With a Little Help

photo: bridge, boat, canal st martin

On a break from the apartment search, at the Canal Saint-Martin.

From the Agency Ladies

Paris:- Sunday, 15. September 2002:- It hasn't been a good week for posters. I am scouting the avenue today and all I'm getting are dregs - dregs in comparison to last week's lush bounty. Passing the Villa Adrienne, I decide to enter the courtyard to inspect the concierge's cabin for 'à louer' signs.

There are never any outside. Inside, the Joe is sitting in the sunlight coming in from the south, listening to the radio, turned on loud. 'No,' he says, 'People sell their apartments here, they don't rent them.'

This leads to discussing the geopolitical situation of the world, with 'capitalism' and 'communism' in the form of cocked .45 automatics, muzzles to hammers, symmetrically surrounding an open space, representing petroleum. Joe wants to know why I ask him where he keeps his red flag. Joe believes more in the God that is arranging for him to sit inside, in the sunshine, listening to free music.

Well. This is how they say it is done. You talk to the concierges, but what really happens is you end up with Joe - because, basically, owners are selling their apartments because no tenants ever pay the rent. When you see what few apartments are available, you'll understand why nobody might feel like paying.

This is today's subject because a couple of readers think I am having a good time looking - forphoto: canal sightsee boat months - for a place to live and work. Other readers are wishing me good luck. I thank both categories for their interest.

But finding an apartment to rent is an existential exercise. When the search is over it will be done and life will go on to new things more interesting, and I doubt if I will feel like going over this subject again. If I am going to give it to you, now's the time.

A cruise boat waiting for the lock to fill before continuing on the canal.

Last night at Alice Gray's, I luckily happened to talk to a lady who does searches for apartments professionally. She would do it for me too, but she does it mainly for high-rollers, and mainly in arrondissements where I'd rather not live - places where it's handy to have a maid to do the shopping because it isn't handy.

In the course of the conversation, she chanced to name of the type of lease that I will need to use. Imagine it - I've been searching for five and a half months without knowing such a thing exists, and that it has a name known to everybody in the business.

On top of it, I've got the means to sign such a lease. But not knowing this, I've been telling fairy tales. Not everybody has salaried jobs with the Ministry of Finance, with revenues four times a monthly rental.

There are writers, actors, artists, journalists, film producers, photographers and musicians who don't get salaries, or not regular ones. Do these people live in cardboard boxes on the street?

I don't think so. But if any of them need to move right now, they are going to learn some sorry and hard facts. According to the real estate agents I've talked to, the market died a year ago when flat owners began selling their rental properties. I don't know if it is related, but agents also say there are few apartments for sale in Paris.

Maybe what they mean is, there are few buyers who feel comfortable with the New York-style euro prices. Or maybe, no apartments that are the right size and 'good' at the same time. For tenants, this also means that owners are demanding so much in 'caution' and guarantees that - if you had it - you could buy the thing they're got for rent.

On top of it, now that summer is over, the students are in the market looking for anything they can get, and the cheaper the better. Demand alone means than even 'worse' costs more. Studios are bad enough, but to suit high demand there is a sub-class called 'studette,' which amounts to a space the size of a broom closet.

These are often ex-maid's rooms, often seventh or eighth-floor walkups, right under the metal roofs. Toilets for these may be in the stairways, maybe a flight downstairs. But any kind of a bolt-hole can be a 'studette,' so I guess there are worse possibilities too.

Instead of being a student, let's say you are a human being and all you want is a one bedroom apartment - on a normal three-year lease. In Paris, if you can find one, these go for 850 to 1000 euros a month.

'Big' studios are 35 square metres. Small one-bedroom places are 35 square metres. The most 900 will get anybody is 45 square metres. If on a high floor, an elevator is a luxury. A 'cave' for storage in the cellar, once common, is becoming unheard of.

Central heating is getting more and more rare and individual electro heating more usual. There are combinations too, with gas-fired heat for the water, either in tanks or 'on demand.' Thesephoto: canal scene issues are important because a rent of 900 euros with 'charges compris' may mean you don't pay extra for the elevator, garbage collection and cold water, but pay a lot to EDF-GDF for heat and hot water.

A bit of quiet canal, lined with shady park areas on each side.

