Paris is affordable, too, you know.
Twenty-seven years ago, when our children were four and seven, we bought a fully-restored Périgordine fermette in the beautiful Dordogne valley near Sarlat, an historic medieval town known throughout the world for its glorious architecture and rich cultural brew. We spent all our childrens’ school holidays there, winter, spring and summer. It was idyllic.
We still have that house – but children grow up fast. Both eventually went to British universities to read French. But when our daughter, Louise, decided to work in Paris during her third year out, our son, Gareth, decided that he, too, would like to spend a gap year working in Paris at the same time. So, one day they came to us with the idea of working and living together in Paris, sharing a rented apartment.
So, I did a bit of market research so to speak, only to discover, frankly to my astonishment, that Paris itself, (“Paris même”) was, thirteen years ago, amazingly cheap to buy in compared with London and other world cities.
So, Sue, my wife and I began paying weekend visits on the Eurostar to the city, initially to research the areas and the “arrondissements” that might be potential candidates for purchase. We figured out that, even if we made a “boo boo” we could sell at the end of the year, so not too much would be lost.
We must have gone for four or five week-ends, never looking at specific apartments, merely at the suitability of certain streets, even, within potentially suitable “quartiers”. Remember that we had a 21 year old daughter as well as a seventeen year old son, so good, safe streets with plenty of “commerçants” selling a bit of this and that, were what we wanted for them.
It was a process of elimination, really: some arrondissements (5th, 6th, 7th and 16th, for example) were way beyond our modest budget; and others were simply not judged safe enough (10th, 13th, 18th, 19th and 20th, for example). So we were left to search across the others.
By walking the streets we eventually drew up a short-list: 11th, 12th, 14th and 15th in particular.
Then we hired a search agent, a French-speaking Brit living in Paris who, at the time, took search briefs from people like us too busy (and naïve!) to do the job for themselves. For what we regarded as a very sensible commission, he would search and then draw up a short-list of about 8-10 candidate apartments for us to view over what turned out to be a long week-end. Of the ones we saw, one in particular in the 11th arrondissement, struck us as about as good as it could get. So there and then, that weekend, we put in an offer below the asking price which to our delight, was accepted.
Three months later we were now the proud, if poor, owners of a light, bright and quite spacious “trois-pièces” on the Rue du Faubourg Saint Antoine, close-ish to Bastille, with five metro lines and the R.E.R within a five minute walk from our address. Moreover, the street had everything our children would need – shops, restaurants, and much more.
The apartment needed work done to update it and restore it to its former glories, but our search agent, Sean, knew just the right man. When Louise arrived in the April, it was ready to occupy. When Gareth arrived in September, it was now fully equipped.
That year passed in a flash, but Gareth was back again three years later because he, too, was now on his year out, working as an “assistant” around the corner at a “lycée”. In the meantime, we had fallen in love, both with the flat and with the city – and the idea of selling was infinitely worse than pulling teeth. We were now spending as much time there as possible, often with English friends whom we would invite to stay for a weekend or more. We still loved the Dordogne, of course, but it is a bit of a “schlepp” (“un bout” in French!): Paris is so much closer and, well… frankly much more exciting!
But now we were getting to know the locals, particularly some of our “co-propriétaires” living in the same building – and others we would meet and get to know on our trips out and about the city. Quite honestly, we were beginning to feel a little bit Parisian, so friendly were our neighbours and others we met. Do no accept for one moment the British stereotype of Parisians. Contrary to their image, they are warm and welcoming. We were quickly made to feel at home in their stunning city.
But here I have to enter a crucial caveat. We both spoke French. All those years in the Dordogne had taught us that if you want to integrate and become part of your local French community, you have to learn French. They will not learn English, that’s for sure! Brits who fail the language test are viewed suspiciously by the natives, however charming they may appear to be on the surface. The odd “bonjour” and “comment ça va?” does not cut their mustard, I can tell you. No, you have to make more of an effort than that. You do not need fluent French; but you do need to appear to be trying to get to grips with their devilish language. Once that is evident, they take you to their bosoms; in the countryside and in Paris. (For further guidance on this issue, please see my latest book, details of which appear at the foot of this article).
One further thought. Although we only ever bought our apartment in Paris for our family and our own personal needs, never ever seeing it as an investment opportunity, it has turned out to be just that – and in spades! Its value has increased over four-fold, yes, four-fold! – over the last thirteen years – it represents a better investment in fact than almost anything in London, even.
