What It’s Like to Buy an Apartment—As an American in Paris
One expat shares her experience.
Published Aug 31, 2020 12:00 AM
Maya Dorsey, author of the blog La Vie Locale—where she shares French travel and moving tips—has been living in France for nine years. This past September, she and her partner, Jérémy (a French citizen she met when she was living in New York City more than a decade ago), made a major life decision: They bought their first apartment, just 10 minutes outside of Paris. Here, Maya shares how they navigated the Parisian real-estate market and saved for their big investment—and (surprise!) how she bought an apartment with her sister in Austin, Texas, at the same time.
I’m originally from Los Angeles, but the last place that I lived in the States before moving abroad was New York. That’s where I met my partner, Jérémy—a French citizen who had plans to eventually move back home. Our goal was to each be in the same city, but when he moved back to France, I spent a year in Seville, Spain, where I taught English. I knew I wanted to go back to school for my master’s degree in public health, and Jérémy suggested I look at schools in France. I found one that taught in English, which was ideal because I knew zero French at that point. After I finished school, I had a one-year buffer on my visa to look for work—I ended up finding a job, and I’ve been able to stay here ever since, even though my visa is currently renewed every two years. Now I’m a long-term expat who has purchased property, and we’re expecting a baby next month.
We bought our apartment in Saint-Ouen—just 10 minutes outside of Northern Paris by metro—last September. Two years before, we started thinking about buying. The idea evolved over time: First, we thought about getting an investment property in Rennes, which is in Brittany, and then we looked at smaller spaces in Paris that we could rent out for the short term, but then we thought we might as well just invest in a property we could actually live in. Originally we wanted to stay in Paris—it’s the only place I’d lived in France—but we realized just outside of the city we could get something much bigger for our budget. We looked at neighborhoods that were up-and-coming and settled on Saint-Ouen, where a lot of developments are currently popping up, especially ahead of the 2024 Paris Olympics. Prices have risen a lot since we closed on our property, so we got in at a good time.
The home-buying process was quite unfamiliar to me. Basically, you find an apartment or house you’re interested in, you make an offer, and then you sign a compromis de vente, which is a promise to buy the property. You then have three months to secure funding through a bank. If the banks refuse you, you can pull out without penalty.
I was worried about getting approved for a loan as a foreigner. In France there are two types of contracts you can have for work: a CDD, which is a short-term contract for a set period of time that can be renewed or not, and a CDI, which is an indefinite contract with much more job security. The banks are concerned with financial security, so they prefer applicants with CDIs—Jérémy had one, so I also looked for jobs where I could get one, too. That definitely helped us secure our loan.
We also started saving money two years in advance. Our goal was to save for our “apport” (down payment usually around 10-percent) and any renovations we wanted to do. We opened a savings account called a CEL, which is meant for purchasing property—you set it for a duration of savings time, between 12 and 24 months. We chose 18 months, and you have an interest rate that you gain. It automates your savings, and if you don’t touch the money during that time period, you also get a bonus. Through Jérémy’s work he also had a savings account his company matched to a certain percentage, which we tried to max out. I was working full-time, and we both picked up side hustles that went directly to the apartment. I was doing projects through my blog, Paris tours, trip planning. It was a very strategic and disciplined two years of saving and cutting costs.
When we started looking at apartments, we set our budget at 350,000 euros maximum. Proximity to the metro was important, and we preferred a building that had charm—ideally not a new construction. We wanted at least two bedrooms, which we almost broke on because things were really going very quickly: We would find something online, call, and it would already be sold. So we were going to different agencies, giving our names, and showing our faces—that’s how we ended up getting our place, because it was never listed online. The agency called and then my partner visited and took photos and videos. The only downside was that it didn’t have an outdoor space—we had a balcony where we lived before, but we figured we can’t have everything in the first apartment we buy. We put in an offer in May—before I even saw the apartment in person—and it got accepted.
During this process, my younger sister moved to Austin, and within her first year had to move apartments two or three times for various reasons. One thing I learned from my own experience is that I wish we had bought a home sooner, even though I wasn’t sure how long I’d be in France. So I suggested to my sister that we buy a place together, where she could live and rent out the second bedroom. She’s seven years younger than me, so I thought it would be good for her to think about investing young—if she decides to leave Austin, she can rent the whole property. It’s our sister project.
We made a list of criteria, just as I did for the French apartment. I’d never even been to Austin, but we found an awesome young realtor via Open House Austin who helped us through the process, especially with the challenges of me being abroad. We started putting in offers for Austin apartments in July or August, and signed for one that we got for less than the listing price in October—just a month after Jérémy and I got our keys to our French apartment, after delays caused by paperwork and closures that are common in August.
Finally, I got to relax a little bit—but 24 hours after getting the keys, we started renovating the kitchen, bathroom, and all the floors, which we had also saved up for and did ourselves, with the help of Jérémy’s very handy family. His dad built his childhood home and his brother is an engineer, and we watched plenty of YouTube videos—we knew we had plenty of support.
It’s a little difficult to manage both mortgages at the moment because it’s still very new, but our realtor said the first year is always the hardest, so I know it will get easier after this. Signing for both of these properties is so rewarding—especially because it’s not something that happened overnight. It’s been a process that has evolved and wasn’t a complete walk in the park. In the end, to actually have a space that we can call our own has been really empowering. I’ve never realized that I have the habit of being in spaces that I know I’m going to leave or can’t necessarily modify. Jérémy keeps encouraging me to put things on the walls, and I’m like, “Oh, not yet, we have time.”
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