Many people who have lived in Germany for a couple of years may be taking their first steps out of life in a Wohngemeinschaft or WG (flatshare), to look for a place of their own. While this is an exciting step to take, it isn't easy.
1. It requires a lot of work and time
The first thing you should know before you decide to look for your own apartment is that it takes a lot of work. While moving into a WG can be infuriating - who would want to go through dozens of "castings"? - the legal affairs are fairly simple: you move in on a pre-existing contract, hand over a deposit, and - voila. Normally you can trust that the Germans already in the flat understand the ropes.
When you are looking to rent your own place, you need to start going it alone. This means understanding the rental market, knowing what documents you need, and being able to make a good impression on a property manager.
Ulrich Ropertz, spokesman for the German Tenants Association tells The Local that someone on a middle-income salary living in a big city should expect the hunt to last several months if they expect to get a centrally located flat.
“The more time you can spend hunting down a flat, the better,” he recommends.
2. Always look for new offers
The housing market in cities like Berlin and Munich is incredibly competitive - do not be surprised to see a queue of 30 or more people waiting outside the door at an open viewing.
“Particularly in the big cities and university towns, there is a shortage of thousands of apartments,” says Ropertz.
“The consequence is that rents - particularly those that come with the signing of new contracts - have been rising for years,” he warns.
In this type of environment, speed matters. The Hausverwaltung (property manager) often starts selecting possible tenants from the moment that an offer goes online. Being one of the first to send in a request for a viewing could well make a difference, as their mailboxes are likely to fill up with requests in no time.
3. Get your paperwork ready beforehand
First impressions really count. If you've been offered an invite to a viewing, the Hausverwaltung clearly believes you are potential tenant material - but you are likely to be one of a dozen or so candidates they have chosen to see the property.
One way of standing out from the crowd is bringing all your paperwork with you to the viewing - this shows you're responsible and adept at dealing with Germany's cumbersome bureaucracy.
So make sure you already have proof of your last three months' salary and a photocopy of your passport. On top of that you will need a Mietschuldenfreiheitsbescheinigung - a letter from your old landlord confirming you are up to date on your rent. (And if you get that unwieldy word out in one go when you hand in your papers, the Hausverwaltung will be doubly impressed.)
You may also need a Schufa, a form ordered online which assesses your credit rating at your bank.
4. Check up on the history of the property manager
In Germany you generally do not deal with the landlord directly but with the Hausverwaltung, which looks after a portfolio of properties for the landlords.
Some of these are better than others. It is always worth doing a bit of internet research to check if there have been legal cases against the Hausverwaltung you are dealing with. For example GMRE, a company which manages thousands of properties in Berlin, has been accused of using various tricks to cheat tenants out of money, as documented by broadcaster RTL.
“It's hard to tell just how trustworthy a Hausverwaltung is from a conversation,” notes Ropertz. But he points out that good ones will always have a deeper understanding of the area around the property. They will know what shops are in the area, and where the nearest schools and kindergartens are.
5. Always ask these questions at a viewing
Ropertz advises that anyone who goes to a viewing always ask a few key questions.
Firstly you should find out if the apartment is owned by a private individual or a property company, he says, explaining that you are more likely to have your contract cancelled by a private owner, who might decide to make personal use of the apartment.
The next question should be whether there are plans to modernize the building, which would lead to the landlord asking for a higher rent.
Thirdly you should ask for information on how much heating and water costs have been in the past to get a sense for what you are likely to pay on top of your Kaltmiete (the rent without the additional costs).
Ropertz notes that Hausverwaltungen will always try and show you the good side of a house at a viewing. He recommends viewing it at least twice, and at different times of day.
6. Don't fall for these tricks
“Rental contracts are often ten to 20 pages long,” says Ropertz. “It is often unclear which additional costs will be carried by the tenant, such as if they will be charged extra at the end if it is furnished, and whether they are required to paint it or renovate it."
He warns that you should never immediately sign the contract but take it to a Mieterverein (tenants' association) for them to read it through first.
For a yearly fee, one can join a Mieterverein, which then provides expert consultation on your rights as a tenant.