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Renting in France as an Expat

Renting a house in France.
Renting a house in France.

Renting a place to live in France is very simple in principle: You find a place you like, you sign a tenancy agreement, and you move in. When you want to go somewhere else, you move out. But reality is slightly more complex. Let’s walk through it step by step.

Part One: Finding a place

If you have $3,000 you don’t really need, just let a relocation company search an apartment for you. If this is not part of your budget, you will find a selection of magazines with ads at any newsagent. The same ads are available online. You can also tour the local estate agents. You may even find signs advertising rentals in the street: A louer.

Most rentals are handled by an estate agent, but some landlords prefer cutting the agent out to save the fees. The tenant’s part can be close to one month’s rent. I have no preference for choosing either direct rentals or renting via an agent. Going through an agent is no guarantee against problems. They are there to earn their fee, not to advise you. The choice of rentings is limited in France, and if you exclude agency ads from your search to save the fee, it may take much more time to find something suitable.

You will notice that the ads are not necessarily easy to understand. A good dictionary is a handy tool but it won’t tell you everything, so at the end of this article is a short rental glossary.

Now that you can read the ads, you can begin focusing on the area you want to live in, and you may have noticed that the name of a city is often accompanied by a two-digit number. That is the département. The European part of France is divided in 22 régions, again subdivided in 96 départements. The département number is the first two digits of French zipcodes. Paris, Marseille and Lyon are subdivided in arrondissements.

Once you have found something that looks interesting on paper, the next challenge is to phone the agency or landlord. If you know anyone who speaks French and who is willing to help you over the linguistic hurdle, accept the offer.

Once in the apartment or house, examine it extremely carefully. Is it well maintained? Not just the wallpaper but the technical installations: Drains, faucets, bathrooms, kitchen, equipment, electrical board, mains outlets, boiler, windows, ... the whole lot. Don’t hesitate to test equipment. If you are renting with an equipped kitchen, do the appliances look old? Does the landlord agree to maintain them? If you are renting in the countryside, the water may come from a well near the house. That is legal but the landlord must get the water analyzed once a year by the DDASS, and it is illegal to have a septic tank within 35 meters/yards of the well. If you get the impression that the dwelling has seen better days, it probably has, and you could be in for years of trouble if you rent it. One thing is that the French tenancy law is very protective of the tenant, obliging the landlord to maintain everything but the tiniest and current maintenance, another is to get a court to intervene and get things fixed. You may be entirely right, but it could take years and large lawyers’ bills. Unless your hobby is French court practice in matters concerning tenancies, forget it! Play safe up front before signing the tenancy agreement.

When I warn you so strongly against this, it is out of personal experience. In my idyllic rented Provence farm house, to mention just a few of the surprises, the oil burner exploded, raw sewage ran out on the ground and I had 230 Volts arriving in the shower. At the time of writing, the lawsuit has taken 18 months without any result so far other than mountains of paper. In the apartment I rented in Paris, the fridge/freezer broke down twice, and the hotplates had suffered an internal shortcircuit. The landlady kept insisting that what was proven to be carbonized cables was a feature for delicate cooking.

If something looks old or of bad quality, it is likely to stop working while you are there. Too many French landlords take advantage of foreigners by renting badly maintained dwellings for steep prices and refusing to maintain things that break down.

Kitchens come in various forms:

cuisine simply means the room used as kitchen - not any inventory. If nothing else is specified, then the kitchen may be a bare room without any built-in cupboards or electric units, just a faucet sticking out of the wall.

cuisine aménagée is a kitchen equipped with built-in cupboards but without electric units.

cuisine équipée is a kitchen equipped with built-in cupboards and some electric units.

Furnished or unfurnished? That is up to your taste, but beware! The same law does not apply to both. Some landlords try to make you accept a “furnished” tenancy agreement for what is really an unfurnished apartment because it is more favourable for them. Do not accept that. An “unfurnished” contract must last for at least three years and is automatically renewable. If it is your primary residence, “furnished” is for one year minimum and automatically renewable. Do not accept the trap of letting the landlord make you declare that it is not your primary residence, because you lose a part of your legal protection.

Beware of “agents” making you pay to get a list of what they claim to be available apartments in large numbers. It is most commonly a scam. They scan ads from the Net and copy the details onto their lists, and when they finally sell you the list, many of the apartments have long been rented. Steer clear of these shady list traders, no matter how tempting and charming they may seem.

