Expert Insight, Breaking News, and Insider Stories on Real Estate in Paris
A client’s colorful property featured on House Hunter’s International
We helped our client, On Lu from California, buy a property in Paris as a surprise for his mother. His story was featured on House Hunter’s International in early November. Recently we sat down with him to hear about the whole experience, and how it unfolded.
Kathryn: I’m really fascinated to hear your story, On. My recollection is that you started to look, and then we put your property search on pause for a while. So my question for you is: what did you start with as an idea, and then what did you end up with? And what was the process like?
On: The reason we stopped looking was because of COVID. We were originally looking in December of 2019, right before COVID. And there was a unit that I really, really liked at the time. By the way, what arrondissement do you live in?
Kathryn: I’m in the 12th, really close to Bastille.
On: Oh right, I remember that. I remember reading the article about your renovation and I was joking around in my email to you that I copied the mirror trick that you used in your apartment to make the space look larger. This place I liked at the time was in the second arrondissement. And it didn’t work out because of the pandemic. Our offers went back and forth, and then stalled when things closed down. I don’t remember exactly what it was that made the deal not end up happening. So I was looking before the pandemic and then we paused, obviously, during the pandemic. I’m glad it didn’t work out right that first time, because the unit that we have today is infinitely better. Back then, the prices were about the same as they were after the pandemic, but then, after the pandemic, the quality of the properties were much better.
Kathryn: Probably because the inventory of properties people wanted to sell grew during the pandemic, when things were shut down.
On: I thought the property I was trying to buy back then was the best of the lot that we had looked at. A lot of the other places were just, you know, needing major renovation compared to the places we saw post-Covid. It wasn’t really post Covid I think. We were still kind of in the middle of Covid at the end of 2021. Because I remember that all of us were walking around wearing masks.
I think the big difference when we started looking the second time is that they were just better places. They were bigger too. The place that we ended up getting, oddly, we picked it because we thought we didn’t need to do much renovation. Well, you know how it is right? Like oh, just do a little bit of work on the flooring, and maybe the bathroom, now maybe the kitchen, and maybe a paint job. The renovation just kind of expanded.
Kathryn: And so you’ve renovated the whole place? It’s like pulling a string on a sweater; once you start, it’s hard to stop!
On: Yes exactly. And if you’re gonna spend 700,000 € on buying a place in Paris, why not spend an additional 100,000 € and make it look the way you really want it to look? Right?
Kathryn: Well, that’s exactly what I did with my own place. I bought a place that hadn’t been renovated in probably thirty or forty years. You’ve seen the pictures on our website. Then I put close to 120,000 € into it. Now it’s really cute, but my place is tiny. Only 40 m2 (430 square feet). In hindsight I wish I had bought a bigger place.
So you feel like the crop of properties you were seeing the second time around were bigger and better, for the same price?
On: My budget had gone up too – I had gotten a promotion at work, and I had gotten a really good bonus. I told my Paris Property Group agent, Jennifer, I think we can go up about 200,000 €, but Kathryn, it’s funny you mentioned what you just said, because in my mind, I wish I had spent another 200,000 €, and instead of being at the 800,000 € mark or 900,000 €, I wish I had gone for a million euro property, because when I think back, and I think about the interest rate that I got, which was like 1.25%! Oh, wow. I think about the property tax on my unit in San Francisco where I’m at right now. For 1000 square feet I pay $15,000 a year. Nobody bats an eyelash because it’s San Francisco. Yeah, my property tax on that Paris place? Very low – Like $860 a YEAR!
Kathryn: Yes, yes. I know. My place in Chicago is 900 square feet and it’s $10,000 a year for property taxes. And my property tax is about 800 € in Paris. The difference is amazing.
So you really hit the low point of the interest rates. You hit it perfectly – people today would just kill to time the interest rates so perfectly.
On: If I had a word of wisdom to give to your readers, if you will, I would say that given the interest rate on the property tax, you can technically afford about 4.5 times more than you would be able to afford in the United States. I wish somebody had slapped me and told me it is not about the purchase price. It’s about the interest rate that you’re getting on your loan, and the currency exchange rate. Right, so lesson learned.
Kathryn: What originally prompted you to want to buy a place in Paris?
On: So straight men don’t buy houses for their mothers. Straight men don’t do this sort of thing for their moms. It’s us gays who do it, and I’m a good “gaysian” son.
