{Un}Glamorous Paris: Finding an Apartment

Finding an apartment in Paris is like trying to guess the digi-code to my front door. You can have a million tries but you still may never get it right. If you don’t learn anything else from this series, the best lesson you can take is to lower your expectations (or rather have none at all), so things can only go up from there. Otherwise you’re setting yourself up for major disappointment.

The first, and most important thing to understand is that apartments in Paris are SMALL. My entire sense of size has totally turned upside down these days. Now I walk into friend’s apartments and am like “wow, this is so great, and big.” Now “big” is all relative here – this in my new jaded by living in France. The new translation for “big” is comparable to the size of the living and dining rooms combined at my parents house (and I’m not saying they live in a massive house). My other point of comparison is my own apartment which is 12m2 (129sf) which is a whopping 20% bigger than my apartment last year which was 10m2 (110sf) – yes, I am moving up in life! I used to say it’s essentially the space for a bed (twin of course), desk and yoga mat on the floor (oh, and there is a “kitchen” and shower in there too). Or, as my friends who visit from the States say, “it’s like a dorm room.” I guess I’ll take that as a compliment…

Now if you’re a millionaire, this post doesn’t apply to you, but I’m sure you’ll still be cursed your own woes dealing with hideous furniture that needs to go, or an ugly paint job. Sorry, I still don’t have pity on you. The other bonus to living little, as I do in my chambre de bonne (former maid’s quarters, usually on the top floor of apartment buildings) is 1) I have an awesome view of Paris rooftops and 2)that I save money because there is no need to go to the gym when you have a 5th floor, 100 stair walk-up with no option of an elevator. Can you say bonne fesse? (that’s the direct translation of “nice ass”). But still, don’t go thinking that you’re going to easily join the ranks of “Generation Zero” – the minimalist life you learn to live when you live like this – as chambre de bonnes are a hot ticket in this city as they are the most affordable way to live – meaning 400-600 Euros/month (price does not include crappy exchange rate) – unless you want to go to the burbs. The fact is that all apartments are hard to come by, and apparently there are a large amount of empty apartments around Paris, as owners would rather not deal with tenants, as the current laws in place make it incredibly hard to kick someone out. But “affordable” chambre de bonnes are probably even harder to come by. As for those other “big” apartments – use the size and cost of the chambre de bonne and multiply to get a good idea of cost of living in this city. Also, take note that the bigger apartment you pick, the more likely you’ll have visitors, and lots of them, and some that you haven’t heard for a decade. That being said, starting your own hotel or B&B could be another option. (These I benefit the system and my place is small enough it can mean I get put up in the hotel with my visitors – now that’s the ticket). Whatever your style, if you’re searching for housing, try to avoid September at all costs as that is when everyone is looking and students are back in town.

Actually finding an apartment in Paris is like trying to find a job (which you’ll see in Chapter 3 is NOT fun, and can be quite convoluted). You may as well wear a suit to the first visit, because the process isn’t that different from a real job interview, except there is no real rhyme or reason to why you get selected for the apartment over someone else (and there will likely be 40+ candidates lined up from any listing online, so you may as well get picked for having a great outfit). But don’t expect to hear anything right away, as the home owner or agent will likely be creating a “dossier” of applications (and yes, there is most often an application involved which helps prove that you have the funds to prove to live in a teeny tiny over-priced apartment).

