To rent or to own?

The most important fact to begin this discussion – which is directed at those who wish to live in Paris, not those who wish to buy rental properties in Paris – is that the current interest rates for fixed mortgages is between 2-3%.  When interest rates are so low, buying becomes attractive, even in Paris.  Add in the fact that tenants of properties have right of first refusal on a property to be sold and buying becomes easier.  But attractive and easy does not necessarily equal simple.  There are a few things to keep in mind.

Selection

I would not recommend buying in a neighborhood that you have never lived in.  With Airbnb and other such options, you have the ability, like never before, to stay some weeks in a neighborhood or arrondissement to get a sense of the scale and speed of it.  Meet the shopowners.  Take a coffee.  Walk around.

Primary vs Secondary

One of the ways that the French state discourages real estate speculation is by levying a significantly higher tax on the sale of a secondary residence vs your primary one.  The “buy and flip” model doesn’t really work here, as a result.

Roots

If, like me, you reject modern notions like “starter home” or the idea that your home is an “investment” that you can sell, like a piece of art or a watch, when the price is right, selection becomes even more important.  What are my neighbors like?  The noise level?  Cleanliness?  This is where you will spend most of your time so it should be better than just tolerable.

Paperwork

The dossier you prepare when you’re renting will remind you of that for the prefecture, except unlike at the prefecture, where if you follow directions you stand a good chance of gaining what you went in there for, when renting you’re competing against others in a zero sum game – if you get the apartment, they can’t, and vice versa.  You’re going to need:

  • Photocopies of your ID(s) = passport + carte de sejour
  • Photocopy of your CDI or CDD if employed, as well as your last three payslips
  • If you are self-employed, your most recent tax filings and/or bank statements from your business account can serve as substitutes for the CDI + payslips
  • Your last three rental receipts from your last landlord, whether that was in France or elsewhere
  • If you think you need a guarantor, you’ll need their EDF and the last three payslips as well

You’ll make multiple copies of this dossier, both in hard copy and digitally, so that you can send them in the format that your potential landlord prefers.

The French, because the law is so dramatically in favor of tenants, really want assurance that they will have the rent reliably paid and in full, and as such will usually pick the highest-earning dossier.  As such there is a common practice of forging/using a friend’s high income pay slip to “enrich” your dossier.  Many Parisians know at least one person who has done this to get an apartment, if they have not done so themselves!

In extreme cases some landlords will require a year’s rent to be held as escrow as security against a default – but I’ve only read about this, and have never actually met anyone who had to do this.

The guarantor (or cosigner, as we would call it in America) is the most frequently-used device, however, for the risk-averse landlord, and a friend recently told me that despite the dual incomes of her and her husband which totaled far above the rule-of-thumb “three times the monthly rent” at least one potential landlord asked her if she also had a guarantor.

All leases in France are governed by the 2015 Alur Law and you cannot simply make up your own lease.  If you want to do the simplest thing, which I did while negotiating my recently-signed three year lease, just click here to use a free template which conforms to the law.

Some pricing I’ve seen

Apart from the Syndic, which I discuss below, there’s also property tax for owners, which is really pretty low – on my apartment it’s around 1000€ a year.  I often stop when passing by an immobilier (real estate agent) on a Paris street, just to get a sense of prices in whatever neighborhood I’m in, and to continue to hone my sense of the market overall.  I am sharing these three examples to give you a sample:

6 rue Guenot, in the 11th, 2 bedrooms, 27 square meters, 240,000€

161 rue des Pyrenees, in the 20th, 3 bedrooms, 52 square meters, 374,000€

5 passage du chemin vert, in the 11th, 4 bedrooms, 94 square meters, 810,000€

Yes, I know I’m exposing a Right Bank bias, but I’ve never seriously looked on the other side of the river.

Last Things

When you become an owner, not just a renter, apart from the maintenance of the apartment itself, you will be subject to charges from the Syndic – similar to an HOA in America – that can sometimes be very costly.  They recently installed some new piping in the hallways of our apartment and my landlady’s share was 15,000€!  If you don’t pay, the Syndic can start a legal action against you, though it is so ponderously slow that you’ve got enough time to put together the cash you need before it ever goes to court.  Your monthly fees can be around 50€/square meter per year, so my 53 square meter apartment costs around 2650€ in Syndic fees – which are paid by the owner, not by you.  The Syndic is usually hired by the association of co-owners of the building – i.e. all of the separate owners – and is a managing agent of sorts.  They ensure that maintenance is done, that the building is cleaned, and if necessary, hires a guardian/concierge (our building doesn’t have one, though my last two apartments did, and we seem to get along fine without one).

I’ve said before that I’d like to get a small place just outside Paris for the occasional weekend retreat, but with the recent signing of this lease, and with my landlady’s indication that she may very well wish to sell at the end of the term, I may be in the market to buy in Paris sooner than I expected.  But the dominant thought on my mind as I signed the lease last week was that it would be three years before I would need to think about either my living or immigration situation again, and that allows me time to focus on other, less paperwork-intensive, subjects.

Photo by JOHN TOWNER on Unsplash

Journees de Patrimoine (Skip the Elysee)

Around this time last year I made plans with two friends to visit the Elysee Palace.  Once a year, in September, the French celebrate Heritage Days (les Journees de Patrimoine) and many places are open to the public which are not normally so, including the President’s residence, the Elysee.  While we thought we would “beat the crowd” by getting in line at 7am, two hours before they started letting people in, many, many other people thought similarly and we were in a very long line even though it was still dark when we found the line of people snaking through the edges of the Champs-Elysees, near the American Embassy.

