Expat Essentials

Laura Kaye’s Berlin expat guide, Pt. 2: Finding an apartment in this crazy housing market

(Editor’s note: Though rents vary widely across Berlin, the average for a 2-bedroom, 85-meters-square apartment is about 1,000 euros per month, according to crowd-sourcing data site Expatistan. But rents in Berlin are about 40-percent less expensive than in London.)

Welcome back to Part 2 of my alternative guide for what to expect when you’re expecting to move to Berlin.

In the first installment we were introduced to the unique Berlin vibe, and answered the question of why such a booming city seems to be so short of apartments, kindergartens, doctors, teachers, and, well, everything but hipsters and start-ups.

In this part, we’ll take a look at finding that needle-in-a-haystack apartment you and everybody else is searching for, and more importantly, signing that lease before someone else gets there!

I recently had an unexpected knock at the door from a very presentable looking middle-aged woman asking me if there were any apartments free in our building. Having had no luck finding housing in the area, she’d taken to going door-to-door looking for empty apartments.

Desperate times call for desperate measures!

Spend any time in Berlin expat forums and you’ll see that finding a place to live can be a bit of a nightmare for newcomers to the city (or even for seasoned Berliners for that matter).

UNDERSTANDING THE FUNDAMENTALS

So where do you start? Before you get searching there’s a few things you need to keep in mind:

  • Berlin is largely an apartment city. Though you can find large houses in the outskirts of the city, expect to pay a huge premium for them. Small, single family houses like those favoured in my home country of the UK aren’t really a thing in Berlin.
  • Apartments are categorised according to how many rooms they have, rather than how many bedrooms. Any rooms other than the kitchen and bathrooms are counted in the room total. So a two-bedroom apartment with a living-dining room, kitchen and two bathrooms, would be listed as 3-room apartment.
  • Keep in mind that when renting property in Berlin, you will generally be expected to put down a security deposit that is three times the monthly rent!
  • The vast majority of apartments in Berlin are rented unfurnished. And when I say unfurnished, I mean that you’ll have to spring for pretty much everything apart from the kitchen sink. It’s common for Berlin apartments to come without light fittings, refrigerators, and even kitchens. If you don’t want to shell out for your own kitchen, check to make sure that the apartment you’re interested in has a fitted kitchen. And double check that the kitchen actually belongs to the property owner and not the former tenants, otherwise they may expect you to buy the kitchen from them when they move out.
  • Rents are usually listed according to the “cold rent.” Note that you will generally have to pay an additional monthly amount on top of this to cover certain utilities and building maintenance costs. When these are added to your rent, the total amount payable to you landlord each month is known as the “warm rent.”

So now we know the basics, where’s the best place to begin your search? First stop for most home hunters are property websites such as immobilienscout24.de (which is where we have found both of our apartments) or immowelt.de. Another alternative is to check local small ads websites.

I’d warn you to stay clear of Craigslist – not widely used by Germans and is commonly known to be full of scammers. In fact, we found a few blatant scams when searching for our own apartment after we first arrived.

A better bet is to try EBay-Kleinanzeigen, which is also a great place to look for second hand furniture to fill your new place.

The final option that I’d recommend is to search in expat groups on Facebook, since there are often several posts per day looking for new tenants to take over an apartment lease. This is also a good option if you’d prefer to temporarily sublet a furnished apartment.

Taking on someone else’s lease, or subletting, can be a great way to find bargain rent prices by inheriting an ‘old’ contract (the Berlin apartment hunters holy grail) where the landlord hasn’t yet inflated the rent to current market prices. But beware, there are also sublets listed that are way above average prices.

You can check the local average rent price per-square-metre here.

THE MAIN TRAFFIC ARTERY IN PRENZLAUERBERG (Photo by Terry Boyd for Dispatches)

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION!

Let’s move on to the big question. What are you going to put in that all important first field on the property search engine? Will it be Friedrichshain or Friedenau? Schmargendorf or Schöneberg?

For those of you who are still neighbourhood shopping, I’d like to help you narrow down your search area. Or better yet, broaden it! Because one of the biggest pieces of advice I could give to new arrivals in Berlin is to be flexible about where you’re willing to live.

As you read in part one, Berlin is booming! The housing market is struggling to keep up with the demands of rapid population growth, and this is particularly true in parts of Berlin’s trendier districts such as Prenzlauer Berg, Friedrichshain, and Kreuzberg where empty apartments can receive dozens of tenant applications within hours of being listed.

