At this point I feel like I’ve been through all of the emotions of confinement. The adrenaline. The fear. The blind forwarding of memes. The inexplicable panic-buying of canned goods I don’t even usually buy (we currently have no less than six cans of chick peas in our pantry and so far we have made exactly one bowl of hummous; whatever led me to think that during a pandemic we would be wanting to eat exorbitant amounts of hummous is beyond me). The moments of hope and even euphoria (mainly in the mornings; usually after two or three cups of coffee). The despair (usually in the evenings, as I lie in bed awake). The self-righteousness. The gratitude. The guilt. The self-flagellation (for not using this time to do more exercise, bake more, read more, write more, send long-overdue thank you cards, etc., etc.). The self-flagellation after reading memes about why you shouldn’t self-flagellate. Bref, I’ve been through it all.
Anyway, all that to say that I finally, finally, seem to have arrived at a point where I can sit down and write something.
I’ve been planning this blog post in my mind for a while. Of course, it was supposed to end with us buying an apartment after months – years – of searching. But, like so many things that have tombé à l’eau recently, so too have our plans to buy our own little piece of Paris.
And yet we were so close. In the weeks leading up to lockdown we had active offers – which had been accepted – on not one but two apartments. (Don’t worry Mum, we were going to retract at least one of them). The Parisian apartment gods were smiling on us. Or maybe (probably), we were just getting desperate. Either way, we were finally on the verge signing a promesse de vente and tiptoeing towards closing.
But then COVID came along, throwing a spanner in the overly-ambitious travaux we were already planning. On the upside, we did learn a lot along the way. And now seems as good a time as any to start writing down a few of those lessons. So here goes.
Probably the single most useful thing we learned during the process of nearly buying an apartment in Paris is that you need to act fast. Very fast. (At least in the pre-COVID world, that is.) Pretty much as soon as you see a half decent-looking place on Se Loger, PAP or Le Bon Coin, you need to be prepared to call, organize a visit (that same day, if possible), and make an offer on the spot.
Why is this so important? Because in France, with some very limited exceptions (which I still don’t fully understand), once a seller receives an offer from a buyer at the asking price (known as an offre au prix), the deal is done. Another purchaser cannot come along and offer more money to pinch the property. In other words, there is no gazumping. (Gazumping is, incidentally, a word that seems to have no direct French equivalent; the Collins dictionary simply explains the concept (“Le propriétaire est revenu sur sa promesse de vente en faveur d’un plus offrant.”), while another site proposes the French expression equivalent to “being pipped at the post”, “être coiffé au poteau”, which is not exactly the same thing).
We learned this lesson the hard way. And, sadly for me, it happened to be my first coup de coeur (this time it’s a French expression that seems impossible to translate to English; it literally means something that hits your heart). So this apartment hit my heart. Hard.
We had just returned from our first post-baby mini-break to Annecy (oh, sweet freedom of 2019!). For whatever reason, after neglecting our apartment search for weeks (months?) in the pre- and post-baby haze, I decided to reignite my habit of trawling Le Bon Coin into the wee hours.
It was the end of August (the tail-end of the annual holiday period in France), so there was unlikely to be anything interesting. But there, at the top of the list, was an apartment in the 11th arrondisement at a somewhat reasonable price per m2 (depressingly, this is how property prices are structured in Paris; never did I think I’d contemplate spending upwards of 10,000 euro for something barely bigger than the surface area of a card table, but them’s the breaks in Paris).
Better still, it was accompanied by a photo showing a view over lush green treetops. I immediately clicked. (One day I’ll start a collection of the terrible photos I’ve seen featured in Parisian property ads as a counterpoint. So many show zero effort as to styling, let alone tidying; I’m talking dirty dishes visible in the sink, clothes horse full of laundry in the foreground, cat in the shot, photos that look like they were taken with a Motorola Razr in 2004… I’ve seen it all.). But this place seemed to satisfy nearly all of our many, seemingly impossible-to-fulfill, criteria. Elevator. South-facing. Balcony. View. And the much sought-after “Charme à l’ancienne”.
What do you need to claim you have charme à l’ancienne, I hear you ask? Quite simply, the holy trinity of “parquet, moulures, cheminée“. To explain: parquet most often implies the little, wooden tessellated floorboards that you see in so many Parisian apartments, which is a style known as point d’hongrie (cf. the straight, boring parquet shown above, which the French somewhat hilariously call “parquet à l’anglaise“, or “English style” parquet); moulures are the fancy, curling mouldings that you see around the edges of ceilings and light fixtures; and, as you may have guessed, cheminées are the marble (is it always marble? I’m not sure, but I don’t want to shatter the illusion) fireplaces, ideally with a gold-rimmed Louis XIV-style mirror sitting above them, which you see featured in so many an Instagram shot.
