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7 things you should know when looking for a flat in Berlin

7 things you should know when looking for a flat in Berlin
Searching for a flat in Berlin isn't easy, especially during a pandemic. Photo:D PA
How difficult is it to search for a flat in Berlin during a pandemic and with a law that leaves tenants in limbo? Pretty bad, writes Rachel Loxton.

If you’d have told me a year ago that I’d be searching for a flat in Berlin during a pandemic while a contested rent cap law (the Mietendeckel) leaves us all in limbo, I’d have never believed you. 

But then again 2020 has been a surprise for us all, often throwing up life changes whether it’s your job, health, home or relationships. 

I mistakenly thought when I first started looking for a new place to live at the end of May that all it would take was to have my documents ready, apply for a few places and attend viewings. Surely I’d find something. 

Unfortunately it's not that easy.

Just getting a viewing for a place in Berlin is a huge hurdle to overcome in itself.  But the good news is it’s not impossible. Let me talk you through my experience in case it’s helpful when you’re looking for a place, or maybe you’ve been through a similar experience somewhere else in Germany.

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You do need the right paperwork… and it's a lot

If you’re familiar with Germany, you’ll know that the amount of paperwork you need is often of mountainous proportions. I was looking to rent a flat, something that’s fairly simple in my home country of Scotland. 

Yet in Germany it felt like I was preparing for a huge legal battle, collecting A4 sheets upon A4 sheets of stuff. You need three payslips printed out that need to be kept up to date with every month that goes by.

READ ALSO: How to stand out from the flat finding crowd in Germany

The dreaded Schufa (which also needs to be kept up to date). You also have to get your Mietschuldenfreiheitsbescheinigung (try saying that after you’ve had a few drinks) which shows you're up to date with your previous rent payments. As well as proof of ID, some landlords also require proof of Privathaftpflichtversicherung, or private liability insurance. You might also need your Anmeldung (registration document).

At the peak of my search my main relationship was with the Copy Shop man who watched me trundle in every day to print or scan stuff. It also cost a fair bit of money paying for all the printing and paperwork.

Also remember that Germany might require you to post or even fax(!) in your applications. I spent a bit of time queuing at the post office during my search.

I'd also advise that you put together your own Bewerbemappe or application pack with all your docs, a picture and your personal statement. Basically anything that makes you stand out from the masses is helpful. Plus get a German friend to proof read it for you.

You'll see two rents in some ads – and it's confusing

Landlords in Berlin are posting ads and drawing up new rental contracts that include a so-called “shadow rent”. That is a contractually agreed higher rent price that a landlord could charge you if Berlin's rent freeze law is ruled unconstitutional.

So here's what it means for people looking for a new place: you'll find the rent you have to pay now under the new law.

And you'll also find a higher rent – often more than double than the other cost – which the landlord wants you to pay if the rent law doesn't hold. And they expect tenants to pay the difference if the law is shot down in court.

READ ALSO: Berlin passes five year rent freeze law

Organisations like the Berlin Renter's Association (BMV) say this “shadow rent” clause is causing fewer people to move over the uncertainty. The BMV also believes these kinds of clauses are illegal.

But many landlords claim they are legally sound.

The law remains controversial and it's likely we'll find out if will be held up in November. For renters it means we're in limbo. Yes it could be great to have lower rents but who knows if it will be allowed. And what if we do actually have to pay back money?

For those searching for a flat it's very confusing and I felt wary about signing a contract with the “shadow rent” clause in it.

Whatever you do, I'd recommend you join a renters' association so you have support whatever laws or landlords throw at you in future. If you're a member, they can also help with reading over your rental contract.

You have to be fast at applying

I may have mentioned that just getting a viewing can be super difficult. That's because there are so many people applying for flats and there are not enough homes on the market.

Berlin, like other big cities, is so popular that it makes getting a place difficult at any time. But the rent freeze and pandemic is exasperating the situation.

Some say landlords are withholding flats off the market until there's a ruling on the law, or offering time limited contracts. Plus the uncertainty of a global pandemic is doing no one any favours.

