If you stand on the right bank of the Seine and run a leisurely eye from the Musée d’Orsay to the Eiffel Tower, you’ll have an excellent view of the Parisian landscape. As well as seeing the city at its classic best, you’ll be looking at the seventh arrondissement; and as Cole Porter might have put it, “C’est magnifique”.
Residential property prices in Paris rose last year to record highs, and nowhere did they climb more steeply than in the wealthy Seventh, a postcode shared by the Assemblée Nationale and the French Foreign Office. “International buyers love the Seventh,” says Alexander Kraft, chairman and CEO of Sotheby’s International Realty France-Monaco, which has six offices in the French capital. “They feel that they are buying part of Paris, the picture postcard.”
The arrondissement is, in fact, a compilation of two historic districts: the Faubourg Saint-Germain and the plain of Grenelle. Until the 17th century, much of this elegant quartier was open countryside, but in 1670 the Sun King, Louis XIV, commissioned a vast hospital for old and wounded soldiers there. The Hôtel National des Invalides, with its 15 courtyards and 196m of river frontage, defined a new location. From then on, the noble and the wealthy began to colonise the Left Bank, moving from the cramped Marais to the cleaner, greener suburb, where they built imposing mansions – hôtels particuliers – and transformed the Seventh into the height of fashion.
The Revolution robbed the aristocracy of their heads and their homes, and many of the latter were taken over by the state. (The Hôtel Matignon, for example, once the residence of the Duc de Valentinois, is now occupied by the prime minister.) But the world’s wealthiest buyers have once again restored the arrondissement to its pre-Revolutionary prominence.
Mark Harvey, on the Paris desk of estate agent Knight Frank International, cites sales exceeding €40,000 per square metre. Part of the reason buyers are prepared to pay these pinnacle prices is, as always, a shortage of supply and the Seventh, though a reasonably large arrondissement, is relatively sparsely populated. With just 50,000 to 60,000 residents – about half the population of its near neighbours – opportunities to buy fall short of those eager to take advantage of them. “It’s a real scarcity market,” says Marie-Hélène Lundgreen, director of Paris agent Belles Demeures de France Fine Residences, an affiliate of Christie’s International Real Estate.
Equally, in the past half-decade, a whole new tranche of the world’s wealthiest property owners has decided that a pied-à-terre in Paris is as much a necessity as a Belgravia townhouse, an Upper East Side apartment and a villa in the South of France.
“Traditionally, the majority of international buyers in Paris were American, English or northern European,” says Kraft. “Now buyers from the Middle East, South America, China and Russia are increasingly active. Today, the Chinese represent about seven per cent of the high-end Paris market. They see the city as the centre of culture, food and fashion.”
Buyers here are rarely looking for the immediate returns they might expect elsewhere (particularly since recent changes to French capital gains tax have encouraged the long-term view). “International buyers regard Paris as their playground,” says Mark Harvey. “Their attitude is, ‘Ça me fait plaisir’, I want to treat myself. They consider buying here as they might think about buying a Ferrari or a great work of art.”
For these connoisseurs, property in this exclusive arrondissement is often on an appropriately masterpiece scale. “The last 18th-century royal mansion in Paris that came on to the market, a few years ago, sold in just three weeks,” says Lundgreen. “The buyer, from the Middle East, had been looking for a very long time and was happy to pay well over the asking price.”
Others looking for their very own hôtel particulier – even without a noble pedigree – will generally have to be patient, although Propriétés Parisiennes is currently selling a fine example of the genre, with four bedrooms, four bathrooms, a large living room and two kitchens over four levels, for €8.7m. Elsewhere, however, prospective purchasers are generally content to make do with nobly proportioned apartments.
Location is, of course, paramount and two of the city’s most desirable addresses – the Champs de Mars and the streets around the Eiffel Tower – are both in the Seventh. Other prized coordonnées include: the Rue de l’Université, the Rue de Varenne, the Rue de Bourgogne, the Rue de Grenelle and the Esplanade des Invalides, as well, of course, as the riverside seats along the Quais.
