Apartment hunting is always taxing, but trying to navigate a foreign system in a foreign language can be very difficult. This article will introduce you to the German system, as well as point you towards the most important resources for your house-hunt.In Germany, the majority of people rent rather than own their homes. In fact, Germany has one of the lowest home ownership rates in Europe. Most people here live in apartments rather than individual houses, with houses often only available well outside the city. Germans tend to only pay around 34% of their income on housing and property related expenses, according to The Local news website. This is far less than many other major European countries, meaning living in Germany will likely save you money.
Familiarising yourself with the German terminology is the first step towards your new home. In Germany, basic rent is called ‘Kaltmiete’ (literally, cold rent), and this refers to the cost of the space per square metre. ‘Kaltmiete’, however, is just a portion of your monthly payments because in Germany expenses normally sent as bills are integrated into the rent. The full monthly payment is called ‘Warmmiete’ (warm rent) and includes the ‘Nebenkosten’ or ‘Umlagen’ (additional costs) such as water, heating, property tax, maintenance of shared facilities in the building, and so on. While the ‘Kaltmiete’ should remain stable, the ‘Nebenkosten’/‘Umlagen’ are subject to change and may increase.
At the end of the year when things like water usage and heating are tallied you may be asked to pay slightly more, or else you will be refunded some money. This, of course, depends on how much you’ve been paying towards these additional costs each month compared to your usage. Normally though, the payments should approximately cover the costs. This system can be very practical as it saves tenants from large lump sum bills, and makes it easier to budget the total costs associated with housing.
Two other crucial terms to look out for are ‘befristet’ (limited) or ‘unbefristet’ (unlimited). This refers to the time period in which the apartments available. It is very common for people in Germany to sublet their apartment while they are away for an extended period, as this is a cost-effective way of retaining their place.
Where to start
While these ‘befristet’ (limited) sublets are probably not your end goal, they can be incredibly helpful resources when first arriving in Germany. For instance, taking an apartment for one or two months when you first arrive can be the most effective way to search for a long term apartment. Naturally, it is easier and less risky to look for an apartment once you are in the region. Taking a short-term sublet will often give you time to search for something permanent without relying simply on photographs or making special trips to view apartments. Another advantage of using this approach is that it gives you time to get familiar with the city and to find which neighbourhoods and areas you like the best. The most popular online resources for finding sublets and temporary furnished apartments in Germany are Tempoflat or WG-Gesucht.
What to expect
Security deposits in Germany shouldn’t exceed the sum of between two to three months’ rent. This will be returned to you shortly after moving out, depending on the state of the property. It is wise to take an inventory of any quirks with the apartment before moving in, including taking photos and making written notes to send to your landlord. This will protect you if they claim any damage has been caused while the property was in your care.
Real estate agents (Immobilienhändler)
In a country where everything is foreign, seeking the guidance of an expert can be very attractive.
In many countries using a real estate agent is your best chances of success. This is not necessarily the case, however, in Germany. Here, automatically going with a real estate agent can be a very costly approach. While real estate agents’ hefty fees may sometimes be paid by the property owner, they usually fall to the renter, so be sure to confirm who is responsible before signing any agreements.
Going through real estate agents is by no means the most popular or widely used mode of apartment hunting in Germany. Many people prefer to use ‘provisionsfrei’ methods, those free of commission fees.
Do it yourself
Most people search for apartments themselves online. Obviously, this approach involves putting in time in front of your computer trawling through the latest listings. Yet, this can often be the best way to find what you’re looking for and at a reasonable price. Also, being personally involved in the apartment search will mean that you become more familiar with the average asking prices, as well as what is on offer.
Naturally, word of mouth can also be key to finding an apartment. This is, of course, more difficult if you are new and do not yet have a large network. However, it is certainly worth putting the word out among any contacts or friends of friends, as locals are invaluable resources.
Resources for house-hunting online
Immobilienscout24 and Immowelt
Probably the most popular online house-hunting resources, Immobilienscout24 and Immowelt list thousands of properties throughout Germany daily. These websites will often direct you straight to the person in charge of leasing the apartment. This means you can cut out the middle men and often allows for cheaper, quicker transactions.
While these websites mostly feature unfurnished apartments for rent, they also include properties for sale. Unfortunately, the sites operate only in German. The best way to get around this is simply get your browser to translate the page automatically. While this is not the most reliable method for reading complicated text, it is usually fine for navigating the basic information provided on property listings.
Each listing will show where the apartment is located, as well as photographs, prices, features and so on. If you turn on updates then the websites will also send you daily emails with listings that suit your criteria.
Some ads will have open days written on them, while others will require you to email the contact listed. It is possible to enquire about apartments in English. Obviously, if you can speak a bit of German this is helpful, but if not then there is no need to fret. People will mostly get back to you even if you write in English.
Another popular site is called WG-Gesucht. A ‘WG’ (Wohngemeinschaft) is another word for a shared house. As the name suggests, this site primarily lists shared houses, but it does also list entire apartments. Another popular site is the poorly named Studenten-WG, a portal which is certainly not limited to students and also lists entire apartments. These platforms are primarily used by youngsters, meaning that more expensive listings may get less interest. While they aren’t the most obvious platform to use, they may indeed be worth checking.
Paying the right amount
Informing yourself about the average house prices in your city is imperative. Unfortunately, it is often true that foreigners will pay more rent than locals simply because they are less aware of normal asking prices. Of course, no one wants to be ripped off, but it is also important to be informed about rent as cities like Berlin are rapidly gentrifying and expats inflating the housing market can exasperate the problem.
Websites like Numbeo can help you get a rough picture of prices. Likewise, a bit of research on websites like Toytown and other forums can be very revealing.
Getting the edge
In some German cities including Berlin and Munich, there are more apartment-hunters than apartments, so finding a place to live can be a slog. If you are having trouble looking online and do not want to pay extra for a real estate agent, another trick can be to call local Hausverwaltungen (property management companies).
A Hausverwaltung is the company that either owns the building or is responsible for its running. In any given city, there will be a number of Hausverwaltungen operating, often responsible for many residential blocks each. Calling a Hausverwaltung directly and enquiring about whether there are any available apartments coming onto the market is certainly a less orthodox method, but it can sometimes pay off. In order to try this, however, it would be necessary to find someone with good German.
It can also be advantageous to go to open days with your documents already in order. If there are many suitable applicants, getting the apartment will be a matter of first in, best dressed. Arriving completely organised may be the edge you need to land the property.
Know your lease
It is crucial to look closely at your lease. Often these will be written in complicated German legalese, so it may even be worthwhile getting a lawyer to look over the document before you sign it. Some leases can have annual rent increases written into them, so beware.
Unlimited leases are often used in Germany and are preferable as they give tenants security and stability. An unlimited lease can only be terminated by the landlord under extraordinary circumstances. On the other hand, the renter will be able to cancel the lease with notice according to their contract, normally around three months. However, most apartments will have a minimum stay period (usually between one to two years) before you will be able to give notice. If you want to move out before that time period, you may be subject to a fine.
Protect your rights
German laws tend to favour the tenant, which is good news. Nonetheless, it is wise to join a local ‘Mieterverein’ or ‘Mieterbund’ (renters’ association). As a member you will be able to seek free legal advice and representation for anything relating to property and tenants’ rights.
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