Friday, October 22, 2010

All calm on the Côte d'Azur

Several people have been in touch recently to check how I  have been coping with the strikes. At first I was a little perplexed by the question as the strikes have had no noticeable effect on my life, or Nice, as far as I can tell. I don't need to jump barricades to get to the shops or queue for petrol (if the worst came to the worst, we joke, we could drive to Italy). There have been a couple of strike days at my daughter's school. But we saw this as an opportunity for a relaxed breakfast in the sun at our local café. Any demonstrations have been low-key minor affairs - more carnival than serious protest. I watch the flights a little more carefully, but there have been no major cancellations. All in all, Nice is it's usual laid-back self.

Once owned by David Niven, this villa on St Jean Cap Ferrat is typical of why the Côte remains desirable

But if you watch what is happening in other parts of France, it's a different story. Marseilles, in particular, now has rubbish stacking up in the streets. Riot police are clashing with college students in Lyons and Paris. The north is running out of fuel. Now much of this is a media-led frenzy, I know, but still it seems as if I live in a different country by comparison.

And this made me think about Nice and the Côte d'Azur and what makes it such a pleasure to live here. Last year clients asked me why property prices were so much higher on the Côte than down near Marseilles. I guess the strike is one way of answering the question. It is a very protected (and pampered) area of France. Perhaps the stunning geographical beauty and warm climate make the people here less radical. But I suspect it has more to do with the high affluence ratio and the fact this region depends on the smooth running of its services to maintain the equilibrium that we are so use to.

When the Mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi, was voted in we saw a move to the centre-Right. Whether you like his politics or not, since day one he has been on a mission to make Nice the star city (next to Paris) of France. His public transport policy with its state-of-the-art tram system and bike hire on every corner (almost!) has been a huge success. As has his '1 euro anywhere in the Alpes-Maritime area' fare scheme. Yes, you can get to Monaco on the bus for 1 euro!

Estrosi's closeness to Sarkozy (he is also in his government) has seen Nice favoured with grants. The latest scheme is to make Nice the most protected city in France (probably Europe) with 600 CCTV cameras installed around the city. Now, considering Nice is hardly a hot-bed of street crime this does seem like a huge waste of funds (7.6 million euros). But none the less, it all helps to build  the city's ambitious plans to become France's second city.  

So in answer to the question 'Why is it so expensive here?', the answer would seem, 'Because we have a highly privileged and stable quality of life'. And where there is privilege - exclusivity even - and stability, there is investment, and where there is investment, property prices tend to stay high and rise, making it a good investment area. And so the wheel turns. This is particularly so when the world is going through a financial crisis - investors retreat to safe havens.

And as much as I may like to think I have a tinge of the radical in me, ultimately I'm happy to remain in my 'safe haven'.

I'm always happy to offer advice to people looking to buy on the Côte d'Azur. You can email me at or visit my website

Friday, October 8, 2010

Small apartment buying in Nice

Over two days, I have been showing my lovely Australian clients the 'best of' small apartments in Nice, handpicked by me in advance. The budget was under 200,000 euros, which is always a challenge, but I like a challenge. It takes time to find the good ones, but before clients arrive I have sorted the quality ones from the bad so there is no wasting of their time and no nasty surprises. I cut through the agent hard-sell, and cut out altogether the properties that agents want to shift because they are not selling.   An agent asked me recently why I did not show clients the really bad ones as she considers this a great tactic to get people to buy (they then see a respectable one and think 'Oh, this is so much better.'). A client also asked the same question. He was so impressed by what I had shown him (having been taken around the usual rubbish by agents) he thought it would be a good way to show off my detective skills.

My answer is that I'm not an agent working for the seller. My loyalties are to my client, the buyer. They trust me to have done the ground-work and not waste their time. If they want to see bad properties, then I suggest they go round the agents. However, if they want to see the best properties in budget, unique properties, properties that are fairly priced, ones that are hard to track down .... then that's my job.

In all, I set up ten viewings for my Australians. They ranged from studios to one bedrooms. But each one had something I thought made it worthwhile. They liked the Old Town and could see the investment potential, but the one that won their hearts (and business-sense) is a top-floor studio with a big terrace that I first viewed on Friday (and wrote about in my last blog entry). It just had to be this one. We put in an offer Wednesday and it was accepted the next day. I negotiated 13,000 euros off the asking price. It's with a Syndic (building management company) so not on any agent's books. Not an easy find.

