Alex Duval Smith: Our Woman In Paris

Buy, with a little help from les amis
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A window on a whole new aspect of France opened up to me about 18 months ago when, after weeks of searching, I found the flat that I wanted to buy in Paris. It had a single-glazed fourth-floor window with an estate agent's sign tied to it. I stood in the street below and rang the phone number. Mr Semama answered. My property-buying adventure had begun.

It was to last many months and feature a varied cast. Among them was the camel-hair coated Mr Semama. I never discovered his first name. Then there was Piotr, the Polish one-time cameraman for Roman Polanski, now turned builder with a penchant for vodka (but not the "Russian rubbish'') and his fleet of diligent workers from countries east of EU enlargement.

Manu was the Portuguese plumber who told dirty jokes and played a mean game of pinball. He did a double-act with a dumb-mute assistant who was always covered in the contents of that which had been liberated from other people's blocked drains.

The B-movie cast would be incomplete without the fearsomely efficient Madame le notaire - a stationery fetishist of the first order whose office walls were lined with colour-coded files of wills, divorces, stamp-duty documentation, reports from termite, lead and asbestos searches and, in a lime-green folder, my acte de vente (contract of sale). Above her door, a statue of Marianne - patron of France - and the maxim: "What I write has the force of law''. The French love their notaires because they represent the state but are paid by individuals: they tick you off if you're on the fiddle but they never rat on you. When buying a property, allow at least 6 per cent on top of the purchase price for the notaire.

My adventure was also to introduce me to a wealth of new vocabulary - from promesse de vente (the binding offer on the flat) to the more prosaic but necessary joint (washer), carreaux-plâtre (plasterboard) and enduit (filler). These could be bought at places that you needed a car to get to, such as Le Point P and Leroy Merlin. For emergencies there was the local quincaillerie (ironmonger) but the basement DIY section of the Bazar de l'Hôtel de Ville department store was better value.

I had to readjust my friendship radar. Everyone I knew seemed to have "un ami'' who was a builder or decorator. But when I met those people they didn't behave like friends of friends - they just wanted the business. When a French person has a "friend" in the building business, that person is probably just a drinking pal from the local cafe. You have to make your own friends and I hired Piotr on the spot the day he declared that there was no need for me to spend €856 (£600) on getting new double-glazed windows: a spot of carpentry and the old ones could be made good.

I had to make an awful lot of decisions - not my strong point these days. I was pretty good at life-and-death decisions when I was a correspondent working in Africa, sometimes interviewing people who make their points with machetes. But in Paris, I work on an early-morning radio show which means I spend much of my life in a sleep-deprived state. I once bought a compact disc only to discover I had already purchased it a few days earlier.

Fairly confident that I hadn't already bought a flat, I put in my offer of just under one million francs (£106,790). We were already in Euro-times but Mr Semama preferred to talk in francs. I naturally took this to be a dastardly estate agent's trick. But it turned out we were both struggling with conversion tables.

I never met the vendor. Mrs Lindermann was dead and Mr Semama was acting for her estate - half a dozen distant cousins, one of whom lived in New York and had to be contacted at every stage. Fortunately, the American relative spoke French, or we would have had to get certified translations of every document.

The flat had not been decorated since Maurice Chevalier was in the charts. Flowery wallpaper was everywhere: ceilings, doors, cupboards as well as walls. The flat had no heating because Mrs Lindermann had spent her winters pushing a radiator on wheels around with her. It did not have a bathroom because Mrs Lindermann washed in a tub. The wiring was pre-Chevalier.

So, too, was the electricity meter, but I was told that this would help me save on my electricity bills: it was revealed to me that I simply needed to drill through the bakelite box and insert the metal end of a party sparkler until it hit the meter's turning wheel. With the wheel stationary, or slowed by the party sparkler, the counter would register fewer units! No wonder France needs so many nuclear power stations.

Property deals are a murky business and as a foreigner you feel doubly exposed. Semama tried a fast one; he attempted to convince me that I was liable for his fees. Piotr's failing was that he underestimated the cost and amount of work, but I don't think this was deliberate. I still drink vodka with Piotr and play pinball with Manu.

I don't want to repeat the flat-buying experience any time soon. But it was the right choice. Given the current state of the Paris rental market - in which landlords and letting agents ask for heavy guarantees - it is arguably easier to buy a flat than to find one to rent. And you make new "friends''.