Heritage Days started as a French idea, in 1984.  The Ministry of Culture sponsored something called “La Journee Portes Ourvertes” and it was so successful that other countries started their own versions.  The Netherlands, Sweden, Ireland, Belgium, and Scotland all held their own events until in 1991 the Council of Europe created an EU-wide “European Heritage Days” which happen the second weekend of September each year.

I had just by chance been out of Paris the past couple years on those dates so last year I decided to seize my chance and asked some of my French friends if they had tried to go to the Elysee before and most had not, had never been, actually, but one who had told me to get there at least two hours early.  “It’s worth it,” she nodded.  I took her advice, and yet it was six hours before I stepped foot inside the former royal residence.

Yeah, six hours.  There were some security precautions that had been put in place since my friend had visited, including body pat-downs and as such the wait was truly mind-bending.  In fact, I would say that my main cultural experience was witnessing so many French wait for so many hours.  It was a miracle!

All joking aside, I say skip the Elysee because there are so many other places you can go where the crowd won’t be as absurd and the wait won’t be so long.  Why use the whole day for one building?  When you do finally get into the Palace you can stop and linger without too much harrying from the staff, but to be honest, it’s not a very large or impressive house, by Head of State standards, though perhaps that’s the point of the “one of us” stances of the 3rd-5th Republics.  Need ideas?  Click here to be dazzled.  When making your plans, try not to buzz all over town, but rather stay in one or two adjacent arrondissements.  You’ll enjoy yourself more and what’s the rush?  You live here now, so there’s always next year to hear that concert, take that tour, or see the Hotel de Salm (one of my targets for next year, as I’m out of town for this year’s festivities).

Change your address? Not so fast!

It didn’t seem that long ago that I penned an article explaining the few steps necessary to change your address.  So, as a “veteran” of the process, I thought it would be just as simple to do it again.  Not exactly.

The Post Office

As I did the last time I wanted to change my address, I showed up at La Poste with a copy of an EDF from my new address as well as proof of my old address.  The clerk helping me seemed fairly new to the whole process, and after 15 minutes of typing in my information, he asked his supervisor to certify the form, and the supervisor squints at the computer monitor and says in French, “Oh, sir, this is much easier to do at home on your computer.”  “Why would I do that at home, I’m already here,” I responded in French.  Then he did it.  The shrug.  “It’s better,” he said, and walked away.

No need to get upset, I thought.  I just walked home and went to the La Poste website.  I laughed out loud at the tagline it sported: “Simplifier la vie.”  Oh yeah, you’re making it really simple.  I clicked through to get to this page.  I clicked the 6-month option to find out that I was required to create a La Poste account to do this.  Remember to smile, I thought.  It’s just France being French.  I created the account, filled out the contract for the change, paid, and got a confirmation.  At the bottom of the confirmation, in fine print, it told me that I needed to take this printout, with a copy of my ID, to the post office, to certify the contract.

I looked at the Paddington Bear on my desk with disbelief, asking him to commiserate.  But, remembering where I lived, within a couple days I duly showed up as required and 2 minutes after I got to the front of the line my contract was certified.  But, that was just my personal change of address.

INSEE

You might remember that I did a post on the alphabet soup of agencies that entered my life once I switched over to Profession Liberale.  The most important one is INSEE.  Their database serves as the clearing house for all the other agencies connected to your professional French life.  Your postal change of address is insufficient for INSEE.  You essentially need to do a professional change of address, using this exciting form.  Send that in to INSEE, or if you’re like me and like to outsource things like this, you can simply ask your business accountants to file it for you before or after tax season.  For a fee, of course.

The Banks

I’ll start with the easy one first.  My French business bank is BNP Paribas.  I opened it post-FATCA, but I had been in France for years at that point and I had a working visa, so despite the extra forms I had to fill out as a “US person” the account was opened without question on my first visit.  Additionally, BNP Paribas has amazing tools (disclosure: I’ve done some contract work for them so I really got some insight into how tech-forward they are) and technology and it showed in this simple desire to change my address.

I was able to change my address inside the online banking suite within two minutes.  I was also able to change agencies.  I then ordered a new chequebook with my new address.  This all happened with zero friction and to be honest, a fair amount of (pleasant) surprise on my part.

Not so with Societe Generale, holders of my personal bank account, and one of my very first “paperwork” experiences in France.  They required me to go to my original branch, in the 17th, with proof of my new address (EDF bill) that was from the last 90 days as well as ID, etc.  This only permitted me to change my address.  There’s no way to do it online.  “And, may I change my agency, too?” I asked in French with a smile, thinking, maybe it will be that easy.  “Non, monsieur,” she gravely replied to the lady who had dutifully stamped my address change dossier just moments before.  “You’ll need to go to that branch and request the change yourself.”  I laughed.  She was a bit bemused, but I gave her a smile and a bon journee and out I went.

I live in the 19th now and there’s a Societe Generale very close to my house, and I went there to request an agency change.  “You have to make an appointment,” the nice young man told me.  Of course I have to make an appointment, I thought.  It’s not like you’re my bank and have been for the last four years.  To be fair, this is simply politesse.  The new branch wanted to “get to know me” so they could serve me better, and to do that I’d need to come by, have a coffee, etc.  Fine with me.  I made an appointment and brought everything I thought I would need (and as usual, even stuff I didn’t think I would need) and fifteen minutes into our appointment he was on the phone with someone higher up asking about “US persons.”  I knew he was discussing FATCA stuff, but I was a bit puzzled as SG had been filing my FATCA paperwork for years now.  “I need you to bring your French tax return,” he said.  I handed it to him, from the pile of “stuff they may ask me for.”  “Okay, give me a week or so and I’ll get back to you.”  A week came and went.  No word.  I called and left a message.  No return.

