There are many reasons to watch Recherche appartement ou maison, a French property programme similar to Location Location Location. You get to be a virtual tourist in different French cities, imagine a world without carpets, and enjoy lots of bidet-based historical anecdotes.
But it can also tell us a lot about the housing situation in France – and in turn help to make sense of our own property market. Here’s what I learned.
The housing ladder is a very British concept
I always assumed that our neighbours shared our Thatcherite obsession with home ownership as a symbol of adulthood and social mobility. Recherche appartement ou maison taught me that I was wrong.
There is not even a satisfactory French translation for the concept of the “housing ladder”. Participants seem somehow freed from the societal pressures to buy, and renting is not seen as a sign of failure.
It is possible to make a property show without tourturing the young
British property programmes are famously aspirational and, for millennials, they are often seen as a form of torture.
Recherche appartement ou maison is equally guilty of caving to our masochistic desire to watch other people viewing things we could never afford, and rejecting them because the toilet and the shower are in the same room.
Yet it also has a more compassionate side: for example, you can go on the show if you are looking to rent. There are also plenty of participants who are seeking to buy their first home, without having suspiciously limitless funds.
Then again, perhaps a similar approach would be impossible in this country. It’s possible viewers wouldn’t enjoy seeing millennial after millennial coming to Kirsty and Phil with a quarter of a million pounds and the goal of owning their own home in London, and having their dreams crushed. week after week.
Flats are the norm
I also noticed that a high proportion of the properties featured are flats, especially in the larger cities, and that families seem a lot more prepared to live in apartments. After a bit of digging, I realised that the UK, not France, was the anomaly. Of the EU-28, UK residents are the second most likely to live in a house rather than a flat, behind only Ireland.
This is particularly true when we compare Paris and London. In London, only 14 per cent of homes are in buildings of five floors or more, compared to 59 per cent in Paris.
Flats are smaller, of course. In Île-de-France, the region which includes Paris, the average surface area is 60m2. In London, it is 80m2. But when we are shown tiny, one-bedroom flats in the French capital, they often seem well-conceived and make good use of the space, rather than visibly being part of a larger house which has been awkwardly divided up.
Paris is extremely expensive per square metre, yet it seems more affordable than London, because of its high proportion of smaller – and thus cheaper – flats.
English words are everywhere
No language is truly as universal as estate agent-speak. Like us, the French find themselves saying “studio” and “kitchenette”, when what they really mean is “no adult human could live in this space without going insane”. French housing vocabulary is also full of English words, from design aspects like “bow-window”, to pseudo-anglicisms, such as “dressing” (room), and “immeuble de standing” (a high-class apartment block).
Sometimes things get lost in translation. The term “WC” is widely used across the channel to refer to the toilet, but for some reason the pronunciation has been shortened, so that it becomes “VC”. (For those who don’t speak French: the language, sensibly enough, pronounced W as “dooble-vee”). This resulted in a visit where the estate agent showed the client to the “WC”, and the client responded, confused: “Why double-VC? There’s only one.”
Paris is expensive, but London is worse
In Paris intra-muros – the administrative centre of Paris, which is separated from its suburbs by the Périphérique ring-road – the average property costs an eye-watering €8,940 per m2. This is still slightly less expensive than central London, depending on how you define central.
But therein lies the difference: central Paris is clearly defined. The Périphérique provides a neat boundary beyond which house prices fall, often drastically, even though most Parisians live outside of these boundaries. In La Goutte-d’Or, for example – a traditionally working-class neighbourhood in the 18th arrondissement in the north of Paris – property costs on average €7,030 per m2. Walk a few minutes north until you cross the Périphérique into Saint-Denis, and the price drops to €3,300 per m2.
“If you would cross the Périphérique, you could get a lot more value for your money,” says the agent-presenter. The clients look shocked. It seems the agent has broken a taboo. “Once you’ve lived in Paris, nobody wants to move to the suburbs.”
I guess there is one thing that links property programmes on both sides of the channel: people are impossible.
You can hear more about some of these subjects on a recent edition of our podcast Skylines.