Signing a Lease for Your Rental

You have found your dream apartment and you are ready to sign. Check all the details on the tenancy agreement (contrat de bail) and particularly that it is for an habitation non meublé if unfurnished and meublé if furnished. If unfurnished, the law number 89-462 must appear on the front page. Check the amount of rent and charges due every month. Charges covers various expenses paid in addition to the rent for cleaning of common areas, garbage collection etc. and sometimes heating and water. The tenancy agreement must mention exactly what is concerned. What you pay in charges is an advance. Each year, the landlord must account for the expenses and refund any excess paid or collect the remaining balance if actual expenses were higher than the advance. Note that the landlord cannot stuff just anything onto the charges account. Examine the accounts carefully. The rent is indexed once a year after official figures.

If an agent is involved and you have not already paid his fee, he certainly wants it now. Note that they are only entitled to their fee when a tenancy agreement is signed. It is illegal to keep any advance paid or request any payment if you end up not signing the agreement. That does not prevent some less scrupulous agents from trying to cash in their fee if you change your mind before signing. Note that what they call a réservation is not a tenancy agreement and it is not binding. Some agents make you sign it when you decide to rent but before you sign the tenancy agreement. They sometimes ask for an advance payment at the time of signing the réservation. It is a declaration of intent, but you can change your mind freely and without any fees due, meaning that any advance must be refunded entirely if you back out. That is the law. The trick may be to make you feel obliged, but it is indeed a useless piece of paper.

The dépot de garantie, a deposit, is also due now. The legal maximum is 2 months’ rent, and that is the most commonly applied.

You must provide an insurance certificate to show that your civil liability as a tenant is covered. Any French insurer will provide this. It is most commonly part of your home contents insurance that also has general cover for civil liability. These insurances are called assurance multi-risque vie privée.

Unless you can show an employment contract from a French employer, providing a salary of at least three times the rent, you may well be asked for a bank guarantee. The amount demanded could be anything, but I have seen between one and three year’s rent demanded! They do this because it can be costly and lengthy to get rid of a bad tenant.

The day you take over the keys, an état des lieux should be drawn up. It is a complete inventory of the dwelling, anything in it and the state of each item. If none is drawn up, the dwelling will be considered to have been in perfect condition, meaning that you will get the bill for anything broken when you move out. You should be extremely vigilant and detailed when this inventory is drawn up. It can easily take two hours to complete. Any marks, scratches, chips, holes – even after nails, damages, wear and tear, miscoloring, cracked tiles, broken glass, malfunction, dripping faucets, running toilets, etc. should be noted down. Check hot and cold water, heating, mains outlets, switches, lights, oven, stove top, hotplates, fridge, freezer, dish washer, washing machine, door and window openings, ... Many less scrupulous landlords speculate in ‘forgetting’ known damages in order to get paid for them when you move out.

Part Two: Living There

Finally, you have moved in. If anything breaks down and it is not a minor or ordinary repair such as changing a seal or unblocking a drain, you must inform the landlord immediately by recorded letter sent with request for acknowledgement for receipt (lettre recommandée avec accusé de réception), letter in which you ask for the item to be repaired. This formality is important to protect yourself from any claims in case of consequential damage, such as from a leak, and to prevent having to pay yourself when you move out. Hopefully, the landlord gets it fixed. If not, please accept my sympathy! Forcing the landlord to repair what he should repair is hard work. A consumer association such as UFC may help. You can show up without appointment at their offices and speak to a legal advisor specialized in consumer law against a minor membership fee. They can tell you what is the best way to proceed, but they don’t go to court for you.

Be sure to get a receipt every month, even if you pay by check or bank transfer. You may need it later in other contexts. The landlord must provide receipts free of charge.

A dwelling tax called taxe d’habitation is due for any property you occupy in France on the 1 st of January. The tax is collected in November. It does not matter if you move out on the 2 nd of January; the tax is still due for the entire year. Bear this in mind if entering or leaving close to the 1 st of January. You are personally responsible for this tax, and the landlord is obliged to give your name to the inland revenue. The tax rate is set locally, but the tax is mostly between 300 and 1,500 euros per year. Reductions can be granted for a married spouse and children, pensioners and low-income families. You may need to ask the tax office (centre d’impôt) to apply such reductions, as they are not automatic. An annual TV tax is collected together with the dwelling tax if you had a TV set on the 1 st of January that year. If you do not have any, you can tick a box on your tax return to avoid paying the tax.