I reached out to a banker I knew at my old branch in the 17th and asked her what the hold up was.  She made a couple calls and found out that the branch manager at the branch I wanted to transfer to didn’t want to accept an American into her branch.  The implication was obvious to me: she would have to do all my paperwork and be responsible for me and she didn’t want that merci beaucoup.  I laughed as the banker who had chased up the intelligence told me about her refusal.  “But you’re the same company,” I switched into English as I didn’t have the French to properly express my confusion.  “I know, I will talk to my branch manager to talk to her.”  That was four weeks ago, and even the friendly banker seems to have forgotten how to reply to my email.

I’ve decided to let it be.  There are only a few functions that require you to visit your branch (I’ve detailed a couple above!), and that branch in the 17th is in a lovely neighborhood, my very first one in Paris, and I can always find other useful things to do if I need to head out there.  But it’s just an example of two banks with differing approaches.  One, stuck in revered (and inefficient) Gallican ways, the other, daring to be a bit more Anglo-Saxon and customer-friendly.  One will receive my undisputed recommendation when friends ask where to open a bank account.  The other?  Well…let’s see if I ever get a call or email back.

As for that pesky French bank account question, I’ve been doing some research to get more updated information to you than I furnished in my previous articles here and here.  As an intermediate free solution with minimal paperwork, you could open a Transferwise Borderless account.  That will get you a euro-denominated IBAN as well as a free debit card so that you can start enjoying the privileges of a French/European bank account right away.  I’ve discussed Transferwise as an easy way to send or transfer money to France (I think it’s by far the cheapest way to send money to France) in the past but that assumes a European/French account to transfer funds to, and I wrote that article before Transferwise created their multi-denominational Borderless account (you can hold up to 40 different currencies), which is awesome (I have one as a backup in case anything ever happens to my French accounts).  Once my research is complete, I hope to have some updated options and scripts for you to carry into a bank with you to open your own French account.

In the meantime, remember to smile and consider: this is France.  This is how they do things here.  Love it or leave it 🙂

Gas Pains

“Do you want an electric stove, a gas one, or a hybrid?”

My (new) landlady asked me this question over the telephone as we were negotiating deal points on the new lease.  We had found the current stove to be not-functional.  I paused for a moment.  I had really grown to love cooking on gas ranges in my then-current apartment, but I had also never had to set up gas for the first time in France.  While I always welcome new opportunities to learn about life in my adopted country, moving had its own headaches and my stoicism failed me for a moment.  She sensed my hesitation, “I don’t think it’s had gas for a while, but I can understand if you want it.”  There really wasn’t a difference in the price points of the new stoves she was planning to buy for me.  After a bit of hesitation, I hedged: “Let’s go with a hybrid.”  In this case that meant that one of the 4 ranges, as well as the oven, was electric, but the remaining 3 ranges were gas powered.  That was the easiest part of the process.

The detective work begins

In France a copy of your EDF (it technically stands for “Electricity de France” but may or may not actually be from EDF – more on that later) is an integral part of your bureaucratic life.  You can use it to prove residence and can use it for something as complicated as a citizenship dossier to something as (seemingly) simple as changing your address with your bank (more on that in a future article).  On the left hand side of an EDF bill (I’ve never used another provider) towards the bottom you’ll see something called, “Point de livraison” (PDL for short).  This is a 14 digit number that tells EDF exactly where your domicile is (and hence where their staff need to travel to).  Since almost everyone has to have electricity (not everyone has Tesla solar panels and power walls installed yet!) this is usually not difficult to obtain.  In the overwhelming majority of cases, your landlord/landlady (proprietaire en Francais) will have an old bill and can give you the PDL.  In the minority of cases where it’s not readily available, if you have at least the last name of the previous tenant, or even the last dates they were there, plus the street address, that should be enough.

But I didn’t have any problem setting up electricity.  I was trying to set up gas service, and for that I needed a 10 digit PCE (Point de comptage).  There had not been gas service since 2009 at this location and I had failed to note that while there was a “gas pipe” coming into the kitchen it didn’t look anything like the gas hookup I had at my then-current apartment.  Oh well, they would take care of that (I thought).  With gas last being used in the place before my current landlady owned the apartment, it was off to GrDF to try to find out the PCE.

Deregulated utilities

Now, let me explain.  GrDF (Gaz Reseau Distribution France) does not actually provide you with gas.  They are simply responsible for the infrastructure that delivers the gas to your provider.  If gas goes out in a neighborhood they are the ones who will fix it.  The minute the gas enters your house it is the concern of the “fournisseur,” or provider of the gas.  As with electricity, the market is very deregulated (the irony of the socialist country having many options for utilities whereas the US, which touts itself as very market-based, often has only 1 or 2 choices – if any – for utilities) and you can choose lots of providers.  I wanted to keep my life simple, so after we found out where the PCE was (about 15 minutes of questioning and digging) we ordered gas service, even as the lady tried to talk me into buying a bottle that I could manually attach and get refilled.  EDF serves as both the infrastructure provider and as a “fournisseur.” Hence, I opted for simplicity and made EDF the provider for both electricity and gas, not bothering to shop around because I felt my time could be better spent than comparing costs per kilowatt hour, and variable vs flat billing.

