Lily Heise is a Canadian freelance writer and romantic expert who has been living in Paris in 2000. She is the author of two books on looking for romance in Paris and her articles and travel writing have been featured in the Huffington Post, CondéNastTraveler.com, Business Insider, Playboy.com and many others.
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In a recent Parler Nice I wrote about an apartment we visited in Nice where the "marchand de bien" (developer) had designed the space so badly that it needed a complete redo from top to bottom and that it could have been a fabulous apartment with a newly revised floor plan. I "bragged" that for some strange reason, perhaps because of my background as a graphic designer, I am able to see the skeleton of a property, not the "skin" (decor) and understand how it should be, not how it is. In a past life, I was probably an architect...and if not, then in some future life I will be, but either way, I'm enjoying every minute of this strange talent in this life.
When you visit properties, it's key to be aware of what's changeable and what's not. You're buying what's not changeable. And in my world "tout est possible" (everything is possible), with certain exceptions, and even those exceptions may be possible. Let me explain.
Example of a Supporting Wall
Example of a "Cloison" Wall
Garde Manger from the Exterior
Adrian's Garde Manger and Courette
Martine di Mattéo, Interior Architect
Renovation/Decoration by Martine di Mattéo
In a cooperative building anywhere in France, there are some logical rules that apply. Any renovations can be made without permissions or licenses as long as you don't do anything to affect the structure of the building (changing supporting walls), alter anything about the common areas of the building (including the exterior) or install sewage-type plumbing into the same pipes that feed the kitchen water supply (such as a "Sanibroyeur" [macerating] toilet). Electricity and plumbing must be installed "to code."
Now, let's go deeper to understand fully what is possible and what exceptions may be possible.
The first thing I look for are the supporting walls. They cannot be altered without permission of the "copropriété" (homeowner association). Lots of people do it and take the risk, but that's a foolish one. The copropriété could sue the owner and force the changes to be reversed, but worse than that, the changes could affect the structure of the building and make it damaging for everyone.
The walls are pretty obvious by their thickness (they are at least twice as wide as the others) and if they sound hollow or not when you knock-knock-knock on them. A non-supporting wall, called a "cloison" (or partition), can easily come down. I like to call these "garbage walls," simply because they are "throw-aways" and these are the walls I don't see at all in my mind's eye, like having X-ray vision.
For example, knock down a wall that separates a kitchen from a living room and "voila!" — what you get is one big spacious "great room" with an open or "American-style" kitchen. The French love their closed kitchens to keep out the odors, but we Americans prefer the social aspects of cooking while still being a part of the party and therefore enjoy the open space and ambience of bringing everyone together...hence the term, "American Kitchen." You will see "Cuisine Americaine" in lots of real estate publicity!
The French are starting to get accustomed to it now, too, and even often preferring it, especially in small apartments. This is also thanks to Ikea who came along and offered up kitchens with appliances "encastré" (enclosed, hidden from view within the cabinetry) available at low cost, easily installed and so much prettier than previously modular kitchens. (I can remember when every kitchen item was separate and when the owners left, so left every item with them except the [proverbial] kitchen sink.)
To change a structural wall, ask an architect to assist you in making a formal presentation to the copropriété including drawings and plans in order to get the proper permissions.
If you're wanting to air-condition an apartment, then there must be a space to put a compressor. This can be very tricky indeed because the copropriété will never let you mount it on the exterior of the building in Paris, unless it is somehow totally unobtrusive or rarely seen. It needs the permission by the copropriété unless you are lucky enough to have a "garde manger" in which it can be totally hidden, or a balcony or terrace never seen from the street, or your own private "courette" (internal shaft). In Nice and other parts of France, particularly in the south where air-conditioning is more necessary than not, the laws are less stringent, but the compressors still must not be unsightly.
A garde manger is a space under a window in a French kitchen that extends out from the building, completely enclosed, but with ventilation, so that it isn't seen from the outside. It's a space, where before refrigeration, food was kept in the cool natural environment. Many bourgeois buildings have this handy feature and it's a great place to hide a compressor! When you're visiting properties to purchase, look for them. Sometimes, a kitchen has been installed blocking it from view, so look beyond the kitchen and outside the window to see if it is there.
A "courette" is a shaft that allows the apartments or walls that surround it to provide some light and ventilation. My kitchen happens to be on such a courette and by chance I have a garde manger, too. This is an ideal combination for adding air-conditioning (although I haven't done it...yet).
Toilets are the trickiest part to a renovation, because a toilet must be connected to proper sewage pipes and those pipes exist only in very specific parts of the building. Where the toilet is located highly dictates to where it can be moved or if another toilet can be added. If far from a proper sewage pipe, a "Sanibroyeur" toilet can be installed...but, only with permission of the copropriété (although lots of people take the risk of doing it without permission — not a good idea when it comes to the resale!).
This type of macerating machine reduces solids to small pieces in order to deal with solid waste which can then be moved by pumping it with the water via smaller than normal sewage pipes. To function, it needs electricity, and the only thing advisable to flush down is natural waste and two-ply toilet paper, otherwise there is a risk of malfunction and costly repairs. I don't recommend that this be the only toilet — because if malfunctioning, then what you have is a big closet...called an apartment! However, it can be a brilliant idea for a second toilet or "powder room" (what we Americans call it) where a "real" toilet wasn't possible.
Taking down walls and reconstructing them is not a major cost of renovation. Plumbing is, so consider bathrooms and kitchens to be your major expense. Air-conditioning comes at a price, too, because the units are expensive. The conduits must normally be installed inside of "faux plafonds" (dropped ceilings) — and that means you will lose ceiling height in some parts of the apartment. Rewiring to bring the electricity up to code can also be expensive, but expect it. I've seen very few apartments which have perfect diagnostic reports on electricity — there is usually an "anomalie" or two.
No matter what...it's best to always get good advice and assistance from professionals. We have the best design/reno team in Paris, led by Interior Architect Martine di Mattéo. Martine is exclusive to our clients, so if you contact her for an estimate, be sure to let her know we sent you! And be sure to visit martinedimatteo.com to see her beautiful work and the fascinating Before-After photos!
A freelance travel photographer who spent years saving her money is convinced now is the time to move to the city that stole her heart — Paris. She brings a friend along to help search for a spacious apartment that can double as a photography studio, but they quickly realize finding such a place is nearly impossible.
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