Germany: Things you NEED to know when renting a place to live.
Its hard work, finding a place to catch some Zzzz's
Navigating the German property market is a challenge!
So you’re thinking of moving to Germany, or at least you’re curious about the concept? Well, you have come to the right place for enlightenment. Germany is an interesting place to live. The people are friendly, the infrastructure is great, the employment opportunities are currently among the best in the European Union and if you’re into the beer and lederhosen culture you will never look back. I currently live in Dusseldorf and there is a reason why they call the Altstadt (old city) the longest bar in the world. Mind you, I rarely drink. I am partial to the odd bratwurst though.
In the next few minutes, you’ll learn a few interesting facts that no guidebook will tell you about renting a place in Germany. In fact, if I could turn back time, this information would have made my life on the Rhine… well… less problematic. This is because the first rule you need to know about living in Germany is this: You must follow the system. There are no exceptions. Germany is, above all, a society premised on norms and rules. Some of those rules will leave you scratching your head in disbelief, but they are rules nonetheless. When in Germany, thou shalt not query; thou shalt obey.
Intermission: Before I continue, I think in the interests of clarity it is best I give you a summary of my personality. I’m Australian born (yes, that land at the bottom of the planet the British filled with convicts). I’m imbued with a substantial dose of the Asian concept of negotiation (yes, that means I consider everything negotiable and once negotiated, renegotiable). Finally, I am infinitely flexible when it comes to the application of rules (yes, that means I bend the rules I can’t break). If you’re an orderly person, Germany will be paradise. If you’re more like me, you’ll need to find some mental flexibility in order to adapt!
So, without further ado, here is a veteran’s recommendations concerning renting property in Germany:
Recommendation 1: Always have your visa / passport documents handy.
So you’ve landed. If the Deutsche Zoll (Customs Authority) have let you onto German soil to set yourself up, you’ve either managed to secure yourself a visa with residential rights or you’ve got an EU passport. If so, well done, that’s the first step taken care of. If not, then the rest of this article won’t assist you because you’ll need those two documents to get anything done. Not to mention a fair amount of your time will be occupied with such tasks as avoiding deportation. For those of you who are legal would-be residents, this first recommendation may sound simple enough, but without your passport, you can’t get anything done. I really mean anything. That includes picking up your mail from the post office.
Recommendation 2: How to find a place to live.
When I first tried to find a place to live, I spent weeks going through the classifieds before I found something that was half decent and centrally located. The competition for good rental accommodation in the major cities of Germany is very high. Dusseldorf, being located in the region of Germany that is the most economically active, is particularly competitive. So as a rule, it is best to apply to any apartment you like within 24 hours of the listing date, if you want to have a chance of securing it for yourself. Don’t procrastinate or assume something better will come along, because worthy opportunities are rare. To put it in perspective for you, Australians who rent will relocate on average once every two to three years. Germans on the other hand can stay in their rental accommodation for up to a decade at a time. I will get into the why of this later in this article. The point to note here is that the turnover of property is very low. So when something good appears in the market, there is considerable interest from those looking for rental accommodation. This makes it an owner’s market. So you can expect the 'full monty' when you’re applying for the property.
Luckily, the internet makes watching listings child’s play. There are two major online real estate portals that you should look at which are listed at the end of this article. On these these sites, you will find the majority of rental listings. Reading these listings is also a learning process. They will refer to the number of rooms in a rental property, the size of the property and offer a ‘cold’ and ’warm’ rental price. The number of rooms will be presented as a simple, unspecified room count. This is confusing because the figure will include both bedrooms and living areas (ie: 3 room = 2 bedrooms, 1 living room). So a property that is advertised as having two rooms will actually only be a one bedroom place (yes, it is senseless!). I managed to visit a number of properties only to find a missing bedroom before I clued on to this twisted logic. Also, when looking at the price, be aware that the ‘cold’ rental is the price before common area charges, so if you want to know the bottom line, only the ‘warm’ rental price is relevant. You will also need to have a bond deposit available upon renting the premises (called a ‘kaution’), which is customarily a month of rent.