About 10 days later, I met someone from EDF at an appointed time who had a meter with him ready to install, but he looked at me blankly when I showed him where to install it.  “But, this isn’t right,” he sputtered.  After he spoke really quickly, with hand gestures, I asked him to slow down his French and perhaps assist me with a drawing.  He went on to explain that the meter had an input valve and an output valve and it was configured a very specific way, and that I could hire a plumber who was certified to install and/or work on gas pipes and he could help further.

Armed with the drawing, we had a handyman install the necessary pipes and reschedule a visit for the meter installation another 10 days later.  In the meantime, I was grateful for the decision to go hybrid, as in the absence of the working gas ranges, the electric range was doing all the duty for cooking.  This time the meter man came and installed the meter (you can see the picture, though I did go on to paint the pipes a few weeks later) and a short time later, the first gas flames were firing in the apartment.

One more thing, of course

Given that it had been a number of years since gas had been installed in the apartment, for safety reasons the city of Paris demands that the installation be certified, and about 6 weeks after the meter was installed and working, a functionary came by, examined the installation, gave it a score, and left.  I “passed.”  All in all, it took nearly 10 weeks to get working gas in the house for one single appliance (the rest of the appliances in the house are electric) but as someone who enjoys cooking very much, and on gas particularly so, the hassle was worth it, and hopefully, a lesson learned for you all as well: if you’re going to be installing gas for the first time in a while in your apartment, be prepared for some pains.

I want to take a moment to thank in particular my friend Jenny, who helped during a particularly painful appointment process one afternoon when we were shuttled by telephone between GrDF and EDF as each tried to pass the buck to the other as to who would make the appointment for the meter installation.  It took one hour in total and culminated with the “French blowout” of frustration as Jenny let one of the “it’s not my probleme” clerks have a piece of her (French) mind.  The French are not known to be patient in general, even less so with utilities, so I appreciated the help as I didn’t have the technical vocabulary to navigate between the two agencies.  Yet another reason it pays to have French friends?  To help you with your French problems. 🙂

Goodbye to the 2nd

So, here’s the thing.  I never actually planned to live in the 2nd.  After a year on the 8th floor in the 17th, it had come time for me to graduate to a “real” Parisian apartment instead of just living in former servant’s quarters.  My search led me to a ground floor apartment in the 15th, near the Sevres-Lecourbe Metro on line 6.  I was not such an established Right-Banker at the time, with routines and rhythms that I preferred, and I really loved the apartment and the neighborhood.  Alas, during the application process I was competing against an American college student who also wanted the apartment, who first raised her offer (the apartment was going for 1200€/mo and she offered 1400€/mo) to try to beat me.  When I matched, she pulled out the nuclear option and had her father pay the entire year’s lease in advance.  I couldn’t come close to matching it, didn’t want it that badly, and let it go.

I tell people there are two rules in Parisian real estate rentals: 1) you don’t get the apartment you want, you get the apartment you get, and 2) it’s always better to jump before you’re pushed.  I’ll start with the second rule first.

Dig your well before you’re thirsty

It’s not an exaggeration that getting an apartment in Paris is tough.  As I’ve shared here before, there are many applicants for the most desirable locations, and there may be nothing wrong with your dossier – someone else’s may just be slightly better.  Hence, if you know you’re going to move, don’t wait until your lease is up.  Get active – start looking, and bargain with both your current and new landlord as needed.  When I got my place in the 2nd, there was a lag of about 6 weeks in between when my lease was up in the 17th and the new apartment was available.  I had been on good terms with my previous landlady (pay your rent on time and this becomes simple) and so we easily negotiated a 6-week extension to get me to my move-in date at the new place, and my new landlady was kind enough to give me the keys a week before my move-in as she was going to be out of town.  I had liked this apartment in the dead center of Paris (Metro Reaumur-Sebastopol, on Lines 3 and 4) after being used to a 10-15 metro ride to get to Chatelet, but I was rather hoping the American girl would find out the apartment in the 15th wasn’t for her, nor was Paris, and I’d be there to comfort that landlord by moving in right away.  I negotiated a one year lease with a 60-day notice to end it with no penalty, and I moved in to the apartment in the 2nd, seeing it as a temporary hardship.

I have to say, I didn’t realize how wrong I was right away.  Those first 3 months were spent rearranging everything.  I now had a kitchen that was almost the size of my entire previous apartment.  I no longer had to take the Metro into central Paris, as I was in central Paris.  I could have friends over for dinner parties or board game nights (and did!).  It was one night months later, the apartment in the 15th long forgotten, as I was pushing open the enormous old door to the set of buildings that comprised my apartments, that I realized, “Wow, I love this neighborhood.”  My address was on Rue Saint-Denis, an ancient pilgrimage route but now home to many of the trendiest restaurants in the center of Paris as well as adjacent to a whole host of cocktail bars that were part of the nascent mixology culture in the city.  I had gone from 8 square meters to 39 square meters, from the quiet and wealthy outskirts of the 17th to the bohemian beating heart of the 2nd.  I was never going to leave…or so I thought.

