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Bienvenu en France

A Guide to Parisian Apartment Hunting

Whether you plan to work or study in Paris, your apartment is central to your new French lifestyle. You may imagine yourselves sipping cafe au lait on a balcony overlooking the Seine, admiring the view of the Eiffel Tower above the rooftops. This is a nice dream, but unless you are very rich, it is not likely to become a reality. Finding a long-term apartment in Paris can be difficult and frustrating, especially if you are on a limited budget, and many renters end up in apartments that are far from their ideal.

Knowing what to expect and what potential obstacles you might face can greatly improve your chances of not only finding that dream apartment, but also making sure the experience of living there is a pleasant one.

Getting Started

The first thing you need to do is find a temporary place to stay during your apartment hunt. It usually doesn’t take more than two weeks to find a place, although you should make sure to reserve two full weekends for your search —the time when most owners prefer to show their apartments. In the meantime the easiest thing to do is stay at a budget hotel or rent a tourist apartment. Check out www.hostels.com or www.hostelworld.com for inexpensive hotels and hostels. If you want kitchen or washing facilities, renting a tourist apartment may be more practical; frequently the price is the same as staying in a hotel. Call the local tourist board or surf the Web to find something that works for you.

Where to Look

At any local news kiosk you will find a variety of papers with real estate classifieds. The best one is De Particulier a Particulier, issued every Thursday morning. Some of its ads are viewable on its website for free. Its lists include apartments as well as ads for "apartment sharing," called "collocation."

Classified websites charge a small fee to view owners’ contact information (most notable are www.colocation.com and www.seloger.com).

If your French isn’t quite up to speed, you have several options. First, pick up a copy of the FUSAC, a free bilingual magazine issued every other Wednesday, with distribution points all over the city (for distribution locations and some ads, go to www.fusac.fr). Another good place to look is at the American Church in Paris, located at 65 Quai d’Orsay (www.acparis.org). Drop by during their operating hours to check out their nifty bilingual bulletin board, which is updated daily.

Remember, good apartments rent quickly, so start calling owners the morning the classifieds come out and make appointments to see the apartments as soon as convenient for them.

What to Look For

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of a close examination of any apartment you want to rent. Here are some questions to keep in mind:

  • Is it furnished? (Putting in furniture can be expensive and difficult.)
  • Does it have direct sunlight through the windows, or is the view obstructed?
  • Does it have a washing machine, microwave, or any other appliance you cannot live without?
  • Is the heating with gas or electric? (Electricity is more expensive than gas; sometimes gas heating is included in the rent.)
  • Does it appear clean and well maintained?
  • Does the landlord have any rules or restrictions that will negatively impact your lifestyle?
  • Does the landlord seem professional, experienced, friendly?
  • Is it big enough for your needs?
  • Is it centrally located? (The general rule for Paris is that the closer to the center you go, the more expensive it will be. Apartments in the suburbs may be more reasonably priced and larger, but the neighborhood may leave much to be desired.)
  • Is it near local transport?  If you plan to work in Paris, will living there require a long commute or more than two transfers on the metro?

Be prepared to compromise if necessary. Also, if you plan to bring your significant other with you, remember that it is often much harder to find 2-bedroom apartments, and you may need more time to locate a suitable place.

Be wary of renting chambres de bonne (former maid’s quarters). These are inexpensive rooms typically located on the top floor of apartment buildings without elevators. They’re cheap for a reason.

The Contract

Once you have found a place, you will need to sit down with the owner and carefully go over the contract. If you can’t read French, find someone to help you translate. Make sure you understand what you are agreeing to, and discuss any questions you might have with the owner before signing. Questions to keep in mind are:

  • How much is the deposit? (Two months’ rent is not uncommon.)
  • Are there any additional monthly fees or taxes? Does your rent include water, gas, electricity?
  • Does the landlord agree to fix broken appliances and repair plumbing, or is it the renter’s responsibility?
  • Will the owner deduct for painting or re-carpeting after you move out?

Most importantly, make sure to complete an état des lieux, a document which lists in minute detail the condition of the apartment before you move in. A bad landlord might find any excuse to deduct from your deposit, ranging from handprints on the wall to a missing frying pan. Stains on the carpet or furniture, broken appliances, and holes in the walls (even pinholes!) should all be listed. An hour or two spent itemizing can save you weeks of frustration after you move out. It is all too easy for landlords to take advantage of foreigners who are not familiar with the system and who would have little legal recourse in a dispute.

Housing Taxes

If you are living in an apartment on January 1, you have to pay a housing tax, called the tax d’habitation. Even if you moved in on December 31, the current resident on the first of the year is responsible for the entire year’s tax. This amount varies depending upon how much rent you pay, but it can add up to several hundred nonrefundable euros going to the government each year.

My advice is simple: pay it. The tax bureau will have your permanent address in their records and will send you invoices for the tax no matter where you are. The longer you delay, the more interest you’ll pay, and they can go so far as to make you "interdit de territoire," or prohibited from ever living in France again. Don’t become one of those people that make French owners stop renting to foreigners.

Getting Back Your Deposit

Your landlord should make an appointment with you to go over the état des lieux and inspect the apartment and should make deductions based on any damage you have done during your stay. There may also be deductions for cleaning, painting, and re-carpeting. Go over the list item by item, making sure you agree to all the deductions. French people expect you to negotiate, and the key is to be firm while also remaining polite and respectful.

Even for native Parisians, finding a great apartment is a challenge. In the end you may not find an apartment bordering the Seine, but you will find a place where you can be comfortable and secure while you live out your own Parisian dream. Feel free to tell your Parisian friends about your struggles with landlords, contracts, and apartment hunting. “C’est la vie,” they’ll tell you. “Bienvenu en France.”