There are so many differences between buying a home in France and buying a home in the U.S. When we found the watchmaker's home, we began googling "how to buy a home in France" and found that there wasn't too much information available for potential home buyers. While we took an alternative route to buying a home abroad (I'll get into that later), we ended up learning SO much along the way that would have been incredibly helpful to know during the first initial days of the buying adventure.
This page is to help other potential home buyers in France weave their way through all of the steps that you need to know in order to begin the process of buying abroad.
Step 1, your wish list! So, you're finally ready to take the plunge into becoming a home owner in France? Everyone I have talked to who has purchased a home abroad seems to think that finally deciding to do it was the biggest step and none of the people who took the leap regret it. Actually, the only regret they all seem to consistently have is that they should have done it sooner and not worried themselves with the should I, shouldn't I thought process. So, here you are, you've decided you should! Congrats! This is where the real fun begins! It is important now to really think about what you want out of your experience moving abroad. If you aren't moving alone, sitting down together (with your partner or family) and mapping out expectations is a great place to start. You're going to need to answer a few questions before really digging into some listings.
How much can/are you willing to spend? Are you doing a cash buy? Or trying for a loan?
Where do you want to live? This one is a big one. Just like the U.S., there are regions of France that are completely different from one another. Do you want a big city? To live rurally? Do you want to live in the north or south? Again, for us, we knew we wanted to live where it was sunny, as Pittsburgh has the lowest rate of sun in the U.S. Not knowing the south at all, we opted for a road trip to see what areas interested us. The south of France is very different whether you are in the east or the west of the region. Visiting definitely helped solidify where we saw ourselves.
What role does transportation play in your decision? Will you have a car? Do you want to be close to a train station? Is being in a city that has a metro important to you? Is having airport access a must?
How many bedrooms and bathrooms would you like? In a simple google search, you can easily find old chateaux with 15+ bedrooms and, just as simply, little cottages with two bedrooms. Will guest come and visit? Will you use this as an income property? B and B?
How much renovations are you comfortable with? If you are someone who is really motivated to move abroad, but don't exactly have the means to do so, this may be the best way to do it. There are many lower-priced places available in major cities and small hamlets alike for those brave enough to take on some renovations.
New or old?? What kind of home are you drawn to? Do you like the look of new builds or modern looking homes or do you like the character and charm of older homes? Knowing this will help narrow down your search.
To give you an idea, our wishlist looked like this:
Top of our budget was $250,000
We tried the mortgage route, but it was not so easy due to Andy being freelance *more on that later*
We knew we wanted the south and not in a large city. We wanted to feel like we were having the "real" French countryside village experience.
We knew that later on in life, we wanted to buy a car, but for the time being we were going to rent a car. We also knew we wanted a town that had a well-stocked grocery store, weekly market, boulangerie and pharmacy so that we didn't have to drive to get necessities.
We are the kind of people that feel like the house picks you. So we didn't have a set number of bedrooms or bathrooms. The house had to have at least two bedrooms so that we could accommodate guests, but if it had more, that was fine too. For the bathroom, I just wanted it to be working and not need plumbing.
We bought a fixer-upper here in Pittsburgh, so it was a big wish to not have to do any major renovations in France. I wanted a move-in ready place and for our budget, that was more than possible.
We wanted a "character" home. In France, that essentially means that the home is old and has quirky details, which we love! We knew right off the bat we did not want a newly built or newly renovated home. The older, more historic, the better!
Searching: Here in the U.S., most of the general population of homes for sale can be found on Zillow or Trulia. Even if they are homes from specific agencies (like Howard Hannah or Berkshire Hathaway) , most homes can be discovered on these two sites. In France, however, there are so, so many sites listing homes, which makes it a bit daunting, especially because most of the sites have completely different inventory. The two sites we found the most helpful (and these are literally two of many, many sites) were Propriétés Le Figaro and Green Acres. These two sites made it the most easy to search for homes and gave daily e-mails with new homes that popped up that were within our requirements. We did, however, stumble upon Maison à Vaison on Rightmove.co.uk who acts as an English liaison between the French agencies and the English-speaking buyers. We've also talked to more people that I'd ever expect who purchased their home on Leboncoin.fr If you aren't familiar with the site, it is our equivalent of Craigslist.com here in the states. It is actually where I found my room for rent when I moved to France to teach English. It has EVERYTHING and is just a good over all resource. This site would best work for people who are actually in France and not shopping from abroad, as these homes are more likely than not sold by the actual seller. When you have your wish list narrowed down and really know what you want, then the next step is to start browsing using your wants and see what pops up. When we started this process, I found it really helpful to start a google doc of the homes I liked, the link to the home, the agency listing it and their contact and the region/town it was listed in. That way, we were able to keep things straight. Once you start browsing, you will quickly start to gravitate towards certain homes, making it easier to narrow down your search going forward. HELPFUL TIP: Don't get discouraged by the photos. MANY, MANY homes only had 2 or 3 blurry, nondescript photos. We were told it is so that other agents couldn't tell exactly which home was for sale and then approach the seller and poach the listing. I talk about this a little in my blog, but homes can have an infinite amount of agents/companies listing it. This sometimes makes it confusion to try to book a viewing.
