Finding an Apartment in Germany: The Basics
The search for finding an apartment in Germany will be at or very near to the top of your “to do” list upon your arrival in Germany. Unless you have the luxury of being able to arrange this ahead of your move, or unless you have the services of a relocation agent at your disposal, it is best to come prepared with at least some background knowledge of how the market works and what to look out for. The short article below aims to give you a brief overview.
The type of website or service you use to find somewhere to live will very much depend on your circumstances, the amount of time you plan to spend in Germany, your income level and the city / region where you plan to relocate to. Here is a lowdown of all the popular options available to you, listed in general order of most to least expensive.
Typically a serviced apartment will be the best option for someone finding an apartment in Germany who intends to stay for a relatively short period of time, especially if cost is not the primary concern. If you are being seconded to Germany for a few months and your employer is covering your living expenses, this is a much better option than being stuck in a hotel. A simple Google search for “möblierte Wohnungen” (furnished apartments) or “Wohnen auf Zeit” (temporary accommodation) will give you a multitude of options. For Munich and Frankfurt there are plenty of paid ads in Google for this type of query. If your company is not covering the cost, you will probably find a fully serviced apartment from a specialist, professional company out of your price range. Renting a furnished apartment from a private landlord is most likely your better option…
Furnished Apartments & Short-Term Lets
Somewhat cheaper but not as hassle-free as a serviced apartment, next on the list is a furnished apartment provided as a short-term let. As opposed to concierge apartments, these are typically flats which are rented from a private landlord, sometimes with the help of an estate agent or relocation service which takes a commission (which the landlord is liable for – see note below on commissions). Typically a furnished apartment will have beds, wardrobes, white goods, a fitted kitchen and a sofa. It won’t usually have those items which come in a serviced apartment such as towels, pots & pans, TV / DVD player etc. These will be more expensive than a standard apartment but would normally have a janitorial service (Hausmeister) on call without having to go through the landlord to get small maintenance jobs done.
This is similar to the above, except that you would pay rent to the current tenant in most cases and you would have to deal with any maintenance issues yourself through the landlord. You should expect to save some money by transacting directly with the person who is subletting the apartment, rather than having to go through an agent. There may be some negotiation potential here: If a tenant is looking to sublet for a relatively short period, the opportunity cost of him/her not being able to sublet is an empty apartment that they will have to foot the bill for whilst they are away. Sublets typically occur if somebody takes a sabbatical from work, travels the world, moves in with their partner on a trial basis etc and want to hang on to their apartment as a back-up plan for the first few months.
The golden rule here is to ensure that the person subletting has permission from their landlord to sublet. If necessary, ask for a copy of their rental agreement and check this with a friend, colleague or lawyer. If their contract does not permit them to sublet, worst case you could find yourself evicted by the landlord, having already paid up front to the person who sublet to you.
Sublets are usually found in what’s on magazines and their websites, as well as customer notice boards in supermarkets and, especially in university towns, in popular bars and cafes. Finding an apartment in Germany to sublet before moving here will probably be tricky unless you have established some contacts or can speak pretty good German.
The most-used websites containing the most websites are ImmobilenScout, Immowelt and Immonet. There are some others but most of them are powered by the search algorithms of these 3. Indeed, Immowelt is also the parent of Immonet. These sites all have detailed search functions and primarily cover the market of “standard” apartments i.e. those which typically are unfurnished and are not shared accommodation or short-term lets. Another option for new builds direct from the developer, or for renting directly from private landlords without an agent as intermediary, is the website Null Provision. On all of these sites, in almost all cases you will see a price for “Kaltmiete” and “Warmmiete”. Miete is the German word for rent. Kalt (cold) is the price of the apartment without any bills or service charges (which are known as Nebenkosten). Warm is the cost including everything which is covered in the service charges charged by the apartment building’s management company. On top of this, you will still need to factor in electricity, phone, internet and cable TV. You as the tenant have the choice regarding the provider.
