An Impulsive Purchase

Published in French Property News May 2014 issue | Written by Polly Fielding


I fell in love with French culture aged twenty-one as a nanny in Paris, never dreaming that one day I would return to buy an apartment.

Fast forward forty years. My husband Dennis and I had taken early retirement from teaching. Our daughter Nikki, infected with my enthusiasm for everything French, had decided to make her life in Paris, despite being a struggling actress relying on the goodwill of others for a place to stay.

2003 felt like one long holiday as I boarded Eurostar for a fortnight's cat-sitting with Nikki.

As we breakfasted on freshly-baked croissants and sipped delicious coffee on a sunny cafe terrace, the excitement I'd felt all those years ago flooded back as I tried out my elementary French, effusive gestures supplementing missing vocabulary, and managed to make myself understood.

Dennis rang me when I was perched precariously over one of those hole-in-the-floor toilets. With his less than impeccable timing, he casually suggested we buy a Parisian apartment giving Nikki somewhere to stay until she could afford to rent somewhere, and us a base from which to explore Paris and the rest of France.

This was probably Dennis' idea of a joke, I said, mentioning his idea to Nikki. She, however, was eager to begin the search immediately. In vain I tried to convince her that this wasn't like buying a baguette. It would do me good, she urged, to begin this fresh phase of my life with a new focus.

Before I realised what was happening I was being steered towards the nearest estate agent, where property photos were distinctly off-putting - a chair in an empty room, the view from a window. But the agent claimed he had exactly the right apartment for us. Although the asking price was more than we could afford, perhaps we could bargain it down. I was suspicious though about his willingness to drive us there immediately. Did his instant availability indicate that we were his first potential clients for weeks or had he seen a chance to offload an undesirable residence onto unsuspecting foreigners, I wondered?

The prospective property was in a dark, narrow street lined with tall, ancient buildings. The agent typed a code into a keypad on the wall and pushed open the heavy wooden door, revealing a dark passage ahead. He pressed a glowing button on the crumbling plaster, dimly illuminating a shabby entrance with an uneven, worn wooden staircase spiraling endlessly upwards.

Arriving at the sixth floor, he produced a large set of keys and proceeded to unlock what appeared to be the door to a fortress. (Apparently, many insurance companies require several locks to be fitted, particularly in urban areas, otherwise they deem it inadequately secured.)

Following the agent along a narrow hallway into a fair-sized room, I wasn't convinced that there was anything worth insuring. Apart from an old-fashioned, grubby sink unit (stink-unit, more like) in one corner and a probably unsafe, grease-encrusted gas-cooker in another, there was nothing there. One wall was painted black, the other three the deepest possible shade of red. A dim light came through the large window, which looked onto dingy buildings opposite and failed to block out the constant hum of traffic. Vibration beneath my feet told me that a M├ętro line ran directly below the building.

The agent proudly pointed out the 'parquet' flooring. Staring at them, I failed to see anything special about the old wooden floorboards.

Moving into a much smaller room - the bedroom? - I was decidedly unimpressed by the lack of a door; but at least the walls were white.

Nikki, who had wandered into a room to our left, was enthusing about the bath. I peeped into a space that scarcely allowed for standing room, containing the tiniest bath I'd ever seen, plus a toilet and sink, which, together with the cracked tiles, must surely have harboured the equivalent in germs to the population of Birmingham.

Apparently not many Parisian apartments have baths, so this was an important asset.

I insisted to Nikki that we didn't want a place where her dad and I would be forced to sleep in the kitchen and go through her room to reach that cubbyhole of a bathroom.

Sensing I'd lost interest, the agent quickly ushered us out. Down in the street once more, he shook our hands with polite formality and hurried off to his car without so much as the offer of a ride back.

Some of the other apartments we inspected would have failed to impress even a family of rats. Clearly unlived-in for ages, they smelled musty and looked as distinctly uncared-for as the buildings housing them. Surely, with huge cracks in the walls, broken stairs and the stench of household waste, they were heading towards a Demolition Order. Others were in striking contrast, with large, tastefully decorated rooms, glorious views and carpeted stairs leading up to them. Their sole drawback was the price, which Nikki dismissed lightly as "only a few more thousand pounds, Mum..." I tried to impress on her that at our time of life her dad and I could not afford to take on a second mortgage.

The next day we bought a copy of the weekly property newspaper and worked our way religiously down the columns until Nikki excitedly declared she'd found exactly what we'd been seeking. The private ad she was pointing to was fifty-nine thousand Euros, (just under forty thousand pounds) completely refurbished, not overlooked, with low charges.

I was sceptical. For 'small' I read 'cramped', 'not overlooked' indicated 'tower block', and 'refurbished, barely habitable.

However, later that day after arranging a meeting, we found ourselves on the east side of Paris in the town of Montreuil, where the owner met us outside a five-storey building with a couple of shops either side of a heavy, panelled oak door.

Three flights up, we were shown into a white-painted hallway.

To our right was what seemed be the kitchen. At any rate, it was a room with a sink. Sunshine streamed through the window, reflecting off the white walls. Its odd shape reminded me of that bit of jigsaw that doesn't seem to fit anywhere. How on earth you could get a square cooker, let alone a fridge/freezer, into this tiny space I couldn't imagine.

Further along, a 'deceptively small' room contained a sink, miniscule shower cubicle with no curtain and a toilet beside the window. Very basic, but with sunlight brightening its white walls I rather warmed to the idea of viewing Paris whilst sitting on the loo.

At the end of the hallway was a larger room, again painted white.

We walked to the far side of the room, roughly three strides, to gaze at the rooftops of Paris.

The last room, overlooking the front street, was bright and compact like the others. I began to get a really good feeling. Nikki looked equally impressed. The basic layout was just what I had in mind.

I tried bargaining to no avail. We were, the owner argued, saving agents' fees by buying directly from him and could use his solicitor, who did not charge excessively.

I decided not to risk losing this property, so newly on the market. With a shake of the owner's hand the sale was agreed.

That evening, even after a couple of glasses of wine I was still shell-shocked, trying to grapple with the enormity of what I'd just done.

The rest of the week felt like I was in a play with no script.

Dennis phoned his bank and arranged a money transfer to Nikki's bank account to cover our ten percent deposit which is legally binding; so no backing out after that!

The owner drove us to the Notaire for the initial signing, with me clutching my passport. Marriage and birth certificates could be sent later.

We were ushered into a grand room with expensive leather furniture, high ceiling and ornately framed paintings. Even Louis XIV would not have felt out of place in such opulent surroundings.

A tall, impeccably-dressed man rose from behind his desk, shook hands and invited us to be seated. The apartment owner looked immaculate in a spotless cream suit; whereas Nikki was wearing her red, ill-fitting sweater and jeans with designer rips in them. My own attire was hardly better - faded jeans, sandals and tee shirt. It hadn't occurred to me that this might be a formal occasion.

However, if the notaire felt any disdain, he kept it hidden as he perused documentation and explained what I'd be signing.

Everything was conducted in French, Nikki translating. I signed the papers and Nikki passed across the cheque. The notaire stood abruptly, signalling completion. Handshakes all round and we walked out into the sunshine.

Three months later we returned and performed the ceremony of completion - formal, in an almost incomprehensible legal jargon - and paid the rest of the money.

How I made the empty shell of an apartment habitable is another story...

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