Who wouldn’t want to own a beautiful apartment on the liveliest and most charming streets in Paris? Cheryl and Graham of Paris Gourmand Apartments managed to find a way to divide their time between their native Australia and Paris, and get a healthy return on their investment while they are at it. We asked them to share their experience with us.
What brought you to France?
We first visited France in 1975 when – like most young Australians at that time – heading to the UK and Europe was an almost obligatory rite of passage. We later lived in London for a couple of years and managed to make a couple of forays across the Channel, although on a very meagre English salary, that wasn’t as often as we’d have liked! However, that early acquaintance with France developed into a life-long love affair with the country, and we’ve made regular return visits as often as we could manage.
What led up to the decision to buy?
For so many years we’d looked enviously at those who had been brave enough to have taken the plunge, and speculated endlessly about whether it was doable, or would it turn out to be our worst nightmare, a bad investment we’d be stuck with, dealing with a different legal code, management issues, the fact that we lived a very long way from France, etc. Perhaps it’s human nature that the more we dwell on potential problems, the more we can dream up! In the end, we decided it was just easier to get on with it!
We had rented quite a few apartments over the years—not just in Paris, but in other cities such as London and Rome—and had quite a mixed bag of experiences, ranging from the good to the bad, and most definitely a couple of very ugly apartments. We kept thinking to ourselves that we couldn’t possibly do a worse job of presenting a property for the vacation rental market than some we’d seen, and might even do quite well at it!
Paris was really only our one choice of location. We knew from personal experience that, like a few other cities such as London or New York, it is non-seasonal in vacation rental terms—it is popular all year round, and in our experience, it has turned out to be a case of “one person’s off season is another’s trade show/conference/convention” time.
Although we adore the French countryside, we needed a property that we could reasonably expect to be rentable all year round. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see that this could be said for the countryside, rural villages or towns, even though in our own opinion the quiet months in the countryside have their own special appeal. So, even though Paris is our favourite city, the decision to buy there was based firmly on sound, rational business reasons — at least our accountant was reassured about that!
Tell me about your property search
When we decided to buy a Paris apartment, we were understandably inexperienced and perhaps just a little naïve, thinking that it would be simply a case of heading into a number of agences immobilieres, discussing our needs and seeing what they’d come up with to tempt us. We spent an inordinate amount of time with our noses pressed up against the windows of every agence immobilier in Paris, and in fact wasted a lot of time with so many of them, whom we suspected regarded us as time-wasters indulging in a little Parisian fantasy to pass a few hours whilst on holiday! Well, perhaps they had had experiences like that with other foreign tourists before we loomed through their door, and simply concluded it was another case of “here we go again…”!
It became pretty clear after a while that this approach wasn’t going to work for us, since we live in Sydney not the UK or even the USA. We face a 22 hour plus plane trip every time we come to Europe, so couldn’t just pop across the Channel for the day to look at potential properties—and don’t even mention the cost of airfares from our part of the world! We needed to think of another way to go about this.
The internet itself is a great source of information, including online property websites, but it’s also very hit and miss, often with out-of-date listings and plenty of inaccuracies (a euphemism for untruths). In the end, we did an internet search on Paris-based property search agents. Quite a number of possibilities emerged. We had quite a few email exchanges with about 3 agencies whose websites had the right “vibe”.
We returned to Paris with a number of appointments with these three agents, and although they all had their good points, great references, positive attitudes etc., it really came down to personalities. Did we think we could develop a close working relationship, a sense of trust and confidence and also be inspired by that person?
For all these reasons we finally decided on Adrian. She is an American lady who has lived and worked in Paris for close on 20 years. We had rented a couple of apartments through her agency, so knew they were totally trustworthy and reliable, and what’s more, their communications with us were regular, truthful and down-to-earth. However, one of Adrian’s best characteristics is that although she is very hard-working professional, she’s a really fun lady, whose company we enjoyed. The three of us “clicked”.
Did you have to do any work to the property?
Oh my goodness yes! One of the criteria we had for our search was that we did not want to do serious, major building works such as knocking out lots of walls etc., in order to minimise the time required for renovations. So, an existing workable floor plan was important to us. On the other hand, our preference was definitely for an apartment that was dated and in need of a thorough make-over—we didn’t want to pay for someone else’s idea of a “renovated” property only to have to change much of it to suit our own tastes.
Although Adrian’s company offers a full renovation and management service, we intended to try and do this ourselves. Graham is an architect who specialises in heritage conservation, and I’m an old rag-trade (fashion industry) girl. Between us, we’ve renovated quite a few properties here in Sydney over many years. We understand how the basic process works and also, importantly, the reality check you always get when dealing with old properties—things emerge that weren’t apparent before the sledge hammer revealed the “awful truth”, nothing is square, the wiring and plumbing will invariably need total replacement, and the whole project will take much longer than estimated. There’s no such thing as a quick fix—it’s universal to all renovation jobs, no matter where it is.
Did you get any help with moving the project along?
The reality is that we weren’t there all the time to supervise the works. We had to find a project manager.
