Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Hunting for a Paris Apartment Part V

The Quai Bourbon, on the Ile St. Louis

Heaven on the Ile St. Louis

I’ll say it right upfront. This is one of those situations where thank goodness I didn’t buy the apartment; not because it wasn’t great but because I could never have done as good a job with it as the people who ended up buying and renovating it. My guess is that the buyers were not American, because if they had been, their renovation costs, already quite significant, would have been astronomical, given where the dollar was at the time of this purchase. But whoever they are, I am happy for them and congratulate them on their exquisite taste and spectacular renovation of what was once a very ugly duckling apartment.

After scouring my favorite arrondissement (the 7th) for several months, and coming up with little or nothing, I decide to branch out into unfamiliar territory. I knew that I couldn’t go wrong with the Ile St. Louis, that little island of paradise that sits next to the Ile de la Cite (home of Notre Dame and lots of other marvels), smack in the oldest part of Paris. So when an apartment came up that overlooked one of the most stunning private courtyards of Paris, where the famous and somewhat maligned Camille Claudel had lived, I figured this could be my entrée into a different part of town. And of course the real estate listing didn’t need much to lure me, since the Ile St. Louis location and 4th floor with elevator were trophies in themselves.

Quai de  Bourbon Courtyard

The stunning courtyard, where Camille Claudel once lived

What I actually found was a handsome set of heavy doors on the Quai de Bourbon, leading to one of the most gorgeous courtyards I’d ever seen, with a very average stairwell, and an acceptable elevator to a cramped apartment under the eaves of a 17th century “hotel particulier” in a terrible state of disrepair, with no view and a fairly high price. But then again, this was the Ile St. Louis. And although there was no view, which is usually the prize on the Ile St. Louis, the small windows did get good light, with Southwestern exposure. The ceilings were low but I was told that we could have access to “les combles” which is the much prized attic space that allows for the top floor resident, if voted and approved by the co-proprietors of a building, to break through the ceiling and have access to the attic or rafters. Of course, getting the permission is just half the battle. The other half is financing such an expansion, which can be significant.

December January 2008 008

View from the apartment, overlooking other stunning apartments and the courtyard

The apartment was a great size – around 800 square feet – and would have worked well as a small two bedroom. But with the dollar still in freefall, and the state of the economy in major upheaval, it didn’t seem like the right time to take on a project of such magnitude and risk. It would have been fun to live in this building and to share a “cave” with some of the leading and oldest champagne families of France, as well as other distinguished co-proprietors . But I wasn’t sure that I could just love the Ile St. Louis. Nice place to visit, but where do you do your grocery shopping? And pharmacy? And public transportation? And where can you have a cup of coffee without being surrounded by tourists? Could you really have a life there or is it a transient community of wealthy absentee landlords mixed with short term renters? And how would my Scurry deal with four flights of stairs if the elevator ever went out?

December January 2008 010

The study – windowless, dark and foreboding

Quai de Bourbon before

The living room, with its old fashioned wall paper

Quai Bourbon bedroom before

The master bedroom: Wait til you see the after on this one!

It was easy to justify all the reasons why I didn’t want this apartment, since it would have been a very hard sell with my better half (“Big Guy”) if I really did want it. So I let it go, without too much further thought, knowing that in the connubial arena of picking one's battles, this one would be tough to win. Luckily for the apartment, and the building, someone with exquisite taste, and a very adequate budget won their battle and got the prize, and what a wonderful marvel they turned it in to! Enjoy the photos. And know that my little search for the perfect pied-a terre is far from over. So if you're enjoying the ride, come along with me as I consider, next week, “How to make an offer.”

Ta ta,



The new front hall; floor was added and ceiling beams were revealed


View of the living room and dining room; the wall was taken down to the studs and the beams


View of the living room from the master: fireplace was added


Master bedroom, with new beams and floors


View of the master bedroom from the living room


View of the living room from the dining room; again, that used to be a wall


What was once the dark and foreboding, grasscloth cloaked study – now a spectacular second bedroom

All before photographs, with apologies for their quality, are by me! All after photos, courtesy of Haven in Paris.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Hunting for a Paris Apartment IV

Postcards from Paris…

Eiffel TowerThe crown jewel of Paris

With no multiple listing service and realtors competing against each other, plus a shortage of inventory and sky rocketing prices on top of a painfully unfavorable exchange rate, it can be very daunting looking for an apartment in Paris, even if you speak the language and think you know your way around the internet. Or so I've learned the hard way.

