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The Aliens Have Landed, Part 2: A Room with a Phew!

Wool mattress bed

There are plenty of places to sleep in Paris, if all you need is sleep. Being an American in Paris automatically puts you at a disadvantage in finding suitable places to crash, whether tourist or resident, for two reasons. First of all, we’re used to America. That means big, big and bigger. In France, the rooms are smaller, the showers smaller (or non-existent, ewwww!), and those shorter-on-average French people don’t see the need for California Kings. Reason two is that in America, your home is an extension of who you are (along with the car and the dog). An old, cramped, badly decorated, drafty apartment doesn’t project the «right» image. But the French aren’t quite as obsessed as we are («Qui est Martha Stewart?») about showing everyone their home interiors, especially the bedroom. This all translates into an often unpleasant surprise to Americans who are looking for places to sleep.

The famous Chambre de Bonne can be a rat-infested, half-sized efficiency with the toilet in the hallway. On the other hand, these little boxes, usually up on the top floors of older buildings, and without elevators, can be cozy little havens for those who need a cheap place to sleep, a hotplate and mini-fridge, and a great view of Paris. These rooms are typical of the kind that are offered in exchange for babysitting at the main residence, usually somewhere else in the nice part of the building. A friend of mine had one of these rooms on Boulevard St. Germain, and although she had a shower and toilet, and even a phone, she couldn’t stand the seven flights of stairs, and moved to a place that was on the 2nd floor, with an elevator.

Reading the Fine Print The price of any apartment in Paris is usually determined by a few major things: location, size, how well the kitchen and bathroom are outfitted, how high up you are and how you’ll get up there. This all seems obvious, but it’s different than the US, folks. Let’s examine an ad from the FUSAC.

13th arr., studio, calme, ensoleil, proche marche/metro, coin cuis.,wc sur palier, 1700ff/m+ch.

Okay, this one is in the 13th, no mention of which Metro, so it could be a bad part of this large neighborhood, studio with a hotplate and mini-fridge in the corner, no bathroom except in the hall, and unlikely there’s a shower, probably just a sink. Sunny and quiet is usually mentioned if one can’t say «clean and beautiful». This may be a bargain, but it’s not for the faint of heart. There’s no mention of which floor, and no elevator if it’s not mentioned. My friends once rented an apartment that had three bedrooms, a living room, huge kitchen and bath, and was in a quiet suburb. Only problem was that it didn’t have a fridge, stove, or any closet space. And don’t ever assume that an apartment, even a very nice one, will have a clothes washer or dryer. Keep your eyes peeled and pick your battles.

Realistic Expectations I had one American business traveler ask me to help him find an apartment. He had a 7000ff budget and he wanted: a 1bedroom apt at St. Germain des Près, furnished with a large bed, a sleeper sofa, TV/VCR, clothes washer and dryer, shower big enough for him (he’s a 6’5″ Texan), and it had to be old «French style», meaning wooden floors and antique furniture. Oh, and a microwave. Even with a limitless budget, good luck, dude.

So where does one go to find the places to live? Ask your friends. Ask anyone that you meet at the bar. Finding a place through someone else can be the easiest and best way to find something, and usually you can avoid the background check and begging. If you use an agency, they will expect at least one month’s worth of rent for their fee. If you can afford it, great, they can usually help you out when you need it.

Know your Rights A lot of Anglophones find housing through the notices at the American Church, the FUSAC, or through the internet, but be warned: no matter what country it is, foreigners are frequently taken for suckers. Do your research, trust your gut, be patient, and know your rights. No one can demand more than two months caution. Always insist on a deposit by cheque, not cash. And try to get a French friend to look over any paperwork before you sign. Many of the Anglophone web sites have forums—use them. Check out Jean Taquet’s column in the Voice or on Think Paris for legal advice. Your best defense: be prepared to search for up to a month for a decent place.

Getting Started There are a few ‘foyers’ in Paris, a bit like dorm rooms with rules about after-hours visitors, but they are cheap and you won’t need a long-term contract. One is Foyer Tolbiac, which has a web site, but many others in Paris exist, a few of which are advertised in the FUSAC or the Voice.

Be Prepared My friend Claire has been searching for an apartment, and she has some advice: take all of the paperwork with you to each apartment that you visit. This includes: payslips, a letter from your bank or someone in France who can guarantee your rent, rent receipts from your former residence, an EDF or France Telecom bill from your last residence, and a RIB (from your French checking account). Basically, if you show up at a great place, along with twenty other prospective renters, whoever can immediately produce the deposit and the back-up wins. And trust me, the good ones go fast in Paris.

Still Looking? The FUSAC officially comes out every other Wednesday, but you can usually get it Tuesday in some locations, and by Thursday all of the good flats will be gone. The paper version of the Particulier-à-Particulier comes out on Thursday, and is in French, but they go quickly as well. If you have time, there are little notices in bakeries, at message boards at Monoprix and Franprix, in the sleazy free weekly Paris Boum-Boum, and anywhere people gather: gym, church, universities, etc. Good luck, and keep a stiff upper lip!

November 2019 Update

Ah….real estate. It’s one of the main preoccupations of Parisians. And as could be expected, the only thing that hasn’t changed in the past two decades is how hard it is to find a good rental in Paris. The FUSAC and the Particuiler-à-Particulier still exist, but only in digital editions. Word of mouth is still the best way to find a place if you don’t want to pay agency fees or deal with the dreaded “dossier” paperwork to prove you can afford the rent. Ironically, about five years after I write this article I actually ended up renting a Chambre de Bonne in the 13th arrondissement (thankfully with a toilet, shower, and elevator to the 7th floor). I was so traumatized by the process of finding a place that I didn’t budge for over a dozen years. Today you still need to have your paperwork ready, act quickly when you find a place you like, and read up on the legal issues in advance so you’re not scammed. Rent is currently capped in Paris by an official government calculator, so prices have come down a notch, but with so many short-term lets on the market there are fewer long-term apartments in good condition, and you may have to look in the suburbs. Shudder. Paris is a pain, but it’s usually worth it.

This article is one of the 78 original “Secrets of Paris” articles published between September 1999 and July 2004. After disappearing into the internet graveyard for almost 15 years, I’m publishing them all here, one by one, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Secrets of Paris: “1999-2019: Twenty Years of the Secrets of Paris”

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