Marseille is a city defined by its geographical features. It has the sea to the west, mountains to the east and a national park to the south. Marseille is divided into suburbs or arondissements, and there are 16 in total.
The cultural heart is Marseille’s Old Port (le vieux port) in the 1st arondissement with the more trendy neighbourhoods fanning out around it, the 2nd to the 7th.
Obviously housing is more expensive if it borders onto the sea. Beyond the lower numbers, as a rule of thumb, safety is an issue the further north you go, where poverty levels are higher and gangs much more prevalent (the 13th to 16th arondissements). Marseille is a multi-cultural and vibrant city with much cheaper rents than elsewhere in Provence and offers the chance to live along this sought-after stretch of coastline, but the drawback is that it has much higher levels of crime, mostly in terms of theft and a bit more harrassment on the streets.
The trendier neighbourhoods such as Cours Julien and La Joliette are in suburbs 1 to 7, so this is where you’ll ideally want to be. At night, many appear more threatening than they are; hot temperatures mean that people tend to congregate on the streets which might seem intimidating. Keep your wits about you and you’ll be fine in any of the lower numbered suburbs, from 1-7.
Marseille doesn’t have a huge underground network but it covers most of the trendier suburbs well enough. It’s pretty well linked in with the tram lines and bus network, so with the three combined, it offers safe ways to travel around town. If you’re here for any length of time, or you find accommodation a little further out in the southern suburbs, you might want to think about investing in a scooter, but make sure your licence covers you.
The majority of people use the city’s bike service which you’ll find all over town. It’s called Le Vélo (French for ‘bike’) and you can sign up here. The first half hour of every trip is free. Ideally pick a place to rent that has a bike scheme nearby and/or parking nearby for your scooter. Marseille’s traffic is legendary in terms of congestion and chaos, but a bike allows you to whizz through the streets much faster.
The property market gets busier before summer (when everyone pushes up their short-term rental prices), so if you’re staying over the summer, try to arrive before the rush in July and negotiate down for a longer-term stay. It is possible! Off-season is obviously cheaper for a short-term let and the weather can still be enjoyable – it’s not uncommon to sit outside a restaurant in December in a T-shirt and jeans. Ask for discounts if you’re staying for more than a few weeks.
The traditional route would be to find an estate agent for a long-term let. In France, one year contracts will be for furnished places, and three-year contracts for unfurnished. But moving into somewhere in France is like the chicken and the egg situation. You often need a long-term work contract (a CDI) before any long-term renters will consider you. The problem is that you might not be working or probably won’t have work until you arrive and are settled in somewhere to live.
The reason for this stringent law is to protect renters from unscrupulous landlords – once someone is in a property, it is virtually impossible to be kicked out. Rental contracts don’t end, they just roll over to the next year. This protection for tenants means that landlords won’t take you on unless they are assured that you will be able to pay indefinitely. Without a CDI, they will usually ask for up to a year’s worth of rent as a deposit, which is no small amount. Foreign parents won’t be able to act as guarantors because French landlords cannot legally access foreign bank accounts to get their money back if you don’t pay. Remember to negotiate though; some estate agents will take as little as three months’ rent as a down payment. You’ll be luckier if you have a French person willing to act as your guarantor. Otherwise you’ll need to go down another route.
It can be really difficult to rent somewhere long-term and it might not be what you need. If you’re not coming to Marseille to study (where your educational establishment will be able to help you find somewhere), there are many organisations that help people to find French families to live with for a while.
There are also new short-term rentals popping up in the south that help millennials get into places without a CDI contract. The more informal route would be to check out Le Bon Coin which is the French equivalent of Craigslist or Gumtree. The French advertise everything on Le Bon Coin, from clothes and cars, to jobs and homes. Alternatively, check out the Facebook listings for anglophones in Marseille, where people advertise rooms or flats to rent. The last two options might not require you hand over your entire life’s savings as a deposit!
Trust your instincts. Never offer an uncashed cheque as a deposit because when it gets cashed, you’ll find it difficult to get your money back. Legally, if you have a CDI or a guarantor, landlords cannot ask for more than a month’s deposit. If something doesn’t feel right; say the landlord mentions the apartment includes fees for outside space and water, but when you come to sign, they conveniently forget this fact, it’s probably better not to tie yourself up in a contract with someone who isn’t likely to help when the heating packs up in winter. It might be France, but the law operates very differently here in respect to tenancy.
Check you have fire extinguishers, working fire alarms, etc. Also check the noise levels. The Cours Juliens is very cool, but do you want the noise until the early hours? And it can sometimes be counter-intuitive. You might expect a street with lots of restaurants to be noisy, but they may all close at 11pm when all the partygoers head into the back streets and make a noise there, so check out the area around your intended residence at all times of the day.