Estate agents bypassed as French property prices rise

Three readers share their experiences and tips for buying directly from the seller

Estate agent commission is usually around 5% and often included in the sale price
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Buying a home without using an estate agent might seem daunting, but it can be an attractive option when house-hunting in France.

Properties (excluding new builds) were 7.3% more expensive in the first quarter of this year compared to the same period in 2021, according to national statistics agency Insee.

Cutting out the middleman could help to save money.

5% commission

Laetitia Caron, managing director of direct property sales site Particulier à Particulier, said up to 40% of house sales in France are completed without an intermediary.

The main motivation is usually to avoid estate agent commission – an average 5%.

Read more: French property: Fixed-price estate agent could save clients €16,000

The commission is often included in the sale price, and agencies sometimes ask vendors to list their properties at the same price. Unless the vendor signs an exclusive mandate with an agent, they are free to advertise the property themselves at the same time.

“In general, owners list a lower price than an agency’s,” Ms Caron said.

“It can also be useful to have direct contact with the seller to obtain objective information. They will be familiar with any work that has been done and the characteristics of the property.”

Notaire role

While buyers might feel better protected against unwelcome surprises by using an agent, this is not always justified, Ms Caron said.

“The notaire has a very important role. From the signing of the compromis de vente (pre-contract), they gather all the important documents, like the statutory surveys related to the building. Buyers know they do not need an additional intermediary.”

She added that a vendor cannot easily back out of a sale once they have accepted an offer in writing.

Of course, most buyers do not have the specialist knowledge to evaluate potential issues with a property, but neither do agents, Ms Caron said.

“If it is an old house that needs to be renovated, it can be useful to bring along an architect or other professional, whether you are using an agency or not. They will have knowledge few agents possess.”

Whether or not you use an estate agent, do not forget the frais de notaire – around 8% of the purchase price for an older property, or 2% or 3% for a new-build.

The notaire will only retain a small percentage of these fees as they are mostly composed of taxes.

Agency advantages

Eric Allouche, executive director of the ERA real estate network, said agents provide an additional level of security.

“Professionals in France have an obligation de conseil. They must be familiar with the property, and draw the buyer’s attention to its faults,” he said.

If an agent is found guilty of not informing the buyer of a major issue, the agent’s insurance will cover repairs.

Agencies also provide access to a greater number of properties, many of which are sold without ever being advertised, Mr Allouche added.

While they do charge a commission, they can also facilitate negotiations and ensure prices are kept reasonable.

“An agency that has done its job will make an estimation, and try to reason with the owner to ask for a price which is not too high. It is not easy for a foreigner to know a fair price, and you can be ripped off.”

‘Wife had some knowledge of the French housing system’

Simon Martin already had an advantage when he and his wife moved to Gironde from the UK in 2016.

“My wife, who is part-French, had worked as a letting agent in France and so had some knowledge of the French housing system,” he said.

The couple visited several properties with estate agents without being taken with any of them. However, they struck lucky when they met someone who knew of a homeowner who was being forced to sell because of bankruptcy.

Six years on, they have had no major problems, except for the heat pump failing three months after the expiry of its five-year guarantee.

“The previous owner was not much into gardening or bricolage, but otherwise things have been okay,” said Mr Martin.

“My only tip would be to make sure you get a good notaire, and that you can speak the same language. We had been dealing with a notaire for various things and felt we had a good one we could trust and who would spot any wrongdoing by the seller.”

Agents who have since come to the house to try to drum up business are “not impressed” when they learn the couple did not buy through an estate agent, which Mr Martin said he can understand.

“If everyone did that, they would be out of business.”

‘We knew the area, the system and the notaire’

Reader's house in Bergerac
The Sharpes saved 6% buying their house without an agent; Photo: Charlie Sharpe

When taking the leap and buying property without the help of an agency, it can help to have local insight.

Charlie Sharpe and wife Heather bought a house in Bergerac in 1996. They later sold that property and moved to a different part of France, but in 2020 decided to return to the area and found a house on classifieds website Leboncoin.

“We had just sold our house and had been through all the hoops,” Mr Sharpe said.

“We contacted the notaire who had sold our previous house in Bergerac. So we knew the area, the system, and the notaire. Everything fell into place.”

Mr Sharpe estimated they saved 6% by dealing with the owners directly.

“They also had adverts with several estate agents so we could see the prices,” he said.

“Their fees were around €20,000.”

He did, however, admit that the path they decided to take might not be for everyone.

“We bought a fairly modern place. If buying an older place, or if you don’t know the area, or if it is your first time buying in France, it is probably better to use an intermediary who knows the system.”

‘I found my home via a dating website’

Reader's house in Haute-Loire
Paul Gregory paid €70,000 for his house in Haute-Loire; Photo: Paul Gregory

Paul Gregory paid €70,000 directly to the seller for a house in Haute-Loire in 2016 and said it was “about the best thing I have ever done”.

Mr Gregory, 70, is British but lived in Germany for several decades before deciding to move to France. He came across the seller on a dating website.

“I thought I might establish a relationship with a lady which would involve me moving to France,” he said.

“I happened upon a woman a few years older than me who had a house for sale. She read between the lines and realised I wanted to buy a house.”

After being invited to spend a couple of weeks at the property, which had belonged to the owner’s late mother, the retired translator agreed to buy it.

While the story does not end in love, there were advantages to dealing directly with the owner.

“She gave me a list of tradespeople who could be trusted, and introduced me to someone in the village who did some work at the house before I arrived, and a lot after I moved in.

“I would otherwise never have known about this person who became very valuable to me.”

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