About a year ago my landlady told me of some changes in her personal life that would necessitate a sale in the medium term – the next 2-3 years – and she was floating it to me because, by law, I had first right of refusal as the current tenant if she planned to sell, but also because we had developed an exceptional relationship tried by all the challenges you could have (like leaks) in a landlord/tenant relationship.  We split standard wear/tear items 50/50 (like a broken faucet) and she 100% covered irregular items (like the stove, washing machine, dishwasher, and hot water heater all breaking during my 3 years).  I would maybe have to meet the delivery man (or occasionally, help him carry these backbreakingly-heavy appliances up 5 flights of stairs) but she was prompt and courteous – which from horror stories told by my fellow denizens – is not the norm in this town (or perhaps, anywhere).

I weighed the decision to buy, but it was mostly academic, because of the cost, and started to cast around for an alternative.  I found it in September of last year and signed a lease.  A friend of mine only needed an apartment for a few months before leaving for an internship in New York, and so she moved in right away and helped to defray the cost before I moved in last weekend, in the waning days of my lease, and she moved into my old apartment, with a prearrangement with my (now former) landlady for special 60-day extension of my old lease, to cover my friend until the day she was leaving Paris.

You can have what’s available

When I say you “don’t get the apartment you want,” I don’t mean that you can only get into undesirable places, but rather that the idea of picking a neighborhood and style of apartment you want is an act of hope, and is not a strategy.  Paris is a very particular market because it features almost-fixed inventory against enormous demand.  There are very few new buildings going up inside the Peripherique, and hence rents have to escalate in order to deal with demand.  So when I say you “get the apartment you get,” I also refer to happy accidents like my place in the 2nd.  It was perfectly adequate as an apartment, but the secret I didn’t know (because I was still too new in town) was what an amazing neighborhood it was.  That is true for many parts of Paris, not just the part that was formerly “mine.”

As the weeks approached for my move it began to weigh on me…I was “missing it already” and telling my friends any chance I could get.  I was probably pre-grieving.  The funny thing is I wasn’t moving out of Paris – but I knew that when I moved I would settle into the same routine I did in the 2nd.  When I first moved to the 2nd, I made trips out to my familiar haunts in the 17th, especially one of the first cafes I fell in love with (Le Poncelet: good, simple, no-fuss food, staff that smiled and knew your name, and never got mad when I sat and wrote for hours).  But over time, that kind of behavior dies as you develop new routines, and begin to love the three blocks around your apartment.  Most of Paris is really just a collection of neighborhoods within neighborhoods in that way.  This was my place for the last 3 years of my journey, and I will miss it.

But the new beginning, and the new neighborhood, is already winning me over.  More about that, soon.

Photo by Yannis Papanastasopoulos on Unsplash

Profession Liberale, Part 5: I get a 4-year card

This is the final article in a series about my transition to a citizenship path.  You can find part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here, and part 4 here.

I tried not to get emotional in front of the lady who had just handed me the card.  I looked at the date that it was valid until: 17/09/2021.  It wasn’t the right moment to reflect – there were a lot of people behind me in line, and this was just a chance for me to verify my identity, hand over the payment, and collect the card, which I did.

It was when I walked out of the prefecture on Ile de la Cite that I took a moment to reflect and process my thoughts.  The reason I nearly got emotional as I was picking up the card was because I had no roadmap to this outcome when I first arrived in France in 2013.  There were no blogs or guides on how to get a long-term stay visa, much less the citizenship-path visa which I now hold, and as someone who had owned businesses and hadn’t held a “job” for decades, I really didn’t know how my journey would progress in the Old World.  I’ve said before, not just in articles here, but to friends as well, that if I had known how difficult it would be to build an entirely new life and way of being before I got here, I might not have come.  Yet, I look back across the challenges and difficulties and can genuinely say it was worth it.  But I can only say that now.  I know that homesickness beat some, inability to earn income beat others, and the difficulty of adapting not just to life in a densely-populated city, but in one so sui generis as Paris, beat a few more.  But at the dawn of my fifth year in my dream city, I knew with deep satisfaction that I had finished this first part of the race.

Credit where it is due

I want to pay particular credit for this renewal to Jean Taquet.  Some weeks before my appointment I had gone to his office for a “practice run.”  This is one of the many services that he provides: Jean would pretend to be an official of the prefecture, and I would present my dossier as if I were at my real appointment.  He would then critique my presentation and I would take notes on what needed to be fixed, if anything.  While he was happy with most of my paperwork, he was particularly unhappy with the income going into my business.  “They aren’t going to like that,” he said in his usual grave manner when he sees a problem.  I repeated to him what I had told my accountant some weeks previously when she had expressed surprise at the low income: I wanted to limit my taxable exposure until I had a better sense of how the social charges mapped out across a calendar year.  Jean shook his head and reminded me that my one year visa was a trial – they wanted to see how I was getting on and if I seemed to be doing well, then they could possibly give me a 4-year card instead of just another one-year renewal.  “Can you ask your clients to pay your French company instead of your American one?”  I nodded in reply.

I had delayed this action for some time, because it would mean invoicing in euros instead of dollars, which would involve a bit of explaining, and it would pave the road for TVA charges in the future.  He advised me to invoice as much as possible between now and the appointment, and to have a letter explaining the lag in billing (US clients were reluctant to change to billing in euros, etc.).  I went to a few of my clients, explained how changing the billing would help my immigration process and they agreed to the change.  What had been a division between countries (I had been billing my American clients via my American corporation and my European clients via my French company) was erased and I started billing more of my clients via the French company.  Those invoices and a cover letter explaining the rapid increase in billings were a key part of my dossier.

