Finding the Right Paris Apartment for Sale
The Wow Factor
If there is a key piece of advice to offer about buying an apartment in Paris, it's the most intangible but most important of all – the apartment must possess the “wow factor.” You will feel it even if it's a wreck, whether it's empty or been done up with horrible taste. It can be one of several factors, but you will be struck by it immediately, like a coup de foudre, or lightning bolt. Here are some of the features that add to an apartment's wow factor:
- A fabulous panoramic or landmark view from a high floor
- A balcony or terrace
- Overlooking beautiful garden or courtyard
- A conservatory
- Views overlooking beautiful streets and neighborhood from an upper floor
- Loft windows - atelier d‘artiste
Yes, these apartments are hard to find, and unfortunately there is no multiple listing service in Paris to make your job easier. Your time is short and you're anxious to close in on an apartment in Paris. But take a deep breath, hire a good search consultant if you haven't found anything … and hold out for the best you can afford. For resale and rental value, you will do so much better if your apartment possesses one of these special features. Think about it; if you had a choice between renting a “nice” apartment without a view or one that was slightly more expensive but with a killer view or balcony, which one would you choose?
Interestingly, the price per square meter for a wow factor apartment is only marginally more expensive than the price for an average apartment without the balcony or views in the same building. But your ability to sell it in a weak market and to get a top price in a strong market is significantly better than if you have bought a “nice but…” average apartment.
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An agent who knows us well called and said he had just received the mandate for an apartment for sale on rue Cler. It had not been touched in 40 years. It was a mess, but we took one look at the view of rue Cler below and of the Eiffel Tower in the distance and knew it had the wow factor, in spite of its current condition. We deliberately said nothing positive about the apartment in front of the agent. We had lunch and stopped by his office with a discounted bid and asked him to reflect it to the owner immediately, because we had other possibilities if they did not accept. The owner accepted our offer, which we put in writing and called our notaire to contact the seller's notaire so the purchase was secure. These are important steps to prevent the buyer from being “gazumped” by a higher bid.
We gutted the apartment, completely reversed the layout and remodeled it over a period of four months. The apartment is now a charming and popular vacation rental in Paris and the agent regularly calls to ask if we are interested in selling it.
A more dramatic example is the Kir Paris apartment, which was a complicated purchase, requiring us to buy two apartments from different owners that had already been combined into one. The owners had negotiated this unique arrangement years before and were no longer speaking to each other – a Paris Magistrate and a dentist who lived in the suburbs of Paris. The dentist “held us up” for a premium price, knowing we had already bought one half of the apartment. We brought him back to earth by reminding him that it would be illegal for him to sell his half separately because the size was less than the legal apartment size in Paris. He agreed to a small premium to the market price. It was hard to appreciate the flat's potential by looking beyond the backed up plumbing and filth – but the windows, 6th floor location, sunlight and neighborhood made us take the leap. We could see there was a wow factor waiting to be uncovered!
We moved the doorway and reversed the layout to improve the Kir's features; we also took advantage of every square inch of space by lowering the ceiling above the kitchen and bathroom so that guests could store luggage in the space above them. Our architect discovered skylights in the attic of the building just above the apartment. He modified the design to install sandblasted glass ceiling panels in the kitchen and bathroom, so that natural light shines in from the roof, a brilliant touch.
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Yes, it's not easy, because so many apartments you'll see are “almost, but not quite.” We bought one of these apartments a few years ago on Avenue Bosquet and paid the price for my own over-eagerness. The apartment had so many great features; it was on a high floor, had an outward looking view onto a tree-lined street – but not a really special view. It had ornamental balconies, but not a “step out onto” balcony. It had high ceilings and beautiful parquet floors. It was a nice size and good price. But, it just didn't have the “wow factor.” In our hearts we knew it, but we gambled that the views of trees, the ornamental balconies and traditional features would be enough to rent it consistently. We were wrong. It was never as popular for rentals and we decided to take a small loss and trade up for something nicer. It was expensive, but we made the right decision. It's hard to walk away from a loss, but just like in the stock market, try to think rationally and move on.
The “wow factor” is central to our search, whether for ourselves or clients. And it is not negotiable. An apartment must have one of the special features – great view, upper floor (must be third floor, European, or above) and be located in a lively, safe neighborhood. Remember that if an apartment is exceptional for you, it will be exceptional for Parisians and anyone else. If you can't feel it when you walk through the apartment, wait 24 hours before making a final decision. Foreigners have been important buyers in Paris over the last few years and as a stock market saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats. We want to be confident, for ourselves and for our clients, that if foreign buyers temporarily disappear, that Parisians themselves will be eager to buy the apartment.
