When making the move to Europe, one of the most important steps to stability is finding a place to live. We arrive with dreams of attics and old balconies, and are usually brought back to reality with sticker shock after seeing what the options really are. So, to help you with your move to France, here’s the story of our house hunt.
Arriving in Dijon we stayed first at the apartment of one of Diego’s colleagues. A little two bedroom on the 10th floor (a skyscraper for Dijon!) with breathtaking views of the old town from the balcony; it set a high standard for our house hunt. We were advised to look for a place with more than one bedroom-the French lifestyle can be pretty home based – lots of dinners with friends at home (going out can be expensive) and it’s always nice to have an extra room should visitors come calling. So we started the hunt looking at T3 apartments. You’ll find Studios and T1-T5 and beyond. The T1 is an apartment with one ” piece” or one bedroom, T3 has two bedrooms and a living room. Read the description of the apartment carefully to find out just what it has- closets? garage? cellar? appliances?
In France there are loads of real estate agencies to choose from or you can go through a private landlord. We looked at both options. A private renter may be cheaper, but has fewer options. An agency will show you lots of options, but adds on a finder’s fee. Which ever you choose, keep in mind that all the paperwork and legalities that go with renting could delay your move. Be prepared to stay in a hotel or with a friend for the first few weeks until you get your feet on the ground. You can search from abroad, but in a small town like Dijon, it felt better to get a sense of the city before we started the hunt. We started two days after we arrived with a basic idea of the city, some tips from our contacts in town, and a prepared speech for the real estate agent. The start when went well, we walked into the agency, said our spiel and then the agent responded…we totally floundered, forgetting basics like numbers, but, somehow managed to make an appointment to see three apartments the next week. So, remember to be prepared for responses too, study up on basics like house vocab, days of the week, and numbers!
We took the weekend to recover from our first disastrous French business encounter and the next week continued the search getting in touch with a few private options and a few more agencies.
While we were looking we found a few surprises in the hunt: agencies will simply give you the keys to check out the apartment on your own-no tours, but no squatting either since they have your ID; most French apartments come completely unfurnished-expect no more than a kitchen sink and light bulbs hanging from the ceiling not even cupboards; bathrooms and toilets are separate-you’ll find the water closet nowhere near the sink and shower, and showers are optional too- most apartments have the shower head mounted just a few feet above the tub meaning you’ll always be holding the shower head, but most have tubs; the French love wallpaper, most places had new color and print in every room (you can negotiate the option to repaint); and finally, most of the places we saw didn’t have closets.
We looked at some “gems” in the bottom of our budget range. A Dentist office converted into an apartment with a shower in the kitchen, toilet in a closet, and sink in the living room. Linoleum stained, hole in the door horrors, Freddy Krueger horrors. One adorable private with an old metal elevator, a ceramic kitchen sink from the 50’s, huge windows, and crown molding, but located in the middle of nowhere.
Desperate, we decided we might have to consider the higher range of our rent budget and we suddenly entered a new world. Newly renovated villas with appliances! A two bedroom, 2 balcony, with covered garage, wine cellar, and closets! Both near the city center and bakeries. We decided the choice was between these two. At just under our budget limit we had to decide between a semi furnished white one bedroom. or a non-furnished spacious, bright, two bedroom with balconies, garden, and garage.
A trip to look at appliances ensued to see if buying everything-fridge, stove, washer, mattress, and sofa would be possible with our budget. On top of the cost of appliances, add on the agency’s finder fee and your security deposit. If you are planning on making the move, have your savings well planned-or expect to have mattress as sofa or vice-versa and a hot plate for a few months.
Another surprise is that in order to rent, most agencies require a co-signer who lives and works in France. This pretty much made the deal for us. Cute white villa apartment had higher finder fees and required our co-signer live in France and have a least one year’s full rent in their bank account. We started to worry. Being new in town we didn’t have many options. So, we crossed our fingers as we headed to the second agency-double balcony apartment. They didn’t put the same limits as long as our co-signers lived in France and had proof of employment. We were in! We signed the papers for our lovely new apartment and with proof of both Diego and my income we were approved and had our keys a week later!
So, if you’re considering making the move keep in mind these loopholes. You might be required to show proof of employment and have a French co-signer. If these are not your options, steer into the private landlord direction. But, on last tip, if working with a private landlord, get everything in writing! If you are told the place is furnished, get it on paper. If you are told heating is included-put it in words. I had a few friends who rented from website while abroad with no real contract in writing until they arrived, only to find a very different apartment than what they expected and were sold online.
But, agency or private, you will find your place, even if it is a little more complicated and expensive than you expect. We are so happy with our apartment, colored wallpaper and all. It’s super spacious and bright, just a few minutes from the city center, the neighborhood church bells mark the hour, and we have a view of adorable rooftops and chimneys just off our balcony. And one last surprise-we ended up renting from the first agency we walked into on our second day in France, sweating and stuttering to say even numbers-funny how what feels like a complete disaster at the moment can turn out so well in the end!
Have you got any other European house hunting tips or stories?