July 23, 2007

Finding an apartment in Paris

Even though the consulate told us that we did not, strictly speaking, have to have a lease on our apartment before we applied for a visa, we thought it would be prudent to keep our eyes out for a place we liked. And we decided that if the right deal came along, we’d just go for it. Although we stood a certain risk (i.e., losing our deposit if we didn’t get our visas), we thought it would also make us look that much more serious about the process and thus increase our chances of success. And besides, we’d have to figure out housing sooner or later and we wanted to be able to cross it off our list as soon as we could.

We did some Google searches and found a bunch of sites that advertise Parisian apartments for rent—mostly with ads in English and thus, presumably, catering to foreigners like ourselves. Here are a few of the sites we checked regularly (just Google “Paris apartments” and you’ll find a zillion more):

With the exception of craigslist, these sorts of sites tend to offer furnished apartments, for terms ranging from a day to multiple years, that are considered vacation rentals as far as French housing laws are concerned. This is hugely important. On the one hand, when renting out an apartment on a “short-term” basis like this (even if the lease is a year long or more), the landlords have much greater security. It’s really hard to get rid of a long-term tenant you don’t want anymore, even if they’ve committed what in the U.S. would be a grave offense. Not so with vacation rentals, in which virtually all the rights remain with the landlord. On the other hand, this fact also works in the favor of people trying to rent an apartment from overseas, especially if (like us) they’re self-employed. To exaggerate just slightly, the only thing you need to do to rent one of these apartments is pick an apartment you like and show them the money. However, to rent an apartment long-term, as a resident, you have to provide detailed financial records, personal references, and more—you have to prove to the owner that you’re worthy. You also have to compete with dozens of other people trying to do the same thing. If your French isn’t great or if you don’t appear to have a stable, conventional, permanent job, your chances become that much worse. But if you succeed, the reward is lower rent and the protection of the tenant-biased housing laws.

We opted to go the short-term route initially, for several reasons. For one thing, we knew we wanted a furnished apartment. We couldn’t afford to ship any furniture to France or to buy all new furniture—and unfurnished apartments also often lack major appliances (like refrigerators), which would have been an additional expense. But money aside, we wanted the convenience of a place we could get settled in quickly without having to worry about the thousand small details that come with an unfurnished place. Second, we had only a rough idea which parts of Paris we might enjoy living in. You can only tell so much from ads on Web sites, and before we made a truly long-term commitment, we wanted to be able to explore the neighborhood (and the apartment itself) in person. So a short-term rental gave us an easier out if we weren’t happy. And finally, we only had so much time and energy. We weren’t sure we could convince a French landlord that we’d be the ideal tenants—remotely, and with our unconventional occupations. Rather than stress ourselves out over that process, likely several times over, we thought we’d save some aggravation and take the easier path.

The first step in finding an apartment is knowing what arrondissement (section of the city) you want to look in. As most maps of Paris will show you, the arrondissements form a spiral, with 1 in the center of the city (where the Louvre is). The lower numbers (1–7) are thus very central, where most of the museums and major tourist attractions are, and the higher numbers (12–20, more or less) are toward the periphery. But every arrondissement has its own character, and being right in the thick of the tourist area isn’t necessarily a benefit. The city’s excellent public transit system makes it quick and easy to get almost anywhere from almost anywhere else, so the key is to find an area with the sort of vibe you prefer and the right trade-offs between cost and convenience. We knew we didn’t want to be too far out toward the burbs, so we were focusing our search in the single-digit arrondissements.

Beyond general location, we had several other criteria, including cost (had to be well under what we were paying in San Francisco), amenities (had to have an oven, a washing machine, and an Internet connection, at least), and accessibility (no higher than the second floor, which would be the third floor in North America, without an elevator). Last but not least, the apartment had to be cat-friendly!

The number of apartments we saw online that met all those criteria was very, very small. Ultimately we chose an apartment in the 11th arrondissement, just slightly farther out than we thought was ideal, and for slightly more money than we’d hoped to pay. Other than that, it looked great—beautiful inside, all the bells and whistles we needed, on the 10th floor but with an elevator, and cats OK. After debating how long we should rent the apartment for, we eventually decided to sign a one-year lease, mainly so that we would have a nice long break before having to go through this again! We did all the paperwork either by email or by fax.

