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PROPERTY

The rules foreigners need to know when buying property in Germany

If you are serious about buying a property in Germany, either to live in or as a form of investment, you'll need to know these important rules on everything from residency to taxes.

The rules foreigners need to know when buying property in Germany
A 'for sale' sign in the state of Brandeburg. Photo: dpa-Zentralbild | Soeren Stache

As we all know, property is generally a solid investment – as long as you have enough cash to afford the considerable up-front payments involved. 

Knowing whether now is the right time to buy is not easy. A recent drop in property prices in some German cities after years of dramatic price rises could indicate that there are deals to be had. On the other hand, the decision by central banks to put up interest rates in response to inflation could mean that taking out a mortgage will become less attractive.

But it’s not just the higher costs of borrowing that you should be aware of when buying a property. Additional costs, including taxes and real estate fees, could add a further 10 percent to the total spend on top of the actual price of your new home.

Meanwhile, people hoping to buy a property for themselves should be aware that sitting tenants are well protected. If you buy a property that is already let you will have to wait for months or even years before you are allowed to move in yourself.

Residency rules

The first thing to clear up, which will come as a relief to those who don’t hold German citizenship, is that there are no restrictions on foreigners buying property in Germany. That applies regardless of whether you are resident in the country or not.

Arguably, one downside of this light-touch approach is that it has helped fuel the massive surge in property prices that has taken place in recent years.

A report by Die Welt newspaper in 2018 found that almost half of property deals worth €10 million or more were carried out by foreign investors. Studies also suggest that the Italian mafia have bought billions of euros worth of German property in order to hide the source of their ill-gotten gains.

Taxes

Housing under construction in Lower Saxony. Photo: Julian Stratenschulte

The biggest additional cost of purchasing a property in Germany comes in the form of the Grunderwerbssteuer (land transfer tax). This tax applies both for properties that have already been built and for building plots.

The size of this tax is set at the state level, meaning that someone buying in Saxony (tax rate 3.5%), for instance, will face a much lower tax bill than some buying in neighbouring Thuringia (tax rate 6.5%).

Those huge differences in rates mean that the tax on a property sold at €500,000 could end up being €15,000 more just a few kilometres down the road.

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The states with the lowest Grunderwerbssteuer rates are Bavaria and Saxony, both of which haven’t raised the tax at all this century. Most other states have adjusted the rate over the past decade and purchasers should expect to pay an additional six percent of the purchase price to the taxman.

Debate has been raging in recent years about whether the size of the Grunderwerbssteuer is making it impossible for young people to get onto the property market. Studies show that it takes the average German four years to save to pay this sum alone, which often can’t be financed through a mortgage.

Some states, such as Bavaria, are pushing for a federal law which will free first-time buyers from paying the duty. The federal government has also promised to reform this tax but nothing is set in stone yet.

Estate agent fees

Up until recently, the person or company buying a property had to pay a huge commission of over seven percent of the purchase price to the estate agent. Coming on top of the land tax, that was a prohibitive cost for many people looking to get onto the property ladder.

But a law which was passed through the Bundestag in 2020 ensured that the estate agent fees would have to be split evenly between seller and buyer. Since then the buyer has “only” had to pay around 3.5 percent of the property price to the estate agent.

Experts advise though that one should try and negotiate a lower fee with the estate agent before the final contract is signed.

READ ALSO: How to sublet your apartment in Germany

Notary fees

Another notable cost involved in buying a property in Germany is the notary fee, which is the sum you give to the public office that ensures that the change of ownership becomes a matter of official record.

People who tear their hair out at the patchwork of rules across the German states will be relieved to know that the notary fee is set across the whole country at 1.5 percent of the purchase price.

Sitting tenants

A German couple view an unrented property. Photo: dpa/RTLZWEI, EndemolShine Germany | RTLZWEI

Another key thing to consider when buying a property is whether it has sitting tenants. 

If you are buying the property as a long-term investment there are several advantages to purchasing one which is already rented out, not least the fact that let properties tend to cost significantly less than unlet ones.

When you buy a let property the tenants and their rental contract come with it, which means you won’t have to deal with the hassle of finding a new tenant and agreeing on a new rental price.

