Three years ago, I was living in Taiwan in a small tomb-like apartment located on a busy road in Hsinchu. One day, I went to a barbeque at a friend’s complex on the edge of town. I noticed a beautiful corner apartment with huge windows, a large, modern kitchen, and an L-shaped sectional sofa. It looked and felt like “home” to me. The following day, the landlord emailed me – the woman living there had just given one-month notice and the apartment was mine! A month later, I handed him a wad of cash and he handed me the apartment keys. So easy…and so totally unlike my experience of apartment hunting in Nice!
Prior to making the decision to move to Nice, I did a ton of research and found that apartments are much more affordable than most would imagine. For example, a small studio or one bedroom in the Old Town area starts at just 450 Euros per month. With my budget of 450 to 600 per month, I was pretty confident I’d find something easily.
Apartment hunting in Nice – not so easy!
My “dream” apartment: in a safe area walking distance to Old Town nightlife, a studio or one bedroom, minimum of 20 square meters, preferably furnished, and a maximum budget of 600 EUR per month.
Was I expecting too much?
One apartment I found online prior to my arrival seemed ideal and rented for 520 EUR per month, but it was long gone by the time I arrived. With little available in my price range, my “dream” of living in the Old Town area was appearing unrealistic on my budget so I expanded my search area.
I walked up to the Liberation area, but it was too far away from the action. The Port area is really beautiful, but I wasn’t sure about walking home late at night. Then I looked at the Carre d’Or area, full of expensive restaurants and pricey shops, walking distance to Old Town and near the Promenade.
I responded to an ad for a pricey apartment in the Carre d’Or area and received no reply from the realtor, so I stopped by the office one day. The stern Russian realtor laid out the hurdles in front of me: since I’ll have no income while in France, I needed to set up a “frozen account” as insurance for the owner. She gave me the name of her contact at a local bank.
Until that was done, it was clear she wanted nothing further to do with me.
So, I stopped by the bank and was told the woman in charge of frozen accounts was on vacation. It was August. Nothing gets done in August.
What’s a “Frozen Account”?
French real estate laws heavily favor the tenant and make it difficult and expensive for the landlord to evict a non-paying tenant. Rental contracts are valid for THREE YEARS, but the tenant can leave at any time with just one month’s notice. So, the landlord basically has a month-to-month contract while the tenant is protected for three years. Strange but true.
If a tenant decides to just stop paying the rent, the realtor will go to court and it may take up to two years for eviction. In order to give the owner some “insurance”, tenants without an income from a French company are required to deposit the equivalent of one year’s rent into a frozen account.
In addition to the frozen account, the rent still needs to be paid every month. There is also a standard one-month damage deposit for unfurnished (“empty”) apartments or two months for furnished apartments. Additionally, realtor fees are set by the government at 13 EUR per square foot.
Apartment hunting in Nice – leaping hurdles!
So, getting a pre-approved frozen account established will make things much easier and realtors will be much more responsive. That’s the first hurdle.
But there’s another hurdle to leap in the apartment search: competition from college students returning to Nice for the September term. Many landlords rent to tourists during the summer and to students during the off-season. Since students are on a student visa, the landlord can be pretty sure they’ll be out before the lucrative tourist season begins.
I had some serious obstacles in front of me! Would this prove to be an impossible dream?
Realtors vs Particulars?
When I first began apartment hunting in Nice, some friends recommended a French website called Leboincoin. This site is full of apartment rental ads published by individuals (“Particulars”) rather than real estate companies. The advantage of going through a particular – no realtor fees. The disadvantage of going through a particular – apartment rental scams.
After getting sucked into a rental scam, I decided to play it safe and find a trusted realtor. And since I was clinging to the dream of an apartment in Old Town, I went to a trusted real estate office in Old Town – Palais Immobilier.
In their window, I noticed a few apartments available in Old Town within my price range, so I walked in, introduced myself to the realtor, Fatima, and explained my dream.
Then we went apartment shopping…
#1 – “The Cave”
Later that day, we met for a viewing of an apartment listed at the lower end of my budget at just 450 EUR per month. It was located on the 6th floor, no elevator, 15 square meters and unfurnished.
We walked in and I was immediately transported back to my college dorm days.
Located on the top floor, the ceilings were sloped and were just slightly higher than my head in the corners. The view of Old Town rooftops from the tiny kitchen was nice, but that was the only nice thing about this cave.
I quickly crossed it off my list.
#2 – The Hobbit Hole
A few days later, we viewed a small studio in a perfect Old Town location. We climbed the stairway six floors to the top and reached the doorway – in the shape of a narrow archway similar to a hobbit hole. There apparently was a hobbit currently living there who slept on a mattress on the floor and had stacks of clothes piled in the corner.
There simply was no way to get real furniture through that small hobbit door. Crossed that one off the list too.
# 3 – The Fish Market Apartment
The following day, Fatima sent me another option so new it wasn’t even on the website yet. The photos were bad but based on the location and the large, French windows, I was willing to look.
This one fit nicely into my budget at 510 EUR per month. The listing said it was a one bedroom and 23 square meters (247 square feet). I wondered how it was possible to fit an actual bedroom into such a small space. Fatima did too.
The next day I met Fatima in front of the crumbling old building and we climbed the crumbling staircase up to the fourth floor. The stairway looked original from the 1600s.
My expectations were low as I looked at the chipped tiles, cracked walls, and disgusting cobwebs.
And then we walked in, and found a modern, bright, totally renovated apartment! Three large wooden beams across the ceiling added character to the modern design. The huge windows overlook the Fish Market below and beautifully renovated buildings across the plaza. The kitchen is basic, with two electric burns and a college dorm fridge (which is plenty for me!).
I was definitely interested but the only issue I had – it’s unfurnished. I had just gotten rid of all my stuff when I left Taiwan and didn’t want to start collecting stuff again.
So I asked Fatima to show me just one more -it was nicely furnished and much larger.
#4 The Dungeon
Located right in the bowels of Old Nice, this apartment looked ideal in the photos – but photos can be SO deceiving. Because of its location in the densest part of Old Town, the only window in the apartment looked directly across the narrow lane with a view of the wall of another building. There was no sunlight at any time of day and it had the vibe of a dungeon.
Despite the larger size (35 square meters) and the modern furnishings, I just wasn’t feeling it.
Feeling slightly defeated, I walked back to my temporary home pondering my options. As I approached the Fish Market area, I saw nothing but blue sky and sunshine. In that moment, my decision was made! I need to see the sun! The Fish Market apartment wins!
So, it was on to the next step…
Apartment hunting in Nice – Selling Yourself
Fatima explained the next step – being accepted by the owner and by Fatima’s boss. I had to sell myself. So, I went home and wrote an eloquent email explaining my background, where I’ve come from and what I’m doing in Nice. It was nice, but it was a soft sell.
The next day I walked into Fatima’s office with financial documents proving my ability to afford life in Nice. The hard sell!
A few days later, I was approved by the owner! In order to “officially” secure the apartment, I paid the deposit and the realtor’s fees in cash, secured the required rental insurance, and then waited another ten days for the official contract signing. Unlike my rental experience in Taiwan where a handshake seals the deal, French law requires a detailed and complicated 13-page rental contract.
The following day, I unrolled my Turkish rug on the floor of my empty apartment and was finally home! And then I opened a bottle of wine, sat in my window and soaked in the stunning view.
Apartment hunting in Nice really isn’t easy, which may be the reason the French government requires “proof of accommodation” prior to issuing a long-stay visa.
“But what if I’m not approved for the long-stay visa?” said a nagging voice in the back of my head.
I tried to push that thought out of my mind…