As the owner of a condominium in Paris, have you ever wanted to figure out how to get more space without moving out?
There are various ways this can be done. For example, you can try to buy the unused attic area of a building if you live on the top floor, in which way you can create an extra floor under the roof. Or you might try to buy a piece of a hallway attached to your condominium that is unused by other owners to add square meters to your living space. In a condominium context, and particularly in Paris and France, the key word here is try. And with luck, patience, euros, and most of all the goodwill of the other owners, you’ll succeed.
How does this work? First of all you’ll need an architect and a surveyor to measure the exact number of square meters you want to transform from common ownership to private ownership. Then the owners’ association must vote unanimously to sell you the desired square meters and, of course, set a price. Once this is accepted, the buyer will pay for those square meters, all the renovations, the legal fees of the purchase, and for the cost of changing the co-ownership regulations. The new regulations will now include a new private lot equivalent to the purchased square meters. The owner will then have a higher percentage than before of the general condominium and will thus pay more in condominium association dues forever after.
My case is relatively rare: I live in one of the 3,500 houses that still exist in Paris. And fewer still are condominium houses typically located in a courtyard behind a street side apartment building.
What I originally bought was a small, two-room house (more a cottage than a house) behind a four-story building: about 50 square meters of living space with a small living room, kitchen, and WC on the ground floor and a bedroom and bathroom (no WC) above those rooms on the second floor. There is a basement below, but the best of all was the 75 square meter garden, facing south toward other gardens and all that at 100 meters from a metro station within Paris boundaries.
Condominium housing normally is divided into “parties communes,” belonging to the condominium as a whole, and “parties privatives,” belonging to a specific condominium lot. However there is a third possibility for some spaces which are considered to belong to the condominium as a whole, but whose use is attached to only one private lot. This is the case of my garden: it is mine to enjoy exclusively, but does not belong to me.
While I lived alone in the house, the two rooms were sufficient for my needs. However, when my son was born, space became tight. My first course of action was to make use of the empty stairwell where I had someone come in and create a two-part deck, each 120 x 120 cm: the lower part would contain the crib and a little standing space; on the higher one I had a dresser built in.
This was a perfect temporary solution, but I knew there would come a time when the baby would outgrow this space. To plan for the future three options presented themselves:
- sell the house and buy a condominium apartment in Paris
- sell the house in Paris and buy a house in the suburbs
- enlarge the house
Options 1 and 2 held no appeal for me, so I went for (what I didn’t know at the time was) the most challenging one, door number three.
Probably, had I known what I was up against, I would have given up before starting. But I was only ever informed of each step as it came up. And no single step was unsurmountable, although the whole process would easily have seemed so.
Find Your Architect
The first step was finding someone to help me with design. After speaking with one architect and then another, I finally found one who was (somewhat) interested in the project and got started with him. He was not the best, I was to learn in hindsight, and one more interested in the Van Gogh museum for which he’d been retained by the State than in my little enlargement. I was later to find that he and his maître d’oeuvre (the overseer of the project to try and put it simply) were padding my estimate in unnecessary ways, akin to a government contract.
Before accepting the project, he sent me off to the Paris urban planning office (Centre d’information, de Documentation et d’Exposition d’Urbanisme et d’Architecture de Paris et de la Métropole parisienne). In this building, where free exhibitions concerning Paris architecture often take place, and which is easily reached by metro Sully-Morland, I wandered a bit. Most of the offices were empty due to it being an extended weekend in May. However I did encounter a relatively relaxed city architect who, when hearing of my project responded, “If that is your dream, go ahead.” And this I reported back to the architect.
Find Your Limitations
Next you’ll need to learn about all the constraints that Paris urban planning will set on the construction. In this case, I was required to be set back a minimum twenty meters from the street, and could build no higher than eight meters (on account of the building situated behind the house). My criteria was that the new wing would look as if it had been built with the original house, and when moving around within the house I would not feel as if I were going into a different building.
In agreement with all these criteria, a plan was drafted by the architect which included the contractor he wanted to work with. Because the ground floor of the original house is raised, this height unfortunately did not allow for two floors in the new wing. While the architect was only going to give me a single room of normal height, I told him that if the urbanisme allows up to eight meters, I wanted eight meters. I would decide how to fill the space of the cathedral ceiling later.
As he could not figure out how to attach the new wing to the original house owing to a very complicated roofing pattern, he decided to simply attach the wing at ground level, and leave a balcony upstairs with a skylight over what would become the dining room.
These plans were then submitted to Paris urban planning and he did what he had to do to get the proposal accepted. I have heard there was a lunch involved, which can be a solution to quite a few problems with bureaucracy in France.
Put It to a Vote
Once accepted, the plans had to be voted on with the owners’ committee and the price for the land the wing would be built on had to be negotiated. I probably could have negotiated better and saved a bit of money, but no one helped and it was me against the rest of the owners. The important point is that the vote came out in my favor and I could move on with the official purchase of the land at the notary’s and the construction.
It so happened that before signing on with the contractor, my central heater broke down. A friend whose father had worked at a company making central heaters recommended what I should get. I ordered the heater and water heater he recommended.
However to finish the installation, an electrician needed to come by. As I was about to work with a contractor, I asked him to send someone to take care of it without asking for an estimate. Big mistake. When the invoice came in I had been billed at the price of three hours for the work of a full-fledged engineer and not just an electrician. This got me wondering as to the billing for the enlargement.
