How to buy a home in Europe

Since I moved from the United States to Switzerland, people back home have asked whether my life is a parade of cafes, beautiful architecture and natural vistas worthy of cutaway shots on “House Hunters International.”

Even if I tell the unvarnished truth — the taxes are complicated, most stores are closed on Sundays and I sort my trash into seven (literally seven) categories — I still hear plenty of wistful sighs, followed by: I’d love to live in Europe.

I get it. Life here is great, minor inconveniences notwithstanding. And it’s easy to find yourself down a fantasy real estate rabbit hole. Just like in the United States, houses for sale in Europe are listed on websites — for instance, Seloger in France, Fotocasa in Spain and Immobiliare in Italy — sometimes with appealing prices. But the process of actually buying one can get complicated quickly. Here’s where the experts say you should start.

Getting a visa and other hurdles

The first clash between dreams and reality will come at the immigration office. Americans without an additional citizenship in a European country can only stay in the Schengen Area — a collection of countries that covers most of Europe — for 90 days in any 180-day period. Unless you’re planning to buy a home only for vacations (more on that later), you’ll need a visa.

You can qualify for a visa with a job in another country or through family ties (I married in). Some countries offer visas for skilled job seekers, remote workers who meet income requirements or major investors, though these so-called “golden visas” for real estate buyers may not be available for long.

Even though there are some commonalities and agreements between governments, “each country has different laws, each country has different ways of doing business,” says Zola Szerencses, chair of the Certified International Property Specialists advisory group within the National Association of Realtors. The type of visa, its duration and the qualifications to get it vary as you cross borders, and some countries (like Switzerland) may have restrictions on where foreign nationals without certain visas can buy homes.

What will be constant, however, are deadlines to turn in documents. Depending on the visa you’re seeking, you might need anything including birth and marriage certificates, a work contract and proof of a clean criminal record. “You have to not only just find these documents, but you have to get a new one printed from the state or the town and then have them send it off to get certified. And it’s just such a nightmare,” says Melissa Hughes, who bought an apartment in Spain in 2019. So, knowing what’s required ahead of time is key.

Find a real estate agent to help

With more Americans buying in Europe, many real estate agencies are able to offer guidance on visas, banking and other steps of the process.

“Americans are now our biggest proportion of foreign clients,” says Calum Neill, a manager with Leggett International Real Estate based in Sainte-Foy-la-Grande, France. “[Our] head office has done a lot of research and assistance in finding financial institutions who will assist with the transfer of American dollars, and eventually the possibility of having a bank loan.”

The National Association of Realtors has a database of internationally certified real estate agents listed by their location and countries of specialization. (Realtors certified to work abroad are identified by the letters CIPS.) Working with a U.S.-based agent who has expertise in your preferred country lets you “expect the same level of services and the same level of understanding,” as you’d get buying domestically, Szerencses says.

Neill’s firm has hosted webinars specifically for U.S. buyers where real estate agents, local residents and financial agents answer questions from Americans interested in moving to France (including whether life is really like “Emily in Paris”).

It’s easier than ever to view homes virtually, and many agents offer Zoom walk-throughs, but it’s advisable to visit anything you plan to buy in person (not least because you can have a vacation at the same time).

“You cannot see everything in the picture,” Neill says. And not everyone stages homes in the way American buyers are used to — so, some international listings will require more imagination to grasp their full potential. “The first house I sold on my own [in France], that’s what I did: flowers, soft music, soft lighting, some bread baking and the house sold on the first visit,” he says. “But it’s extremely rare. It’s not done here.”

Navigate the financing and closing

Once you find a place you like, the next step is usually financing (if you plan on buying in cash, you should research the property and wealth taxes in your new country … but then again, if you’re able to buy in cash you probably know how to navigate tax laws already). In certain newer developments, which Szerencses says are sometimes built specifically to cater to expats, financing is sometimes managed through the developer. Generally, though, a mortgage requires getting a broker and a bank. As in the United States, your international real estate agent can probably point you toward a mortgage broker and help set up a local bank account.

Like visa requirements, the regulations around loans and bank accounts vary from country to country. Neill says in France, monthly income is more important than total wealth for most buyers to get approved for a mortgage. “You have people who’ve left their job, sold the house and moved … and they say, ‘you know, we’ve got a bag of money,’ but that in itself is not the way the system works here,” he says.

Even if you don’t need financing, having a bank account in the country where you live will save on costly (and slow) money transfers.

When making the final purchase, lawyers and additional fees may also be required. In many countries, a notary will manage the sale, often for both parties, including overseeing the contracts and checking for liens. In France, for example, Neill says the notary fees can be about 7.5 percent of the sale price, though that includes taxes. The precise details of these fees will vary by country and agency — this is another area where an agent can offer location-specific guidance to avoid unwelcome surprises.

Just like in the United States, the spending won’t stop after you sign the paperwork. You’ll need to pay taxes in two countries. The insurance you need will vary from region to region, and there are qualifications to get into national health systems. If you plan to hire workers to maintain your home when you’re not there, check the rates because labor can be more expensive in other countries. And if you aim to rent your European home, make sure you’ll be allowed to under local regulations before you buy.

Before planning an international purchase or move, it’s worth asking a few questions of yourself, too. “Over the years, I’ve had many people passing through and saying they were thinking of buying something, and the question I always ask them is how much time do they really want to spend there,” says Catherine Severo, my wife’s cousin who had a home in France for years and was a helpful guide for my own move. “Because owning a property is like owning a property in the States; you have to make sure the bills get paid, the grass gets cut, the rooms get painted.”

The romantic vision of expat life usually doesn’t include comparison shopping for vacuums or sitting with a dictionary and list of rules for how to set out paper recycling. But it’s worth taking the time to find out whether your desire for adventure can outlast the drudgery. “Come across for three months,” Neill advises. “Live with us.”

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