The Straight Story: Buying & Renovating a flat in Paris

by Tory Hoen

After living for years in Paris, Bill O’Such and his wife Ineke relocated to the United States. In an effort to “keep one foot in France,” they bought and renovated a pied-à-terre which they rent to tourists when they can’t use it themselves. Below, Bill discusses the ins-and-outs of buying, renovating, and maintaining a home in France.

living roomThe living room of the Elzevir Apartment.

by Bill O’Such,

While some websites might lead you to believe that buying an apartment in Paris is as easy as buying a good bottle of wine, the truth is: it’s a lot of work! Unless money is of no object, the process is incredibly hands-on and requires both creativity and perseverance. As I learned by buying and renovating my “Elzevir Apartment,” the process is challenging… but worth it.

Finding an Apartment

In the U.S. (and other countries), you can wander into any real estate office and immediately see all the apartments that are currently on the market, along with historical prices. In Paris, you might be surprised to learn that there is no multiple listing service.  Each agency has its own list and they don’t share with each other! So in beginning your search,  you need to visit all the agencies in the neighborhoods that interest you, establish a relationship with them (so you’ll hear about the best properties), and make regular contact with them. And while you can obtain some historical “average” information, it is very hard to do direct comparisons to assess current market value. You need to trust the combination of your experience, your agent and the notary (notaire in French). For us, it took 4 months of looking, and 50 apartments later, we found a place we liked.

When looking at apartments, you’ll find that many have wacky layouts, as many French buildings are old and spaces have been reconfigured to serve different purposes over the years. You will find long “railroad”-like spaces or bathrooms in odd locations. If you find a good layout, do not take it for granted! Equally important is the quality of common areas and the associated homeowner’s association.  If you find a great apartment but the common areas are poorly maintained, think about looking elsewhere. You can tell pretty quickly if there are issues by glancing around the entrance area and reading the minutes of the HOA meetings.

BedroomThe apartment’s bedroom.

Buying the Apartment

There are lots of websites that explain the purchase process. The biggest factor in the transaction is the role of the notaire, who not only draws up all the legal paperwork but actually helps advise on the transaction. Pay attention to what he or she says in order to avoid any surprises in this part of the process.

In France, most mortgages are for 15 years and require, for foreigners, a 20% down payment.  Don’t expect to see 30 year mortgages like you might in the U.S.  Also, when you obtain the mortgage, you might have to take blood tests (for insurance) and other things that would certainly seem odd in other countries.

bathroom verticalThe bathroom with walk-in shower.

Renovating the Apartment

Renovating is the step that often entails the most “surprises.” When we started our renovation, we picked an architect but didn’t do as much research as we should have.  Our first mistake was to let the architect manage the project. As a result, it took nine months instead of the expected three. In hindsight, we would have spent more time and money finding a true project manager, added incentives to complete the work early, and made sure that all the workers were true French artisans. If my wife hadn’t overseen most of the work, I’m not sure what would have happened.  Moral of the story: don’t skimp on good artisans and good management.

good living room beforeThe living room before the renovation.

Apartment Care & Maintenance

In our case, when we moved back to the United States, we decided to rent the apartment to tourists. Of course this sounds simple… just find an agency, close your eyes and it will be taken care of. Wrong! If you really want your apartment to shine and be well maintained, it is important that you spend time working on the little things that separate your apartment from all the others on the market. Also, it is important to interview many apartment managers to ensure this very critical long-term relationship is a good fit.

With rentals, be prepared for more frequent upgrading, replacing worn furniture, and repainting sooner than you might if you lived there. You will need great pictures and even a nice website along with trustworthy agents. In the end, it is really a part-time job. We take annual trips to tune up the apartment, ensuring that it remains in top condition so guests are ultra-satisfied when they stay there.

afterKitchen (before).
finished kitchenKitchen (after).

The Rewards

After reading all this, you might wonder if the effort is worth the pay off. My answer would be — absolutely. First, it gives you a great reason to return to Paris regularly (as if you really needed a reason).  When you arrive, you step into a comfortable, familiar place where everything is the way you like it, and where you are familiar with the neighborhood. If you rent the apartment out like we do, you get to meet some very nice people with the same passion about Paris that you have.   In fact, we met our best friends in San Francisco through our apartment. And of course, Paris will always be a sought after destination, so you can be confident that you’re making a wise investment.

In conclusion, this article is meant to help you understand what goes into the making of a pied-à-terre. It isn’t simple but, luckily, the rewards outweigh the challenges. Would we do it again? Tout a fait!

To see the completely finished product, and maybe even rent it for your next Paris sojourn:

Edited by Tory Hoen for the HiP Paris Blog. Looking for a fabulous vacation rental in Paris, Provence, or Tuscany? Check out Haven in Paris.

Written By

Tory Hoen

Tory Henwood Hoen is a former Paris resident who now lives in Brooklyn. Her debut novel, The Arc, is available in bookshops near you and online View Tory Hoen's Website

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