Lucky for me, by chance I met an architect who recommended a contractor. I gave him a copy of my estimate, minus costs, and had him fill in his prices. The result was about a third less than the architect’s contractor.
Not long after we had a meeting at my house for the final signature. Being a lone woman, and knowing I would be at a disadvantage with these people, I had a male friend come in a back me up. First I attacked the price of their electrician, whereby they immediately accepted the average price for the work. Then I presented the second estimate. Both contractor and architect noted immediately it was exactly the same work (minus details like setting up a pre-fab temporary housing for the workers in the street — after all I said they could change in my house and use the bathroom!). Both architect and contractor refused the lower price and withdrew from the job.
This left me as my own “maître d’oeuvre” in spite of my knowing little about architecture. Not really the best state of affairs. But who knew?
At this point, approximately four years after the enlargement was simply a glint in the back of my eye, the construction of the wing began while I continued to live in the main house. This wasn’t a problem while the foundation was being dug, the walls built up, and the roof was laid on both old and new structure. But when
- the old oak, ironwork, and glass door and the oculus window were to be repositioned into their new frames, and
- the kitchen window was to become the opening into what would be a small dining area, and
- a door was to be created onto the new balcony
we began living with the dust and dirt of these transformations and the interior work.
Get Me an Estimate
And there were those changes in plans that needed to be estimated and negotiated.
“Only a two-meter window in the room? No, I want three meters.” “That will cost you,” said the contractor. “OK, get me an estimate.”
The electrician found antique 1930’s textile-covered wiring in the original house. “Spaghetti!” he called it. And you cannot put new wiring on old; all the wiring had to be redone. “OK, get me an estimate.”
I wanted a second toilet room to be put in upstairs as they built the balcony. “Costly” said the contractor. “Get me an estimate.”
Then the neighbors next door did not want to look onto a blind cement wall, “Please put in face brick. And do something to break it up.” Again I turned to the contractor, “Get me an estimate.”
We decided on putting in a meter of glass brick to break up the wall. But, it was only sold in two square-meter boxes. What to do? “Put it all in!” And so, I now have light streaming in through two square meters of glass brick on my south wall.
When I gave the brand name “Acova” for the radiators, the contractor said we could get others that were less expensive and “the same”. Not really; I had to change radiators down the line.
For the tile in the toilet room, the contractor handed me a single type of tile and said to choose the color I wanted. I should have gone to a tile place and chosen from all the existing possibilities.
Four years for administrative work, four months for construction. Time for a house-warming party in the totally empty new wing and to begin living in the enlarged house.
Was the work finished? Not by a long shot.
More to Do
When I went to install a new fitted kitchen, and all had been removed, the plaster was found to be humid and failing. Taking out all the plasterboard down to the beams, we discovered a crack in the “party wall” of the house, the wall that separates our condominium property with the one next door.
According to law, this wall does not belong to me, but is part of the common property of the condominium as a whole. That meant calling in the insurance experts and getting the co-owners to accept the estimate for repairs. These were three months my five-year-old and I spent with no kitchen at all, just a refrigerator and microwave in the new living room. Dishes were done in the sink upstairs.
Later the ceiling under the new balcony began leaking. I called in the contractor to fix it. He never did get it repaired. We found that in fact, he had never put in water-proofing, so where the cement met the wall, water came through. Meanwhile, his company filed for bankruptcy.
After putting up with two years of leaking while I worked to get a decent estimate to waterproof the balcony (no roofing companies want to do the small stuff of an eight-square-meter roof) I got the roofers doing the new building across the street to write up a detailed four-page estimate of the work. I signed.
But the roof began leaking again because of faulty workmanship. I refused to pay and had to sue the company before I could bring in another roofer. Two years later, the roofing finally got done correctly and I have had no problems ever since. “Jamais deux sans trois” (Never two without a third) as the French say. I continue to keep my fingers crossed every time it rains.
And only recently I learned that the contractor had cut corners on the flashing on the roof, literally. His lead flashing was too narrow and was not even of a minimum regulation width. With humidity entering the roofing and the prospect of leaks, I have just had the flashing changed.
What About the Ceiling?
Then there was the high cathedral ceiling. My plans were clear; I would get a cabinetmaker friend to build a deck that would become my office. The challenge was to create a floor that looked good both from above and below. He did a beautiful job using a mix of oak and maple wood for the deck and the shelves. Happy and ready to install my computer equipment, I suddenly realized there was no electricity up there. You know the score by now: recommendations and estimates to bring the electricity to that floor.
One contractor who came around looked up and said, “If I were you I would put in a skylight, too.” Wow, what an idea! And so, estimates for a skylight were called in. Today I work in a light-filled “eyrie,” as a friend calls my office.
Over time I have had other work done: I had stained glass created for my oculus window as well as for my door.
My son’s room needed to be rewired because after 40 years in this house, we only just discovered the electricity was not grounded.
I’ve put in air-conditioning.
I have had the wooden stairs leading to the basement removed to be replaced by cement, as I could not get rid of the woodworm that had set in.
Big stuff, small stuff, a house remains forever a work-in-progress. But more importantly, as other authors have often shared on the blog, it’s about the willpower to complete a project paired with the patience to put up with the lunacy of how building works in a country like France and a city like Paris compared to how it can in America.
Still and all, it was worth it, and my friends love the “garden parties” they can attend with me without having to leave the city.
Photo is the home as seen from the entrance to the garden. The building on the right is the “addition.”
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