On the other hand, German rental law ensures that tenants are protected against sudden hikes in their rental terms, meaning you might take over a property that is leased at under the current market value and find it hard to raise the rents. Rental law also protects tenants from eviction so as to prevent landlords from pushing them out in order to re-lease the property on more lucrative terms.

One of the few legitimate grounds for cancelling a rental contract is if you or an immediate family member plans to move into it, something known as Eigenbedarf (personal use). However, German rental law even gives some protection to sitting tenants in this scenario.

Typically a tenant who has been living in the property for a number of years needs to be given nine months’ notice before you can move in. In some states though, local laws give much more protection. In Berlin property owners are subject to a ten-year freeze on evicting a tenant starting from the point at which the property is purchased.

These complex rules surrounding tenancy rights mean that one it is advisable to consult a specialist lawyer about the particularities of local law before you make any such purchase.

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PROPERTY

REVEALED: The German university towns where property prices are going up (and down)

Germany's property boom is grinding to a halt, but according to a recent survey, a number of smaller university towns are still seeing an upswing in prices. Here's where experts say it could make sense to invest.

REVEALED: The German university towns where property prices are going up (and down)

With rising interest rates and a potential recession on the cards, the prospects for Germany’s housing market have been looking increasingly gloomy of late. Back in September, a study by the Hamburg-based Gewos Institute for Urban, Regional and Housing research revealed that interest in property purchases has slumped, with sales of flats and houses in Germany set to drop by seven percent in 2022. 

Based on the data for the first half of the year, real estate companies are expected to see their revenues decline for the first time since 2009, Gewos revealed. In places like Munich and Frankfurt – some of the most expensive German cities where property prices have been rising for years – analysts from Swiss bank UBS predict that the housing bubble could be about to burst.

READ ALSO: Why Germany’s property boom could be coming to an end

Outside of the major metropoles, however, investors have long been eyeing up smaller cities and towns where property prices remain low. Now, a new analysis of property prices in Germany’s university towns suggests that student hotspots could be particularly attractive, despite the volatile housing market. 

For the survey, estate agent Von Poll Immobilien looked at price trends in a total of 46 university towns across Germany from the the first quarter to the third quarter of 2022,  excluding so-called ‘A’ and ‘B’ cities like Berlin, Düsseldorf and Cologne. To be classed as a university town, at least 7,000 students had to be resident there. 

In 35 of the towns, house prices have either fallen or stagnated throughout the year. Saarland’s capital Saarbrücken showed the most extreme drop in property prices over the period, with the cost of property per square metre sinking by 11.9 percent. In Q3, the average cost of buying a flat in Saarbrücken was €2,322 per square metre. 

Behind Saarbrücken, the university towns of Lüneberg and Erfurt showed the most dramatic fall in house prices, with a dropoff of 11.8 percent and 9.4 percent respectively. In both Göttingen and Ulm, house prices fell by 8.2 percent, while Bayreuth and Oldenburg sank by eight percent over the same period. 

“The real estate market has been visibly on the move in many places since the spring. This also applies to the smaller university towns,” explained Daniel Ritter, managing partner at von Poll Immobilien. “Real estate prices are stagnating or falling in certain regions and segments – although very good and high-demand micro-locations will be less affected.”

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What you need to know about buying property in Germany

Bucking the trend 

Though prices remained stable or fell in around three quarters of the university towns surveyed, 11 of the student hotspots exhibited high growth despite the challenging market. 

The biggest jump in property prices was in the town of Erlangen, a Bavarian town just north of Nuremberg, where the price per square metre rose by 8.3 percent to €5,449. This was largely spurred on by the presence of big companies like Siemens, Adidas and Puma in the region, which has been driving interest from foreign investors.

Prices also went up significantly in the idyllic town of Coburg, another Franconian town located just 90km to the north of Erlangen. Here, property prices shot up by 6.3 percent to €2,795 per square metre. 

In other regions, the spike was less dramatic, though seven of the university towns saw modest price rises over the period. Bamberg, Kaiserslautern, Konstanz, Aachen, Flensburg, Frankfurt (Oder) und Magdeburg all saw house prices go up between 1.5 and 3 percent between Q1 and Q3. 