I must admit, that I was “lucky” enough to be able to get my “charming” apartment through the housing office at my university. While French universities don’t offer this service, I can assure you, I still say the process was living hell even with the help. Because when you move to Paris, all you can do is wait to be settled, and so the last thing you want to do is spend your time looking for an apartment (note: if your funds are tight, it’s necessary to be in Paris to find a place in person), or waiting 2 weeks for your internet to be installed. But then again, it’s just one of those rites of passage. Remember, what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.
{Remember the view from Chapter 1 [Paperwork]? Well here it is in today’s snowstorm. Remember – chambre de bonne = great views}

Here are a few places you can go if you’re on the market for an apartment in Paris:

  • Listings at the American Church (updated daily – go in person, just look for the 2 bulletin boards. Even if you can’t see them, you won’t miss the crowds around them). While you’re there, you may want to say a couple prayers for housing as well.
  • FUSAC – online and print magazine
  • PAP and seloger.fr always seemed the most promising to me, but here are some more options: lodgis.com, parisattitude.com, laforet.com, fnaim.fr, 123immo.com, century21.fr
  • Roomates aren’t a very French thing (and apartments aren’t really set up like they are in the US), but collocation – living together – is becoming more popular. However, note, that having a roommate may give you more space, but it doesn’t necessarily lower your rent for what you’re getting. Sign up for Appartager.fr to start looking for a new roomie.
  • Independent agencies – go to an arrondisement you’re interested in living in, and look at the listings posted in their window; there will likely be additional agency fees, but this may also help with your sanity. Some of these apartments are furnished, others are not which is always something to keep in mind. (Don’t worry, there is an IKEA just outside of Paris if you need to furnish your own hobbit hole).
  • Craigslist is admittedly not as reputable in France as it is in the US, so be warned of scams and hoaxes. However, that being said, I was in a fabulous Craigslist find the other day and I was quite jealous. Also, when I first moved to Paris I found my dream apartment via Craigslist, however, I did not get selected in the dossier process, or rather didn’t have the time to sit around and see if I would get picked.
  • In some cases you can get a government subsidy for your apartment through the CAF, but it’s on a case by case basis, and the apartment must be legally declared by the landlord (which is not always the case). Also note, it is quite a process and involves lots of paper work (I know, you’re shocked!).

UPDATE: The best way to find an apartment is to take over for someone who is leaving. Jump on the opportunity! These days landlords expect you to earn 4x the rent each month (which hardly seems possible) and you are expected to have a French “guarant” who will back you if you cannot pay for some reason. This makes it extra challenging for expats, so one alternative is to “freeze” 6 months worth of rent in a bank account (not ideal financially). . . In a recent search, someone recently recommended Hestia to me – it’s an agency with lower fees, but seemed quite reputable and impressive when I checked it out (although I did not visit any apartments).

{Un}Glamorous Paris is a multi-part series sharing the less than perfect side to living in Paris. Click HERE to read Chapter 1 : Paperwork.

25 comments

  • Oooh, that doesn’t sound too good! My family is moving to Paris in the spring, and somehow we found an apartment in the Marais with enough room for the five of us to live comfortably…. And that photograph is pretty incredible!

    windeater.blogspot.com

  • Lindsey – yes, the goal is to build a library of helpful resources so we don’t have to keep sending the same email ;)

    Brenna – sounds like a good option to me :)

    Bronwyn – sounds fab! i have the added challenge of being a student and on a budget. trying to be realistic about living, but also be an adult (the older i get the smaller my apts get – oy). having been working for an american family all fall who is here for 4 months, even they are shocked by all the challenges they’ve faced living here. although, they totally got lucky with a great apt in the 6th. but sadly despite the size, the owner is used to a cush lifestyle so they had to trapse to the laundrymat all the time.

  • Yeah, I’m excited! Student and on a budget doesn’t sound like it’s going to be too easy to find an apartment anywhere, let alone Paris… we’re renting our house at home so that we can pay for the apartment.
    And laundromats can’t be too bad, right?

  • Actually I think laundromats function better than anything else in this country ;) ha! but if you’re living in 100m2, one would think it was a given. (4 year olds make lots of dirty clothes)

    A

  • Fascinating! I do hope it’s not so difficult to find housing in other towns. If I get the Fulbright, I’m slated to live in three different cities!

