For new arrivals to Germany, one of the first important integration tasks to tackle is finding an apartment to rent. As you may have already learned, this can be quite an ordeal.
Since Germany has one of the lowest rates of home ownership in Europe, the majority of Germans – as well as expats – have dealt with the process of compiling a stack of application materials, attending open houses, and finally, if all goes well, negotiating the terms of tenancy with a landlord.
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For expats who don’t speak good German, let alone German legalese, it can be difficult to know your rights, or how to exercise them.
Joining a renters’ association
The Deutscher Mieterbund (DMB) is the umbrella organisation for 320 local tenants organisations, or Mietervereine (renters' associations), in cities all across Germany, which employs about 1,300 full-time employees and 2,500 volunteers across its network.
The DMB’s website offers sample tenancy contracts, up-to-date information on the average heating, water, and cooling costs, and explanations about tenancy laws.
“I think it’s good for tenants to join the Mieterverein,” says Dr. Jutta Hartmann of the Deutscher Mieterbund. “They can get help from lawyers to write letters and tell them the legal ramifications in their case if they have problems with landlords. Besides legal help, they tell you about your rights.”
The website contains a short summary of every applicable tenant law on the books at the Mietrechts A – Z page.
One of the most important rights that tenants are not always aware of is the Soziale Mieter Kündigungsschutz, or the social tenant protection against eviction. “The owners needs reasons if he wants you to leave your flat,” says Hartmann.
“The tenants don’t always know what their possibilities are if they get an eviction notice, and there are legal instruments that give them a chance to keep their flat,” Hartmann says.
Mieterverein members, who pay an annual or monthly fee, receive assistance dealing with common disputes about rent increases, cosmetic repairs, utility costs and lease negotiations, all in German.
“In big cities like Berlin, Hamburg, and Cologne, the most pressing issues are rent increases and eviction. In other cities it might be the Nebenkosten,” or the cost of tenant-paid utilities, Hartmann says.
A Mieterverein office in Erfurt in the state of Thuringia. Photo: DPA
Fees to join and receive extra help
The DMB offers telephone consultations for €2/minute and membership in their online tenant consultation centre, Mieterbund24, for €25 per year. For more individualised help, it’s easy to become a member of one of those 320 local Mietervereine.
Membership fees are set independently by each local tenant association and range from €50,00 – €90 per year. Many charge a small admission fee upon joining.
To join, search for your local Mieterverein by typing in your city or postcode at DMB’s website. Then, find the “Mitglied werden!” (Become a member) tab at any Mieterverein website to download the simple application form, or fill it out online.
Most applications simply ask for your name, address, banking information, and how you heard about the association.
Some larger Mietervereine may have different categories of tenancy. Berlin offers membership and advice for housing tenants (Wohnungsmieter) and commercial tenants (Gewerbemieter). Be sure to fill out the correct application form.
In Berlin, membership in a Mieterverein is becoming more popular as an added measure of tenant security, says Hartmann.
“In case they have problems, there is someone who can help them.” But a big benefit of larger member numbers is political weight, she says. “The bigger the group of people, the stronger our political influence will be.”
Acting on a tenant's behalf
The Mietverein’s employed lawyers and legal volunteers can mediate lease disputes and act on a tenant’s behalf when corresponding with landlords, lawyers and other authorities. This can save tenants from paying expensive legal fees if taking a landlord to court.
The national organisation, as well as some of the larger city Mietvereine, are also the legal advocacy groups for social housing and new tenant laws in Germany. “We are doing more political work, like lobbying, for tenants’ rights.The local organisations talk to people and give them legal advice, which we don’t do at the DMB,” explains Hartmann.
The organization’s political work includes supporting social housing, co-ops and tenant initiatives.
This makes the Mietverein a natural ally and adviser for groups like the Berliner Mietenvolksentscheid, which lobbied for the “rental price break law” in 2015.
“Mietvereine in bigger cities do political work in the local area, but the DMB does this kind of work for the whole of Germany,” says Hartmann.