Buying real estate in Belgium involves a notary in all steps of the legal process when signing the documents. An often forgotten but crucial step is the buyer’s offer to the seller to buy the property.
The role of the notary was explained at a recent webinar organised by the Expat Welcome Desk of the Brussels Commissioner for Europe and International Organisations, an independent body established by the Brussels Capital Government. The desk offers assistance and service to expats who come to work in Brussels. Current Commissioner is Alain Hutchinson.
The notary profession in Belgium dates back to the Napoleon era when the first notarial law was enacted. Today there are more than 1,600 notaries who every year sign more than 1 million real estate acts. The Federation of Notaries (Fednot), founded in 1891, employs around 250 people in Brussels and provides services to the notarial offices.
The overall objective of the notary institution, which is unique for Belgium, has not changed over the years. The institution aims at instilling trust between citizens in a divided country and ensuring legal certainty in their real estate transactions.
It is not easy to become a common law notary and it requires about 10 years of law studies and traineeship, said notary Katrin Roggeman, Vice-president of Fednot. The pass rate at the annual exam is only about 20 percent.
In fact, the notary is a public official empowered by the state to act as a professional legal advisor in all matters relating to real estate transactions. In addition, the notary also serves as a private advisor at key milestones in people’s lives such as testaments. The fees in real estate transactions are regulated by a Royal Decree and harmonised. Since 2012 they are subjected to VAT (see calculator).
During the whole buying process, the clients can change notary at no additional expense besides already incurred costs. Notaries deal with family law acts at a nominal cost or free, for example waiver of a deficient inheritance.
“We won’t compete on price, only the quality of service,” explained notary Frederic Helsen at the webinar. “We cannot go against the interests of the client.”
To protect clients and improve the functioning of the notary institution, there are two ombudsmen, appointed upon agreement by the National Chamber of Notaries and Fednot. They handle complaints and issue recommendations on both the individual and structural level.
The real estate market is complicated and it is preferable to ask a notary for advice from the very start of the buying process. A major and often overlooked part of the work is done even before the signing of the two sales documents (the “compromis de vente” and the final “acte de vente”).
The experts at the webinar stressed the importance of the offer. It is a binding document and once it has been accepted by the seller, it cannot be changed unilaterally. Real estate agents are using different templates for the offer and that is why the buyer should have it checked by a notary or at least ask for advice.
A good offer should not only include basic things such as a description of the real estate object and the sales price. Less obvious things such as building and planning conditions – that usually are checked later in the process – should also be included in the offer. Important are any suspensive clauses, such as bank loan conditions. Sufficient time should be given to the buyer to obtain the loan.
Time is also of the essence when determining the validity of the offer. The seller has an interest in extending the period, which gives him or her time to find another buyer, while the buyer would not like to wait too long time for a reply, not being able to find another property in the meantime.
The notaries at the webinar also addressed the staff issue at their offices. Often, when contacting a notary office for advice, the client is first communicating with an assistant or intern who may not be well-versed in real estate law. Should the notaries themselves be more involved in the buying process?
“Although I have a lot faith in my staff, I prefer to meet my clients in the beginning of the process,” replied one of them. “Sometimes when it’s not possible, it’s better to meet an experienced assistant than wait for a meeting with the notary.”