Here are two key pieces of advice to help your make your decision:
The Sleep On It Rule.
If you think you‘ve found a terrific apartment but have some niggling doubts, use discipline to say thank you and leave. Have dinner and sleep on it before making a decision the following morning. This is hard! I have the worst discipline of all as I always see improvement potential in even the most mediocre apartment. It takes enormous willpower to force myself to rein in my enthusiasm, to leave and think about it overnight. My husband is the best judge – he never compromises and his radar never steers him wrong. When he sees the perfect apartment, there is no hesitation at all and he moves straight on to Negotiation Mode. But if there is something wrong, he turns it down and leaves quicker than you can say Jack Sprat.
I recently viewed an apartment for a client that had almost everything: two balconies, spacious one bedroom, Eiffel view, upper floor and great potential after a remodel. But … the apartment was located in a 1940s building, which lacked charm – and was located on a drab street surrounded by other large apartment and office buildings. No trees, no petits commerces or shops to liven up the area. I checked the building management fees and they were on the high side, about €500/ month – relatively low for a city like New York, but high for Paris. I walked back in the evening, waited 24 hours and still didn't like the feel of the street. While it might have rented well, we want an apartment to offer the whole package: rentability, good capital appreciation and resale potential. This one failed on two out of three.
Apartments with views and balconies are extremely difficult to find and it was hard to walk away, but we made the right decision for the client.
Will a Cynical Parisian Buy Your Apartment In a Flash?
A continuing theme of ours is to buy defensively. You want to be sure that your bases are covered in good markets and bad and the best way to do so is if you have found something that even Parisians will fight over to purchase if you decide to sell. Parisians prefer the same factors we have listed above and if they have a choice of viewing “just another nice apartment” and one with something special, you know which one they'll go for. Parisians are tuned into the market and when real estate transactions have fallen to a trickle, you want your apartment to be in a location sought-after by Parisians so agents can make appointments with buyers to view. If you can't get buyers to your front door, then you won't get your sale.
The Other Important Factors
When you live in an apartment with an outward view, you have the gift of Paris – watching the city change through the seasons, or simply watching the daily life of Parisians, all special things that we don't experience at home. It is part of the magic of being here…as spring turns into summer, then fall and winter, to watch children walking to school with their parents, the first cold day, a brilliant sunset, a spring morning or a foggy day. You miss all of this if your view is of a static inner courtyard or the building across the street. The difference in price may be marginally more for outward views, but it's worth every single penny. Be patient, keep looking and hold out for the best. We tell our clients that it may take months for us to find something special for them, but if they hear us shout: “We've found something; here are the pictures of the apartment and building; please get over here now!” then they know it's got that unique combination of view, location and features … and it won't last long.
We found an apartment for a client who is a surgeon on the West Coast and who could not take the time to fly over to view it. They had stayed in several of our Paris Perfect apartments and knew our standards and taste, making it easier to trust our judgment. Nevertheless, it's a difficult decision for anyone to plunk down a significant amount of money, sight unseen. After two long and late conference calls where they viewed tons of photos that we took, they said yes. We used an excellent and reasonably priced lawyer to help with the purchase process, and coordinated long distance calls with the clients and the architect to come up with a really fantastic floor plan. When it is finished it will be a stunning Paris apartment with Eiffel Tower views and original features. The clients have seen it and are delighted; they have paid an excellent price and we will deliver the apartment to them “clé en main” – fully remodeled to their specs and ready to move into. We know it will rent well when the owners are away with good capital appreciation.
Making long distance decisions can be difficult, especially as it is a large investment, but be prepared to decide quickly, ask for lots of pictures, know the neighborhood and, if possible get someone you trust to take a look. At worst, you can use the “Get Out of Jail Card” by signing the Promesse and backing out within a week … but we don't advise it unless absolutely necessary.
If you use a search consultant, try to see what sorts of apartments they have found and remodeled in the past and what area they specialize in. Have them take lots of pictures, not just of the apartment, but also of the elevator, the façade, the caves, the street in the daytime and at night.
More on outward views: Sophisticated buyers agree on outward views because those apartments sell first and at the highest prices. Notice the agency windows: only a few photos show apartments with beautiful outward views or views of a special monument, church or park – and they generally have “Sold” notices stamped over them. There are simply fewer of these special apartments and they sell quickly.