So merci, Jean for the tough love and good advice during our practice session.

Jour-J (D-Day equivalent)

From the start this visit was not like any of my other previous visits to the Prefecture.  Profession Liberale is handled separately from the visitor renewals, in a new office on the 1st floor (American 2nd floor) of the building.  Instead of confronting the usual jam-packed standing-room-only room of 30 people that I had each time for four years, I came into a relaxed, sunny room with room for at least 40 but only half-occupied.  My appointment was for 11h00, which meant I showed up at 10h00 (I’ve said this before, but always show up early to get seen close to “on time”).  As usual, you present your appointment and paperwork in order to get a number.

An hour and a half later, or 30 minutes after my original appointment time, my number was called and I walked through a door to an very large room with roughly 10 different guichets (booths) for various cases.  About half of them were in use.  I sat down and exchanged bonjours with the gentleman who had my dossier.  He flipped through everything, quietly speaking to himself and making notes.  About 5 minutes later he told me he would review the file with his boss and call me back.

Thirty minutes later my number came up again and sitting on the desk of my guichet was a recipisse.  “Great!” I thought, not really thinking to ask how long it was good for.  As I was signing he said it was for a four-year card.  I was thunderstruck.  “A four year card!” I thought to myself, trying to keep my facial expression stoic, as if I had expected this outcome, as he continued, telling me that I would get a text message letting me know when I could pick up my card.  “Text message!” I marveled.  It wasn’t just the building that was getting renovated and upgraded!

Sure enough, roughly one month after my appointment I received a text message telling me that one month later I could come by and pick up my card, after I had dropped 269 euros for its manufacture.  Now, before you start getting upset at the price, realize that for a 4-year card, this worked out to 67,25€ per year, which was by far the cheapest visa renewal I’d ever done.

He handed me a brochure that described how to buy my fiscal stamps from…the internet!

French bureaucracy discovers electronic payment

Even the process of buying fiscal stamps has been modernized.  I can recall my first few months in Paris, embarrassed at the line of people (smokers anxious to pick up relief for their addiction) behind me at a tabac, as the owner counted out the proper amount of old fashioned stamps, dating back to the good old days of the ancien regime.  Those days were gone.  Now, all you had to do was go to the city’s website, provide your name and email address, then pay (using your debit or credit card) and you would get a PDF with a QR code(!) on it.  This, along with the mandate to possibly move the entire country, starting in 2019, to taxation at paycheck (you would no longer have to file and pay annually, but would pay throughout the year, whenever you receive your paycheck) makes me feel like France is entering the space age, relatively speaking!

Even as I write this article I’m shocked by the idea that I won’t have to go to the prefecture for four years.  No more recipisses, no more scheduling vacations and trips around appointments at Cite.  So, while I won’t be able to regale you with administrative stories anymore (in four more years I will be putting together a citizenship dossier, not worrying about another visa renewal), I will be telling you more about life in France, and in Paris particularly, as I move on to other things, like buying property or (gasp!) hiring employees.  What would you like to hear about?  Share in the comments below.

As a coda to the story I didn’t realize when I got my text message informing me of the date of pickup, that it would be Thanksgiving Day in America.  Needless to say, I am grateful – not just for a successful outcome for these first 4 years of the journey, but the ability to share the ups and downs with you, and hear all the fascinating stories of your journeys as well.

The picture is a map of the reorganized prefecture following some renovations.  When you come to pick up your CDS now it’s the first door on the left, not the last door, as it was for all the years I had come before.

The Airbnb Wars in Paris: for now, a truce

I’ve covered the Airbnb issue here previously, both my perspective as an entrepreneur and what Paris had been becoming more strict about.  On December 1st a “truce” will officially be in force as legislation first passed this summer comes into effect.  While the hotels have cheered this legislation, they are not quite done with their lobbying, as they may push for even more restrictive policies in 2018.

What’s changed

The city has mandated registration for every single property offered on Airbnb in Paris, which at last count, was north of 55,000 rooms (check out this mesmerising real-time map with the funny gap in the 19th/20th where Pere Lachaise is).  This registration, at the moment, is simply declarative, and requires no documentation/authorization from the city.  You go to the dedicated website, create an account and give them your name and contact information, and you’ll then receive a registration number, which needs to be displayed on your airbnb listing (there’s a field for it).  This will make it easier for city officials focused on compliance to find illegal listings (and monitor the registered ones).

The legislation also clarified that no full-time (365 day availability) airbnbs would be permitted without a formal change of classification of the property to “bed and breakfast” by the occupant (with all the paperwork and taxes that comes with).  Given that over 40% of the listings on Airbnb in Paris are “full-time” this should lead to a significant decrease in Airbnb’s inventory in the city:

Attention! Assurez-vous que votre situation vous permet de louer un meublé de tourisme avant de déposer votre déclaration. A Paris, la location de courte durée n’est possible que s’il s’agit de votre résidence principale (louée moins de 120 jours/an) ou s’il s’agit d’un local commercial. En cas d’infraction, vous vous exposez à une amende de 50 000 €.

For those still working on their French, this reminds people that should they wish to rent short-term (on a site like Airbnb or Booking) that they can only do so for 120 calendar days per year and that you can be subject to a fine of 50,000 euros for failing to comply.  Implied is also that your lease allows subletting (some do not) and that you either have written or at least oral permission from the owner to rent on sites like Airbnb.

