After 6 Years in NYC, I Moved to France—Here’s What It’s Actually Like to Find an Apartment in Paris
“Unfurnished” could also mean no kitchen cabinets.
Published Mar 15, 2023 1:30 AM
We may earn revenue from the products available on this page and participate in affiliate programs.
In 2019, after nearly six years in New York City and on the verge of turning 30, I decided to take one of those impractical life plunges that only makes sense from an emotional standpoint. I packed up my structurally questionable East Village apartment, waved a reluctant goodbye to my local bodega, and moved to Paris. Blessed with dual EU citizenship, I was able to indulge in a bit of international whimsy, though the experience was still no walk in the…Luxembourg Gardens. Jobless and predominantly friendless, the weight of my decision didn’t fully hit until touching down on the tarmac at Charles de Gaulle Airport faced with the daunting task of finding somewhere to live.
The feat of securing an apartment is, while mildly complicated, mostly achievable. As someone who has been through the wringer and is now comfortably situated in a one-bedroom in the 5th Arrondissement, “How did you find your apartment?” is the most frequent question I get asked by friends back home and social media followers since moving here. Considering it seems to be the factor that dissuades solo Paris hopefuls the most, I spoke with some fellow American expats and asked for their top tips for finding a place in the City of Light.
So You’ve Landed in Paris—Now What?
If you’ve ever picked up and moved to a new place, you know that it takes a minute to learn the lay of the land. Paris is no different. Allison Crawford, interior designer and founder of Hotelette, recommends giving yourself some time to experience the city before committing to one location. “Consider renting an Airbnb to figure out what area you like,” she advises. Personally, I stayed at my (only) friend’s apartment in the north of the city for a week before booking a rental in the center for another month as I continued to search for more long-term places to settle down. Try to get a sense of how your target neighborhoods feel both during the day and evening, and take into account factors like pedestrian traffic, noise from cars and mopeds, proximity to grocery stores, and which metro lines are nearby.
Are You a Left- or Right-Banker?
For all intents and purposes, the city is divided into two halves: the north (rive droite—right bank) and the south (rive gauche—left bank). If you find that delineation confusing, you’re not alone. Friends of mine who’ve lived here for years still confuse the two. What they don’t mix up, however, is which one they prefer. “The Left Bank is where you take your family and friends their first time in Paris to show them the sites. The Right Bank is where you take your friends and dates when you want to enjoy yourself,” explains Kiana Tiese, a content creator based on the Right Bank. Most youngish Parisians and expats opt for the Right Bank, in part because it’s the most affordable, but also because it’s home to the most popular new bars and restaurants. “I’m a rive droite girlie,” says Daniela Cadena, content strategy manager at Moët Hennessy. “I love the 9th, 10th, and 18th. I think they’re dynamic neighborhoods that are both still very French and traditional but international and modern at the same time.”
As for myself, after a year living further north in the 19th during COVID-19, I landed on the Left Bank, primarily because I was desperately craving some fresh surroundings. The good news is that the metro is hyper-convenient. “It’s a small city, so wherever you end up, it will be easy to get from place to place,” confirms Adrienne Ryser Acoca, owner of L’Arrosoir, a flower shop based in the 11th Arrondissement.
First Thing’s First: Make a Dossier
While the actual word in French just means “folder,” it’s much more than that. A dossier is a compilation of various documents that most apartment owners or agencies rely on to determine if you’re a worthy candidate. Cadena recommends kicking things off on a personal note: “My friend told me to include a letter telling the owner a little bit about myself and how I’m a responsible adult who can pay her bills on time—it makes them see the human behind the application.” It’s also common practice to provide a photo of yourself in this portion of the dossier. “It can take a while to have a worthy dossier as a foreigner,” says Tiese. “I would suggest putting anything related to payment at the front.” That includes proof of your past three months’ rent, a screenshot of your savings account, and any guarantor information. The latter can be difficult, as you’ll typically need a French guarantor to convince a picky landlord, so take a look at sites like Garantme and Luko, which help offer paid solutions to guarantor-less renters. It’s worth noting that those with full-time employment contracts (called CDIs) will be prioritized, but as a freelancer myself, I can attest that finding a place without one is not impossible.
Let the Search (Bar) Begin
While I personally relied on a site called PAP during my hunt, as it allowed me to deal directly with the landlord (or propriétere), there are several other options. “I recommend Seloger, BookAFlat.com, MessageParis.org, and Airbnb, and LeBonCoin can have some hidden gems, too,” says Crawford. Cadena prefers an app called Jinka, which basically centralizes all the listings on the Internet in one place and allows you to set up notifications depending on your preferences.
I’d also highly suggest calling versus emailing when aiming to set up a viewing. It may feel intimidating to handle a conversation in French, but it’s better to stumble awkwardly through a call than to receive no response at all. If the sites feel overwhelming, another great option is to rely on the vast community of expats in Paris who regularly share opportunities among themselves and in various expat Facebook groups.
Remember: “Unfurnished” Means…Unfurnished
In the U.S., if an apartment comes “unfurnished,” it tends to mean that it lacks chairs, tables, and sofas. In Paris, the term has a more literal meaning. “When we moved into our rented apartment in the 9th, we had to install the entire kitchen: countertops, cabinets, the refrigerator…everything,” recalls Acoca. In fact, most unfurnished places won’t come with what Americans might consider to be essential features. Ajiri Aki, founder of lifestyle brand Madame de la Maison, recalls having the same experience: “We didn’t want a furnished place, but that also means you get a home that has zero appliances.”
Pay close attention to what you’re truly getting (and what you’re not). While unfurnished apartments are typically less expensive and often require a smaller security deposit, you’ll want to do some cost comparisons and reflection to determine whether it’s worth it to you. “When I first moved here, I lived in a furnished rental for 10 months before moving into an unfurnished home,” recounts Crawford. “Even though I’m an interior designer, I needed that time to adjust to living in Europe, learn some French, and figure out where to source furniture and decor.”
Gardiens, Caves, and Dernièrs Etages, Oh My!
When scouring listing descriptions, there are a handful of keywords to keep an eye out for, some of which imply you’ll be paying a bit extra. One of those is gardien/gardienne. This describes someone who typically lives on the ground floor and performs tasks like receiving packages and cleaning the building’s communal spaces. Their commitment to the role varies per building (for example, mine likes to perpetually ignore my texts about our broken elevator), but it’s reassuring to know that there’s someone looking out for the overall well-being of the space. Another uniquely Parisian consideration is whether or not you’ll get access to the building’s “cave”—a basement area where you can store things like out-of-season clothing, suitcases, bikes, and even wine.
Finally, you’ll want to think about where your apartment is situated within the building and consider Paris’s proclivity for overcast skies. “We were looking for a place that was south facing so we could have the maximum sun possible,” says Aki. Personally, I now opt for the dernière étage (top floor) to avoid noisy street sounds and insomniac upstairs neighbors.
While the experience might be character building, it’s certainly not impossible. As in all dealings with the French, I suggest some good old-fashioned grit and refusing to accept non for an answer.