Acquiring a French property by prescription
Please note that the information herein is of a general nature and you should not act or refrain from acting on it without professional advice on the specific facts of your case. No liability is accepted by the author or Sykes Anderson Perry Limited in respect of this article. French property law is a complex subject and the above is a basic outline only and is intended only as a general guide. Nothing herein constitutes financial advice.
French law allows you to acquire property by prescription in a similar way to English law. If you have occupied land for a certain period and satisfied certain conditions then you become the legal owner of the property even though the property was never transferred to you by a notaire’s acte. It also has French stamp duty advantages.
There are two periods to consider, 30 years and 10 years. The 30 year requirement does not require any documentation. The 10 year requirement needs a “juste titre” or just title at least 10 years old. A juste titre needs to be a document showing a payment made for the property or a gift. This could be a letter in English acknowledging receipt of a payment for the house which was subsequently never transferred using a notaire. It cannot be a document evidencing a separation or a divorce.
Example 1 – 30 years
Mrs X who has lived in France becomes ill and returns to England. Her house in France is empty. One of her local friends Mr Y then moves in on 1st January 2015 without Mrs X’s permission and pays her no rent. He takes over the utilities and maintains the house. Mrs X dies 2 years later and her executors and heirs ask Mr Y to leave. He does not and matters continue as before. Mr Y will become the legal owner of the house on 1st January 2045 which will be retroactive to 1st January 2015.
Example 2 – 30 years
As in Example 1 but Mr Y is joined in the house by Miss Z in 2020. Mr Y dies in 2025. Miss Z will become the owner of the house in 2045 because she can rely on Mr Y’s 10 year ownership from 2015 to 2025 which will be retroactive to 2015.
Example 3 – 10 years
Mr X and Miss Y (an English couple) buy a house together in France in 2010. They fall out and in 2015 Mr X pays Miss Y €100,000 for her share in the house and she agrees to have nothing further to do with the house. There is a simple English written agreement evidencing all this. Mr X never has this transfer dealt with in France. He continues to use the house and maintains it and pays all the utilities. In 2025 Mr X will own the entire house. The period is 10 years not 30 years because the English written agreement is a juste titre.
Example 4 – 10 years
As above but in 2024 Mr X decides to sell the house to Mr Z and Mr Z pays him €150,000 for the house which is evidenced in an English contract. Mr Z decides not to involve a notaire. In 2025 Mr Z becomes the legal owner which will be retroactive to 2015 as he can rely on Mr X’s 9 years of occupation.
In both the 10 and 30 year cases you must fulfil the following conditions:-
- You must have assumed responsibility for repairs and maintenance.
- You must pay the utilities and services including taxe foncière.
- You must be in good faith at the start of the period. This will not be the case if you have gained access through fraud or threats.
- You must not have paid rent.
Selling the property
Although you will be the owner when you come to sell the property you will need to prove this to the buyer. There will be no documentation to show the buyer who will be sceptical as to your ownership. You can deal with this as follows:-
Do nothing but be prepared to prove by all means your period of occupation. The buyer is likely to want a significant discount and it will be difficult for the buyer to obtain a mortgage.
Obtain an acte de notoriété acquisitive from a notaire. The cost of this will be around €2,500 if the value of the property is €200,000. You should probably obtain this in any event as soon as the time period has expired.
Obtain a French court order that you are the owner. The court papers will have to be served on the previous owner or if he/she has died the representatives of his/her estate. The costs of this will be only your French lawyer (avocat) fees.
You can then apply to the French Land Registry for your title to be registered. The costs of this will be around €1,500 if the value of the property is €200,000.
There are obvious risks in not having a notaire deal with the transfer and mortgage lenders will insist on this. However in some circumstances it is a possibility if the risks of the original owner or their estate coming forward are low and the price is discounted. There are also savings in notaire’s fees though you need to keep the court costs in mind. It will be easier to obtain a French court order if you already obtain an acte de notoriété acquisitive. In most cases you will want to come within the 10 year period and this is definitely one for expert advice.
Solicitor-Advocate and Chartered Tax Adviser