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How a court decision could strengthen tenants' rights in Germany

Imogen Goodman
Imogen Goodman - [email protected]
How a court decision could strengthen tenants' rights in Germany
A key ring with numerous house keys. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Zacharie Scheurer

Most tenants in Germany are entitled to information to help them determine if their rent is too high. A decision by the Federal Court of Justice on Wednesday has extended this right significantly.

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What's going on?

A key court decision in Karlsruhe on Wednesday has given tenants wide-reaching rights to identify and challenge rip-off rents - no matter how long they've lived in the property.

Currently, renters who live in rent-controlled areas are entitled to certain information from their landlord in order to decide if they're paying too much. However, this right to information is generally capped at three years, after which time the tenants can still sue, but can't access information that could be crucial to their case.

The original case was brought by four tenants who live in rent-controlled neighbourhoods in Berlin. The tenants argued that the landlord had violated their rights under Germany's rent control law - the Mietpreisbremse - by refusing to pay back what they claimed was overpaid rent. The landlord also refused to provide information on how the rent had been calculated, citing a statute of limitations that they claimed expired three years after the move-in date.

Three lower courts had already decided in favour of the tenants, with the Berlin Landgericht (regional court) ruling that the three-year deadline expired three years after the request for information had been made - not three years after the move-in date.

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The Federal Court of Justice (BGH) backed up this decision after an appeal. 

Wait a minute, what's the Mietpreisbremse?

The Mietpreisbremse is Germany's rent-control law that helps determine by how much landlords are able to raise the rent at the start of a new tenancy. In concrete terms, the asking rents for new tenants cannot be more than ten percent higher than comparable rents in the area. However, there are exceptions that landlords can take advantage of - such as the carve-out for newly renovated properties or for properties where the previous rent was already over the threshold. New-builds (i.e. flats built and rented after 2014) are also exempted.   

Federal states can choose to apply the rental control law in areas where there's an especially overheated housing market - primarily as a means of protecting tenants. Currently, it applies in all of Germany's major cities - from Munich to Hamburg - as well as in smaller towns and more rural areas where demand for housing is high. You can find an up-to-date list of where the Mietpreisbremse applies here. 

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What does this mean for my rights as a tenant? 

With the BGH ruling in favour of the tenants, there are now much clearer guidelines for tenants on when they are allowed to ask for information - and if and when their landlord is allowed to refuse it.

It means that people who have lived in their current rental property for a long time but suspect they are being overcharged can now demand key information from their landlord in order to build a case against them. 

Rental properties in Berlin Prenzlauer Berg
Rental properties in Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg district. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Jens Kalaene

However, there is some disagreement on how many people this will affect.

Speaking to DPA, the homeowners' association Haus und Grund played down the impact of the ruling, arguing that landlords have been subject to tighter rules since 2019 anyway. At this time, new legislation came into force that meant landlords had to be transparent about rent calculations at the start of every new tenancy.

According to Haus und Grund, this means that only tenants who had moved into a new flat between 2015 - when the Mietpreisbremse was introduced - and 2018 are affected by the change.

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However, a spokesperson for the German Tenants' Association claimed the ruling was actually far more wide-reaching.

Though landlords currently have to provide a small amount of information at the start of a tenancy, renters are actually entitled to much more detailed documentation on, for example, the rent paid by the previous tenant, the exact renovation measures and how much was spent on them, and the date of any refurbishments, she said.

The tenants' right to information is therefore "of great importance". 

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