Everyone knows it: Berlin is “in”, tolerant, affordable—and growing. Monocle magazine just ranked the city as the third most “liveable” city in the world, citing the openness of the German capital’s population, the interesting mix of independent and high-street shops, lively and varied nightlife, low crime rate, expansive green spaces, conducive business environment and (relatively) affordable housing.
Where to look
Finding an apartment to rent or buy in Berlin has become both easier and more complicated over the last few years, particularly as a result of major online portals mixing things up and disrupting established channels. In the past it was a simply case of letting all of your friends know that you were looking for a new place to live (word of mouth always played a major role in getting the best apartments) or checking out the weekend listings in local newspapers, such as the Tagesspiegel and Berliner Morgenpost, to see what apartments were available and whether viewings were scheduled for that day.
Now you have websites like ImmobilienScout24, Immonet and Immowelt offering vast databases of houses, apartments and condominiums. You may well find exactly what you are looking for, but be prepared to sift through some really bad apartments on the way. Alternatively, you might turn to a housing association (Wohnungsbaugesellschaft), such as Degewo, HOWOGE or GSW, who own, build and manage a wide selection of properties for rent in their portfolios.
When I first arrived in Berlin 13 years ago, I remember wondering why there were no estate agents with street-front offices—a sight you’ll see on every high street in the UK. It seems that I wasn’t the only person to ask this question and many agents (Immobilienmakler) have opened walk-in offices in property hot spots since then. There are a number of agents, some operating nationwide and others with a focus on a specific city or district. If you want to be sure that you are dealing with a reputable agent, look for membership of one of the national trade associations, such as the IVD (German realtors’ association).
What to look for
Berlin’s apartment listings can be quite confusing for recent arrivals. They are full of abbreviations and the kinds of words your school German teacher never taught you. Let’s look at some of the key elements of a listing:
This will be given in two formats, the total number of square meters (Wohnfläche) and the total number of rooms (Zimmer, or ZI/Zi), excluding the bathroom, kitchen and hallways. So, if you want a two-bedroom apartment, you’ll have to look for a three-room apartment to ensure that you also have space for a living room (or a four-room apartment if you also want a study/home office).
Fixtures and fittings
Your new apartment will almost certainly be unfurnished. Not only will it not have furniture, it will probably not even have lights. The light switches will all be present and correct, but if you look up, just where you’d expect to see the light itself, all you will see are wires dangling from a hole in the ceiling. This is why most apartment viewings take place during daylight hours. If you have a viewing scheduled in the evening, or on a particularly grey day, you might want to take a torch with you! And before you move in, make sure you stock up on light fittings or you’ll be spending a lot of time unpacking and putting your furniture together by candle light.
This will be listed as Kaltmiete or Netto-Kaltmiete (cold rent). It’s the basic rent and needs to be added to the Nebenkosten (water, heating and shared costs such as refuse collection, maintenance, gardening, etc.) in order to work out what you’ll actually be paying each month Warmmiete). The Nebenkosten payments are paid on a monthly basis and are based on previous years’ costs or forecast costs if you are the first tenant. At the end of the year, the landlord or property manager will calculate the actual costs, apportion them to tenants based on the size of their apartments, and issue either a bill to make up any difference or a credit if you paid more during the year than the services really cost (Nebenkostenabrechnung).
You’ll also probably have to pay two or three months “cold” rent at the start of your tenancy as a security deposit (Mietkaution). Landlords are required by law to place this money in a special bank account, so you shouldn’t have to worry about the money not being there when you finally move out. The accounts also earn interest, although the historically low rates of the last few years have been below levels of inflation, so this doesn’t really benefit you in the way it would have done 10 years ago.
Tenancy agreements in Germany tend to be on the long side. When I rented in England, it was fairly normal to rent an apartment based on either a verbal agreement and handshake, or, at most, a single piece of A4 paper that merely specified the amount of rent to be paid and the date each month the rent it was due. In comparison, German contracts can only be described as “comprehensive”.
The devil is in the detail
Contracts normally include a checklist, completed when you take over the apartment, in which any faults or previous damage is recorded (a bit like when you rent a car). It might also be agreed that the landlord (Vermieter) will remedy some or all of these faults before the tenant (Mieter) actually moves in to the apartment. In most cases, the contract will also regulate the tenant’s freedom to make changes to the apartment, such as installing their own kitchen or changing the flooring (Einbauten des Mieters), their right to have a pet, to use their apartment for business or commercial purposes and their right to sublet the apartment (untermieten). Typical private rental contracts are open-ended, so signing a contract that is valid for just one or two years is abnormal. There will be sections in the contract that deal with cancelling the agreement (normally three months’ notice to the end of the next month), often with a regulation to reduce this period if the tenant has found someone else (Nachmieter) who is willing to take over the lease at short notice.
If you have no history as a tenant in Germany, you might have to provide your landlord with evidence of your ability to pay the rent. If the landlord has doubts, they might as for a guarantee from your parents (Bürgschaft) that they will step in to cover your costs if you get into difficulties. Don’t be surprised if this is a requirement, even if you are in your late twenties or early thirties and long-since out of your family home—it’s just an extra level of security required by many serious landlords.
We’d love to hear from you if you have any anecdotes about finding an apartment in Berlin, or if you are new to the city and have any questions.
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