Airbnb has added internal compliance by preventing hosts in the 1st-4th arrondissements from renting for more than 120 days, but Ian Brossat, who is Mayor Hidalgo’s senior advisor on housing was unimpressed, tweeting that that meant the law could be broken in 16 other arrondissements.

But, does this really change anything?

Assuredly, the city does not have the resources to audit the current 55,000+ listings on Airbnb and other platforms, but they have gotten very serious about this (other European examples include Berlin, which saw a 40% drop in inventory after passing a law aimed specifically at Airbnb, and Barcelona, which fined Airbnb 600,000€ last year over unlicensed properties), with the biggest concession being that Airbnb collects the occupancy tax on informal housing in Paris, and rather than pass that cost to its hosts in its most-used city, it has eaten that cost itself, paying the City of Paris more than 7,000,000€ per year.

Mayor Anne Hidalgo has been very intentional about her vision for the city, not just in splashy things like courting the Olympics, but in every day things like transport and design choices.  She doesn’t get her way all the time, but this is one of the issues in which she faces no real opposition: Parisians do not want their already difficult housing situation squeezed by too many short term rentals, and this will certainly return many of studios and studettes into the medium and long-term inventory of the city, and some of the larger properties into real options for families who want to live in the city.

There will be some who continue to risk having an unregistered listing or listing for more than 120 days, but with this official registration period (between October 1st and December 1st) and the push from Airbnb itself for hosts to comply, we are likely to see the vast majority of listings in Paris fall into line and the borderline/illegal ones go away.

What can still happen?

The hotels have openly stated that they are targeting a 90-day allowance rather than the 120 days now given, but given the extensive vacation that Parisians take, 120 days covers periods in the Summer and Winter in which residents can be gone and the city willingly grants that there should be allowance given to offset rent and/or make income for residents and permission for visitors to live “as a local” should they choose.  So, while there might be a push for further legislation, at the moment the hotels, like most of Paris, are focused on the holidays, and we are all enjoying our longest respite without a major attack.  That will allow those visiting Paris and using Airbnb to enjoy their stays particularly now, because if and when they return, those rooms may be off the market, literally.

Airbnb, having seen the writing on the wall for some time, is happily diversifying into fields that hotels cannot, recently adding experiences and restaurants (not yet in Paris, but here’s the link for NYC) to their offerings to travelers.  Their vision is to allow people to experience real life in those cities, not just rooms in a building, and there’s no way to restrict travelers from doing precisely that.

Photo by Nil Castellví on Unsplash

A side hustle that becomes part of your business

If you pay attention and spend a bit of time thinking through the economics, you’ll see that there are dozens of ways that people build incomes for themselves in Paris.  I wanted to tell you about two of them.

Cobblers and Keys

In America there are automatic key-cutting machines which can be operated by a 16-year old employee, can be found in both drug stores and hardware stores, and produce keys at a cost between $1-$9 USD.  To be fair, American house keys tend to be small and not particularly complicated.

But, as far as I can tell, machines such as these are illegal/unknown in France (knowing the power of strikes, more likely illegal).  Every place I’ve been to in order to get keys cut has a professional grade key machine, with access to even more.  The “even more” refers to the high-end computer-encoded keys that take a couple weeks that can cost 125 euros to make and require a copy of your ID and lease, or the badges, which run 20-40€ that some people use in order to save having to remember their key codes.  Paris has a very particular key market, with skeleton keys playing a prominent role, and the cheapest you’ll pay for any key reproduction is 6€.

This is all to say that rarely will you find someone who only does keys.  The most common combination you will see is a cobbler who also makes keys.  Because there’s more skill required for cobbling than for key making, I’m assuming these are cobblers who simply added key-making to their repertoire.

I’ve estimated by observing business at several locations, that between these two income streams, someone could easily take in a minimum of 70k€/year at such establishments, and they probably take in much more, given that they have rent and often have at least one employee.  Not to mention our favorite: French social charges.

Tailors and Packages

In France, as in the US, not all dry cleaners do alterations.  You’ll often see signs for “retouches” that indicate someone who does alterations and sometimes tailoring from scratch.  My tailor does a lot of trade in dry cleaning as well, but it’s clear that he has it done by one of the dry cleaners nearby, and then simply adds his markup.  Many dry cleaners don’t do alterations here, so the convenience of dropping something off that needs patching, then having it cleaned for you after, is what you are paying for.

But apart from the dry cleaning side hustle, my tailor also provides what can best be understood as “Amazon locker” services.  For years before Amazon mainstreamed such a concept, people in big cities needed places to drop off and pick up packages: essentially a storage place without shipping services.  For example, if you are moving out of an apartment and need to return your modem/router, you will often be asked to print out a prepaid shipping label.  You slap it on a box and bring it to a location like my tailor’s, which is listed as one of the possible drop-off locations (along with optician shops or sometimes small boutiques).  He gets some marginal extra income for no investment (he’s provided with the scanner and software to accept your package) and he’s happy to pile the boxes around what could generously be called his “reception area.”  He also has a cross-marketing opportunity to snag some customers who may not otherwise have known of his existence, and are happy with his nice demeanor.

Both my tailor and my cobbler make decent livings, make their own hours, and never worry about business.  They always have smiles on their faces.  Yet, they were smart enough to dig their wells before they were thirsty, and created multiple streams of income without being distracted from their core line of work.  You can still hustle here in France.  They just do it with a more leisurely attitude.

Photo by Dương Trần Quốc on Unsplash

Profession Liberale, Part 3: Delays, no taxes, but money back

This is the latest in an ongoing series about my transition to a citizenship path.  You can find part 1 here, and part 2 here.

