I wanted to do a strictly utilitarian post for those who may be searching for an apartment in Paris to try and impart some of the knowledge that I acquired the hard way. With that, here is my guide to Parisian apartment hunting.
First, I would like to start out by reassuring you that I now live in an absolutely fantastic apartment in one of my favorite neighborhoods in Paris, so there is a happy ending to this story. In spite of the many difficulties you will soon see, the end result is worthwhile, so bon courage!
The most comprehensive resource I found for apartments in Paris is Paris Info. It lists all the relevant websites for just about any price range. Also, it’s useful to have this glossary of apartment terms if you’re not hip to the lingo of apartments en français.
First, you need to adjust your expectations. Apartments in Paris are small. Much smaller than in the U.S. Just accept that and move on. They’re also expensive. This is one of the most fabulous cities in the world, so you should logically expect to pay more for the benefit of living here. Again, you should come to terms with that early on. Paris Info has a good guide on averages sizes and prices. Be warned, however: I find that these estimates, while very realistic, are on the conservative side. Many reasonably-priced apartments are even more expensive than what the site lists. Also (brace yourselves), something I wasn’t prepared for when I first moved here: it is normal to have to pay 3 months in rent up-front. One month’s rent for the security deposit for the apartment, one month’s rent for the security deposit for the furniture, and the first month’s rent. It’s painful. Also, ovens are a bit of a luxury here. And real stoves are, too. And your refrigerator is going to be MUCH smaller (but you don’t need a big refrigerator because you’ll probably be going to all of the wonderful marchés and specialty shops frequently to buy lots of fresh food in small quantities–I generally only buy food for a couple days each trip–stay tuned for upcoming posts about the marchés and food shopping in France).
Now, here’s the story: most French landlords want their renters to have a garant, which is essentially a cosigner, but the catch is they want the garant to have assets in France. This is so that if you flake and don’t pay your rent, they’ll actually be able to get damages out of you because the assets are in France. They don’t want to go all the way to the U.S. to sue you. So if you don’t have a garant, things will be trickier and you may want to lean toward using an agency (see infra). You’re also going to need a dossier with tons of documents about your financial situation. The more official-looking documents that are in your dossier, the better. French people love official-looking documents. Just make sure you give them copies, and not your originals!
Apartment hunting in Paris is a bit competitive. There are a lot of people here and not as many apartments. So applying to rent an apartment is a bit like applying for a job. My strategy was to always act like I was interested in the apartment (you can always back out later if you don’t want it for some reason). If you don’t have a French garant, you’re already at a disadvantage, and that is the reason why I endorse the agency strategy.
So, I know I just said if you don’t have French relatives you should consider using an agency, but I do know people who have had luck renting apartments directly from their landlords. The best resource for apartment hunting person-to-person (particulier à particulier) is PAP.fr. It’s basically classified ads for apartments (much like craigslist in the U.S., except agencies can’t post on this site, only individuals). You’ll find some great apartments and some great deals on this site. But beware, if you find a great apartment, chances are a lot of other people did too, and you may show up to find several people waiting to view the apartment with dossiers in-hand (and this is a site the French use, so they might have a leg up on you already by having a garant).
If you’re American, I’ve heard from many sources that the American Church in Paris has a great bulletin board with apartment listings. I’ve never personally used it, but it comes highly recommended by word-of-mouth around here. Also, for Anglophones, there is FUSAC, which is a great resource for all sorts of Anglophone things in Paris, but also has classifieds for apartments. They have craigslist here, but it’s not nearly as big as in the U.S., and it’s mostly geared toward Americans who don’t know any better. I do have a friend who found an apartment on craigslist, but she’s the only person I know who’s used it for anything since I’ve been here. I didn’t have much luck with it (Although I did find a lot of scams! If you find a deal that’s too good to be true, you’ll probably get an e-mail from a missionary in Africa who needs you to send the money through Western Union… RUN AWAY this is a scam.).
Here’s what happened to me: I found an apartment on FUSAC. The apartment was good, and I wanted it. The landlord was hesitant because I don’t have a garant, but I promised to give him more money up-front so that he wouldn’t be taking a risk with me, and we would apply the extra money toward the last 2 months of rent. He was happy with this arrangement (I’m a student, so I live on loans, which means I am rich in August and January and I eat a lot of Ramen in December and July. This lease was to start in the fall, so I could afford it.). He e-mailed me to have me come sign the lease the following week. The next week, I went to sign the lease, but before I signed it I started to read it (law school will do that to you–my contracts professor would be proud). The landlord saw me reading it, so he started reading it. Then he said “WAIT!” I waited. Apparently there is some new law that required him to get a safety inspection and he hadn’t done it. He didn’t realize the law existed until he started reading his responsibilities in the contract. He said he’d get the inspection and I could come back and sign the lease the following week. Now, this happened on Wednesday. He wanted me to come back the following Tuesday to sign the lease, and then I was supposed to move in on Saturday. Great. Fine. But then, he disappeared. I called him and e-mailed him everyday to find out when I could sign the lease, but I never heard from him again. So I was left with no apartment and I would be homeless the following week unless I found another place. And you’ve just read how hard it is to find an apartment. All of the above-mentioned considerations are heavily exacerbated at the end of the month, when all of the good apartments are gone and anyone still searching is desperate. I was a little freaked out. That’s when I decided to use an agency. But the really amazing thing is this: anyone in Paris I told this story to was completely unsurprised. In fact, most of them had a similar crazy story. People are kind of flakey here. They aren’t as focused on making money as we are in the states. They go at their own pace with their own priorities.
So, this brings me to the much-anticipated agency description. The pros: they generally have good apartments, you don’t need a garant, you don’t need a dossier, the process is relatively straightforward, they have comprehensive websites with lots of pictures, if you start looking far enough in advance they have a good selection (start looking early if you’re using an agency), most speak English, did I mention that you don’t need a garant or a dossier? The con: the price. Agency fees are generally around one month’s rent, and you don’t get it back. Additionally, you still have to pay the security deposit (although with NY Habitat I only had to pay 1 month’s rent for security deposit instead of the usual 2, AND I got a discount on the agency fee for being a student). I used NY Habitat (note: they are not paying me to say nice things about them). I know a lot of people who used Lodgis and are happy with their apartments, but I’ve never used them. Those are the only agencies I know anything about, but there are others out there. You can find them all in the Paris Info listing.
I think that’s about it. Remember: there is a happy ending. Apartment hunting in Paris can be overwhelming and disappointing at times, but you will eventually find a great place to live. Bon courage!