Mathematics aside, there is a red herring that will catch out every new renter, so pay attention! You need to be very aware of the difference between properties offered by owners and by agents. An agent offered the first property I looked at in Dusseldorf to me. He politely negotiated the rent, looked at my financials and then gave me a bill before I could finalise the contract. The bill was for thousands of Euro – representing about 3 months of rent. I asked him incredulously why I would be paying thousands of Euro in charges for no apparent reason. He explained to me that Germany has a ‘user pays’ system of real estate. So in other words, if an agent is engaged by a landlord to find a tenant, the tenant is responsible for the commission payments! This is opposite to almost every other country I have visited, where the landlord pays for services that he engages. I politely told him that Germany is completely insane and went back to the listings to find owner offered properties. So now you know: renters beware!
Recommendation 3: How to solve the rental contract / bank account paradox.
So now you’re almost there. You’ve dodged the commission sharks, found an honest owner to rent from and all the bedrooms are actually present and accounted for. It’s time to sign the contract. So all that you need is a pen, your financial history, the bond payment and your passport, right?
Germany’s day-to-day economy may be cash based, but for utilities, phone companies and landlords it is always direct debit. That means you’ll need a bank account before you can take possession of a property. So make an appointment at a bank and you’ll be pleased to know that having a residential visa or EU passport will allow you to open a personal bank account in Germany. What you will be less pleased to note is that you will need to have an official registration letter confirming your home address from the Ordnungsampt (A ‘local laws’ department) to open the bank account. Of course, the Ordnungsampt will not issue the letter without a rental contract or confirmation from the landlord.
Welcome to the paradox. No letter means no bank account. No bank account means no contract. No contract means no letter. This is the insanity of German regulations at work. The solution is a matter of negotiation. You will need to convince your landlord to execute the contract without specifying the payment method. Once signed, get the letter and the rest will follow. However, if you have an uncompromising landlord, then you will need to start at square one because the system is completely inflexible!
Recommendation 4: Nail down everything you want in the apartment, whether it moves or not!
Let me paint you a picture. Two years ago, after months of searching, I found the perfect place. It was a duplex apartment, 3 bedrooms with a great kitchen, balcony and a car park in a wonderful location. After finally talking the owner into signing the contract without specifying the payment method, I registered the place and I was in heaven. All I had to do now was count off the days until the big moment… and finally it arrived!
I slid the key into the lock with a palpable sense of anticipation. I had an image in my mind of relaxing in my apartment with all of its classy amenities. When I walked into the apartment, I had to do a double take. For a moment, I was sure that the owner gave me the wrong set of keys. The place that lay before me was a mere shadow of the apartment I had seen. The first thing I noticed was the light. When I went to turn it on… it wasn’t there. Luckily there was still some natural light filtering through the windows. Because the blinds were not there either. My mouth went dry instantly. I made my way to the kitchen to get myself a glass of water and compose myself. But that too was not an option. The kitchen had vanished. It seems that the previous tenant took everything with them when they moved.
Even today when I try to explain my surprise and dismay at the month that followed of cooking on a camp stove, washing dishes in the bath and waving to my neighbors during my morning shower, the effect does not translate with the local folk. Their logic is that they want the chance to build their place from scratch. That means they don’t want to turn on someone else’s light, cook in someone else’s kitchen or even open someone else’s blinds. So, several thousand Euro later, I adopted the German way and still failed to get the logic. But it clearly explains why locals move so infrequently. Every change of tenancy means disassembling everything and refitting everything. Including the kitchen sink. So, when it comes time for you to get your new place, be sure that you specify absolutely everything you want to remain.
If you follow my recommendations, hopefully things will be a little smoother for you. Good luck and happy hunting!