  • Once again, this is great. I experienced similar woes when apartment-hunting in Japan, but was fortunate enough to find a great real estate agent who spoke English. One of the problems I experienced was that many landlords simply did not want foreigners living in their apartments. My landlord only let me live in my apartment (which was an absolute dream of a place) on the condition that I spoke perfect Japanese (I don’t). My agent actually had to phone the landlord and pretend to be me!

  • Whoah! You took me back with this one! Luckily I found my first apt through FUSAC (it was FREE!)All that I had to do in exchange was tutor the owner’s young daughter in English and walk her to and from school. PERFECT! It was a chambre de bonne on the sixth floor overlooking a garden AND it was totally renovated. So like you, didn’t need to go the gym. Now what my next apt. in Paris will be like, I have no idea. Wish me luck! Ciao Bella!

  • So interesting… and somewhat sobering. The times I felt most vulnerable abroad as a foreigner were apartment hunting and during some subsequent disputes with landlords (knock on wood). It’s a little like being a hermit crab between shells. Looking forward to more, glamorous or not!

  • Brilliant!

    I have lived in Paris 2007/2008 and my search for an appartment (I’m Brazilian) has been very similar to what you described…

    I also have been lucky that the owner of the appartment I liked (you might visit very strange ones or meet very strange owners) has chosen me for some reason… but it was just a room, of course. An entire appartment was “Mission: impossible”.

    But the experience of going through that is amazing at the end… As you said, “Remember, what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”

  • And I thought NYC was the mother of all nightmares in terms of finding a place to live. Wow. The 450 sq foot abode my husband and I inhabit doesn’t seem so small now.

  • again, bravo. this is so useful i too will be sending it over to peeps who are looking to rent in paris.

    so wish i had this resource back in 2004.
    we got (very) lucky in the end but still that was one stressful part in the beginning.

  • Hi Anne! Thanks for sharing those places that I can rent while in Paris. My uncle who’s originally from Palm Harbor, FL stayed there since 1989 and he told me that one of the reasons why apartments in Paris small is because people tend to travel a lot that they don’t stay long in one place. Are there houses for rent in Paris, too?

  • Hi Anne,

    This is a very helpful post! My fiance and I are toying with the idea of a year in Paris about two years down the road. We’ll be visiting before then, of course, it’s more an issue to us if we can figure out the job situation, the paperwork, and if an apartment will be doable. I had a quick question for you: how are landlords in terms of allowing pets? We have two cats and a dog, which is too many even by Chicago standards (shh!) but have managed okay. We’re worried this may make it nearly impossible to find a place in Paris?

  • Thanks for the tips. I’m researching innexpensive rental vacation options rather than hotels. So although this doesn’t generally pertain to my particular situation I found it interesting, nontheles.

  • Excellent! I myself live in a “charming 9 m2 chambre de bonne”, though to be honest I think it may be closer to 8 m2. And whilst I do love it, I have been given permission to redecorate! So, I am looking for ideas on what to do, but it seems no-one has any great ideas for such a small apartment that aren’t going to cost the earth. I was just wondering how your place is decorated?

  • What a great resource Anne! Making the apt search in Paris all the more exciting… and daunting ;) I will be using these tips and sites, thank you!

  • Thank for the resources.

    Question: sites like appartager ask you to pay to be a premium member in order to be able to write to everyone and to read everyone’s messages. Cause if you and the person offering the room are both basic members you can’t read each other’s e-mails! And 90% of the people posting things are basic members! How does that make sense???? So, here they are, wanting to find a roommate, and here I am, wanting to find a room and we can’t talk to each other! What nonsense! I mean, “nonsense” cause I don’t have a credit card dealing in euros! And I fear the exchange rate every time the website charges me :(

    I need to find something from abroad and that seems impossible. =( Thank you for the tip of “freezing” funds in a bank account if you don’t have a guarantor. I really could not figure out for the life of me how foreigners are able to rent places in France (and it is done, there is a way that makes it “possible”) without a guarantor.

    Wish me luck.
    D.