There are a several buyers’ agents out there, but they typically charge a very hefty fee for their service and I have been determined to try to beat the system and do it on my own. I've found several “by owner” sites on the internet and learned that their prices are as high and sometimes higher than the realtors, but at least they offer more inventory, since many of the realtor sites just offerthe same, tired and inferior apartments over and over.

Not only have I pored over the for sale listings, and subscribed to dozens of listing sites, but I’ve also read through all of the apartment rental sites to determine what makes a perfect rental apartment, if I want to rent it when I'm not there. For example, an elevator is absolutely essential if the apartment is on the 2nd floor or above. Personally, I like the exercise and enjoy going up several flights of stairs to be as high as possible (which in Paris is usually the 7th floor unless you are in one of those rare “modern” buildings, which could go as high as ten or fifteen). But most people don’t like to lug their suitcases up more than one floor, so an elevator is essential.

That rules out many apartments in the older Arrondissements, like the 5th and 6th, because those 17th century buildings often cannot accommodate elevators. And some of the elevators in the newer, “Haussman” style apartment buildings are so tiny and scary, I wouldn’t be caught dead riding in them. But an elevator is that prized possession that is essential in a rental, and it automatically jacks up the price by as much as 100,000 or even 200,000 euros in some prime buildings.

And then of course rule #2 is that you need to be in an old building, preferably 1900’s or before, but preferably with high ceilings. 1930’s buildings have recently come into favor with realtors, but Americans who rent apartments in Paris are really looking for the quintessential Parisian experience, and that is the Haussman like apartment with French doors, parquet floors, fireplace, molding, a bedroom overlooking a courtyard and a living room facing a tree and café lined boulevard. Rule #3 is, a view.

Eiffel Tower 2 Photo courtesy of Paris Perfect, View from “Champagne”

Some of the rental agencies think that a view is the most important feature in a rental, especially if there is a view of a coveted monument or, perhaps the greatest of all, the quintessential Paris landmark, the sparkling Grande Dame: the Eiffel Tower.

So imagine my excitement when one of my favorite agents, a woman who owns one of the best rental agencies in town, sent me an urgent email with an apartment whose views were so distinctive and amazing, I could barely hold myself back from excitement. This is it!! Look no further!! On one side, there was a sweeping, in-your-face view of the Eiffel Tower. On the other side, a view of the Paris skyline and the golden dome of the Invalides. And all along one side of the apartment, there was a large and wide terrace, with enough room to seat two tables of six – an almost unheard of commodity in Paris.

Eiffel Tower at dusk The Eiffel Tower at dusk

Rooftop view The golden dome of the Invalides shimmering in the distance

Rooftop view 2 Oh la la, La Paris!

Rooftop view 3

The apartment had been purchased by an English couple but for some reason they pulled out at the last minute (the French law is rather forgiving in this way), and so it had recently come back on the market, and my agent was sure that it would sell quickly.

An amazing view is a precious commodity in Paris. A private terrace is an even more precious commodity. So imagine having an apartment with views to die for AND a huge terrace from which to enjoy them! It sounded like a dream come true. Plus, I really trust and respect this agent, and if she says it’s a good apartment, then I know that it is.

Charming patio A little oasis in the city.

A place to catch some sunThe perfect spot to relax and soak up some sun.

A place to dine al fresco Dining al fresco with a view of Paris…perfection.

Meandering blooms Flowers mingle with view of the cityscape

But as I started examining the pictures more closely, I realized that the floor was prefab parquet, the architecture was 1960’s boring, and the neighborhood was so-so. I actually sort of welcome an ugly interior, because it’s more of a challenge and more satisfying to transform it. And I even welcome the challenge of turning a boring 60’s modern apartment in to a beautiful 21st century modern mixed with antiques and a little glam. But the common areas of the building and the outside are a different matter.

Living room Lots of potential here!

Kitchen The kitchen: not great, not terrible. At least there are windows!

I got out my trusted Google maps and walked up and down the street, looking for restaurants and quaint little shops. Although the 7th arrondissement in general is my favorite, and the whole area is known to be safe, bourgeois, and very appealing, the immediate surrounding this apartment were not, and the street and apartment building were downright disappointing.

Although I welcomed the challenge of an inside renovation, I knew that nothing we could do could change the outside of the building or the lobby. I was also surprised that my favorite agent had suggested this to me, since she was the greatest proponent of buying “old.” But she insisted that the view was worth it and although she agreed that old would be better, and this one lacked charm from the outside, the apartment itself would be highly rentable.