Kathryn: I have never heard that, but it is hilarious. And I’m going to tell my son and his husband that they should be buying something for me. A lot of our clients are gay, but they usually buy places in Paris for themselves!
On: My mom has been dreaming of Paris forever. My grandmother died pretty early on in the pandemic. And my mother was in a state of depression. She kept saying “Oh, if this pandemic is ever over, I want to go to Paris.” My grandmother loved Paris. She spent a lot of time in Paris. Her French was perfect. And Mom’s been to Paris 20, 30, 40 times. And I thought, “I’ve been saving up money for mom’s retirement forever, why don’t we just take that money and buy you a place in Paris?” And for the first time she was silent. And then she said, “Well, I don’t hate the idea…”
So that is really what prompted it. The first time I came to look by myself. I would have picked a place for her, maybe 30 square meters, 40 square meters in size and located in the first or the second arrondissement. The second time around, I brought her and Mom wanted something in Chinatown or way out there, in a new development. That’s where everybody thinks they want to be, if they have Asian roots. They want to be near an Asian market. And you’re like, “Well, but do you really? Because you could just take the metro over there, or Uber over there. You don’t come to San Francisco to go stay in San Jose, which is like an hour away. Right? So if you’re going to buy in Paris, you want to be walkable and be in the middle of Paris.”
So we ended up finding a place in this beautiful quadrangle. The name of the street is rue Beaurepaire. It’s beautiful. I mean, it’s a three minute walk to the canal Saint Martin. It’s a one minute walk to Republique and there’s like five interconnecting metro stations beneath us. Within a two block radius there’s really great shopping in those little streets. It’s this perfect little enclave. It’s very very bougie. Very hipster, I would call it. That canal area is just so awesome. The metalwork bridges are just super picturesque, you know?
Kathryn: So did your mom make the decision, or did you make it jointly? Did you just know when you saw it?
On: That’s a really good question. Each place we visited, it was obvious whether we liked the place or not. There was no middle ground. It was either yes or no, I’d say for about 95% of them. For example, Mom really wanted good light, so Jennifer (the Paris Property Group agent we worked with) did show us some places that were North-facing where the light reflects off the wall across the street. But that just wasn’t gonna work. It’s light but it’s not direct sunlight, which is what we wanted.
The place we bought was not our first choice. The ironic thing is, the first choice was up the street. So it’s the same street, but the first choice was on the fifth floor. It had a balcony, and it was the same size as the one we have now.
Kathryn: So what happened? How did you lose that one?
On: It didn’t seem like there were any other offers coming in. So I think I offered them €8000 less than they were asking for it. We thought we were gonna get it because they didn’t have any other offers. And then they asked us, “Hey, can we have one more day or one more evening to consider your offer?” And the next day, sure enough, they had an offer from someone else that they accepted. That other one was right on the Canal Saint Martin. In hindsight, I’m not sure that would have been the greatest idea, because it might have been kind of loud at night with all of the people who walk along the canal.
It was on the fifth floor. There was a balcony, same size unit. It also faced a school that was Pepto Bismol colored. As opposed to our unit now, which faces another beautiful Hausmannian building, so there are trade offs. I spent about 200k euros on furniture, and kitchen renovations for this place. If I had bought that other place, I probably would have ended up spending only 50k on that stuff because that place was done right already. There was nothing else that you really could have done to it.
But I’m exhilarated about the place we have now, especially the location. Everything about it. And we managed to get it during the really lowest point in interest rates.
Kathryn: I think that one of the fascinating things for all of our clients, is just seeing the unexpected way their story unfolds. And sometimes, suddenly you take a little left hand turn and you’re in a totally different spot. Our clients always start out with a vision, but then it changes over time as they see different things, and their preferences evolve. I always think all of our clients’ places end up being so cool and special. And the story of how they landed their place and made it their own is part of the rite of passage in owning a place in Paris. Fortune definitely favors the bold when buying in Paris.
On: We did have a little bit of a problem with part of the construction. There was this wall between the bedroom and the dining room where we wanted to take away the plaster and expose the beams in the wall, because the old beams are just beautiful. We wanted to paint them white and have just open beams separating the space visually.
