Buying an apartment in Paris
By Jerry Marterer
A bustling Sunday morning on rue Cler. Images provided by the author.
It is generally no more difficult for Americans to buy real estate in France than it is for the French, which is not to say that it’s easy. Each quarter has independent realtors that resemble boutiques with photos in their windows describing their listings. In recent years, large firms have begun multi-listing homes everywhere in Paris and surrounding suburbs. Their glossy catalogues tend to focus on higher-priced listings. Apartments are also listed by arrondissement and neighborhood in the online version of Le Figaro. The Friday and Saturday paper editions list open houses. Their website allows searching by neighborhood, number of rooms and selling price.
I have fond memories of helping my son, who had just completed business school in France and was working for a European bank, buy a pied-a-terre (literally, a foot on the ground) in Paris. He asked me to help him look around on weekends when I was in Europe on business. Armed with the real estate section of Le Figaro, we would pound the pavement around neighborhoods looking for open houses. It quickly became apparent that location, as in American cities, was everything.
A studio apartment in the Marais district looked great in the afternoon, but a midnight recon showed that several quiet cafés turned into noisy bars that spilled out onto the street after dark. Another place in a bohemian quarter was fine except for us having to step over a drunk sleeping in the building’s doorway. Somewhat discouraged, we sat with coffee one morning and reviewed options. I had an idea. I proposed that instead of looking for a small studio, we should go together as partners and buy a larger place the family could use. I planned to retire in the next five to ten years, and the thought of living part-time in Paris was sounding more and more attractive. He agreed enthusiastically, and we renewed our efforts.
The decision tree
Based on our previous experiences, I told my son the best criteria for a neighborhood would be to eliminate any that his mother would not want to visit. That immediately narrowed our focus. The revised scope prompted us to use a decision tree approach. We made a list of the trade-offs and features:
Low floor or high floor, elevator or no elevator? I had no desire to climb five flights of stairs in a non-elevator building, but living on the second floor meant no sunlight. We settled on elevator/high floor.
Gardienne or no gardienne? Formerly known as a concierge, a gardienne, who lives on the ground floor, keeps the stairs and hallways clean, accepts deliveries, holds mail in the owner’s absence and, in some cases, for an hourly rate, will keep the apartment clean. Easy decision: gardienne.
A newer building with modern heating and plumbing, or an older building with higher ceilings, older plumbing and character? Character won.
Move-in condition or “travaux a prévoir” (major work forseen before move-in)? We decided that for the right location and price, we wouldn’t mind some remodeling.
Other considerations included the following:
One bedroom with a living room sofa bed, or two bedrooms?
Proximity to metro station, bus stop, taxi stand.
Fresh food markets nearby where the locals do their daily shopping.
Neighborhood restaurants and cafés that don’t have menus in six languages or pictures of the food in the window.
Naturally, these trade-offs affected price and how many square meters for the money. We zeroed in on a neighborhood right away: the area around rue Cler, a market street near the Eiffel Tower and Les Invalides. This quiet, middle-class quarter had everything we wanted.
By contrast, the peace of a private courtyard.
The find and the offer
During the next few months, my son spent every weekend looking at places in the rue Cler neighborhood, emailing me details and photos. Finally, during a quick visit to Paris my wife and I made, we saw a listing in Le Figaro that looked interesting. We went to the realtor’s office and learned that the apartment was vacant. We went to see it with the realtor, first walking through a courtyard, then into a 1920’s era building. A tiny two-person elevator took us to the fifth floor. (The realtor climbed the stairs.) There were two units on each floor. The stairwells were clean and nicely carpeted. We held back our opinions as we walked through the two small bedrooms, living room, bath and galley kitchen, which for some reason the French call a “cuisine Américaine.”
The place needed everything. The kitchen was empty of appliances and cabinets. All that remained were a few pipes and some wires. The bath had an old tub and a small round toilet with a tank on the wall above and a pull chain. The walls were covered with a chalky white substance that came off on our hands. The floors were old herringbone oak. It looked pretty depressing except for the majestic view of the golden dome of Les Invalides, home of Napoleon’s tomb. In short, we loved it!
