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Viager: The French property system that can lead to a bargain

It's an unusual type of property transaction, but the French system of 'viager' has benefits for both sellers, who are usually elderly, and for buyers who can snap up a bargain. Geneviève Mansfield explains more.

Viager: The French property system that can lead to a bargain
Photo by PHILIPPE HUGUEN / AFP

Viager is a type of real estate transaction in France, in which you buy a property, but can only move in once the vendor has died.

Though seemingly a bit morbid, it is quite popular in France, and has great potential benefits for both the buyer and the seller – as well as some pitfalls. 

In 1997, Jeanne Calment made headlines across the world for breaking records by living until the age of 122. But it was not just her impressively long lifespan that got people talking about her: she also outlived the man who bought her home. 

In 1965, at the age of 90, Calment sold her home en viager to then 47-year-old André-François Raffray. From then on, Raffray would pay her 2,500 francs a month, expecting to move in once the elderly woman inevitably passed away. But he never got the chance to live in the home he bought. He died two years before Calment, having paid over double the house’s value over a thirty year period.  

Calmet is obviously an exceptional case, but the story illustrates that buying en viager can be a gamble, despite its other benefits.

What is Viager?

A viager agreement involves an elderly person selling their property for a bouquet (down payment) which is usually discounted from its original price.

In most viager arrangements, in return for a cheaper-than-usual price, the buyer agrees to pay a monthly annuity to the seller for the rest of their life. Once the seller (credirentier) dies, the buyer (debirentier) can then take possession of the property.  

How does it work? 

There are few different types of viager agreement: 

Viager Occupé – The Occupied Lifetime Annuity

This is the typical viager scenario – the buyer benefits from a discount on the price of the property and pays a lump-sum (usually 15-30 percent of the property value) for the down-payment.

Then, the buyer will agree upon an indexed monthly rent to be paid for the remainder of the seller’s life. In this scenario, it is also the buyer must pay the property tax and insurance on the property, as well as assume responsibility for any major repairs.

Should the seller take up residence in a retirement home, the buyer will still be required to pay annuity to the seller, but they would be able to occupy or rent out the property.

Viager Sans Rente – The Without Rent Option

This scenario is almost exactly the same as the first, excluding the monthly annuity payment. The buyer simply pays a full lump sum at the beginning of the agreement, and is able to possess the property upon the death of the seller.

Le Viager Libre –  The Unoccupied Option

For this scenario, the property is likely unoccupied.

The buyer, therefore, retains the right to live in or rent out the property. Similar to the first arrangement, the buyer must pay both the initial down payment and then an indexed monthly annuity to the seller. Due to free access to the property, the buyer is also required to pay all taxes and charges associated with the property.

La Vente à Terme – The Fixed-Time Sale

Like the occupied lifetime annuity, the buyer pays the initial down payment and a monthly rent. However, the duration of the rent is fixed in advance.

Monthly payments are due until the agreed-upon date, even in the event that the seller dies. This arrangement can go along with both an unoccupied or an occupied property. If the property is occupied, the buyer gains possession after the owner’s death.

La Nue-Propriété – The Bare Property

In this scenario, the buyer still owes a down-payment, but there is also a limit on the amount of time that the buyer owes the monthly rent. The ownership of the property is also split in two: half being the buyer, half being the seller (who retains an usufruct, lifetime use rights, on the property). 

So is it a good idea?

There are advantages and drawbacks.

For the buyer, the primary benefit is that the property is reduced in price, which might be especially tempting if it is in an expensive area.

Buying en viager might be a great way to invest, particularly if you are not expecting to live in or make use of the property for an extended period of time. Additionally, notaire fees are typically reduced to only three percent. 

The obvious risk is that you don’t know how long the seller will live and are therefore unable to plan when you can move into your property.

As with all legal matters, it is crucial to understand the terms of the agreement, as well as the specific real-estate vocabulary that goes along with it.

For this reason, if you are less confident in French, it may be worth going through an English-speaking agency or notaire. You can search for “expert en viager” online, or you can check notaires.fr for English-speaking notaries

For the seller, the main benefit is being able to stay in your home, while supplementing your income.

The seller is also protected from the risk of the buyer failing to pay their monthly annuity – in the event of non-payment, the seller is able to regain his/her property due to a privilège du vendeur clause.

A key drawback for the seller is that his/her heirs will not be able to benefit should the property increase in value. 

Where can you find a viager property?

If you like the idea, there are several ways to find properties for sale in this way.

If you are looking for an English-language website, CapiFrance” has a dedicated page for Viager purchases.

There are also several French real estate websites that specialise in viager sales, like Costes Viager or Paru Vendu. Otherwise, if you go to most real estate agents’ websites, you can look up viager in their search bar to see if they have any listings.

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Plumbing Emergencies in France: Who to call and what to say

Plumbing ermergencies are common in France, so here's our guide to what to do, who to call and the phrases you will need if water starts gushing in unexpected areas.

Plumbing Emergencies in France: Who to call and what to say

How do I find a reliable plumber and avoid getting scammed?