So the first architects came in and said, “Sure, go ahead and do it. Maybe add some rods in there for support.” And I thought, well, the way the designer had planned it, she only exposed the beams in half the wall. So I said, “Let’s get another architect to ask if we can open it any further.” So the second architect came in and said, “Hell no, absolutely not – like none of it! Do not do this! None of it!” This architect was worried that exposing the beams in the wall, and taking away the plaster, would impact the structural integrity of the wall. So the construction team got really, really wigged out, and said we think we need to cover these beams back up. And you know if the construction guys are telling you that you need to cover it back up, so that the 150 year old building stays structurally sound, then you listen to them. So we covered it back up. But I kept regretting it.
Now we’ve asked another architect, Isabel, to come in with her construction team to take a look, and they think, “Yeah, we think we can open it again. So we’ve maybe wasted about €6,000 to €8,000 to expose the beams, then re-cover them with plaster and now expose them again. But if that wall can open up, it’s gonna let a lot more light into the bedroom, which is what Mom wants. And according to them, it can be done. So we’ll see.
On: Also, I made friends in the building! I went from apartment to apartment just knocking on doors and introducing myself, bringing people chocolate, saying thank you to them for their patience during the renovation, and I’ve made so many nice, good friends quickly in the complex. They are super helpful when I’m not there. You know, we go out together. So what I like about being American is the fact that we go and we knock on the doors with chocolate. And they all speak perfect English. Even when I tried to speak French they’re like, “We’ll just speak English.…”
We don’t have the same norms as the French. They’re accustomed to these crazy Americans doing things differently.
The thing that wigs me out a little bit – I don’t know if it was your experience, but when they invite you over for drinks at eight o’clock, in my mind, I’m assuming we’re going to eat dinner. Instead we have a tray of appetizers and then another tray of appetizers, and at some point I’m wondering “Are we gonna go to dinner?” I didn’t say anything, but after doing this about four times, I’ve decided either they don’t eat, or they eat at like 9, or 10, or 11 p.m. or something like that, or maybe your supposed to eat beforehand. Typically we’re there till around midnight. They just don’t go to dinner apparently.
Kathryn: I had this experience where some people invited us over for a drink to thank us for something at 7:30 p.m. on a Friday evening. We had two glasses of champagne. We’re sitting there talking, talking… and they’ve got a few little snacks out, and time goes on. I guess I didn’t realize that I was supposed to stand up and say “Okay, we’ve got to go”. And so eventually, they said, “Well, would you like to stay for dinner – and we said, “Sure!” And then we realized out in the kitchen that they did not have the dining room table set. They had the kitchen table set. They were ready for family dinner, they had a casserole, and there was not enough casserole to go around. So they pulled out frozen pizzas, and they fed the children frozen pizza, and we had the casserole. And then I realized, “Oh no, we were meant to excuse ourselves and say we have to leave, but we didn’t. They must have been horrified when we didn’t take the hint to go. I could write a book on the amount of faux pas that I’ve made, where I just realized, wow, you’ve really stepped in it, culturally.
On: I think the most important thing I’ve learned really is we’re all taught in school that Bonjour means like Good day, right? But I think what I’ve really learned is that Bonjour means “I’m coming into your personal space”. Right? And I think that kind of a non-literal understanding of what bonjour really means has really changed the way I communicate with French people. In the United States if I walk into a Safeway, I don’t say bonjour to every clerk that’s working there. But in France, you say bonjour to the Metro driver, and the lady at the patisserie. Everyone, really. So, the reason I think Americans are perceived as rude is because we just don’t grow up with that culture.
Kathryn: They did a survey in France that said, “What is the biggest problem in France now?” This was a few years ago, but at the time, the survey found that it was rudeness. And they learned that the number one thing people said was rude was the failure to say, “bonjour” – That was the number one response on the survey! Rudeness and people not saying “Bonjour”!
On: Wow. So really, really a big deal. I’ve been to Paris probably about 10 times since we started the search for the apartment, and I’ve dealt with hundreds of Parisians, whether it’s neighbors or store owners or construction people and I haven’t had a single incident of rudeness. The only rude person that was French that I bumped into was the TSA security guard at the airport. But everybody else has been so nice. So I was gonna post on Facebook: “Hey, you know what? The water is warm. Come on over. They’re not rude. Just remember to say Bonjour.”
Kathryn: Exactly. Yeah, those are words to live by in France.
The House Hunters International episode featuring On Lu’s search for a property in Paris airs on November 7th. You can see the episode here.