Buying a Home in Europe? Here’s what it takes for Americans

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Dreaming of expat life? Here’s what it takes to buy a home in Europe
Dreaming of expat life? Here’s what it takes to buy a home in Europe

Picture relocating from the hustle and bustle of the United States to the serene landscapes of Switzerland. Friends and family back home often imagine it as a daily indulgence in quaint cafes, wandering through streets lined with stunning architecture, and soaking in breathtaking natural scenery straight out of "House Hunters International." Despite sharing the less glamorous aspects of this transition—like the intricate tax system, the quiet of Sundays with closed shops, and the meticulous sorting of trash into seven different categories—the response is invariably a mix of wistful sighs and dreams of European living.

Closed shops in Europe

It's easy to see why; life here, with its minor inconveniences, is indeed delightful. The allure of owning a piece of this paradise is strong, and yes, like in the States, Europe has its real estate listings online, with tempting offers sprawled across Seloger in France, Fotocasa in Spain, and Immobiliare in Italy. However, the journey from browsing to buying is fraught with complexities. Here's a walkthrough of what the experts suggest as a starting point.

The Visa Challenge and Other Obstacles

The initial reality check for many comes at the immigration office. For Americans not holding citizenship from a European country, the Schengen Area—a coalition covering most of Europe—welcomes them for a maximum of 90 days within any 180 days. Securing a visa is essential unless you plan to have a holiday home (more on this later).

Securing a visa is essential

Visas can be obtained through employment, familial connections (my own path to residency), specific programs aimed at skilled workers, remote employees who satisfy certain income criteria, or substantial investors. It's worth noting, though, that the "golden visas," particularly those linked to real estate investments, might be phasing out.

While some procedures and agreements are standardized across countries, "each country has its unique set of laws and business practices," according to Zola Szerencses, head of the Certified International Property Specialists advisory board within the National Association of Realtors. The visa types, their validity periods, and eligibility criteria vary from one country to another. Moreover, some nations, like Switzerland, limit property purchases by non-residents without specific visas.

A constant in this process is the ticking clock on document submission deadlines. Depending on the type of visa you're after, you might need a range of documents, including birth and marriage certificates, employment contracts, and a clean criminal record.

Documents submission deadline

"It's not just about gathering these documents; it involves obtaining updated versions, getting them certified, and navigating through what can only be described as a logistical nightmare," shares Melissa Hughes, who ventured into the Spanish real estate market in 2019. Hence, being well-prepared and knowing the requirements in advance is crucial.

Find a Real Estate Agent to Help

As the trend of Americans purchasing homes in Europe grows, numerous real estate agencies have stepped up to bridge the gap, offering comprehensive support that includes guidance on visas, banking, and navigating through the buying process.

Americans purchasing homes in Europe

"Americans now form the largest segment of our international clientele," shares Calum Neill, a seasoned manager at Leggett International Real Estate in Sainte-Foy-la-Grande, France. The company has invested significantly in research and collaboration with financial institutions, facilitating the conversion of U.S. dollars and, potentially, securing bank loans for American clients.

The National Association of Realtors provides a handy tool: a database of real estate agents certified in international transactions, known as CIPS (Certified International Property Specialists), organized by their expertise in specific countries. Engaging with an agent familiar with your destination of choice in the U.S. ensures a service level and understanding akin to domestic purchases, according to Zola Szerencses.

Neill's agency goes the extra mile, hosting webinars tailored for U.S. buyers that feature real estate professionals, locals, and financial advisors addressing queries about relocating to France, and yes, even discussing how life compares to "Emily in Paris."

With the advent of technology, virtual home tours have become common place, allowing many agents to conduct detailed walk-throughs via Zoom. However, it's still recommended to see properties in person whenever possible—not just for the reassurance it offers but also as a splendid excuse for a holiday.

conduct detailed walk-throughs via Zoom

Neill underscores the importance of in-person visits, pointing out that photos can't capture everything. "The first property I sold in France, I employed a traditional touch—flowers, ambient music, soft lighting, and the aroma of freshly baked bread. It was sold on the first viewing," he recalls. However, he admits such staging is rare in France, hinting that buyers might need to tap into their imagination to fully appreciate the potential of some listings.

The Art of Financing and Closing

Finding that dream home is just the beginning. Next up? Figuring out how to pay for it. For those not wielding a suitcase of cash (and let's face it, if you were, you'd likely be a tax law wizard by now), financing becomes the key focus. In some of the newer developments aimed at attracting expats, the developers might offer financing options directly. But typically, the journey to securing a mortgage involves partnering with a broker and finding a bank willing to take the plunge with you. Your international real estate agent can be a goldmine of information here, guiding you towards reputable mortgage brokers and even assisting in setting up a local bank account.

The Art of Financing and Closing a home

The world of loans and banking does a dance to its own tune, varying wildly from one country to the next. In France, for instance, it's your monthly income rather than your net worth that banks scrutinize when approving mortgages. Calum Neill shares insights into this, noting how some newcomers, flush with cash from selling their stateside home, find themselves at a crossroads with the French financial system, which values steady income over lump sum wealth.

And even if you're in the enviable position of buying outright, setting up a local bank account is a savvy move. It sidesteps the headaches of expensive and sluggish international transfers.

Closing the deal on your new home involves its own set of hurdles, including legal fees and possibly a notary who handles the contract details, ensuring everything is above board and lien-free. In France, for example, notary fees hover around 7.5% of the home's sale price, a figure that bundles in taxes. These costs, much like the rest of the home-buying process, differ from country to country, another area where a knowledgeable agent proves invaluable, steering you clear of any financial pitfalls.

Wrapping up

Crossing the finish line of buying a home in Europe doesn't mean the financial considerations end with the flourish of a signature. There's the reality of navigating taxes in not just one, but two countries. Insurance needs will fluctuate based on where your new home is nestled, and integrating into national health systems comes with its own set of hoops to jump through. Considering hiring local help for home maintenance during your absences? It's wise to brace for potentially higher labor costs compared to what you're accustomed to in the States. And for those dreaming of supplementing their income by renting out their European abode, a crucial step is verifying that local laws will smile on your plans.

Embarking on this journey also invites a moment of introspection. Catherine Severo, a relative and seasoned homeowner in France, always poses a thought-provoking question to prospective buyers dreaming of their European getaway: How much time do you truly envision spending there? It's a gentle reminder that the essence of property ownership transcends borders—bills wait for no one, lawns grow with abandon, and walls don't paint themselves.

European getaway

The idyllic expat life often skips over the less glamorous moments, like hunting for the best vacuum deal or deciphering recycling regulations with a dictionary in hand. Yet, it's these very details that carve out the reality of living abroad. Neill's suggestion to "Come across for three months, live with us" isn't just an invitation; it's a challenge to test if your thirst for adventure can endure the everyday grind of expat life.