First, try to stick with word-of-mouth if you can. Contact trusted individuals or resources, like your neighbours and friends, or foreigner-oriented Facebook groups for your area (ex. “American Expats in Paris”). This will help you find a more reliable plumber. If this is not an option for you, try “Pages Jaunes” (France’s ‘Yellow Pages’) to see reviews and plumbers (plomberie) in your area. 

Next, educate yourself on standard rates. If the situation is not an emergency, try to compare multiple plumbers to make sure the prices are in the correct range. 

Finally, always Google the name of the plumber you’ll be working with – this will help inform you as to whether anyone else has had a particularly positive (or negative) experience with them – and check that the company has a SIRET number.

This number should be on the work estimate (devis). You can also check them out online at societe.com. If you want to be extra careful you can also ask to see their carte artisan BTP (craftsman card). 

READ MORE: What is a SIRET number and why is it crucial when hiring French tradesmen?

Who is responsible for paying for work?

If you own the property, you are typically the one who is responsible for financing the plumbing expenses.

However if you’re in a shared building, you must determine the cause and location of the leak. If you cannot find the origin of the leak, you may need a plumber to come and locate it and provide you with an estimate. You can use this estimate when communicating with insurance, should the necessity arise. 

If you are a renter, the situation is a bit more complicated. Most of the time, water damage should be the landlord’s responsibility, but there are exceptions.

The landlord is obliged to carry out major repairs (ex. Natural disaster, serious plumbing issues) that are necessary for the maintenance and normal upkeep of the rented premises (as per, Article 6C of the law of July 6, 1989). The tenant, however, is expected to carry out routine maintenance, and minor repairs are also to be paid by the tenant. If the problem is the result of the tenant failing to maintain the property, then it will be the tenant’s responsibility to cover the cost of the repair.

Legally speaking, it is also the tenant’s responsibility to get the boiler serviced once a year, as well as to maintain the faucets and joints, and to avoid clogging the pipes.

READ MORE: Assurance habitation: How to get home insurance in France

If you end up in dispute with your landlord over costs, you can always reach out to ADIL, the national Housing Association which offers free legal advice for housing issues in France. 

What happens if the leak is coming from my neighbour’s property?

Both you and your neighbour should contact your respective housing insurance companies and file the ‘sinistre’ (damage) with them.

If you both agree on the facts you can file an amiable (in a friendly fashion), then matters are much more simple and you will not have to go through the back-and-forth of determining fault.

If having a friendly process is not possible, be sure to get an expert to assert where the leak is coming from and file this with your insurance company.

As always, keep evidence (lists and photographs) of the damage. Keep in mind that many insurance providers have a limited number of days after the start of the damage that you can file. Better to do it sooner than later, partially because, as with most administrative processes in France, it might take a bit of time.

Vocab

Plumbing has its own technical vocabulary so here are some words and phrases that you’re likely to need;

Hello, I have a leak in my home. I would like to request that a plumber come to give me an estimate of the damage and cost for repairs – Bonjour, j’ai une fuite chez moi. Je voudrais demander qu’un plombier vienne me donner une estimation des dégâts et du coût de la réparation. 

It is an emergency: C’est une urgence

I have no hot water: Je n’ai pas d’eau chaude

The boiler has stopped working: La chaudière ne fonctionne plus.

I cannot turn my tap off: Je ne peux pas arrêter le robinet.

The toilet is leaking: Mes toilettes fuient.

The toilet won’t flush/ is clogged: Mes toilettes sont bouchées

There is a bad smell coming from my septic tank: Il y a un mauvaise odeur provenant de ma fosse septique

I would like to get my electricity / boiler safety checked: Je souhaiterais une vérification de la sécurité de mon installation électrique / de ma chaudière

I can smell gas: Ca sent le gaz

My washing machine has broken: Ma machine a laver est cassée

Can you come immediately? Est-ce que vous pouvez venir tout de suite?

When can you come? Quand est-ce que vous pouvez venir?

How long will it take? Combien de temps cela prendra-t-il ?

How much do you charge? Quels sont vos prix? / Comment cela va-t-il coûter?

How can I pay you? Comment je peux vous payer ? 

Here are the key French vocabulary words for all things plumbing-related:

Dishwasher – Lave vaisselle

Bath – Baignoire

Shower – Douche

Kitchen Sink – Évier

Cupboard – Placard

Water meter – Compteur d’eau

The Septic Tank – La fosse septique

A leak – Une fuite

Bathroom sink – Le lavabo

The toilet – La toilette

Clogged – Bouché

To overflow – Déborder

A bad smell – Une mauvaise odeur

The flexible rotating tool used to unclog a pipe (and also the word for ferret in French) – Furet 

Water damage – Dégât des eaux

The damage – Le sinistre

And finally, do you know the French phrase Sourire du plombier? No, it’s not a cheerful plumber, it’s the phrase used in French for when a man bends down and his trouser waistband falls down, revealing either his underwear or the top of his buttocks. In Ebglish it’s builder’s bum, in French ‘plumber’s smile’.

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