We found, almost by chance, the perfect person, an expat American who has lived in Paris about 30 years. Frank took charge of the actual day-to-day supervision and organisation of trades and services. Our instructions to him were clear and agreed to between us—made easier by Graham being an architect. Because of the success with this manager and his team of tradespeople, we used the same team for the second apartment.
We chose all the fittings and fixtures, ordered furniture to be made, specified the paint colour scheme. We spent many “happy” hours in hardware stores and bathroom and kitchen showrooms.
The manager co-ordinated all the delivery arrivals in time for our return visit to Paris. Hundreds of email exchanges ensured the whole process was relatively pain-free. We realised that it is indeed very “do-able”, but it is crucial to have the right people to work with. Our positive experience with the first apartment was the reason we felt very confident in taking on a second one.
What was your experience with paperwork and bureaucracy?
One of the terrific things about the services provided by Adrian is that she introduced us to her Notaire — who also acted for us with the purchase of the second apartment. This particular Notaire speaks excellent English, as does most of his staff, all the documentation was provided to us in both English and French, and they have impressed us with their communications with us at all times and all-round professionalism. Adrian also introduced us to the right people at the BNP (Banque National de Paris), and insurance people whom we have used for the second apartment too. All this worked out surprisingly easily. It’s important to understand that the French bureaucracy (often for its own sake, it seems to us!) cannot be circumvented, everything has to be done in its correct order and takes longer than anyone would think possible.
Frank has helped us with the utilities such as EDF (electricity) and telecom companies for phone, WiFi and cable TV connections. Dealing with these was often tiresome and unreasonable, but worked out satisfactorily in the end.
We still have the same person as our day-to-day manager of the apartments. He looks after any maintenance issues plus does “meet and greet” with our guests. He is a real “people person” and we’ve had so many glowing comments from guests who’ve appreciated his time and help if they’ve ever had problems, even outside his normal functions as our manager. Couldn’t do it without him!
How do you cope with the language?
It’s never been much of a problem for us. I’m a reasonably competent basic French speaker, and I must say, that dealing with the purchase and ordering of all the furnishings, fittings and fixtures introduced me to a whole new set of verbs and expressions I’d never come across before! I can now work my way around a hardware store and plumbing suppliers very comfortably. A great skill indeed! Graham’s spoken French is still little better than school-boy level, but his comprehension isn’t bad. Frank helps out if we receive mysterious communications from the bank or other correspondence—scanning and emailing documents to Frank makes life easier.
What’s your favourite feature or “corner” of the property?
With ‘Mouffetard’ it’s got to be the huge terrace, accessed off the bedroom. We’re so lucky to have this very rare feature. Even in winter, it’s great to be able to take the air every morning. It was the major thing that clinched the deal for us when we first saw the apartment. We also love the fact that the sejour overlooks rue Mouffetard—we love watching the street come to life in the mornings. We installed double glazing though to minimise any street noise.
With ‘Maubert’ it is its proximity to the river. We say that the apartment’s outdoor space is the banks of the Seine! The apartment itself is very quiet and such a peaceful haven to return to after a busy day out and about. It’s so comfortable and cheery—a real home-away-from-home—it’s always hard to leave when it’s time to go back to Sydney.
What’s your favourite way to spend time in Paris?
We always check out the websites of the major art museums before we leave home, as well as our favourite concert hall, the Salle Pleyel, where we’ve seen some wonderful concerts—artists such as Daniel Barenboim, Gil Shaham, and the London Symphony Orchestra, amongst numerous others. Aside from that, we’re great walkers, and Paris is one of the most walkable cities in the world. We think you only truly discover a city on foot.
Describe the best day in France so far
Well, it could be said that the day we found our first apartment, or the settlement day or Acte de Vente. But then, we still vividly remember the day we arrived in Paris on our first trip in 1975. We arrived by train into Gare du Nord, and the overwhelming sense of its sheer “foreign-ness” was so appealing—we were hooked! Nevertheless, we’re always so thrilled to be able to keep returning so often, and never get tired of “just being there”.
Do you have any tips for future buyers?
I know it sounds like stating the obvious, but there’s no substitute for doing lots and lots of research—we had piles of plastic files, all for different topics. There’s any number of websites relating to French real estate purchase, including almost all the major agences immobiliers, and the French Notaires have their own online info too, which is very helpful. Talk to as many people you can who have bought property in France. Get the financial details all in place as early as possible, because you just might be lucky enough to find the ideal property quite early, as we did.
Good properties sell fast, especially in a highly desirable city such as Paris or certain Provençal villages—if a property is good, you won’t be the only one interested in it; even if your French is good, insist that all legal documentation is in both French and English, just to reassure yourself that you understand all subtleties. There’s no such thing as too much information!
Don’t be afraid to interview a number of consultants such as search agents, building contractors etc. and always, always ask for references—and check each and every one of these, preferably by phone if possible, so you can get a better sense of someone’s real opinion about whoever you’re checking on. One thing we also found was that there are people who will certainly try and talk you out of buying property in another country. Yes, they may mean well and have your best interests at heart (but perhaps too there’s just a tiny bit of envy, or even a lack of confidence?), but perhaps it is sometimes more a case of “well, I wouldn’t do it, so therefore I don’t think you should”. Do take lots of good advice but don’t let negative people turn you off your dream!