Although I spend a lot of time working out what will suit my clients best, I try not to pre-judge too much  until we have actually spent some time together. Things change when you are on the ground. But regardless of likes or dislikes, business versus heart, this rooftop apartment was special. And special in the under 200,000 Euro bracket doesn't come along very often.

A small apartment and small budget in Nice doesn't mean you have to settle for any old thing. Don't believe the agents when they say this is the best you can get. Trust me, there will often be better but you need to know what to look for and how to find it. It's hard to uncover something unique, that's for sure, but at the very least it has to be a good investment. For me this means it needs to be bigger than a shoe-box (I prefer 30 sq metres, if possible more), in a good location, preferably one bedroom and  if small then I look for other advantages such as upper floors, balconies, architectural charm.

The roof-top studio came under my 30 sq metre rule (it's 28 sq metres), but it is top floor with French windows on three sides, a terrace on all sides, marble floors, and a small turn-of the century marble fireplace. The building has one of those wonderful cage lifts. It's adorable. As I said to my delighted Australians, 'it's small but perfectly formed'. And that (and, of course, location) is the best guide when looking for a small apartment in Nice.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The best and worst of properties in Nice, all in one week

It's been a long day. It's been a long week. I've been working flat-out looking at apartments for clients who arrive in a couple of days. The notice they gave was short (a week) but this can be a good thing in their price range (under 200,000 euros) as too far in advance, the chances are good apartments will have been sold by the time they arrive. The studio to one bedroom market moves quickly in Nice.

I have viewed over 20 apartments in four days. I wear out shoes at an incredible rate. Most of the apartments were dire (and that is even after the pre-selection process whereby I interrogate the agents in advance with the kind of technique that would make a Stasi agent look kind). Indeed, I was feeling rather glum mid-week after seeing one apartment in particular. It  looked promising on paper and in the photos (large studio, Old Town, with balcony). But the visit, even by my sanguine expectations, was a shock. The communal areas were so bad that the agent (it was a first visit for her) could not hide her dismay. How do you explain hundreds of wires running along and hanging from the ceiling of the communal area? Water leaking from the ceiling? Bits of plaster falling on your head? It looked as if we had stepped into a scene from a Mad Max movie. The apartment block had been divided into numerous small flats. The corridors were a warren of doors. Some had signs of being broken in with bits of wood nailed on to protect the bashed locks. Agent M who was showing me the property did her best ('look how lovely, it has a balcony', Oh, the kitchen is not so bad...'). 'Oh pleeease', I cried! 'Stop right there' I can cope with tatty interiors, but not downright dangerous looking shared hallways. This was mugging zone. A classic example of prime location but an apartment that will never be worth anything like the asking price (150,000 euros).

The Old Town in Nice is very mixed, there's no doubt. It's slowly becoming gentrified (actually, quite rapidly, to the dismay of locals as the sushi bars move in), but the reality is that from building to building the standards vary enormously. I always pay attention to the communal areas as it says a lot about who your neighbours are, if they are paying their charges (or not), and will it have re-sale value.

So after that rather depressing visit (among many this week), my expectations certainly couldn't be lower. And then today it all changed. I had made an arrangement to a view a small studio off Nice's main shopping street (Jean Medicin). My hopes were not high. I nearly missed the ad (in French, of course) as it was merely one line, no photos. But the fact that the location was good, and more important, it said 'top floor, with terrace', was enough to make me think it worth a punt.

What can I say. It's a jewel, and it makes my job a pleasure. This is the kind of apartment that an estate agent would love to get their hands on but probably won't. It is being sold through a 'Syndic' (body corporate or building management company) who have the authority  to act as agents. They have no interest in 'marketing', they have no website, and probably don't even own a camera. They want to sell the property quickly at a fair price. The owner is not interested in paying high agent's fees. To find something like this is truly rare.

It's a stunning top floor apartment that needs just a little make-over. Small (around 30 sq metres) but the glorious terrace runs along two sides and overlooks the rooftops of  Nice. There are French windows leading on to the terrace. Even the bathroom has a view and a terrace. It's the best view from a loo in Nice. The building is in a-turn-of -the-century block, elegant and with a lift.  I beamed when I saw it.  

Finding a property for clients on a small budget is probably the hardest work I do, but it is also incredibly satisfying when you unearth such treasures. I know that someone from outside the area would never have found this apartment (and even locals might not, given how the 'marketing' is so discrete). So, I start next week with a spring in my step (and a new pair of shoes after this week's marathon).