One of the biggest challenges in finding the perfect Parisian apartment will be the tug-of-war between your desire for as much space as possible (both living and closet), choosing the ideal neighborhood for you, and your budget. Unless money is no object (and if that's the case, lucky you!), you will have to make some kind of compromise because otherwise you'll never hit the Holy Real-estate Trifecta of "big, cheap and in the heart of Paris".
Here's how it usually works:
- More affordable apartment = less space and/or less desirable neighborhood
- More space = bigger budget and/or less desirable neighborhood
- More desirable neighborhood = bigger budget and/or less space
You can't have it all if your financial means are limited in any way (and let's face it, most of us would fit in that group). There will always be something that is less than ideal. The question is: is it something you are willing to live with, perhaps for many years?
I say "perhaps for many years" because of course, if you are only seeking an apartment for a year or less, your toleration level will probably be higher for living with a microscopic kitchen with ugly cabinets, or living next to a bar or closer to the périphérique, or having a ground-floor or first-floor courtyard apartment next to the communal garbage bins for your building. It's all a matter of personal priorities.
I have a friend who moved to Paris about 5 years ago. She had a good job with a good salary and could afford to rent a decent 1-bedroom somewhere, but she wanted to save money to buy her own place, eventually. So she decided that she'd be willing to live in a very small place, as long as it was in a great neighborhood. For her, the neighborhood was the deal-breaker. She found a "chambre de bonne", which are the "maid's rooms" that are typically found in the older Haussmannian-style buildings in the high-rent districts such as the 1st, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th and 16th arrondissements. They are very small studios, sometimes also called "studettes" if they are under 20m2, located under the roof, and were created to house the family maid, cook or housekeeper. Back in the days when well-to-do people had "live-in" servants and huge apartments, the servants didn't actually live IN the apartment with the family, but "up the back staircase" in the attic. Did you see the film Les Femmes du 6ème Etage? Yes, that.
Today, many of these tiny rooms have been converted into rentable space, but still may or may not have a sink, shower or private toilet - these facilities are often still shared with the other residents of the attic floor. In my friend's case, her tiny apartment came with a sink in a kitchenette corner, but nothing else. (I have another friend, an au-pair for a family in the 16th, whose chambre-de-bonne actually came with both a kitchenette and a tiny room with shower, sink and toilet - I suspect that two chambres-de-bonne had been combined into one very nice little studio in that case. She even had a real closet.) She used the communal toilet because she had to, and elected to shower most of the time at the gym (the bonus being it would force her to go and work out most days). The rent was around 300€ which was about the cheapest you could find anywhere in Paris, and it was just near the Luxembourg Gardens -- she could see the Eiffel Tower from her little round window. A situation like this wouldn't be for everyone, but she weighed her options and made an informed decision. And when the time came for her (and her husband, whom she met after living in Paris for a while) to buy an apartment, she had the savings with which to do it.
Another friend, on the hunt for a little pied-a-terre to purchase, was willing to live in a less upscale district in order to save money, and was also willing for the apartment to be on the smallish side. In her case, what she wanted most was to be able to pay cash for the apartment to avoid having to deal with French bank financing, so price was key. She found a cute place in a decent, though not at all chic or trendy, neighborhood. The apartment needed some work to make it ideal, but she had budgeted for some renovations. For one thing, it had no closet (though it did come with a cave in the basement and a cagibi, which is like a storage closet, out in the hall on her floor). The kitchen wasn't her ideal either, but she decided to live with it for a while, and did just enough renovation work to reconfigure the living and sleeping space, replace the tile and sink in the bathroom, install new wood floors -- and install a good-sized closet.
And we have French friends who have two children, a teenage boy and a girl about 9, who have chosen to live in a 6th-floor walk-up. Like most "normal" families with growing children, they have a lot of stuff. Their apartment is nice (and they have a view of Sacre Coeur), but it's always cluttered, the kitchen is extremely small, and the climb is exhausting -- well, for me, anyway; they're a couple in their early 40s at most. With two children of different genders, they needed that third bedroom (which will always add to the cost), and so I imagine it's worth it to them to have to walk up all those stairs every day -- no need to pay for a gym membership -- and the rent is probably quite reasonable because in buildings without elevators, the prices go lower the more stairs you are forced to climb.
