Forget the thatched cottage: for pounds 20,000 you could buy an apartment in the French capital, says Stephen Pritchard
Got pounds 20,000 to spare and fancy using it to buy a weekend hideaway? Well you could put a deposit on a country cottage somewhere in the Home Counties and spend Saturday and Sunday in wellies and a cagoul, or then again, you could buy an apartment in Paris.

Property in the French capital is surprisingly cheap. A studio apartment can cost as little as pounds 20,000, with one-bedroom flats starting at around pounds 40,000 in the city's fashionable Left Bank. And with highly competitive air fares and the direct Eurostar rail service, a weekend home here has become a realistic proposition.

Property prices in France have yet to recover from the falls of the early 1990s, although there is some evidence that they are rising in Paris itself. Even here, though, the picture is patchy: Bastille, promoted as the city's up and coming residential area, has seen prices fall this year; over-development and concerns about noise from the area's clubs and bars are the reason.

In most areas there is a ready supply of small flats, mostly studios or one beds known as deux pieces. Most are in period blocks dating from the 19th century or earlier. Original features, including fireplaces and wooden floors, are commonplace. Larger apartments and houses are harder to find within the Peripherique, the city's ring road, and their price reflects this: Avis Immoblier, Paris's largest estate agency chain, is advertising a one-bedroom flat on the Rue St Denis for Fr290,000 (pounds 32,000), or a three bedroom flat nearby for Fr1,386,500 (155,000).

The French buy their flats based on floor area, so a large studio can easily cost as much as a small one-bedroom flat. Flats with outside space - other than an ornamental balcony - are rare. If you've got money to burn, loft-style apartments are increasingly popular and are good value per square metre, but because of their size, they are not cheap. A 320 sqm loft on Rue Greneta, in the second arrondissement, is on the market through Avis Immoblier for Fr3m (pounds 330,000). New lofts are normally sold in shell condition, as this attracts lower taxes.

Paris is compact, and has excellent public transport so it is not necessary to buy near the Eurostar terminal at Gare du Nord; in fact, this is one of Paris's less desirable districts. Paris is divided into 20 districts or arrondissements. Most of the city is within easy reach of the shops, museums, concert halls and theatres, whether it is the upmarket restaurants of the eighth arrondissement, the bars and clubs of Bastille, fashionable shopping in the streets of the Place des Vosges or Le Marais, or the seedier attractions of Pigalle and the Rue Saint Denis. It is perfectly possible to find a nice apartment for a reasonable price even within the third and fourth arrondissements, or across the river in the fifth, close to the Sorbonne.

Budget restrictions do not mean you have to be stuck out in the suburbs. "The historical centre of Paris is not the most expensive area," says Eric Darleguy, negotiator at the Boulevard Sebastopol branch of Avis Immoblier. "People who want to live in the centre can do so: it is a question of personal preference."

If you haven't got cash, you can always get a mortgage. Financing a property in France is relatively straightforward. French mortgage rates are low, and foreign buyers can choose a French bank, or a British bank operating in Paris, such as Barclays or Banque Woolwich. Under French law, borrowers can commit one third of their pre-tax salary to mortgage payments, after deducting other loans, mortgages or rent. At Banque Woolwich, overseas buyers need a 20 per cent deposit, and an income of at least pounds 20,000 a year. The bank is currently offering a fixed-rate mortgage of 5.15 per cent throughout the 15 year term, or a 4.6 per cent variable rate.

The biggest hurdle facing British buyers is the labyrinthine tax and legal system in France. The first difference is that a sale is binding in law as soon as a seller and buyer agree a price: they sign the Compromis de Vente, or contract at this stage and the buyer pays a 10 per cent deposit. If he or she then withdraws without good reason, the deposit is lost.

A single lawyer, the notaire, usually handles both the buyer and the seller's side of the transaction, and British buyers may find it is worth retaining their own notaire to manage the process and point out potential problems, such as French inheritance law. "It is very important to have people to help you in France," explains Jerome Le Breton, a notaire who represents British clients. "The system is not so much complex as unfamiliar." Under French law, for example, if a property owner dies, a share goes to each child, regardless of the will. Differences between English and French law mean it can be impossible to sell the property until the youngest child is 18.

The purchase tax, a single payment made on buying a property in France (the equivalent of our stamp duty), has been cut from 8 to 6 per cent in order to stimulate home ownership. Taxes are lower on new properties, at 3 per cent, and on commercial space, at 4.8 per cent - which includes some loft and office conversions. Buyers also have to pay an annual "wealth" tax and, if they live in the flat, a residence tax to the local authority.

Unlike in British cities, Paris properties are freehold, although owners will almost always pay a maintenance charge, covering the upkeep of communal areas, lifts and the wages of the concierge, if there is one. However, Paris's popularity means there is always a market for short-term rentals, either informally to friends or through a lettings agent in the city. Owners who are prepared to let their properties for longer periods can cover most of their costs, according to Clare de Circourt, managing director of de Circourt Associates which specialises in company lets. Furnished properties with good-quality kitchens and bathrooms are easy to let. As a rough guide, a studio will fetch from Fr3,500 per month (pounds 400) in the local market; one beds from Fr4,000 (pounds 450) per month. Rental income is taxable.

De Circourt prefers not to let flats for less than three months, but landlords can arrange tenancies so they have some use of the flat during the year, perhaps for holiday periods. But you'll be all right for your summer holiday: it is almost always possible to have the flat empty during August, when most Parisians head for the country.

Banque Woolwich: 0033142684220

Le Breton & Associes 0033144111213

De Circourt Associates 0033143129800

Avis Immoblier 0033144782040

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