Lara Marlowe: Life in the 7th arrondissement

There’s only one rule for renting or buying in Paris: you have to have a ‘coup de foudre’. If that initial spark isn’t there, you’ll be overwhelmed by bureaucracy and unforeseen costs

Lara Marlowe outside her local Metro station in the 7th arrondissement

Lara Marlowe outside her local Metro station in the 7th arrondissement

Thu, Jul 10, 2014, 01:00

My first Paris home was a chambre de bonne which the Sorbonne housing office found for me on the sixth floor of a Haussmanian apartment building in the rue de Bourgogne, in exchange for English lessons.

During that year in a garret, several decades ago, my diet consisted of fruit, cheese and baguettes. I had to walk up six flights of servants’ stairs, and having a bath was a challenge. But when I worked all night on my thesis, I was rewarded by the sunrise over Notre Dame. It was one of the happiest years of my life.

All these years later, I live just three blocks away, in the rue de Bellechasse. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. In the meantime I lived in England, Lebanon and the US. I rented a walk-up in the rue de Chazelles (17th) and a studio in the avenue Hoche (8th).

The studio was tiny, but the view of the Arc de Triomphe made it feel bigger. There was another rental above the passage de Choiseul (2nd) – an early-19th century version of a shopping mall – and the first flat I owned, a tiny, railway car of an apartment in the rue du Cherche-Midi (6th), from which I could see the towers of Saint-Sulpice.

There’s only one rule for someone renting or buying property in Paris: you have to have a coup de foudre. If that initial spark isn’t there, you’ll be overwhelmed by the bureaucracy and unforeseen costs. Wherever you live in Paris, you’ll end up loving the neighbourhood.

It was long fashionable to malign Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the prefect who began rebuilding Paris in the 1850s, for razing earlier buildings and winding streets, replacing them with the graceful stone buildings and grand boulevards that define the French capital as a 19th century city.

But these days, “Haussmanian” is a positive adjective, used sloppily by estate agents to describe any pre-second World War structure. The true Haussmanian building has parquet floors, black wrought iron railings, mouldings and marble fireplaces.

Gustave Caillebotte’s 1875 painting of Parquet Planers shows an authentic Haussmanian apartment. My living room looks like it, minus the gold leaf.

Plaques on nearby buildings remind me that the American novelist Edith Wharton lived around the corner in the rue de Varenne. André Gide inhabited the rue Vaneau, scarcely a block away. When I wrote a piece marking the centenary of Albert Camus’ birth last year, I was delighted to learn that Gide rented a studio to Camus in his building. Marcel Proust visited his friends the Daudet brothers just up the street. Though they’re all long dead, I like to think of them as neighbours.

Generations of French military families have congregated in the “Gros Caillou” (big pebble) neighbourhood of the 7th, on the far side of Les Invalides. The old quartier Saint Germain, where I’m fortunate to live, is home to lawyers, writers and academics. The architecture is a mix of Haussmanian and earlier 18th century. When you walk down the rue de Grenelle or the rue du Bac, sometimes a huge wooden door creaks open to reveal a splendid courtyard and mansion. Some of these homes have belonged to aristocratic families since before the revolution.

“The 7th is a discreet neighbourhood,” says Vincent Hamon, director of Exclusives Demeures estate agents. “People have money but they don’t show it. There’s no ostentation.” Hamon cites as an example the head of a large agroalimentary company who spent €6.7 million on an apartment. “He walks his dog, drives a mini or rides a motor scooter. If he were in the [nouveau riche] 16th, he’d have a Porsche and a Range Rover.”

Every Frenchman dreams of possessing a Paris apartment, a pav de banlieue (suburban bungalow) or a maison de campagne. Presidential candidates long promoted the dream by offering interest-free loans and tax breaks to help citizens buy their homes. According to the EU statistics office Eurostat, 62 per cent of the French own their home; 38 per cent rent. By comparison, 73.4 per cent of Irish citizens purchase their homes, and only 26.6 per cent rent.

Paris property prices fell last year for the first time since the late 1990s, by 3.9 per cent. But according to Century 21 estate agents, property in France has appreciated 75 per cent since 2000. There’s a glut of apartments measuring more than 150 m2, because affluent French people are fleeing to London and Brussels to avoid high taxation.

Prices range wildly according to location. Century 21 reports an average price of €8,229 per square metre for old buildings in Paris, but the price in fashionable districts rises to between €20,000 and €30,000 per square metre.

The market is sluggish, due to anxiety over the economy and the reluctance of banks to loan.

It takes an average of 93 days to close a property deal in France. After you’ve found your dream apartment (probably through the property pages of Le Figaro or seloger.com), owner and buyer sign a promesse de vente in the notary’s office. The buyer must deposit at least 5 per cent of the value of the apartment with the notary. Both parties have seven days to reflect.

It takes a French bank some 45 days to process a loan application. Meanwhile, the notary assembles the vast amount of documentation involved in a sale.

The so-called notary’s fees have increased from 5 per cent to up to 9 per cent of purchase price in recent years. The notary receives only one-fifth of “his” fee; four-fifths goes to fund government social programmes. After a return trip to the notary for the acte de vente, you’re a full-fledged co-propriétaire, required to pay building charges that amount to a modest rent, and attend the annual general assembly. The latter often pits the building Scrooge, who quibbles over the concierge’s ration of rags and cleaning fluid, against the spendthrift who’s eager to make improvements. Everyone states his opinion on everything; French democracy in all its glory.

 

LIVING IN PARIS

Highs

– History and culture. The 7th district is filled with 18th-century mansions and 19th-century apartment buildings that have been home to generations of writers, artists and aristocrats. The musée Rodin and the musée d’Orsay are main attractions.

– Centrality/public transport. I can walk or cycle to appointments at Sciences Po, the National Assembly and Foreign Ministry. The Élysée is two metro stops away. I have a choice of three metro lines and a half dozen bus routes.

– Concierge. The tradition is dying, but I’m fortunate to have Madame Castro, who feeds my cat when I travel, delivers mail, looks out for burglars and keeps the building spotless.

Lows

–Lack of shops. This is a residential and government office area, so you have to walk or cycle a certain distance to find food and newspapers.

– The dégât des eaux. Why is French plumbing so flawed? I can’t remember the last time there wasn’t water leaking somewhere in my apartment.

– Noise. The 7th is considered a quiet district, but there are a myriad hidden sources of noise. Haussmanian buildings are poorly insulated, so you hear every step the neighbours take. The restaurant on the ground floor makes a terrible racket. So does the ministry of education’s printing press, not to mention frequent demonstrations pitting protesters against riot police in the street outside.

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