You should get acquainted with websites posting flat offers.

There are mixed reviews on whether you should also sign up for membership on sites like ImmobilenScout. They are free to use but you can pay for a plus membership.

I found it helpful to do that but I’d also advise that you read the small print. I didn’t realise I had to pay around €30 monthly over four months for the plus membership – I thought it was a one off payment.

So what you have to do is download the apps of these sites on your phone, or have them on your desktop, and constantly refresh them to find the new offers.

Have your note to the landlord or agent ready to send when you see something that suits you and send it off as soon as possible. Often it's a 'first come first served' basis. You want to be invited to an interview so the higher up on the list, the higher the chance.

I tried to refresh the sites around once an hour to find new offers. It really can feel like a full time job.

You have to pretend you’re an angel

This part made me laugh out loud. Of course when you're applying for a flat, you're not going to tell the landlord you enjoy wild parties every weekend.

But I was amused at the lengths I was going to in order to show I was a decent candidate.

No I don't smoke, yes I am clean and orderly, no I don't have any pets, no I don't play any musical instruments…

I wrote how perfect I was while listening to AC/DC loudly and my guitar was propped up in the corner of my room.

Do landlords really just want someone with absolutely no personality or interests? Are they looking for a robot who just keeps a flat clean and doesn't do anything? Probably.

It's kind of depressing. But just know that when you find a place, you can play your piano or trumpet and no one cares (as long as it's not after 10pm in line with the Hausordnung or building rules – and Germany does very much take rules seriously).

Go to viewings with an open mind (and your documents)

My aim was to get a viewing and take it from there. It got to the point that I was applying for any places that vaguely matched my criteria. There's strength in numbers, I reasoned.

I was open to moving almost anywhere in Berlin inside the ring, and this definitely led to more opportunities than if I was holding out for just a few areas.

Some agents or housing firms offer open viewings. These can be helpful especially when you're feeling very downhearted about not getting a viewing. Although it does open the possibility of there being lots and lots of people viewing at the same time.

However, the open viewings I went to weren't horribly busy. And remember, during the pandemic everyone had to wear a mask and keep distance. If it's an area like Neukölln or Kreuzberg, you can be sure there will be a ton of people.

Take your documents with you in case you like the place and want to apply there and then. You'll have a much higher chance of getting the place the quicker you apply.

Remember you might have to fill in the application form at the viewing or they'll post it online and you can print it off and fill it in before you come to the viewing. Yes, it's too much bureaucracy if you ask me but it is Germany.

READ ALSO: Nearly 1,800 people turn up for a single flat viewing in Berlin

Have faith

As George Michael sang: “You gotta have faith”– I'm not religious but I actually prayed more than once during my time flat searching. I thought about flats and landlords and possible viewings and agents all the time. The first thing I did bleary eyed in the morning was refresh the websites to see if there were any new offers.

It will feel disheartening and impossible. During the whole process I struggled to sleep over worrying that I wouldn't find somewhere.

But things have a way of working themselves out. I had to find a flat fairly quickly so I considered doing another WG (shared flat) or a short-term sublet just to give me time to find a place. However, for me it was important to have my own rental contract so I could be the Hauptmieter (main tenant) and not risk being thrown out at short notice.

Did I find my ideal place? Hmmm. Not really. It's not perfect. I wanted a slightly bigger place but the competition was overwhelming.

What I'm saying is: it's hard to get the perfect solution so lower your expectations.

You need allies

You can be really lucky and get a rental contract passed on to you by a friend or an acquaintance. You never know: someone might be leaving Berlin and the landlord doesn't want to do the work to find someone themselves.

This is rare, but it does happen so put feelers out.

One thing I was struck by was how helpful people were, even strangers. Don't be afraid to reach out to ask for help, whether it's your German colleague to understand some technical language, or someone who's been through the experience themselves.

And if you're in a similar position, you can always contact me and I'll give advice if I can.

Good luck!

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