Before you set your heart on one particular district, or rule another out, keep in mind that the feel of the local neighbourhood (or Kiez) can completely change from block to block. Unlike in other cities where there are often a handful of coveted “family friendly” neighbourhoods, a specific business district, an artsy quarter, and a few no-go areas, Berlin isn’t quite so easy to compartmentalise.

A sprawling city, that was once divided in two, Berlin doesn’t conform to the neat-and-tidy layout of other cities. Whilst it’s true that Berlin’s districts each have their own particular flavour, many of them can offer a little something for everyone.

And whilst there are a few parts of Berlin that are more “unsavoury” than others, these tend to be limited to an area covering a few blocks, and often centred around locations that have fewer residential buildings. So get off the U-Bahn one stop later and you could find a totally different vibe.

What’s more, that same U-Bahn could transport you across the city fairly quickly. So if you’re working in the east, don’t be afraid to look west for accommodation options. There’s a good chance that public transport could get you to work quicker than you might expect.

I asked a large group of expats to sum up the “flavour” of their own district or local Kiez in as few words as possible, and ended up with a great snapshot of the city through expat eyes.

I’m not sure quite how fair some of this was to the individual neighbourhoods, and a lot of it was meant to be tongue-in-cheek. But it was also equal parts helpful and humorous, so here’s a summary of what everybody came up with.

It is as yet incomplete, so if you’d like to add (or contest) the description for your neighbourhood, feel free to comment below.

CHARLOTTENBURG-WILMERSDORF

Charlottenburg: opera, historical, elegant, old people and their rules, costs your kidneys to live here, quiet areas, space, parking spaces

Kurfürstendamm (Charlottenburg): Shopping!! €€€€

Klausenerplatz Kiez (Charlottenburg): decadent, relaxed, craft beers, croissants and roasted chestnuts

Savignyplatz (Charlottenburg): pricy, Ferraris, no dog poo or graffiti

Westend (Charlottenburg): Houses, larger apartments, quiet, space, leafy, not much happening

Grünewald: forest, quiet, houses, forest, forest

Schmargendorf: conservative, old-world-German, no trains, grumpy

Wilmersdorf: family-friendly, parks, safe, cheaper-than-Charlottenburg, vanilla, no night life

THE FAVORED RIDE IN SAVIGNYPLATZ (Photo by Terry Boyd for Dispatches)

KREUZBERG-FRIEDRICHSHAIN

Friedrichshain: Berghain (a famous Berlin nightclub), dress-all-in-black (the dress code for the aforementioned nightclub), cafes, restaurants, Berlin Wall, clubbers, punks, hippies, cool, vegan craft ale, burgers, (broken) playgrounds, cobbled streets, graffiti, dog poo, the next Prenzlauer Berg

Kreuzberg: original alternative + hipster “alternative,” tourists

Bergmannkiez (Kreuzberg): Altbau, locals & expats, restaurants, high rent, music, record stores, bike theft, Karneval der Kulturen, Victoria Park

Kottbusser Tor (Kreuzberg): sense of neighbourhood and social justice, homeless, drugs, canal, hipsters, tourists, Turkish farmers market

LICHTENBERG

Weitlingkiez (Rummelsburg/Friedrichsfeld): quiet, safe, students, young couples, stuck-in-the-90s

MARZAHN-HELLERSDORF

Kaulsdorf: suburb, green, families, relaxed, gardening

Mahlsdorf: suburbia, 30-percent well off young families, 70-percent lived here 100 years, quiet

MITTE

Mitte: tourists, hipsters, tourists, mall of Berlin, tourists

Alexanderplatz (Mitte): History, wealth bureaucracy, tourists, shopping, hotels

Moabit: quiet, no hipsters, no party tourists, modest, diverse, “little Istanbul”, excellent kebabs, clean, safe, up and coming

Wedding: diverse, industrial feel, dirty, authentic, good food, bakeries, kebabs, students, dog poo

NEUKÖLLN

Britz: old people, green, quiet, no English spoken

Neukölln: alternative, grimy, artists, hipsters, colourful, multikulti, parks, cafes, restaurants, canal, kid friendly, diverse, “little Beirut”, changing

Schillerkiez (Neukölln): Tempelhof field, old pubs, metal and punk, hipster cafes, I’m scared to order the “wrong” coffee, dogs, picnics, cleaner than other parts of Neukölln

PANKOW

Niederschönhausen: beautiful Altbau, green, quiet, only trams & busses (no trains), far from everything, cheaper rent, residential