It had been 14 months since the glorious granting of my Profession Liberale visa and the beginning of long-term stability here in my beloved France.  I was at the prefecture with all my paperwork which, for the renewal of my provisional one year visa, was focused on proving two things (in addition to all the “usual” stuff you need for a renewal):

  1. That I was current on all my social charges and
  2. That my new French business was generating enough revenue to justify a renewal

However, the appointment was cut short as the supervisor deplored my lack of a declaration from the Ministry of Finance that I had, indeed, filed my taxes (the copy I had provided of my filed return was deemed insufficient).  “Come back in 3 months,” she said with the usual “not my problem” tone of voice.  Well, that was in July, and a few weeks ago, as I was getting ready for the rescheduled appointment, I realized what the issue was.

My new French business accountants had a mandate from me to also file my personal return, but they had done so incorrectly, and as such my French personal accountant had to amend and resubmit it.  My first year in business in France was very modest and I had no taxes to pay, therefore the letter due to come to me saying I owed 0€ (which is the letter I needed for the prefecture) was at the bottom of the priority list for the Ministry of Finance.

In lieu of this document I had to obtain a signed, dated, and stamped attestation from the Ministry of Finance that yes, I was a law-abiding citizen who had filed my tax return.  My friend and mentor Jean Taquet told me that people have an actual fear about going to the Ministry of Finance, but not being possessed of such a fear (skydiving = scary, tax people ≠ scary), I went to 13 rue de la Banque on a weekday afternoon, and after a few minutes in line and a verification of my identity, cross-checked with my fiscal number from my previous tax returns, I got two copies of the document I needed for my appointment.

Since the appointment had been delayed an additional three months, I was also expected to update everything from the last (failed) appointment: attestations from URSSAF and RSI that I was a good boy, as well as my business bank account statements and most recent invoices to my clients.

Speaking of which, as a consequence of the modest first year of revenues, I got a refund from URSSAF.  That’s right, I had earned less than the estimated base year, which is what I had paid against, and since the French base your current year’s charges on the previous year’s earnings, which they now had in their possession, I got money back as I had already overpaid in 2017 against their estimates.  I almost fell out of my chair when I saw the line item in my online banking account with the money which had come back to me out of nowhere.

But the biggest surprise of all came at the appointment itself, which I will tell you more about in a future article.

Photo by Murray Campbell on Unsplash

Just trying to help…

I was standing with a number of my fellow passengers that had just disembarked at the Saint-Germain-des-Pres metro station.  There were a number of ticket inspectors in front of me scanning the Navigo passes or simple tickets of the passengers.  Were we on the Metro legally or not?  They were there to find out.

My thoughts on fare cheats in general, and on those in Paris in particular, are for another day and another article.  Suffice to say there are always at least half a dozen people receiving tickets of between 35€ (you have an unused metro ticket in your possession) and 50€ (you have nothing) fines.  If you’re using a friend’s Navigo (we all have our pictures printed on them) you’ll get a 70€ fine.  And those are the “on the spot” payment costs, and yes, they do take credit cards.  It’s more if you pay later, and even more if you pay that fee past a certain date.

So why am I telling you this?  Obviously I had an intact Navigo (I’m on the annual pass plan), right?  Yes, except when my inspector tried to scan it she had a bit of trouble.  “Follow me,” she said in French.  We went to the main ticket window and they verified that my pass was indeed valid and that I had scanned in correctly from the last station.  “I’m going to get you a new card, this chip has worn out – it’ll be at your home metro station, which is?” Her French was fairly fast but by the time she stopped speaking I had put it all together and told her, “Reaumur-Sebastopol.”  “Okay, so I’ll have it there for you this evening.  In the meantime, here’s a day pass good for all 5 zones.”  I smiled, shrugged my shoulders, and verified, “Pensez-vous qu’il pret ce soir?”  “Definitely, perhaps even in an hour,” she replied.

True to form, I got a text message telling me that my Navigo was waiting for me at my home metro station about an hour later.  I was flabbergasted by the efficiency of, of all agencies, the RATP.  Some time later I got there and showed them my text message and asked for my Navigo.  It was indeed there, but then commenced a 15 minute ordeal for the woman who tried to activate my card.  She called three different colleagues asking them about “a little checkbox that won’t click” in my profile on her screen and then asked me in French if I was in a hurry.  I nodded.  “Well, if you want to come back before midnight…” “Ici?” I interrupted.  “Non,” “not here, and not me, but my colleague in Les Halles.”  My head swam as I thought about which window to go to in the largest metro station in the world, Les Halles.  “Which exit?” I asked.  “9.”  I thanked her and some hours later I wandered into Les Halles and her colleague had not had a card printed for me but used my text message to create a new pass for me.  I tested it, and it worked, and I went home.

The next morning, I got a text message saying that my card was ready at Reaumur-Sebastopol.  On my way into the office I stopped in and told them that I had already gotten a new card made the night before, and after a bit of checking, he marked that I had picked up a card and tossed the extra card made for me in the trash.

All this is to say kudos to the RATP, who are proactively trying to fix a problem: updating people’s defective Navigos at an inspection point, and even making it easy, using a day pass and text messaging.  But even when they make it easy, it isn’t necessarily frictionless.  And that’s okay.  Be patient.  It’s France.  Why are you in a rush anyway?

The image is of a Paris Metro ticket from the WWI era.