Finally, a classic empty apartment will seldom contain light fixtures, and may not contain a single closet or shelf. There may be windows on one side only, and none at all in the bathroom. Don't expect curtain rails, but most places do have window shutters - which may actually work. Checking the toilet to see if it works is a good idea because if it doesn't, fixing it will cost at least 100 euros. A 'used' apartment should have a reinforced door, but not all do.

Now let's say you are an 'acceptable' tenant. This means you have to beat out between 20 and 40 other seekers of the same apartment. Now you pay - maybe with a certified cheque - one month's rent, two months-worth for the 'caution,' and if an agent is involved, maybe ten to 15 percent of a year's rent. If you are required to put up a bank guarantee, there will be a whole year's rent blocked in it. Some owners demand two bank guarantees these days. Plus proof that your net salary amounts to three or four times the monthly rent.

If you can do all this, there's a perfect likelihood you can easily afford to buy the place. But the agencies have no one-bedroom apartments for sale anyway. If you can't do all of the above - especially not the salary of 'three or four times the monthly rent' part, then you have a serious problem because 30,000 students are in town competing for the 'studettes.'

Last week was fairly typical. An apartment nearby, handled by a local agency, was being renovated. This means its rent was being upped from 500 to 915 euros a month with a dash of fresh paint thrown on.

For this one, I had been visiting the ladies in the agency for over a week, asking if they had the 'key' yet. Last Monday they said they would have it Tuesday, and we fixed a time to go and look at it.

When we got there, via its tiny and rickety elevator, it was still being paint-dashed. First, it had a reinforced entry door. Then a nicely-sized living room with a big view window. I forgot to look for its shutters, but noticed that the room's electrical outlets were post-1970 - meaning, grounded.

The kitchen was in the hall, with a small refrigerator, and a two-plate hotplate and some cupboards. Very good. The bathroom was basic, but with a window. It had double sliding doors, but with the radiator located just outside, in the tiny kitchen area. The bedroom was a decent size, but with a floor raised about ten centimetres higher that the rest of the flat. It had one window, but no radiator. No closets or cupboards. With a sliding door too.

It was good that there are windows on both sides, allowing for air-flow. No radiators in the bedroom or bathroom are a minus. The living room's window overlooks a street with considerable traffic, but this is only half-bad because it is only during the twice daily rush-hours. The last minus is the uncertainty about the 'cave.' If it becomes available, it will cost extra.

Walking back, the agency lady happened to mention there was another apartment we could look at. It toophoto: canal cafe le pont tournant was being renovated. It was in a newer building, from the late '50s I guess. On the ground floor, its entry door was made of thick cardboard. It was also beside the elevator, so the apartment would get its noise, if not need its use.

A canal-side café, beside a swing bridge.

It had a big kitchen, needing just about everything. A small breakfast table could fit in. The kitchen, living room and bedroom all had ground-floor windows with a view of an interior garden in the courtyard. Even with big windows, it would be dark. The bathroom had no window - and airflow in the entire flat would be nil.

The windows' blinds were familiar to me from two apartments where I lived, and the built-in closets reminded me of the ones in the apartment I once owned. There was central heating, but absolutely no grounded electricity - and no 'cave.'

Slightly larger than the first flat, this second 'bonus' one would cost 35 euros a month more. But hells-bells - seeing two real flats really for rent in one day - wow!

Back at the agency to discuss details, the first bit of news was that while we were out looking some lawyer phoned to 'reserve' the first place. The agency ladies listened to my 'non-salary-but-creative-type' pitch with their eyebrows arching up near the ceiling fan. Before getting to the end, they said flat-owner two wouldn't buy it.

This made the morning's score zero for two. But, one lady said, get that guarantor company to give us figures, and they would try and fly them past flat-owner two anyway. The numbers came swiftly by email and when I took them over, they said, "How do we know these are real?"

I didn't say what I thought, which was - 'If you want 100 percent forgeries, I can make them better, more real, more kosher, than anybody's originals.' I didn't think to say 'truth looks stranger than fiction' either.

Now this was last Tuesday and I didn't buy Le Figaro, which is well-known for its 'for rent' ads. These might work if you can get to them at 05:00. Instead, I re-toured some of my local agencies - including having a serious chat with the son of the owner of the agency that handled the flat I'm in and have to leave.

On Wednesday I crossed the Avenue du Maine and picked up the latest edition of 'Fusac' from outside its offices. The English-language Fusac's rental ads are all for furnished flats, for medium term or very short term. It has none unfurnished, with standard three-year leases.