Entry gates The rather foreboding entrance ...

Entrance Not quite the entrance I have been dreaming about ...

The building facade What happened to architecture in the 1960's?

And that’s when I realized that although renting was part of our purchase decision, I didn’t want it to be the only driving force. I would be living there too, and I needed to love it and feel comfortable. The last thing I ever wanted to do was to apologize for the building that we were buying in to. I already knew that this was going to be a game of give and take, but I didn’t think I could take the bad with the good on this one. So we nixed it, and moved on. No regrets, except maybe that unbelievable view. Luckily, there was an exciting opportunity that popped up on the horizon … stay tuned for “Happiness on the Ile St. Louis.”



Saturday, July 3, 2010

Hunting for a Paris Apartment III

Postcards from Paris ... Having a Crush


Looking for a Paris apartment has its challenges, especially if you are not in Paris. To begin with, there is no MLS service that lists all of the apartments. All the real estate agencies work for themselves and will only show you their listings. Sometimes a seller will list their apartment with several different agencies, and sometimes you will see multiple ads for the same apartment, at different prices!

Having lost our first love, the “Bourdonnais,” I started to pay more attention to the rules of the Paris real estate market, and tried to learn the ropes, even from a distance. I learned to fine-tune the location within Paris, and subscribed to the notion that an investment apartment had to be in one of the single digit arrondissements, preferably the 4th, 5th, 6th or 7th.

Rue de Verneuil sign

I learned to differentiate between the low and high end real estate agents in the 7th, and figured out which rental agencies catered to the high end American clients who could (hopefully) eventually rent my apartment. I figured out all the various ways to view apartments over the internet and got my morning exercise by virtually walking up and down the streets of Paris with Google maps, practically salivating over a virtual croissant in a neighborhood bakery.

Rue de Verneuil street view Rue de Verneuil in the 7th, as seen on the street view from Google maps. Helpful…un peu.

SONY DSC Shop fronts along Rue de Verneuil

Doing everything long distance was a tough challenge, especially when there were so many bad apartments to weed through. But when this little charmer came up on my radar, again thanks to Cecil Jones, of Just France, I pounced on it.

Building exterior The exterior – oh-so-promising! The facade is elegant white limestone – so chic, so Parisian. But what’s hiding inside?

I had a little crush on the apartment from the get-go, mostly because of its stellar location but also because it had good bones, and some irreplaceable old fashioned charm in the bedroom and dressing area. I could just envision the elegant petite dame who had probably lived there for most of her life. Blue bedroom Perhaps where the elegant petite madame laid her head to rest every night…?

Blue bedroom, closet
Oh dear. A closet fit for a…petite madame with a petite wardrobe. Hhmmm.

Its location in the totally crush-worthy “Carre des Antiquaires” part of the 7th, behind the Musée d’Orsay, is definitely “le top” in Paris terms. The streets are small, elegant and charming and lined with mostly white limestone 17th century buildings that house high end art galleries and antique stores, along with a few marvelous restaurants and fancy gourmet shops, all just steps away from the Seine and a puddle jump from the exquisite Tuileries gardens.

the 7th Arrondissement The scene in the 7th

Plus, the building had a sweet courtyard and the most rare and precious commodity of all, especially in a 17th century building: An elevator! But for the most part, it needed to be redone from scratch and it had the fatal flaw of facing north, which you’ll come to learn is my ultimate bugaboo.

Living Room 2 The “grande” salon has such charming touches – the antique fireplace, original moldings, and large windows (which must have curtains, unfortunately).

Living Room 1 Living & sitting rooms View from the grande salon into the petite salon

Kitchen 1 The kitchen…oh mon Dieu! But nothing new wallpaper & appliances can’t fix. The layout, however, is a wee bit trickier to change.

Kitchen 2 Bathroom La toilette…in need of a little update, don’t you think?

Through Cecil, I found a wonderful young man who was a part-time architecture instructor at the Sorbonne, who visited the apartment and sent me his opinion, along with a few more pictures. He gave the location the expected high A, the courtyard a B, and, much to my dismay, the apartment a C+. Why? Because of the layout, the north facing windows and the shallow depth of the courtyard, ensured that it would always be dark.

Looking up Looking up from the courtyard – Voila! The sky! (way up there…) And such large, charming windows that face the (shady) interior. Who needs natural light, really?