As corporate nomads, we had already relocated a dozen times and knew what cleaning, painting and kitchen and bath remodeling could do to transform a home. Our strategy was to offer the asking price, which appeared reasonable — a no-brainer, you say. However, in France, the seller can refuse it. We filled out a promesse de vente (promise of sale) — not quite a sales contract, but once accepted, it granted a 60-day option to buy the property, subject to certain conditions. The required 10 percent deposit was paid, and an eight-month mating dance ensued, which we were told was not unusual. We needed to prove who we were, where we were born and, to buy euros and make an international wire transfer, demonstrate that we were not financing terrorist activities. At various times in the sale process, either party had the option to back out. Two months into it, neither had so far.
At this point, I got a call from my son. The inspector we’d hired discovered that the owner had connected the water pipes from our unit to the floor above to install a shower in a small studio made from two maid’s rooms, known as chambresde bonne. Most of the older apartment buildings in Paris provided each unit with a small room for a maid on the top floor, usually the sixth (in France the ground floor is always zero). The rooms were big enough for a single bed and not much more. The maids shared a communal toilet and sink. Today nobody in the middle class has a live-in maids. Most of the rooms are rented out to students or used for storage. Because of the use of our plumbing, the studio could not be legally separated from the apartment below. We could either cancel the sale and get our deposit back or negotiate to have the studio included. We offered 10 percent more than the original price, and the seller accepted. The studio has now become a self-contained guest quarters for visitors.
When all the tax stamps were obtained, certificates issued and notaries paid, we finally took ownership — on paper at least. It would be another month before we could take possession and visit our new home away from home.
When we finally were in and able to assess what needed to be done, we began noticing some previously overlooked details. A gas-fired boiler in the kitchen circulated hot water through small iron radiators in each room and served as a hot water heater. There was a fireplace in the living room, but the hearth was blocked with metal doors. I found out why when we visited our storage area, called a cave, in the building’s basement. We were unable to get into it during the viewing because of a padlock and the absence of the owner, but now it was ours. The gardienne’s husband dispatched the padlock with a swing of his hammer, and we were in. The cave was stacked floor to ceiling with what appeared to be oval bricks of coal, called boulets. “Ah yes,” he said, “from the war.” He told us it had long been illegal to burn these in fireplaces, which explained the retrofitted gas boiler. Wanting to rid ourselves of this wartime hoard, I asked if could put it in the trash. No, that was illegal too. I told him that I was sure that in every city there were people who would do anything for a buck (in this case a euro). Could he find some of those people and have them get rid of the coal? Four weeks and several hundred euros later, les boulets had disappeared.
We were ready for the next project, a new kitchen and bath. We selected a neighborhood contractor who made artistic drawings of what these would look like. We picked Italian cabinets and German appliances. Europeans understand small apartments. We settled on an 18-inch-wide dishwasher and a high-tech combination microwave/grill/oven (which we are still trying to learn to operate). Our building dates to the 1920s and always seems to hold surprises after projects are started. First it was the lack of an electrical ground, then the discovery of paper-wrapped wiring that was outlawed years ago and needed to be replaced. They became “add-ons” to the project cost.
We told the contractor that we would be back in six months, giving them more than the four months needed. He emailed photos at each stage of completion and used Google Translate to explain delays. This software was not much good where details were important. One email explained in English that “The plumber is in the abyss.” Five months later, I received an email from the contractor asking which week we would arrive. Two weeks later the question was which day of the week it would be, and finally a few days before we left for Paris, what time of day would we arrive? We fully expected to find wet paint, but we soon found the purpose of the last question was to time the delivery of the large bouquet of flowers in our living room when we arrived.
Based on our experience, we have learned two rules for projects in Paris:
They may not be completed on time or on budget.
They will be completed with precision and beautiful workmanship.
After all, they are artistes!
Jerry Marterer is the author of Paris 201 — Uncommon Places in the City of Light. He and his wife, Suzanne, divide their time between Charleston and Paris; he may be reached at email@example.com.