The Role of the Notaire in France
When I first started managing real estate transactions on the Côte d’Azur—having been focused on Paris real estate for almost a decade—I didn’t think twice about working with my Paris notary to process the transactions in the south. That didn’t work out as well as I expected because the notaries in these two parts of France don’t really see eye-to-eye or in truth, respect one another. Our Paris notaries complained that the Niçois notaries bent the law a bit too much and the Nice notaries complained that the Paris notaries were too rigid. Eventually, I threw up my hands and found a competent notary in Nice to handle the transactions in the region.
A notary, or “notaire” in French, “is a specialist of law with a mission of public authority who prepares contracts under authentic form for the account of their clients. They carriy out their functions in a liberal framework.” Those are the words of the Chambre de Notaires website and quite honestly, it’s a bad translation of the French: “Le notaire est un juriste investi d’une mission d’autorité publique qui prépare des contrats sous la forme authentique pour le compte de ses clients. Il exerce ses fonctions dans un cadre libéral.”
In practical terms for real estate, the notaire is the lawyer who processes the transaction, authenticates the title and collects the taxes on behalf of the state. I urge you to read the official description on their website, even if a bad translation to fully understand the role of the notaire. The bottom line is that no real estate transaction can take place outside of the notaire’s authority. I am often asked by our American clients buying a property from another American if the transaction can take place in U.S. dollars by a U.S. title company…and the short answer is “no.”
I have found that the notaires in the south operate very differently from the Paris notaires. What they each say about each other is largely true. The Paris notaires are “by the book.” At least the ones I work with are. The transactions take longer to process because they dot every “i” and cross every “t,” leaving nothing to question. Sometimes their attention to the letter of the law can be a bit maddening—when it delays a transaction for something that seems minor or unimportant to us—but essential to them. The welcome aspect of their attitude is that you can count on the title being as rock solid as they can make it. I have always noted that they take their culpability for the transactions very seriously.
In Paris, a real estate agent has never suggested drawing up the pre-sale agreement (“Promesse de Vente” or “Compromis de Vente”) themselves, but in Nice, it’s often done. One gets the feeling that in Nice the agents (not all, of course, but many) want to tie up a sale as quickly as possible. They are familiar with the “naïveté” of a foreign buyer purchasing a second home…doing whatever they can to get that signature on the dotted line before the buyer hesitates or finds a better property elsewhere. This is not a practice to which we subscribe, as we believe in doing the proper due diligence on behalf of our clients. The agent will just have to wait.
When I was interviewing notaires in Nice, I took an agency-prepared Compromis de Vente to a Notaire who was highly recommended to me to verify its validity. We sat in her big bourgeois office for the first time. She was immediately angry with me as she explained it was not her job to fix the work of a real estate agent and I was wasting her time. Calmly, I said, “Madame, you really must change your tone of voice.” She continued to berate me, explaining why she should have nothing to do with the contract because of her own culpability. I said it again, but more emphatically, “Madame, you really must change your tone of voice…right now, or I will leave and take all my clients with me.”
I think I must have surprised her with such a strong, yet non-confrontational response. In a split second, she took a totally different stance, lowered her voice, smiled and agreed to take on the project. We’ve worked wonderfully well ever since. I know I can depend on her to do the job just as proficiently as her Paris compatriots.
In Nice, the notaires are reputably famous for leaving the room just prior to the final signing of the deed when all parties are present—designed to allow the buyer and seller to exchange cash as part of the purchase. One can only guess the long-standing tradition of such monkey business! This is absolutely illegal, as it avoids taxes paid on that particular sum of money, but rumor has it that it’s widely done in the south. I have never been a party to this blatant form of tax evasion, never will. Our notaires have never done such a thing, but I’m sure the rumors are largely true.
In the Alpes-Maritimes Chamber of Notaires, there are currently more than 400 men and women notaires in about 150 offices. In 2019, 77,590 deeds were signed in the department. The Chamber de Notaires is a specific public utility establishment, endowed with administrative and disciplinary powers. It is made up of 25 members in the Alpes-Maritimes, elected by the general assembly of the Chamber. A Chamber member’s mandate lasts three years and the Chamber is renewed every year by thirds.
In all of France, there are 15,362 notaries, of whom 8,402 practice as partners in 4,015 companies. There are 6,458 main offices, a number which when 1,362 secondary offices should be added, total 7,820 points of contact throughout France. More than 57,000 employees, which, including notaires, takes the number of people working in offices to over 70,000. Of the total, 8,011 notaires are women (52%). The average age is 47.
Each year notaires are consulted by 20 million people. They handle €600 billion of capital and draw up more than 4 million deeds, and more than 320,000 statements of inheritance. In total, They generate a turnover of €8 billion in the following transactions:
- Real estate sales related to buildings, and leases: 50.1%
- Instruments related to loans: 10%
- Instruments related to the family inheritance: 31.9%
- Property negotiations: 2.7%
- Corporate law, consulting services, valuation, property/estate advice: 5.3%
The profession began in 1270, with King Louis IX who chose from among the members of the Notre-Dame brotherhood, sixty clerics initiated into legal matters to exercise the function of the notary. They were installed in Châtelet, a small fortified square located in front of the Pont au Change, forming the gateway to Paris.
It was in this strategic location that provincial and foreign currencies were changed into Parisian currency and that entry into the city was controlled; the taxes were paid there. The Châtelet was the seat of the Provost of Paris and the courts held their hearings there. The notaires officiated there, forming a community governed by a regulation which defined their organization and their disciplinary rules. At the start of the 14th century, Philippe le Bel established notaries in all these areas, like those of Châtelet, but the Châtelet notaires were the only ones to have jurisdiction over the entire territory of the kingdom. Then the “Châtelet notaires” gradually settled in the city and its suburbs, following the evolution of the urbanization of Paris.
News recently is that notary fees may increase next year. The Prime Minister plans to increase their tax from 4.5% to 4.7%. The tax increase is sure not to be appreciated by buyers and the notaires are worried about the impact of the measure on the real estate market, fearing a decrease in activity. But, the increase is not yet decided as the Minister of the Economy spoke out against it. According to the proponents, this money would make it possible for the departments to compensate for the drop in state grants.
There is no simple answer to calculate the fees on a transaction, but you can count on 7 to 7.5 percent of the price of the property to go toward closing costs. For a full description of the fees, mostly taxes imposed by the State, and not the profit of the notaires, visit the Notaires de France website.
From what I’ve observed, the notaires earn every centime they receive as the work is technical, difficult and riddled with responsibility. I’m glad I’m not in their shoes and can now understand why Madame wasn’t happy with me when I brought her an agency-prepared Compromis de Vente. If you are ever in that position, don’t allow it. You have the right to your own notaire for your own legal protection.
Let us help you exercise that right!
Adrian Leeds Group
(Shopping at the Open-Air Market in Nice)
P.S. A reminder – August 13th I’ll be on vacation in Corsica. This is just one of two days a year there will be no French Property Insider! But, no worries, I’ll return with information about what it’s like to vacation or live on the magnificent French island.