Some people talk about “quiet courtyards” as though it were an advantage. We disagree; a quiet courtyard may have an advantage if the building is located on an enormous boulevard such as Ave de Tourville, Rue de Rivoli or Rue du Louvre, but who wants to live on those Boulevards anyway? Try staying in an apartment on a courtyard for a few weeks and find out for yourselves. After several days of staring out the windows to the same flat view of another wall and neighbor's windows is not only dull, but could be taking place in any anonymous city in the world, not Paris. Apartments sur cour fill the classified ads and you will soon recognize the standard phrases: Calme sur cour; Calme et très agréable; Très calme, Idéal pied-à-terre. (I often ask why buying a second rate apartment that is “calme” would make an ideal pied-à-terre, but the reason is obvious.) You'll see loads of interior apartments for sale in agent's windows, and, as we've already noted, if they have time to appear in the window, it's often because they have been on the market for a while.
You'll also notice that quiet courtyards have their own noises: whether from a noisy family, a party, a baby, someone emptying their garbage or loud music playing. We go for the view and install the best quality double glazed windows. Importantly, the technology of sound-proofed glass has advanced so greatly that you can have those views and a peaceful night of rest at the same time!
Upper Floors and South or West Facing
On sunny spring and summer days, when the sun doesn't set until nearly10pm, we can forget that Paris is in northern Europe. But you will be quickly reminded of this if you spend time in Paris during the winter, when the sun sets before 5pm and doesn't rise until almost 8am the following morning. Light and views are why so many Parisians spend hours in their local cafés, as close to the windows as possible. I often look at the courtyards from the back of our apartments and notice how many neighbors switch on their lamps in the middle of the day during the winter – and they are more parsimonious about lighting than Americans are!
You will want whatever sunlight is available to come streaming into your living room for as long as possible during those winter months. Go for a southern or western aspect, and a setting on a higher floor to capture it. This may sound picky, but you are making a substantial investment and should focus on buying the best that you can afford. Our advice will ring a bell when an agent or classified ad stresses that an apartment faces West or South – because it matters to the sophisticated buyer.
A friend asked us to view an apartment on the fourth floor that overlooked a pretty courtyard before they made an offer. It had beautiful beams, fireplace, good layout and was located in a charming part of the 6th arrondissement. But even on the sunny day that we viewed it, it felt somber and we could only imagine how cooped up we would feel on a gray morning. We advised against it and they found a smaller third floor apartment on a wide street that faced west on the same street and they love it.
New or Old Building
We are big proponents of buying ancien, or turn-of-the-century (1880s to 1910) apartments. We will stretch to 1930s, but rarely beyond. Talk to French friends and agents who will tell you why: it's harder to re-sell a modern apartment because they lack that classic Parisian charm. Importantly, the quality of workmanship—particularly from the 1950s to the 1980—is perceived to be much lower compared to old buildings, meaning more repairs, less insulation etc. As much as you like a certain view or feature in a new building, remember it's going to be harder to sell down the road and it will not acquire the same premium as the best apartments anciens.
Elevator or Not
We insist any apartment we buy must have an elevator. Yes, there are some fabulous apartments on lower floors without an elevator. And, in one sought-after quartier, the Marais, many apartments are located in small buildings where installing an elevator is impossible. Our view remains defensive and long term because we have lived through cycles where real estate transactions fall to a trickle – except for a few outstanding apartments. In a bad market, the lack of an elevator is a deal-breaker. As tempting as the apartment and price may be to you, you will have more trouble renting it without an elevator and you will have more trouble selling it in a down market.
Finally, remember the rule that the cost to remodel an apartment is the same throughout Paris, whether there is an elevator or not. Since remodeling and furnishings represent a significant part of your overall investment, don't “cheap out” on the elevator.
One exception is certain apartments on the Piano Nobile, or first floor. In the days before elevators, these were the most cherished apartments in a building, featuring 12 foot+ ceilings and fabulous original features. While it's still a negative if there isn't an elevator (and that they don't feature the stellar views upper floor apartments offer), sometimes the other features can compensate for it.
Buying an apartment in Paris, or any city, is one of the most important investments you can make. Take your time, buy the best you can afford, be prepared to walk away from dozens and hold out for the “wow factor.” Find someone who shares your tastes and who can either get to Paris at a moment's notice or who will help you carry out your search in the challenging Parisian market where there is no Multiple Listing Service. Make sure they understand your tastes and priorities; evaluate several apartments so they can be the best judges of what they find for you. Finally, be prepared to hop over at any moment, because great apartments do not sit around for long!