Money, Money, Money: Before you fall too far down the rabbit hole of searching for your picture perfect French dream home, you should start to consider finances. Depending on your country of origin or what your residency status will be once you've moved, you may go a completely different route to financing your home. When we first started out, we were very adamant about going the mortgage route. After a lot of research, we discovered that HSBC was the one bank that people seemed to consistently keep getting loans from as Americans. HSBC is an English bank with branches in America and so we were able to actually contact a branch here in the States who was able to set us up with the right person to talk to in France. Being able to do a lot of the heavy lifting in English with someone here definitely helped expedite the process! We discovered that each region of France had a different HSBC advisor who's job it is specifically to handle all mortgage applications for that area. There is no team or department. In our case, there was one woman in charge of any and all applications coming in from home buyers for that specific region. Because of this, the process was slow going. We had started working with her in January of 2022 and had our flights booked to go view homes for June. By May, we were still waiting for paperwork to be filed and accepted or denied. Helpful Tip: START EARLY if you want to go the mortgage route. First things first, so many people get denied for a mortgage. They are incredibly hard to obtain in France. They also take a lot more time than we are accustomed to in the U.S., so don't make any appointments to see a home or book any flights until you are certain it has gone through. Andy did most of the heavy lifting when it came to the financial end of things and we ended up going a really unique route that wouldn't apply to many holiday home buyers. Because of his involvement in this part of the process, I've had him write the next section.
When buying a house in France, we learned the slow and hard way how to properly do financing, so perhaps our pitfalls can help you avoid the same oopsies we faced. We found, when researching, that there's not much public info on the right way to afford your house, and there's no perfectly straight line on how to do this! Our first attempt was to go the 'traditional' American route, and get a mortgage through a French bank. What we didn't realize was, back around 2016, the US and French banks struck a deal to make it more difficult for Americans to, in essence, hide their money in overseas expensive properties, which in turn affected everyone. So it's much more of an arduous process to get an international mortgage! Compounding that difficulty is the fact that I, as a commercial director, am a freelancer. So while I had 2+ years of tax returns for our US mortgage, this means nothing abroad. We began the process with BNP Paribas, and also tried HSBC, and after literally months of back and forth paperwork, dealing with tons of red tape, and the language barriers of banking terms we'd never faced, we stopped.
Side note - we did continue with HSBC as our bank! They make it incredibly easy for Americans to have an international bank account, that you can easily transfer money in and out of via your phone, and have plenty of English help lines for your French banking. Getting this set up for casual utility payments, and having a local banking debit card, were musts for when we arrived in France.
After failing multiple times with an international mortgage, our real estate friends in the US recommended what's called a HELOC, which admittedly I had never heard of / was nervous about. We had owned our house in Pittsburgh for a number of years, and the property value on our place had risen tens of thousands. We were considering re-assessing regardless because home values had risen + interest rates (at the time) had plummeted. So after looking into the details, it made tons of financial sense to go this route. As our realtor friends had mentioned, the banks will essentially loan you the excess value of your house, raising your monthly interest rate, but not question what you do with the excess cash in hand.
One point to address in what to NOT do, is take a second mortgage out on your house. Absolutely do not do this, in my opinion. The interest rates are a bit predatory, you're perhaps putting your primary residence in jeopardy, and for us, the cash on hand was actually lower.
So after undergoing a reassessment on our house, and getting cash on hand, we were able to draw a hard line in the sand on what we could afford, and move forward with making cash offers. There was one other matter that was a bit of a sticking point - how the heck do people convert their currency without getting hit hard on conversion rates?!? It had really bothered me for some time - imagine if you're rich af, and want to suddenly get your currency into another country at the lowest rate possible. What are those people doing?
When you google US to Euros, and the conversion calculator pops up, you're technically seeing the lowest international transaction rate possible, but no one actually gets this rate. And it changes every 60 seconds. But you want to try and get as close to this rate as possible, potentially saving you thousands! Enter a currency broker - something that's excited since the 90's, where you essentially promise to buy X amount of a currency which can be triggered once the exchange rate hits a certain low. I was so damn skeptical of this route (as we would be converting hundreds of thousands essentially), but found solace in a company called Currencies Direct. They thankfully can be reached via their Orlando office, which leads to a plethora of help in wonderful English speakers. You make an account, top up your bank account, and use them to internationally wire the money, at a super low conversion rate.
So while our journey undertook a very specific set of circumstances on how we afforded and paid for our house, I still think for Americans using a cash offer is the best way to buy an international house! And while it might cause you to enter at a lower price point, it's a super safe and solid way to afford your house in France.
(More info. coming soon! If you want to know more before info. is added, please contact me via the contact page. I'd love to help you get started!)