Assuming that all of its best offers had already gone, I chose 18 of the second-rate picks to call, email or both. A lot of these were mobile phone numbers, so this costs extra. I spoke to some recording machines.

The guy with the place at Château-Rouge is still advertising, so I guess he still hasn't madephoto: canal bridge up his mind whether he's renting this one or the one he has in Manhattan. He did call back once before though, but still to say he isn't sure of anything longer than three months, here or there.

One of the occasional foot-bridges over the canal.

The problem for me with a furnished place is what to do with the furniture I already have, and how to fit the editorial office part into a place more or less furnished already. None of these flats have storage 'caves' either.

Few ads mention size, which floor, what sort of heat or extra charges. Some of the email addresses are bouncers. Some are agents, so add on another 25 percent to the going-in cost. A couple of real people said their things had gone already. One, next door, wrote to say the advertised one was gone, but they'll ask around. Worth emailing a 'thanks' back. A few others - mostly French - returned calls to say theirs were gone. Merci!

One ad mentioned a decent sized one-bedroom flat at Place d'Italie. On the phone and by email, it was on the fourth floor with an elevator. Emailed photos showed a place with hardwood floors, full of light, but a bed suspiciously visible in a bedroom shot - meaning a small bedroom full of bed. There was too much flimsy-looking furniture too.

Even though Thursday is Café Metropole Club day, I bought the weekly paper with the 'private-to-private' classified ads in it. More and more of these are saying 'furnished.' This is the French way of getting out of being involved in the standard three-year leases.

With one thing and another, it wasn't until Friday that I got around to see its offers. I skipped all ads that looked really good. These went long-gone the day before. But I called a couple, and plain forgot to call one which might be undesirable to some, but a bargain for me. The week's list of 'likelies' was three pages long.

With the Fusac ad flat at Place d'Italie, we'd fixed a time for a view on Saturday. The owner wanted to rent it long-term - more than a year. But Friday morning he called me early and wanted to show it off a day early. And he added, 'could I bring, say, 500 euros in cash?'

I had the address of the place. Where I live now, I'm closer to the Place d'Italie than where this flat is located. After I'd woken up a bit more I called the guy back and simply told him I'd found another place. Actually, I would rather take the Château-Rouge guy's railroad flat in Manhattan. He may dither a lot, but he hasn't asked for cash.

There was very beautiful weather on Friday. I decided it could be good for my head to be in it, somewhere around the Canal Saint-Martin. Before hopping on the métro, I went over to 'bonjour' my agency ladies and they said the lawyer had 'unreserved' the first flat of the week. It is in play again and they're going to pitch my 'dossier' at it. 'And, oh, why not drop by on Saturday?'

Being up by the canal was a good thing to do. Besides the canal itself, it's a different part of town in a lot of ways. From habit I visited a couple of agencies, but I didn't see that many around. I had a double-café in the café Tamla on Voltaire and called it quits.

I left it late for the agency ladies on Saturday, but I did it. No key of course, no pitch made yet. Told to try again Monday, even if they think Tuesday is more likely. Fine, I thought - with the weekend 'off' I'll go to Alice Gray's for the potluck dinner.

And there I met Anna Eicher who told me about the 'company-lease' form. She said they are good as gold. I've already mentioned that Anna finds flats for people who aren't like me. Shephoto: paris respire, canal st martin told me her Web site isn't perfect, but if you aren't like me she may be able to find you a really good place in Paris, because she knows more agency ladies a lot better than I do.

Hardly necessary - a sign for 'Paris Respire.' A breathing area.

Even though I am still out in the cold, kind of, I'm glad I was prompted into writing this. What's here isn't as amusing as some of the wild and crazy stuff that goes on in Claudio's clip-joint - but along the way I've enjoyed talking to quite a good number of friendly people - including my present landlords.

By being understanding, they have taken off some of the deadline pressure. This is good because it means I can be more relaxed on visits to see 'my' agency ladies, and more relaxed meeting dozens of new people at Alice Gray's. Quit whining 'Ed' - be happy!

Which reminds me - of the people there on Saturday night who were wondering out loud how Alice Gray found that place she has. It didn't look like Le Figaro, the Fusac, or the 'private-to-private.' It looked like - the Ritz. Maybe Anna Eicher had something to do with it.

All photos, from the Canal Saint-Martin, taken on Friday.
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