A few things we didn’t quite get when we were going into this process turned out to be important:

  • Deposits are very high. We paid the landlord two months’ rent as a deposit, plus an agency fee. When you rent an apartment through an agency, whether short-term or long-term (and in most cases, that seems to be the best way to do it), the agency takes a not insubstantial cut. In our case, that fee was 10% of the entire lease period (so, we’re talking close to a month’s rent), all paid up front.
  • Dryers are uncommon. Lots of the apartments we considered had washing machines, but very few of them had clothes dryers. The norm in France is to dry your clothes on a drying rack (or on a clothesline, if you have suitable outdoor space). A few apartments had combo, ventless washer-dryer units, but those are still relatively rare. It’s highly unusual to have a separate, stand-alone dryer. We would have preferred a dryer but since the apartment we liked had all the other items on our list, we did without.
  • Air conditioning is almost unheard of. Actually we did know this beforehand, but it’s worth repeating. There’s a 99.9% probability your Paris apartment won’t be air-conditioned. There’s also a 99.9% probability that it will get unbearably hot in your apartment for at least part of the summer. That’s just The Way Things Are. You can buy air conditioners, but they aren’t cheap, and you may then face other challenges (such as compatibility with building wiring, finding a way to mount or vent them, etc.). Just saying.
  • All sorts of random fees come up. Depending on the length of your lease and what sorts of concessions the landlord is willing to make, you may have to pay things like the annual TV tax (€75) and the annual occupancy tax (rate varies). You’re also required, by law, to have renter’s insurance. We paid about €290 for a basic one-year policy—all up front, natch. (Our apartment rental agency hooked us up with an insurance agent, but it’s not impossible to find the necessary insurance online.) On the other hand, utilities (including high-speed Internet service) are way, way cheaper here than in San Francisco—we’re talking about one-tenth the price. So that’s quite nice!
  • It really does help to have an apartment before you get your visa. Here’s the thing. The consulate might have given us visas without seeing a lease (provided we had other documentation to show where we were looking), but they definitely required paperwork proving we had health insurance. And, the insurance company said we couldn’t get a health insurance policy without an address in France. (Well, there might have been some clever way around that, if push had come to shove, but that’s what they said.) And, having a signed lease (in French, of course) certainly made it much simpler to get a visa as well as to get a French bank account (the subject of a future post) and do several other tasks. So if you’re wondering whether you should look for housing before or after applying for a visa, our advice is to do it before.

Although we’d seen lots of pictures of our apartment before we got here, and also checked out the area on Google Earth and Google Maps, we still had little concept of what our neighborhood would actually be like when we were walking down the street. Well, what can I say, we lucked out. It’s not the trendiest part of town but it seems perfectly safe. Kids play outside, and within about a one-block radius we have two large supermarkets (plus a few smaller markets), several excellent bakeries and pastry shops, butchers, cafés, newsstands, a post office, a couple of hardware stores, several clothing stores…the list goes on and on. In short, it’s absolutely no problem for us to do virtually all our shopping and other errands on foot in our immediate neighborhood. And, we’re about two blocks from the nearest Métro station, so we feel like it’s extremely easy for us to get around. We like the folks in this neighborhood, too—we’ve found them to be friendly and helpful, even with our so-so French. In fact, we especially appreciate the fact that they don’t tend to switch right into English, as many merchants and waitstaff in the touristy areas do, because we need all the French practice we can get.

6 Responses to “Finding an apartment in Paris”

  1. Betty-Ann said:

    I am a transplant New Yorker who just moved to Paris for work I found this particular posted about housing particularly interesting. I was just wondering what site you found the most helpful in your search and which yielded the apartment you took. Thanks

  2. Joe Kissell said:

    I’m not sure whether it was the most helpful site (it depends on what you’re looking for), but the one that ultimately got us our apartment was Paris Attitude.

  3. Paris apartments said:

    Hello You also have http://www.rentapart.com/ for furnished apartments

    Regards, Robin

  4. CatePerson said:

    My partner and I are planning to move to Paris, and your article helped me confirm and reject some of the assumptions I was making about renting a place.


  5. Pauline said:

    Just a little update: the law’s changed concerning furnished apartment rentals. If it is your primary residence, the notice became 1 year if your landlord wants you to leave, not 3 months.