Laugh all the way to left bank

March 8, 2002

A tiny flat in Cambridge will set you back £130,000 while a Parisian pied-a-terre could be yours for £39,000 - so what are you waiting for? asks Jennifer Wallace.

A square in Montmartre. Wicker cafe chairs and marble-topped tables spill out over the cobbles, an accordion player serenades the clientele, a black-bereted man passes clutching his baguette. In the centre is the art-deco Metro sign for the subway, while round the corner is the dusty local bookshop, Librairie des Abbesses.

High above the scene, shuttered windows wide open to the bright spring sunshine, an attic flat with views over all the chimney pots and window-box geraniums and little church domes that cling to the slopes leading to the Sacré Coeur. It's Toulouse-Lautrec. It's Picasso. It's Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge and too cliched for its own sake.

Except that it is not and it could be yours for just £85,000. A little further away from the Metro and up a winding, steep side street with steps that climb to the Sacré Coeur, a two-room flat is selling for £84,000, while a studio on the other side of the hill, less picturesquely touristy but arguably more Parisian, is going for as little as £39,000.

It is prices such as these that have got a few savvy academics excited. While the cost of properties in Cambridge, Oxford and London have soared beyond the reach of the average university lecturer salary (£20,000 starting salary at age 28; £34,000 top-of-scale at age 41; only a fixed £18,000 for college lectureships in Oxford and Cambridge), Paris remains tantalisingly within the limits of possibility. Time was, for example, when one of the most desirable streets in Cambridge - Chaucer Road - was known as "university row". Houses in Chaucer Road now go for between £700,000 and £1 million. Lecturers are more likely to be found in the new housing estates or around the outer ring road. The cheapest property Catlings in Cambridge has on offer is a tiny one bedroom flat, off Mill Road near the train tracks, for £130,000.

Depressed by these prices, academics are realising why it was the French who invented the term pied-à-terre. Eurostar has made the crucial difference. Nick Hammond, lecturer in French at Caius College, Cambridge, has bought a flat in the ninth arrondissement , ten minutes from the Gare du Nord, the Eurostar terminal. It takes him about four hours to get there from Cambridge, he says. "I looked at a really depressing two-bedroom house in Cambridge about two years ago and was told the price was £250,000. So I started searching in Paris and I found a really lovely studio flat for £60,000."

Although the Gare du Nord itself has all the sleaze and appalling poverty of any international station, within ten minutes walk one can find oneself in a genuine quartier . Just off the Rue La Fayette, the Rue Cadet bustles with fruit and veg markets and fresh boulangeries, while round the corner, the Rue Richer boasts a kosher charcuterie and a beautiful chocolatier that specialises in personalised chocolates for Bar Mitzvahs, as well as the famous Folies Berg res. A studio flat in Rue Cadet is going for £42,000, a two-room flat is £90,000, while a little up the hill, in the atmospheric Rue de Tour d'Auvergne, a three-room flat is selling at £123,000.

Cambridge lecturer Jane Hooper has a flat in the 18th arrondissement , in Montmartre. She travels there once a fortnight from Stansted - about 45 minutes from Cambridge. It takes her five hours, door-to-door. She stays in college rooms the rest of the time, but says: "I needed to find somewhere permanent, both as an investment and also that I could really make my home."

Living in a quartier involves building up links with the local bakers and the butchers. "You get your sense of belonging through the food shops," laughs Nick Hammond. "They are a great source of civility."

"Smart academics," according to Hooper, continue to choose the quinzième (the Latin quarter), where a two-room flat ranges in price from £75,000 to £170,000, while French academics tend to live around the Biblioth que Nationale. According to one of the main estate agents in Paris, Connexion, based in Abbesses, British buyers are interested particularly in Montmartre and the Marais. "There is definitely a trend," the woman in Connexion* tells me. "I have sold to five British people in the past month."

Purchasing a house is supposed to be one of the most stressful experiences in life, after bereavement and divorce. So what is it like buying in France? Is there an additional anti-British resentment to cope with on top of the usual strains of cut-throat financial bargaining? The unfriendly woman in Connexion augurs badly. "I have no time to speak to you," she says leaning back and idly lighting a cigarette. "I have no information about apartments. We do not have brochures."

But Nick Hammond's experience was very different. "They are hoping to sell to anyone and you are not treated any differently if you are English." It took Hooper three weekends of searching and 14 properties to find her flat.

Gazzumping is illegal in France. After negotiating a price, a purchaser draws up a promesse de vente with a lawyer (sometimes purchaser and seller share a lawyer). Ten per cent of the purchase price is handed over. From then on neither side can pull out. The date of entry is fixed, and everyone knows where they stand. All in all, it sounds idyllic.

* Connexion: 26 rue Yvonne le Tac, 75018 Paris. Tel: 0033 1 53 09 24 34.

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