Top-floor attic apartments are usually a little cheaper: They can be hot as hell in Summer and are also less attractive if there is no lift in the building. Ground floor apartments are also cheaper, due to them being easier to break into and in general having less privacy. If you’re cool with either of these options, it will expand your choice because many Germans will automatically exclude these from their search. In large cities, buildings with allotted parking or an underground garage are very sought after. New builds, as well as flats with large balconies and bathrooms with windows also usually command a premium. In some large cities, especially where there is a severe housing shortage in popular neighbourhoods, you can’t afford to be picky. You snooze, you lose, especially in trendy areas of Frankfurt, Munich and Hamburg, but also in some other major cities and popular university towns. Be sensible and don’t have a wish-list is as long as the queues in Ikea on a Saturday.
Renting Rooms In Shared Accommodation
A shared house or flat is called a Wohngemeinschaft, or WG for short. Your best best for finding shared accommodation is the website WG Gesucht which has a search function in English. Typically you will have communal use of the kitchen, bathroom and living room (if there is one…often in student flat-shares there is not). Electric, water, heating and other communal charges such as garbage collection, external maintenance etc is usually split evenly, whereas the rent itself is usually dependent upon the size of your room in relation to the others in the apartment.
If you are studying, or are happy to live with students, you can also check out the studenten-wg or wohngemeinschaft websites, bulletin boards or the university’s own intranet. Most Germans with a university education will be able to speak enough English to converse with you by whatsapp or email if you enquire. Furthermore, because a lot of Germans are very aware of how essential English is in the corporate world, you being a native / fluent English speaker may well be seen as a positive characteristic of a prospective housemate!
Flat-sharing is less common in rural areas and small towns. Whilst popular in large cities and among students, it is not common nationwide. The most obvious reason for this is the demand vs. supply equation and thus affordability. There are lots of good quality, affordable studio / 1 bedroom flats available for long-term rent, unlike in the UK for example. Secondly, young Germans will typically opt to live with their parents for longer until they can afford to rent a place on their own rather than flat-sharing. It’s a subtle cultural difference which manifests itself in there being more one-person households in Germany amongst the younger generation than other comparable nations.
Serviced apartments and short-term lets will almost always show the monthly rent including all service charges. The same generally can be said for renting a room in a shared flat or house and for subletting from an in-situ tenant. As explained above, this is known as Warmmiete. Standard apartment rentals will in most cases be shown as the basic rent (Kaltmiete), with an estimate of what the service charges will be. This, however, is dependent upon how much water and heating you consume and is usually based on the previous calendar year. A family of 4 will obviously use more utilities than a single person, so is worth enquiring who the previous tenants were to gauge how accurate this is!
A quick note on commissions. Previously, there was an INSANE system, whereby the prospective tenant had to pay the agent’s commission, which was typically 2 months’ rent. Non-Germans just could not get their head around this concept. A letting agent, clearly acting in the interest of the landlord, who was the one commissioning the agent he wanted to act on his behalf, billed the tenant for the commission upon a successful conclusion of a rental agreement. This was also one of the biggest tax fiddles in Germany. As these commissions were usually requested in cash, it doesn’t take a genius to assume that lots of these transactions would simply be “forgotten” by the agent when they submitted their annual tax return. Not really any surprise then that real estate agents were seen as parasites with the huge commissions they earned for doing relatively little, especially in areas where apartments pretty much rent themselves due to location and supply shortages.
This all changed with a new law which came into force on 1 June 2015 and is colloquially known in German as the “Bestellerprinzip”, roughly translated as “contractor principle”. The landlord now has to pay any letting agent’s commission, which brings Germany in line with pretty much every other developed nation. Whilst this means that up-front costs have reduced for the tenant, the conclusion one must also draw is that the landlord will, where possible, try to amortise the cost of this service into the rent he is charging. Technically speaking, he can’t legally do this but in reality, how is a tenant or a lawyer going to prove it? Also, due to the change in the law, the tenant may find agents less flexible to accommodate their requests for specific appointments and they will probably push to do group viewings now that the prospective tenant is no longer directly the agent’s customer.
If any landlord tries to get you to pay a finder fee or is openly amortising this fee into the monthly rent, they are scammers and you should avoid them like the plague.
NOTE: For purchases of apartments and houses, it is still the norm that the Buyer pays the estate agent’s commission. This law did not affect property sales, although this continues to be debated by politicians and may at some point change in future.
The follow-up article goes into the nuts and bolts around the actual terminology you will see in adverts and particulars relating to apartments rentals, as well as more detailed tips and tricks of what to look out for.