Pankow: Parks, playgrounds, clean, not very multicultural

Prenzlauer Berg: babies, bio (organic) food, used-to-be-hip, gentrified, more babies, good restaurants, expensive, English speaking, #cooltobevegan, tourists, “Parentslauer Berg”, no Kita places, the hipsters grew up and started families

Weißensee: lake, industrial, quiet, safe, kids, mostly German, urban but green, tree lined streets, unpretentious, good value, underrated

REINICKENDORF

Reinickendorf: multi-kulti younger families + old white people, no good food delivery, no tourists, you know all your neighbours, sometimes the busses run on time

SPANDAU

Siemensstadt: senior citizens, cheap rent, nothing here, take the U-Bahn elsewhere

Spandau: Green, Green, so much Green, birds, squirrels, dirty town centre, nice Altstadt (old town), multicultural

STEGLITZ-ZEHLENDORF

Dahlem: lakes, university, old people, forest, houses-no-one-can-afford, rich

Lankwitz: green, swimming pools, trees, German families, ice cream

Lichterfelde: green, family friendly, zimmer frames, nosey senior citizens, disapproving tuts, lack of good restaurants, quiet by 9pm

Zehlendorf: Green, quiet, bakeries, opticians, doctors, lakes, castles, old people, rich people, no “cool” cafes or restaurants

TEMPELHOF-SCHÖNEBERG

Friedenau: one-foot-in-Schöneberg-one-foot-in-Stieglitz, quiet, mostly Germans, less multicultural, novelists’ district, old well preserved facades, bakeries,

Schöneberg: green, families, fountains, parks, LGBTQ proud, the “gaybourhood,” open minded, love, social, not-so-hip

Tempelhof: well connected, family friendly, diverse, green space meets urban

TREPTOW-KÖPENICK

Baumschulenweg: woods, nature, green, old people, slow

Köpenick: charming, water, nature, quiet, kid friendly, the edge of the world

Plänterwald: quiet, cheap, green, kid friendly, closed by 8pm

Schöneweide: green spaces, river, cheap(er), well connected, authentic, no hipsters

SIGNING THE DEAL

You’ve done it! You cast your net wide, and found a beautiful apartment in the perfect, undiscovered neighbourhood. Or perhaps you just struck gold and found an amazing deal in Prenzlauer Berg. Lucky you! Now you’ve found your dream home, how are you going to lock it down before someone else?

Firstly I’d advise you to check out this guide to make sure you have all the relevant paperwork in place. Collecting, filing and presenting documents is something of a way of life in Germany, and if you don’t have your application nicely completed, in German, with all the relevant attachments, you’ll likely find yourself at the bottom of the pile.

If you want to go one step further, to help you really stand out from the crowd, you can take the advice given to me when we were looking for a new place a couple of years back. Introduce your tidy stack of paperwork with a friendly, succinct cover letter introducing yourself and your family.

Include a short paragraph about who you are, where you’re from, why you’re living in Berlin and what you do for a living. For extra bonus points, include a smiley family photograph. It might seem strange, but it’s not unusual for Germans to attach photographs to application forms, including job applications, and even sometimes kindergarten applications.

It certainly worked in our case at least! Our landlord told us on signing the contract that they chose us over the dozens of other hopeful tenants because they liked our letter and family photo. Remind me to buy a beer some time for the person who suggested that.

So that’s all folks! I look forward to the housewarming party, or Einweihungsfest!

Come back for part 3 when we’ll get to know the neighbours a little, discuss whether Berliners live up to the stereotypes, and meet some of your fellow expats.

About the author:

LAURA KAYE

Laura Kaye is a freelance writer, researcher and editor. Her work focuses on social and development issues, parenting and family life.

Originally from the Wirral in the United Kingdom, she is a serial expat now happily living in Berlin, Germany.

More posts by Laura Kaye:

Laura Kaye’s complete expat guide, Pt. 1: Understanding the dichotomy that is Berlin

Collected wisdom from my years as a Britsh expat in Germany

Dear undecideds: Are you really willing to live with the reality of a no-deal Brexit?

Berlin’s struggling Kita educators are underpaid and overwhelmed

Broken Kita system leaves parents frustrated, stressed

Everyone loses – employers, families and kids – as Kitaplatz waiting lists grow in Berlin

Having a baby in Berlin: Medicine, rather than modesty, is the aim of the game in Germany

Having a baby in Berlin, Pt. 2: Learning German whilst pregnant so we’re not ‘those expats’

Having a baby in Berlin, Pt. 3: A Berliner is born, and the German benefits you need to know about

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