your main home is there, you will be deemed resident for tax purposes. That means you pay French taxes on your worldwide assets, income and capital gains.
If non-resident, you only pay French tax on those which you incur in France. A taxation treaty between the two countries (there's a new one coming into force in 2007) ensures you don't pay tax twice. The tax year is the same as the calendar year in France, and it's up to you to make yourself known to the tax authorities.
Income tax is charged in four bands from 5.5 per cent to 40 per cent. Capital Gains Tax is levied at 26 per cent (including a 'social charge') on the taxable gain; inheritance tax is 20 per cent for assets in the estate above a stipulated figure. France also has a wealth tax, which is levied annually if your assets are worth more than a certain value. It rises from 0.55 per cent to 1.8 per cent for the wealthiest. Your non-French assets are exempt from consideration for the first five years after you become resident.
Finally, it's worth mentioning that there is a major tax break for people buying leaseback properties. These are usually new build holiday properties, often bought as an investment, where leasing the property back to a letting company entitles you to a refund of VAT at 19.6 per cent from the purchase price. The scheme is designed to encourage 'hot' rather than 'cold' beds in tourist areas, but needs to be looked into carefully before buying.
Britain has eight public holidays; France has 11. That tells you something about the fact that France is generally a more relaxed society than Britain, where the right to time off is enshrined in law. The French public holidays are not the same as those in Britain. Good Friday and Boxing Day are not holidays in France. However, VE Day (8 May), Bastille Day (14 July) and Assumption (15 August) are some of the days when you might be caught out by finding all the shops are shut.
In fact, not all of the jours de fêtes are compensated with an extra day off if they fall on Saturday or Sunday, so the difference isn't that great. But if a public holiday falls on a Thursday, it's common for everybody to take the Friday off, too, to make a four day break, a practice known as faire le pont or making the bridge.
The biggest street parties of the year celebrate the Fête Nationale on Bastille Day, which also marks the start of the school holidays and the mass exodus to the coast. Christmas, on the other hand, is celebrated on Christmas Eve, with Christmas Day to recover.
- 1 January - New Year's Day
- Moveable - Easter Sunday
- Moveable - Easter Monday
- 1 May - Labour Day
- 8 May - VE Day
- Mid May - Cannes Film Festival
- 17 May - Ascension Day
- 27-28 June - Pentecost Monday
- July - Avignon Festival
- 14 July - Bastille Day (Fete National)
- 15 August - Day of Assumption
- 1 November - All Saints' Day
- 11 November - Armistice Day
- 25 December - Christmas Day
The author, Alexander Garrett, is a freelance property writer who contributes regularly to The Observer and British Airways' Business Life.
Some information contained herein may have changed since it was first published. PrimeLocation strongly advises you to seek current legal and/or financial advise from a qualified professional.