Friday, November 14, 2008

Apartment search, act 1

Finding an apartment in Marseille was extremely difficult. So difficult, in fact, that we ended up living in Aix. But I'll get to that.

By the way, this is not one of the happier posts. At the end of it, you'll say to yourself, "let's get to the good stuff!" I have to admit, I hesitate to post this now because, obviously, everything worked out and we're not still living at the hotel. However, I'm putting it in here because it happened, and any of you (i.e. parents) who talked to us in the first two weeks might want to know the details that we didn't tell you over our semi-functioning Skype connection.

Scene 1
James' supervisor in the lab and a friend of a friend, both of whom happens to live in Marseille, had recommended a couple of websites where we might find housing -- either through agencies or through individuals. They're just what you'd imagine: you put in your criteria and get back a list of properties that may or may not still be available. I had spent a considerable amount of time looking around on these sites and on Craigslist while we were still in the States and there were a few promising leads, but it seemed like it would be easier to look for a place once we were here. This was especially true since almost no on provided email addresses with their listings and I didn't want to make a bunch of international calls.

Once we got here, it became immediately apparent that this was not Chicago, where finding a place had always been relatively easy (so what if we looked at about 15 places before we found the Casa del Berwyn ... we found plenty of nice places before that, they just didn't take dogs).

We started off looking for a furnished apartment. There were several that were posted online on our first Friday in Marseille, but by the time I called about them on Saturday, they were already gone. To be fair, there were other furnished apartments in our price range, but they were all in parts of Marseille that are public-transportation challenged (i.e. there is no public transportation). That wasn't an option for us given that James's lab is in Aix and he would need to go there on weekdays.

So I set up email alerts to find out when new apartments were posted on the websites and checked email way too often, when the wi-fi was working.

Scene 2
We tried a few apartment locater services in Marseille, which come in a couple of different sizes and flavors. One thing that's common to all of them is that unlike agencies we've been to in Chicago, the tenant-to-be is the one who pays, not the landlord. Some agencies sell you a list of contact numbers for apartments, which all sound really great on the website/list and which the agents at the agencies guarantee are still available, but which, according to the hotel staff and everyone we've talked to, are often already rented. Then you're out the 200 Euros you've paid for the list. Other agencies actually take you to apartments, and don't charge you unless the place you. When they place you, though, you owe them a month's rent plus other administrative fees for their services. This means that you've got to come up with three months rent at the beginning (agency fees, security deposit, first month). However, when you're living in a hotel...

In addition to the expense of using an agency, there's a law in France that you're not allowed to pay more than 1/3 of your salary in rent unless you have a guarantor, who has been employed in France in the previous three years, who will co-sign with you. So agencies won't even show you apartments that are above the 1/3 mark. It's not so clear that individuals renting out their apartment have to follow the 1/3 rule, but they ask a lot of questions (smart) and definitely want proof of your salary (also smart). At least they would show their apartments before they got proof that we'd have a salary.

This last issue could be solved as soon as James could sign his contract because not only would that guarantee that he actually had an income, but since he would be employed by CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique), a government-funded entity, agencies could up the rent cap slightly before requiring a guarantor. Besides that, James' supervisor thought the lab would be willing to act as guarantor. However, since the contract wasn't ready and James hadn't signed it, no dice. That severely limited the apartments the agencies had to offer -- in several cases to no furnished apartments. The financial crisis in the US wasn't really helping us look legit, either. I think some people thought that all Americans had just lost all their money. Little did they know, they were dealing with two people who had no investments and were not at all affected by the financial crisis that was unfolding in the US. That's not exactly something that will instill confidence in your ability to pay rent though, so we didn't mention that.

Things were looking bleak.

Scene 3
We widened our search to include unfurnished apartments. However, it turns out that in Marseille, most unfurnished apartments are completely unfurnished -- there's a space in the kitchen for a sink and an oven or stove and a fridge, but you have to supply them. So, while we could afford basic furniture thanks to Ikea (which you can even get to on public transportation!), we couldn't afford furniture and appliances.


Back to the hotel.

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