Which leads me to the reason for this article. If you are planning to buy an old pile in the country somewhere, why not buy an old pile in Paris! Yes, I know prices are much higher now than they were thirteen years ago: and Paris is, yes, on average, much more expensive than Périgeux, say. Nonetheless, property bargains still abound in Paris. You have just got to know where to look (and what to look for, incidentally).
So, what should you be looking for; and where should you look?
First, understand that Paris is still full of small apartments for sale. Most of those beautiful buildings have been broken up into much smaller units: one and two bedroom flats are a-plenty. Conversely, good three bedroom flats (or bigger) are not quite so easy to find and are disproportionately expensive.
Also understand that all flats are sold on a m2 basis, not on room numbers per se. Often, rooms are spacious with high-ish ceilings and consequently offer flexible accommodation. So, start small and gradually work your way up.
So where should you be looking? Well, those expensive arrondissements are now even more expensive than ever; and others that were inexpensive when we were looking are now no longer cheap (the average price per m2 in the 11th is currently €10,000 for example). But as in London and other British cities, the “ripple-out” effect is transforming hitherto unfashionable and unattractive parts of the city. So, start looking in the 10th, 12th, 14th, 19th and 20th arrondissements. You will be amazed by prices here in particular.
But average prices are misleading; there are as many properties cheaper than the average as there are properties more expensive than the average (otherwise you would not have an average!) And within an arrondissement, you will find parts that are cheaper than the arrondissement average, also. Then there are individual streets that are cheaper than the street average. And there are flat averages that are cheaper than all those that make up the street average. Think like this and you will soon see that there must be bargains to be had! It is a case of winkling them out, that is all. That is where your research comes in. You do have to give the shoe-leather a bit of a work out!
But you can do lots of desk research before you book that first Eurostar ticket. Paris prices are officially published every year in magazines such as “L’Express” and “Capital”. These are broken down by new and old, by house and apartment, by room numbers, by m2, by arrondissement and by “quartiers” within each arrondissement (normally there are four). These statistics are always accompanied by detailed analysis and commentary running into many tens of pages, which all help to thread your way through the mass of data. By such means you should be able to pinpoint reasonably accurately where you might be able to afford to live before you even put foot in the capital.
So let us get down to the “nitty-gritty”: what is the minimum you will have to spend for something half-decent in a reasonably safe, attractive environment with, say, two bedrooms, a lounge, kitchen, bathroom and toilet?
Well, again, it all depends, particularly on whether your candidate building has a lift (“ascenseur”) or not. Old Paris buildings normally have seven floors with perhaps a “chambre de bonne” – a former maid’s one bedroom flat on the eighth floor. (Basement flats, unlike in London, say, are rare in Paris, incidentally). Ground floor flats are relatively cheap, for security reasons and get more expensive the higher you go. This is particularly true if the building does have a lift. If not, prices tend to rise up to the fourth floor and thereafter fall. The highest price in a building will normally be paid for something on the third floor.
But does the apartment have a balcony and a cellar (“cave”)? Balcony flats are particularly prized and attract a premium. A cellar is also desirable for storage but is not imperative.
All this leads me to suggest that you should be able to find something suitable in the £150,000 – £200,000 price bracket (though for less if a lot of work is required). If your budget can stretch to £250,000, then you have much more choice.
But do not forget the fees – in total about 11% of the purchase price – and service charges also need to be accounted for. To give you an idea, we pay about £1200 per annum to include water, buildings insurance, the management fee etc. The smaller the flat, the less you will have to pay. Then you will have the taxes, the “Taxe Foncière” and the “Taxe d’Habitation”. Ours total about £1000 p.a.
But what do you get for this? Well, you get Paris! Is there anywhere in the world more beautiful or desirable? And you will get capital growth, rest assured. Paris is a much smaller city than, say, London; and supply / demand considerations clearly indicate an ever upward price curve for Paris property. With the Euroland woes and the relative strength of sterling, today is just as good a time to buy in Paris as it was when we bought all those years ago. And do not forget, most Brits do not buy in Paris – they buy in the countryside, which drives prices up relative to Paris.
So, if like us, you fancy a bit of urban Parisian chic in your life – and a damned good investment to boot – look no further than Paris. You will not regret it. We certainly didn’t!
Derek Davies is the author of a new, revolutionary approach to speaking French, “The Siffler Syndrome: How to Speak Amazing French with only 21 Killer Verbs”.