Once we officially had our French visas we put all our plans into motion. We made a packing list of the kinds of things we wanted to bring with us. We researched movers and storage places to keep our things in San Francisco while we were gone. We started to take French lessons from a tutor. We tried to estimate what our monthly costs would be and looked for hidden costs so we wouldn’t be surprised. And last but not least we started to look for a Paris apartment. (Here is my first post.)
Looking for an apartment in Paris is a dream and a nightmare. Since I knew it would probably be the only time we were going to live in Paris, I really didn’t want to skimp. I wanted it all: parquet wood floors, floor to ceiling windows with a view, a great Parisian neighborhood with a market, a nearby Metro stop. I dare you to look at Paris apartment listings without getting starry eyed. It’s impossible. There are some really amazing apartments out there. On the other side of the coin, Paris apartments can be old, have very strange layouts, are hard to find, and can be very expensive. In general if you are looking for an apartment in Paris I would look on Seloger, Sabbatical Homes, Fusac, or Craigslist. (In order of helpfulness.)
(Continue reading below for our story and all the surprise costs.)
The Paris rental market is very competitive (like a lot of cities) so you really needed to be there in person to be in the running. Second, there are apartment listings sites that market to expats and people looking for short term rentals (meaning less than a year) but they tend to have inflated costs. So if you can be there in person for a lease that lasts more than a year you can find a similar apartment for a much cheaper rate. If we had used an agent or an apartment finding service it would be a lot easier. It was also really hard to know what the neighborhood is like and what the apartment was like. Finally someone recommended that we rent a temporary apartment for the first month while we looked for a permanent place. We liked the idea of being able to see the apartment in person and being able to see the neighborhood so we decided to wait until we arrived to start looking. The scary part of that choice being you might not find a place after a month and you wouldn’t have a place to live.
Once we arrived we had four main goals: getting an apartment, getting a bank account, getting cell phones, and getting internet. We had no idea what we were up against. Since we didn’t speak French we hired Anne to help us make appointements and navigate the system. The first week we put in 10-15 calls on different apartments we found on Seloger.com and only two people called us back! There are a lot of great Paris neighborhoods but I really wanted to live in the Marais. It is beautiful and kind of artsy but I tried to be open minded about which places we looked. The first place we saw was in the 7th Arrondissement. The 7th is very fancy and old school. Kind of like NYC’s Upper East Side. Think: lots of old French ladies going to fancy hair salons. It also has a large American population. It wasa partially furnished apartment and had a small view of the Eiffel tower but the kitchen was tiny and since it was across the street from the Eiffel Tower I was paranoid it would be too touristy or too American (I wanted to have an authentic experience.) We decided not to take it and then went to the second appointment. This was in a great neighborhood in the 6th Arrondissement but the apartment was terrible. It had a very strange layout (I think the bathroom was off the kitchen) and a small pokey hallway with no view. when I saw what they were charging for that place I started to get nervous. No one was returning our calls and we only had three more weeks to find an apartment before we were homeless. Paul and I talked it over and called the real estate agent to look at the first apartment again. It had pretty much everything we wanted but wasn’t near a Metro stop. (It was a 10 minute walk.) We decided not to push our luck and we decided to take it.
Here are a few important things you should know when apartment hunting in Paris.
1. Unfurnished Parisian Apartments usually come completely empty. That includes appliances: no fridge, no oven, no washing machine, etc. At first this intimidated me and made me want to look for something furnished. But after I got there I realized the appliances are small and it is fairy inexpensive to buy something used and have it installed from people moving out of Paris. Even buying something new is less than you might think.
2. Most Apartments have a Broker Fee Attached. I arrived in Paris with a California mindset where most people don’t use brokers. I wish I had realized early on that I would end up paying the 2000 Euro fee. It would have opened up a whole world of apartments to us. There are real estate agents in every neighborhood that have listings in the window. I didn’t even consider those because I would’ve had to pay a fee. (It is definitely possible to find an apartment without a broker fee attached but I would only go that route if I had a place to stay indefinitely until the perfect place showed up.)
3. Look for American Landlords. You can circumvent a whole host of problems like French bank accounts and enormous safety deposits if you look for a landlord that is American or American-friendly. Sites like Sabbatical Homes , FUSAC, and even Craigslist can sometimes have US or US-Friendly landlords. (Note: I would check US Craigslist first, Paris Craigslist is a little more shady since it isn’t used as much.)
4. You Must have a French Bank Account OR 6-12 months rent up front. French credit works differently than the US Credit System. The big thing to get a lease is you need a French Bank Account. “No big deal”, you might say. Well to get a French Bank Account you must have a permanent address. It’s a giant catch-22. (That’s why it’s useful to have a landlord that can check your US Credit.) In our case we gave the landlord a large safety deposit (just like in the US) and on top of that 4 months rent as a safety that we wouldn’t default on rent. This large amount of money surprised us (no one had mentioned anything about it) but after we arrived I heard similar stories, some students I spoke to said they had to pay almost a year up front.
5. Get Your Documents Ready! I had no idea how many times I would use that binder I organized to apply for our visas. To rent an apartment they wanted every document imaginable including birth certificates and financial information. Make sure you have several copies of each!! (Also, this is a silly tip but seems to work. A friend mentioned that color copies are preferable because the sometimes the bureaucrats think they seem more legit–like originals.)
6. Have an Advocate. It is important to have an agent or lawyer who knows the system when you sign. At the end of our lease we had issues with our landlord and realized we weren’t protected like we thought we were. If you are dealing with large amounts of money it is best to pay extra to make sure it is protected.
Costs that Surprised Us
1. Including Safety Deposit and A Rent Guarantee we put down 6 months rent up front. (You get it back eventually.)
2. Broker Fee (about one months rent.)
3. Renter’s tax The renter who lives in the apartment on January 1st is required to pay the entire years rent taxes. Our apartment was about 800 Euros.
Other Surprises or Cultural Differences
In France the Ground Floor starts at level 0 and the next floor is level 1. So the First floor is actually the American 2nd floor and so on.
Apartments are advertised as “4 Rooms” or “3 Rooms” But that means total rooms in the apartment, not just bedrooms. You have to look specifically for how many bedrooms it has.
If you rent a furnished or partially furnished apartment you pay more in rent and more of a deposit.
The renter who lives in the apartment on January 1st is required to pay the entire years rent taxes.
Everone in Europe has a landline. It’s even required by certain places like banks. They charge you extra to make calls to cell phones.
There is no such thing as an unlimited minutes cell phone plan.
This is a lot of information to fit in, so if you are still reading this I’m impressed . Looking back I probably would have either found an apartment before we went over (even made a quick flight to see it in person) or else hired an agent to show us apartments. A lot of expats I knew had the luxury of their companies paying for an agent and that would take a lot of the stress out of the situation. Especially considering we ended up paying an agent fee anyway.