On top of all that, it had a beautiful view overlooking the Square Maurice-Gardette, an idyllic little square (which the French adorably pronounce as “skwaah” like they’re putting on a posh English accent) with a playground and pétanque pitch just behind l’Eglise Saint Ambroise.
And the photos had obviously been styled by someone privy to bobo sensitivities, including, somewhat randomly, a close-up shot of a vintage and oh-so-charming sewing machine.
Plus, it was a succession. Although I didn’t know it at the time, successions are particularly attractive because (a) quite often they haven’t been renovated in some time (in other words, they are “dans leur jus” (in their juice), usually meaning hideous wall paper and unsightly bathroom tiling), giving you carte blanche to do what you like with them without the moral dilemma of whether to rip out a still-techinically-functioning-but-horrible (and invariably iridescent red) Ikea kitchen; and (b) you can make a slight saving on notary fees.
So it looked to be one of those elusive perles rares (rare pearls) that I’d heard so much about. I called the agent first thing the next morning and arranged a visit that same day.
Across town we trooped, sleeping bébé in tow. Visits had just started that morning; only one other couple had seen it before us. For me, the coup de coeur was almost immediate. Sunlight was streaming into the apartment (a rare phenomenon in Paris; estate agents often promise me that this happens, “Je vous jure j’étais ici ce matin et il y avait des rayons de soleil qui entraient carrément DANS l’appartement”, but here I could actually see it for myself). The view was even better than in the pictures. The vintage sewing machine in the otherwise bare living room was…well, still just as random. But it made more sense when we saw the rest of the clutter hidden in the bedroom.
Sure, there were a few oddities; there always are. The elevator stopped halfway between each floor, a bit like the train platform in Harry Potter (probably due to some disagreement between the co-proprietaries about how it would be funded). And it seemed to be pretty poorly insulated (it sounded as if someone had invited their friends around to test out some new pairs of oversized wooden clogs in the apartment above, though it was probably just a dainty little mamie quietly going about her business). But, all in all, it ticked a lot of boxes.
At this point, what we should have done was made an offer at the asking price on the spot. After all, we could always retract it later if we changed our minds (indeed, some particularly zealous property hunters go so far as to make such offers without even having seen the apartment). Instead, we went for a leisurely lunch at Les Niçois, a charming little bistro on the square below with almost as much Provence-themed kitsch as Chez Janou (although Les Niçois does have an underground pétanque pitch, which is somewhat of a trump card). Surrounded by enough pastis paraphernalia to fill a brocante, we discussed the apartment and started nit-picking about things like the weird half-elevator and the noise from overhead. Eventually, after much toing and froing, we decided to put an offer in at 20k under the asking price.
This felt like a momentous moment. As anyone who knows me can attest, I am capable of spending hours agonizing over even the most banal of purchases (just ask any of my friends and family who regularly receive WhatsApp messages from me with photos taken in boutique changing rooms at odd angles or generally asking for validation before I commit to colour choices or expenditures of any kind). And I can experience buyer’s remorse over the most insignificant of purchases (including canned goods, apparently). So this was a big deal for us.
We rang the agent to announce the news. He stopped us short. “Désolé”, he said, but he had just received an offer at the asking price. “Ah,” we said. Well, we would match it. Or better still, we would offer more. “Ce n’est pas possible,” came the response. This was not possible, we were told. Legally, he was bound to accept the first offer.
Of course, this only made us want it even more. We threw caution to the wind and tried all sorts of outlandish gazumping efforts as if we suddenly had the riches of Scrooge McDuck (known as “Balthazar Picsou” in French, I just discovered), to no avail. Our only hope would be if the purchaser’s financing didn’t work out for whatever reason and the deal fell through.
And so, hélas, the little place on Square Gardette was destined to be “the one that got away”. A rite of passage in any apartment search, some might say. But at least we learned a thing or two about the Parisian property market, which have served us in our two recent near-acquisitions (more about those in another post). And it gave me something think about for a few hours other than what on earth I’m going to do with six cans of chick peas.
*This post is dedicated to all of those loyal friends and family who have listened to me lament “that time we missed out on the apartment on Square Gardette” and generally been there to counsel us on various prospective property purchases (you know who you are)… and to our ever-patient notary (Parisians, if you need a recommendation for a notaire let me know!)