Buying rural property in France: Get to know the ‘Safer’ rules

Property on rural farming land may be more difficult to buy or sell than you bargain for

Rural property in farming areas in France may be subject to Safer control

Buying a house in rural France can sound like a dream to many but the reality can be quite different, with a number of points to watch out for that could delay or frustrate the process.

The biggest sticking point for properties on or near farming land can be the workings of ‘Safer (Société d’aménagement foncier et d’établissement rural, SAFER or Safer)’.

What is ‘the Safer’?

These not-for-profit bodies (referred to as ‘la Safer’ in French) were created in the 1960s, under the control of the Agriculture Ministry, in a bid to regulate the farming land market. 

They have priority when it comes to buying farming property in rural areas, whether the farm is still working or not. You may come into contact with them when buying or selling rural property, whether to farm, make wine, or renovate buildings that were previously part of a farm, or on farming land.

The notaire working on the sale must notify the local Safer of the sale. It then has two months to decide whether it wants to purchase the property or land.

Read also: Explainer: Role of notaire in France and what to do if not happy

Why does the Safer buy or monitor land?

It may decide to buy the property if it is a sensitive farming area, perhaps because the area has a shortage of farmers, a local farm needs to expand, or if it is in a water catchment area.

The Safer was set up to ensure farming land is protected, and is equally shared to the benefit of the local community and country as a whole.

Safer spokeswoman, Fabienne Marion, told The Connexion that this prevents - for example - if “a rich Californian wants to buy a vineyard at 10 times the market price, pushing up the prices of agricultural land in the area and make it unaffordable to local farmers…or if a billionaire decides they want to buy the whole wine production of the Languedoc...".

If necessary, the Safer can ‘pre-empt’ the sale, and set the price for the land, regardless of the price initially negotiated by the seller. Interested buyers must then submit an application of interest to the Safer, and it has the power to choose the eventual buyer from these applications. 

This may increase the competition for a rural, farming property.

“There is so much pressure on farmland that, in some regions such as Normandy or Hauts-de-France, a 10-hectare farm may receive 10 to 20 applications, or even up to 40,” said Nicolas Agresti, director of research at the Fédération nationale des Safer, to Le Figaro.

For sellers, benefits include guaranteed payment in an agreed timeframe and knowing their property will be sold to someone with plans that benefit the local area.

Ms Marion said: "Safer has a very fine knowledge of the terrain that estate agencies don't usually have - knowing who is about to retire, who wants to buy, who is looking to sell up."

Do I have to wait two months for a Safer decision?

This two-month delay can be shortened if the seller or buyer requests it, and pays a fee, usually around €150, to reduce the delay to a few weeks, and expedite the decision.

However, this is not a guarantee, as the Safer can still take two months to examine the file if they need to (for example, if it is a complicated case). In this case, it will refund the fee paid. 

Read also: PHOTO: The French chateau for sale for… €425 million 

What else can the Safer do?

The Safer can also offer the buyer support.

For example, it may send the would-be buyers experts in the property or land type, to help them understand the property and its possible upkeep needs. It can also help you deal with the transaction transfer process.

Buying through the Safer usually involves fees of about 6-12%, but there may be a tax benefit, as you are exempted from land registration fees (usually 4-8%) if you promise to maintain agricultural use. 

The Safer may still have certain conditions when it comes to the property, even after you buy it. 

For example, it can specify that you cannot sell the land or buildings within a certain time frame, and can still reserve the right to repurchase the land and buildings in future if it believes that you are not taking care of them properly.

Read also: 13 things you can do through a French notaire apart from buy a house 

This may not deter the most determined buyers but it could offer pause for some. Your notaire will be able to advise you on the specifics of your case, and put you in touch with your local Safer to determine any possible road bumps in the process or requirements ahead of the sale.