"I want a house with a bedroom exactly like the one I have now. Only bigger, with extra room for my Legos." Le Petit told the real estate agent straight up what he wanted, and that much, at least, was easy to understand.
"...and I also want a little sea in the garden, where I can raise salmon and octopus," he continued. The agent looked a bit confused at that one, but Le Petit, his usual outgoing self, cheerfully changed the subject.
"Did you know that I went to an island in the Atlantic with my grandparents? My grandparents have a car. It's an Audi."
At that, the agent was suddenly interested in Le Petit's four-year-old chatter. "Oh, an Audi, that's a nice car. Does your Daddy work with cars?"
"No, Daddy works with computers," we answered, cutting Le Petit short. So much for the agent's blunt fishing for financial information from the preschooler. He took us to see a house, the first one we visited, and it fit neither le Petit's criteria nor ours -- the garden was overgrown (and with no sea), the floor plan was odd, the paint in bad disrepair, the bathrooms and kitchen in need of major remodeling.
"Oooh, the toilet is brown, Mommy!" Le Petit remarked.
"Yes, um, a little bit of limescale," the agent said nervously, then continued vaunting the supposed qualities of the dumpy, unremarkable house, the ugly duckling of the block.
"You're not enthusiastic," my husband whispered when we stepped out into the street.
And so our house hunt began. On subsequent visits, we've tried to leave the kids with my in-laws (or at least le Petit, who hasn't mastered his real estate poker face.) It's only been a month, but I feel worn out by it all. I'm dreaming real estate -- no exaggeration -- visiting apartments in my sleep, buying virtual furniture, losing my way on a new imagined commute. We've spent our evenings scrolling through the listings on the iPad; we've signed up for e-mail alerts and we send each other anxious text messages in order to schedule visits. We're approaching this as we seem to approach everything, turning it over every which way, trying to control the imponderables and generally making it all A Very Big Deal.
We're looking for a place in Versailles. That much we've decided upon, and it isn't exactly a new idea for us. It's further from Paris and therefore cheaper than the suburb where we currently live. But it has been (shall we say) appreciated by the elite for four centuries, so it isn't exactly inexpensive, either.
You can credit the Louis(es) who put the place on the map: it doesn't feel like a suburb; it doesn't feel like a village; it feels a quiet provincial city, with a monumental side. It has a true commercial downtown, and it also has the château and its gardens, it has quiet residential neighborhoods. The schools are excellent. And although it has a reputation for a certain vieille France snobbishness, we're far from alone in appreciating it. All that means, quite naturally, that nice houses and apartments (that would be "condos" for my American readers) are hard to find.
We made an offer on the second place we saw. It was a last-floor apartment in a typically Versailles 1960s four-storey building with a stone facade and prim rectangular windows set in a mansarded zinc roof. It was nondescript on the outside, and I would have called it ugly once upon a time, but we fell in love the unit itself. It belonged to a widow who had lived there for decades, and she was reluctant to leave. While she was considering our verbal offer -- a week and a half and still no response -- we began to have second thoughts. The deal fell through (happily enough) and we were back to square one.
Square one started to look a lot like staying where we are another year.
In Versailles, there are "modern" buildings, mostly built in the 1960s and 1970s, with elevators and parking garages but also expensive homeowner fees and strange amenities like heated marble floors. Anyone who's hip and has enough money to spend eschews the "modern" for apartments dans l'ancien -- in historical buildings, that can be rather historic indeed, dating from the 18th or even the 17th century. Then, you either have to get creative or buy from someone who already found a way to carve modern rooms out of giant drafty reception rooms or low-ceiling attics with thick rafters. The result will likely be charming, but will rarely have a retrofitted elevator. Nevertheless, everyone's looking for charming, it seems.
We visited an apartment in a 19th century building with two gorgeous bedrooms, a dining, living room and kitchen that were straight from the pages of Maisons Côté Ouest magazine. But a vertiginous staircase -- more of a ladder, really -- led to two other attic bedrooms, with little head space. We just couldn't imagine how it could possibly work with small children. And the price was at the veeeeery top of our budget anyway.
My husband has been doing most of the visiting, prospecting alone on Saturdays while I look after the kids. He's seen funky old buildings with windowless dining rooms, or with bedrooms that lead from one to another; he's seen dull 1960s places with everything from the kitchen to the electricity in bad need of an upgrade. There's always something not quite right it seems. He'll be taking me to revisit one last promising place tomorrow, and we've given ourselves two more weeks to find something or put off moving for another year. From offer to closing takes a minimum of three months in France, and we want to move in the summer to coincide with the school vacation, or not at all. We're happy here, after all. Mademoiselle has a great nanny, le Petit has another year in nursery school. And my in-laws are within walking distance, which is priceless both for us and for the kids.
But next year it will be the same story, you point out. Perhaps, but we've tentatively decided to move into a rental place in Versailles next year. That way we'll be able to sell our current apartment and look for a new one without a deadline, already set up in our target home base.
Meanwhile, I ask myself how I can at the same time feel like I'm over-analyzing everything and am utterly unprepared to deal with all the possibilities. Welcome to being a grown-up, I guess.