The obvious difference between Altbau and Neubau is their age. Generally, German tenant law classifies buildings constructed before 1949 as Altbau, while income tax law defines it as any building built before 1924.
However, you can often tell which category a building falls into just from the style. Altbau typically have features such as masonry walls, wood-beam ceilings, and boxed windows, while Neubau typically feature concrete walls and ceilings, as well as composite and insulated glass windows.
If you’ve dreamed of living in a beautiful building with a huge front door and ornate flourishes in the staircase, the Altbau life may be for you.
Though many Neubau are plainer to look at, some of the more modern ones may come with extras like air conditioning, a roof terrace, or a gym.
Heating and insulation
Speaking of air conditioning, the insulation and heating is one of the differences between Altbau and Neubau that’s likely to have a bigger impact on your quality of life.
The typical high ceilings of the Altbau create a nice atmosphere but can also be difficult to heat, while the older buildings are also less energy efficient.
This means that if you go down the Altbau route, you should check which renovations have been carried out, particularly on windows. A recently renovated and well-insulated Altbau means you could combine the ornate flourishes without having to choose between high heating bills and wearing three jumpers through the German winter.
Neubau are more likely to be heated using central heating, which means you don’t need to carry out annual services or modernisations of the gas boiler — par for the course with most Altbau and older Neubau, and occasionally at the tenant’s own expense.
Within Neubau, there are differences depending on exactly how ‘new’ the building is, with those built in more recent decades most likely to have a high standard of soundproofing and insulation (and to have smarter floor plans and more modern perks like car parking), and those from the 1950s to the 1970s running the risk of the same issues as many old buildings.
If you are renting an apartment in a brand-new build, the energy efficiency and insulation will meet modern standards, but here there are extra considerations: new builds tend to experience cracks in the walls and other issues in their first few years while the building ‘settles’.
Rent, rights and operating costs
The age of the building you are renting can have a significant impact on your rights as a tenant.
If you’re renting an Altbau and find that some of the building’s features don’t quite live up to the modern standards you are expecting, it can be difficult to force your landlord to carry out the necessary modernisations.
In cases where tenants have found mold developing due to poor ventilation, drafts around windows, humid basements, sub-optimal sound insulation and heating systems, German courts have often sided with the landlord and ruled that they are not obliged to create a modern standard of living in an Altbau.
However, renters of an Altbau apartment can generally expect to pay less than for a Neubau.
According to a government report on Germany’s housing and real estate industry from July 2021, rents for first-time occupancy apartments cost an average of €11.29 per square metre nationwide and an average of €13.25 per square metre in the major cities.
Apartments for relet built in 2000 or later also have high average rents – from €11.81 per square in the big cities metre to €7.85 per square metre in rural communities.
Altbau apartments are cheaper on average in Germany, with an average cost of €9.46 per square metre, though in big cities, they can reach an average cost of €10.73 per square metre.
Overall, the age of the building is just one factor to weigh up along with the specific details of the individual properties you’re looking at: total price including rent and operating costs; quality of renovations; how much the style suits you; whether the landlord seems reasonable and responsive; and location.