In the Throes of Apartment Hunting

Finding the perfect apartment in any city can be difficult. It’s nearly impossible to find “the perfect apartment” that we all envision. Where are the spacious but cozy rooms always brightly lit by sunbeams streaming through crystal clear windows that flow into a large kitchen with a gas range and enough space for a breakfast table, easily accessible from the bedroom with a wide closet, across from the bathroom with storage, down the hall from the already equipped washer (I wouldn’t dare to dream of a dryer), situated near a bustling street with cafes and shops, that we dream of?
We got lucky last time: we found an apartment that was perfect despite it’s flaws in a small city that we loved. So maybe we’re a little spoiled, but still, apartment hunting in Berlin is notoriously difficult for new residents. The challenges of renting in Berlin are in part due to the steady population growth since the 90s and also to the very “German-ness” of the system.

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Rents in Berlin are lower than in other major German cities and lower than most other European capitals. However, the influx of new residents over the past few years, especially those from other EU countries and North America, is being blamed for causing a rise in the average rental costs.  Kreuzberg (where we are staying for the next few weeks) used to be the ‘up and coming’ neighborhood. It was a hub for ‘artsy-types’ and low rents but the real Bohemians have since moved on to more Southern neighborhoods after the German equivalent of yuppies started moving in. Someone told us the other day that the flow of people into a Berlin neighborhood goes like this: Artists > Students > Yuppies > Families.
Once the former artists or students start having kids the area is definitely not cool anymore and those seeking a more ‘fringe’ lifestyle must move on. The result is that rents in Berlin are cheap-er than most places but not as cheap as the longtime citizens remember. A 1 bedroom apartment ranges between about 700-850 Euro ($950-1100). Not too bad, right? Except that there are fees out the wazoo! To rent an apartment, most landlords require 3 things: the first month’s rent, 2-3 months of rent as a security deposit, and a realtor’s fee of ~2 monthly rents. Sometimes you might get lucky and find a flat rented out by the owner directly which eliminates the last fee, but that’s somewhat rare. So, in order to begin a new lease (which are typically open-ended) for an apartment that costs 1000 Euro/month you need approximately 6,000 Euro to fork over all at once. That is a potential problem for obvious reasons.

Another issue with renting as a Berlin newcomer are the many applications, references, credit checks, etc. that the landlords generally require. One realtor who I spoke with told me that because Alex has only been working here for a few weeks we would need to pay the entire first year of rent up-front. What. I don’t think that policy is necessarily normal, it could have been specific to that real estate company, but many Berlin landlords are real sticklers about their requirements. Most want you to provide proof of income (in Germany) for the last 3 months, your credit score through a Germany-specific company, a letter from your last landlord stating that you’re all paid up, and of course your passport/visa.  If you have been living in Germany for a while those requirements are fine but as new citizens here we just don’t have those documents available. There is some method to this madness – we have been told that in Germany the laws regarding rentals make it much more difficult to evict tenants than in most other countries. I’m guessing that this is especially true in Berlin because it seems like hardly anyone actually owns their apartment. Which doesn’t make sense to us land-owning-lovin’ Americans, but whatever… The result is that the deposits and fees for rentals are super high, making is less risky for the landlords.
Fine, I get it, but what’s a new expat to do?

What I discovered after some Googling and blog reading is that many new expats start with a long-ish term sublet. Subletting here seems to come with significantly fewer fees and required documents. Plus, having a furnished apartment when you first move is awesome. Sublet rents are about the same as a normal lease, furnished flats cost a little more, but the fees are generally much, much lower.  The norm seems to be a deposit of only one month’s rent and the realtor commissions, if applicable, are lower as well.  So this is the route we are now exploring.
We have a few appointments set up this week to check out some sublets so hopefully something will finally work out! I’m optimistic that as long as we put aside that ideal image in our minds (at least for now) we can find something to suit our needs for the next few months.
In the summer or fall we can restart our search for a long-term apartment with renewed spirits, bank accounts & documents. Who knows, maybe “the perfect apartment” is just around the corner…

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