Those wishing to put a well-heeled foot on the bottom rung of the Seventh’s vertiginous ladder will need to budget a minimum of €15,000 per square metre, but if you’re looking for high ceilings and polished parquetry, expect to leave this figure well behind.
Belles Demeures de France Fine Residences, for example, is selling an eight-bedroom, fourth- and fifth-floor flat on the Quai d’Orsay. With its sweeping panorama of the Seine, marble entrance hall and panelled reception rooms, it is the quintessence of Parisian luxe and comes with an equally luxurious asking price of €42m (the highest-priced property currently on the Paris market).
Perfection, of course, depends on your perspective, and while the English, Americans and northern Europeans generally want their Parisian glamour marbled with patina, other nationalities prefer a more turnkey approach. “The Russians prefer perfectly restored properties,” says Kraft. “They want it to look like a glossy magazine.” And, if that’s your preference, the easiest option is to go for the newly built, such as the 665sq m of cutting-edge contemporary design near the junction of the Rue de Varenne and the Rue du Bac that’s selling through Seventh-based agent Emile Garcin for €19m. The house comes with all the latest trimmings, including a partially glazed roof and a home cinema.
What buyers in Paris won’t find, however, is the type of development, now commonplace in London and New York, that offers a range of hotel-like services, such as a chef to make your dinner or a concierge to make your restaurant reservations. In the Seventh, the assumption is that wealthy buyers have a permanent retinue to do that for them, and the finest properties generally have independent staff quarters. Left Bank agent Marc Foujols, for example, is currently selling a three-bedroom, seven-reception contemporary house in the quartier with a separate staff apartment, for €15.75m.
If retro chic is a must, buyers should bear in mind that renovating a property in a city where classic good looks take precedence over modern comfort can be a taxing affair. A recent case, for example, in which a Middle Eastern buyer attempted to introduce a lift, a car park and a number of security features into a historic hôtel particulier resulted in a widely publicised legal action brought by irate French conservationists. “It’s certainly not for the faint-hearted,” says Harvey.
But for those with a spirit of adventure (and a good architect) Foujols is offering a property that will certainly be worth the effort when finished: an unmodernised seventh-floor duplex with a sundeck, roof garden and Eiffel Tower views, for €11.6m.
Whatever the outlay, few regret a decision to buy in this most beautiful and elegant of cities, and the tranquil streets of the Seventh echo with the ghosts of a romantic Bohemian past, which was perfectly captured in Woody Allen’s 2011 film Midnight in Paris.
“Of course, the area has been gentrified for the past 30 years,” says Kraft. “Now you’ll get all the high-end luxury brands you’d find on the Right Bank, but it’s not quite as streamlined. You’ll still come across typical Parisian shops, art galleries and rare-book shops.” And, though an encounter with Ernest Hemingway or F Scott Fitzgerald is now the stuff of dreams, even today it’s possible, according to Kraft, to catch a glimpse of local heroes, such as the legendary couturier Hubert de Givenchy.
On the whole, as in the past, many of your neighbours will not be native Parisians. “In the market over €7m,” says Lundgreen, “most buyers are foreign, and even in the €4m-to-€7m bracket, the majority are non-residents.”
Which means that for those of more modest means, the area is also a good investment for potential rental income. Garcin is advertising a 23sq m studio in a 17th-century building in the Carré des Antiquaires for a very accessible €359,000; this compact beamed-ceiling space is kitted out like a hotel suite and, with a steady supply of tourists, purchasers would never need to worry about void periods or a drop in value – one of the key attractions of the area, whatever your price range.
“The fourth quarter of 2011 was one of the best ever seen in Paris,” says Kraft, “and the city is now considered an alternative blue-chip market, unaffected by international economic conditions.”
Harvey agrees: “Paris is now as good a place as any to park your money.” As well, of course, as being a wonderful place to have a good time.