Constance harbour

Numerous ships docked in the harbour of Constance , a university town in the south of Germany. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Felix Kästle

“The announcement that the American semiconductor manufacturer Intel was settling in Magdeburg had a noticeable impact on the property market. Since then we have seen a surge in property enquiries. However, there were fewer property offers and stable prices at that time,” said Heike Hoffmann, an estate agent at Von Poll Immobilien Magdeburg. “Against the backdrop of higher mortgage rates and the current inflation trend, however, we are noticing a reluctance to buy.”

“Nevertheless, many sellers are sticking to their high asking prices, which means that the number of property offers on the Magdeburg market has almost doubled compared to the same period last year.”

READ ALSO: How the housing bubble in Frankfurt and Munich could be set to burst

The cheapest and most expensive university towns

There were also significant differences in the asking prices for property across the university towns surveyed.

The property price analysis of the smaller university towns for the third quarter of 2022 suggests that prospective buyers can expect the highest prices for a flat in Constance at €6,321/m2 and Potsdam at €6,029/m2. But while prices per square metre in Constance have risen slightly by two percent compared to the first quarter of 2022, they dropped by as much as 7.8 percent in Potsdam, the capital of Brandenburg.

“Recently, we recorded significant price increases in Potsdam and property sellers were able to hold on to the sometimes very high asking prices – this is now changing,” said Andreas Güthling, branch manager of Von Poll Immobilien Potsdam and Werder. “Due to the increased financing interest rate, many prospective buyers now have to recalculate their search budget.” 

Properties in the pricier university towns otherwise ranged between €5,000 and €6,000 per square metre – a similar price to flats in Berlin and Stuttgart. The majority of these were located in the southern states of Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, with Freiburg im Breisgau topping the charts at €5,534/m2. 

Map of university towns

Property prices in the smaller university towns in Q3/2022. Source: Von Poll Immobilien

The fourth most expensive town – where prices are also rising most steeply – was Erlangen, where property currently costs €5,449/m2, followed by Tübingen at €5,390/m2, Regensburg at €5,176/m2 and Heidelberg at €5,134/m2. 

However, not all of the towns came with an eye-watering price tag for property. At just €1,785 per square metre, property in the town of Chemnitz in Saxony was by far the most affordable location for buyers – though prices of between €2,000 and €3,000 per square metre were far from unusual in the survey.

With the exception of Frankfurt (Oder) – which is located in Brandenburg on the Polish border – the most moderate prices were found in central and western German university towns, including Magdeburg, Wuppertal, Saarbrücken, Mönchengladbach, Hildesheim, Siegen, Kaiserslautern, Coburg und Kassel.

Where are the best investment opportunities?

According to Von Poll Immobilien, a major factor in deciding the potential for good returns on a buy-to-let is the so-called Purchase Price Factor, or Kaufpreisfaktor. This essentially calculates how long a property would need to be rented out in order to earn back the purchase price.

A property with a factor of 20 would have to be rented out for 20 years, while another with a factor of 40 would have to be rented out for 40 years, and so on.

For several years, a multiplier of 20 was considered a benchmark for a very profitable investment. With steep rises in property prices, however, this benchmark has shifted.

“In most German regions, purchase price factors of around 25 can now be found, but multipliers of 30 are no longer uncommon,” the researchers at Von Poll Immobilien explained. “In metropolises and large cities in particular, purchase price factors often exceed this threshold many times over.”

Entrance to Potsdam university

The entrance to Potsdam university. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christophe Gateau

In almost half (22) of the university towns, the Purchase Price Factor was more than 30, while properties in the remaining 24 towns had a factor of between 20 and 30. 

In the third quarter of 2022, Potsdam had the highest Purchase Price Factor of 39.5, followed by Halle and Erlangen, with factors of 35.6 and 35.4 respectively,

On the lowest end of the scale was Saarbrücken, with a factor of just 21.8, followed by Göttingen (23.4), Mönchengladbach (24.3), Wuppertal (24.5) and Kaiserslautern (24.6). A full list of the purchase prices factors (in German) can be found here

“Cities with attractive courses of study continue to have especially high potential for value appreciation,” said Ritter. “However, investors should carefully examine the return potential of the locations and the targeted property as well as their individual criteria and market development and also consult professional real estate experts.”

READ ALSO: The hidden costs of buying a house in Germany

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