When it comes to space, one of the things you will always need to verify, when you're visiting apartments, is the square meters. There are actually two numbers you might be quoted: the square meters as calculated by the floor space, and the square meters as calculated by the usable ceiling-to-floor space or head-room. The latter is known as the "loi carré" or just "carré" for short, and will often be less than the calculated floor space. Why? Because some apartments are designed in such a way where you won't have usable head-room; an example would be any apartment under the roof in older buildings, which have slanted roof lines. With a slanted wall, you can't put bookshelves up against that wall, and it can make furniture placement a real challenge. (Note: keep in mind that when calculating the square meters, whether carré or not, the toilets and bathrooms are usually NOT included, and the kitchen will probably only be included if it's an open-plan/"U.S." kitchen that is combined with the living space. So technically, you're buying/renting more space than is noted on the official paperwork.) The apartment listing may nor may not make mention of whether the square meters are carré or not, so be sure to ask.
Here's an example of what I'm talking about:
You can clearly see the tilt in the wall (and there is also an electric heater, which means you can't even put anything solid in front of it, such as a dresser or shorter bookshelf, as it would create a fire hazard). Things like tilted walls, oddly-placed water tanks, radiators/heaters, and rooms with non-right angles all mean you will have to think carefully about how you plan to live in the space. Will your furniture fit? Do you have enough room to store your clothes in a closet, or will you need to install armoires or shelving? What about your dishes, cookware and food provisions - is there enough room in the kitchen for all of that, or will you need storage solutions?
These are questions we are currently asking ourselves. I saw an apartment last week that I felt would be a real contender in many ways. (The photo above is from that same apartment, and it's the smaller bedroom but the one with two closets, so we'd be making it the master bedroom if we lived there.) It's near our current neighborhood, and therefore convenient for the Garçon's school and friends, and for Georges' daily commute. It's an adorable little corner of the 18th that I didn't even know existed, and feels quiet and safe. It's on the top floor with an elevator, and the building, while older, seems reasonably well cared-for. The apartment itself is freshly painted and even newly carpeted (which is a rarity). There were even two huge closets with sliding doors, another closet with ceiling-to-floor shelves, and a fourth little cubby under the eaves which would work for storing things like the vacuum cleaner and tools. Being on the top floor, the light and air were wonderful. It came with an unadvertised cave in the basement (I didn't get to see it, but the agent insisted it was dry). It also came with unadvertised views - of Sacre Coeur in one direction, and the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe in the other!
The monthly rent was better than I would have expected given the space (68m2 "carré") and the neighborhood, and the fact that the monthly maintenance charges were higher, due to the elevator. (But no on-site gardien also meant the charges were lower than they would have been otherwise.) Saving money is one of our priorities right now, so the price plus all the positives I have mentioned are what makes this apartment a contender.
BUT (and there is always a "but", right?) -- I have serious doubts about whether we will feel too cramped in the space. The tilted outer walls, electric heaters (and the high cost of electric heat plus a gigantic 200-liter hot water heater -- what were they thinking when they installed that?), and a too-small kitchen with beat-up and insufficient cabinet space will make certain aspects of living here a problem - potentially. We probably could make it work, if we were willing to be a bit cramped, sort of how my friend in the tiny chambre-de-bonne was willing to live in an apartment the size of an American walk-in closet. Everything is a trade-off. And yet, one of things we were hoping to achieve by moving was to have MORE space - a full second bedroom for the boy, and I'd been hoping for some little corner where I could actually set up a writing desk for myself. Technically, we'd be getting more space if we rented this new place - but due to an odd layout and some space-wasters, we'd actually end up with less usable space than we have now.
We haven't made a decision yet, and Georges needs to come and see the place for himself. This is yet another challenge, because this agent is so completely unavailable during any time other than Mondays through Thursdays for about 90 minutes in the afternoons, and no one else in her office will show us the property. This is not unusual in France, either -- not only is there no MLS here, but agents don't share listing or commissions; if you're the agent of record for a property, your office colleagues will almost never agree to show the property in the other agent's absence.
Paris is, by far, one of the most expensive cities in the world, and it is so frustrating when we visit Georges' daughter in the city of Lille (France's 5th largest city, and a beautiful one - and so clean compared to Paris!). We were just there on Wednesday so Georges could sign a back-up guarantee for his daughter's new apartment; she's a student so of course the parents have to co-sign the lease. Not only is she getting 11m2 more than our current apartment in Paris, her rent, including charges, is about 1/3 of what we are paying here! It's mind-blowing!
So, when it comes to living in Paris, if bigger living space at bargain prices is what you really want, you have one other option -- you can move to one of the nearby suburbs. Of course, the problem with that is: it's not really Paris, then, is it?