I didn’t want to give up easily, so I studied the pictures and layout in the greatest detail and -- you’ll get used to this, I am a design nerd -- went to bed each night with pencil and paper trying to manipulate and stretch the layout to yield a viable two bedroom, two bath apartment. (I’ve since learned to stay away from apartments that are too big to be cost effective one-bedrooms but are not big enough to be viable two bedrooms.)

Verneuil floorplan Try and try again, nothing can undo the northward orientation or lack of 2nd bedroom. Phooey!

But I had to wonder. Although it had many charming characteristics, and a neighborhood that was le plus ultra, even the most extensive redo wouldn’t turn this apartment into a fabulous pied-a-terre because the courtyard, although pretty, was only just so so and the apartment would always be dark. I had a little crush on this apartment , but no matter how hard I worked at it, I couldn’t turn it into the love of my life.

I haven’t give up and know that it’s out there, for sure!
Stay tuned for “Holy Moly, What a View” …



Hunting for a Paris Apartment, II

Postcards from Paris… Hardly any regrets


It was probably a sign and we probably should have taken it. But one of the things that I’ve tried to learn during this apartment hunt business, is to have no regrets. So instead, let’s just say that this first apartment got away and probably did so for a good reason.

When unforeseen travel cancellations “forced” us to return to Paris for a night, we were able to schedule a last minute visit to the Bourdonnais apartment I had just heard about. At the time I thought, “This such a good story – one of luck and timing and stars lining up – maybe this will be the perfect apartment.” The irony is that a couple of years later with lots of lessons learned, I realized that this probably was close to the perfect apartment. But oh well. No regrets.

Here are the images of my first love, number one. It was a charming two bedroom apartment (O.K., in all fairness, bedroom number two was a pass-through, but if you craned your neck and looked up the airshaft, it did have a fabulous view of the tippy top of the Eiffel tower), just off of the Avenue de la Bourdonnais, in the swanky 7th arrondissement of Paris.

Chardonnay-terrace The terrace – perfect for enjoying your morning croissant. Image via Paris Perfect.

Since it was love number one, I missed a couple of things that in retrospect, I’ve learned are highly desirable and hard to come by:

1. It was in great shape and really didn’t need to have anything done to it

2. It was on the fifth floor with a balcony. You’ll learn, as I did, that the fifth floor of a circa 1900’s building is a very desirable floor because it often has a “balcon filant” or wrought iron balcony that stretches across the front of the building. Sometimes there is just enough room for a small bistro table. (OK, small caveat – I’m afraid of heights and not sure that I’d ever dare set foot on the balcony – but it is a nice idea and a great feature for resale, as well as a wonderful prop for photographs.)

Dining al fresco

Avenue view

3. It faced south, and therefore was bathed in sun all day long, which is quite the valuable commodity in a Paris apartment. (OK, another small caveat – the view across the street was of an ugly school, but the view to the side was amazing.)

4. Something else I didn’t realize was that Love #1 had all of the coveted architectural elements that are Parisian favorites and the cornerstone of every chi chi real estate listing: “Parquet, moulures, cheminee” – meaning the original parquet floors (note that these are the highly desirable “pointes d’hongrie” floors) , moldings and fireplace.

Living Room Gorgeous floors & moldingLiving Room 2

FireplaceOriginal fireplace

5. The inside was beautifully furnished, with a combination of nice antiques and attractive decorative elements. The palette was light and bright and complemented the architectural elements of this circa 1900’s building.

KitchenA small but updated kitchen


Bedroom 2Bright, comfortable bedrooms

BathroomLa toilette – clean & efficient

6. Last but certainly not least, location location location. Although some may argue that the swanky 7th arrondissement is not the most exciting in Paris, because it is a little more residential and not as central to the hubbub of activity, it has long been one of my favorites. If you’re going to be in the 7th, you either need to be close to the Rue Cler (a famous and fabulous market street), or with a view of the Eiffel Tower. This one had the view.

View of the Eiffel Tower C’est magnifique!

This apartment got away from us, since we didn’t act fast enough and didn’t realize at the time what a great and rare product it was. New owners came in and made some changes , including painting the small bedroom blue, adding a swag over the master bed and giving the living room a decidedly blue palette. But the essentials of the apartment, and what I fell in love with – the floors, the location, the light and the view – haven’t changed a bit.

The second bedroom/reading roomSecond Bedroom Master bedroomMaster bedroom

Open floor plan- dining & living room

Dining Room 2

Dining Room All photos courtesy of Paris Perfect.

Oh well, I let it get away. Bye bye love #1. With “Hardly any Regrets,”, the hunt continues. Stay tuned for next week’s, “Having a Crush.”