A monthly letting tax called droit de bail was abolished a few years ago. Do not let the landlord fool you into paying this.

Leaving for Rental

You can give notice at any time. The notice period is three months for an unfurnished dwelling and one month for a furnished dwelling. In specific cases, the three months are reduced to one month. The notice must be sent with registered letter as previously explained. The tenancy can end any day of the month.

The landlord must respect the duration of the tenancy, meaning that he cannot give notice mid term. Also, he cannot prevent automatic renewal unless he wants to sell the dwelling, return to live in it himself (or his closest family) or if you have behaved badly (not paid your rent, sprayed graffiti on the building, burnt your neighbours’ cars etc.). His notice period is six months before the end of the tenancy for unfurnished, three months for furnished.

When the day comes for handing back the keys, an état de lieux is drawn up again and if any damage you are responsible for is discovered, the cost of repair will be deducted from your deposit. You are not responsable for damage if something is broken and the landlord should have fixed it, but you must have notified him in time and be able to prove it. Once the état des lieux is finalized, the landlord cannot add further costs. That does not prevent certain individuals from trying. Just don’t accept it.

The deposit must be refunded no later than two months after handing back the keys (not necessarily the end of the tenancy), less the cost of any damage. Too many landlords unfortunately don’t. They know that once you have left the country, it will be very difficult to start legal proceedings to recover your money. There is a very real risk of losing your deposit this way. Because of this scam, more and more tenants decide not to pay the last two months’ rent to recover their deposit indirectly. The tenancy agreement does not entitle you to do this, but it is legally impossible to be evicted in just two months. The most you risk is having to pay 10% more for the late rent, but for the landlord to enforce this would be cumbersome (a bit simpler if the tenancy agreement was drawn up by a notary). The landlord may not be happy about it, but in reality, he can’t do anything. My experiences on the French rental market unfortunately make me recommend withholding the last two months’ rent as a measure of financial protection unless you are sure the landlord is purity himself. Such landlords are rare in France.

This brings us to the end of this French renting marathon. What will help you survive in France is to accept that while France is a country of law, it is difficult to get the law respected and many Frenchmen routinely ‘round off’ the laws to their own advantage. Many of the warnings in this article would be considered paranoia in a country like Germany. But the French do not behave like Germans. If you do not understand their game, you risk being taken for a ride as a foreigner. Practice varies with each region, from the stricter Paris and the north to the laisser-faire Provence where providing favors to other locals may weigh more heavily than respect for the law. In fact, a real Provençal sees the world composed of two types of people only: Those born in Provence and those not born in Provence. The former are ‘in’, the latter ‘out’, whether they are from Paris or LA. As a foreigner in Provence, you have the advantage of not being taken for an arrogant Parisian, probably the most hated people in Provence. For the hardliners, the ‘out’ group have only to spend tourist money and then leaving quickly. Fortunately, they are not all hardliners and they can be as charming as anyone you can find anywhere on the planet.

For More Info

Main rental sites (most sites in French):

Rent a Place in

Short Glossary of Renting Terms



an administrative subdivision of Paris, Marseille or Lyon (ward)









lock-up garage



expenses paid in addition to the rent to cover cleaning of common areas, garbage collection etc.










ctr. com.

centre commercial

shopping mall



floor (1 er étage is the floor above ground floor)



agent’s fee



apartment building


















furnished (non meublé = unfurnished)



duplex house






detached house



number of bedrooms and lounges. A lounge counts for 1, a large lounge counts for 2.


boulevard périphérique

the ring road around Paris center



swimming pool



near by



ground floor


réseau express régional

regional train system in the Paris region ; underground in Paris center

rez - de - jardin


ground floor with direct exit to a garden


salle de bains







train (not incl. RER)






detached house

Related Topics
A Guide to Buying a Property in France
Vacation Home Rentals in France
Living in France: Articles, Key Resources, and Websites
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Working in France
Living in France: Do's and Don'ts
Budget Transportation in France
Budget Travel in France: An Insider's Tips

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