On German Apartments

Justin’s company provided us with six months of compensation for rent when we moved to Germany, and they set us up with a lovely furnished temporary apartment. We thought “Six months! How generous!” and assumed that would be plenty of time to find an apartment. We dawdled, settling in for January, deciding in February whether we wanted to stay in Essen or move to Düsseldorf, and finally got into the hunt for an apartment in earnest in May.

Let me provide a little background here: Germany is a nation of apartment renters. 52% of Germans rent their residence, and I’ve been told that they stay in that residence for on average a decade before moving again (but I can’t find the figure for that number). Expectations are totally different for renters here than in the US. For example, as I was writing the first draft of this entry, a painter we hired was painting the rooms in our new apartment. We were compensated a month’s rent by our landlord for this, but it was required that we paint the apartment at some point during our residency. On the upside, this meant we could paint it whatever we want. On the downside, the previous tenant painted the windowless hallway dark red, the spare bedroom a weird yellow with white borders, and shoddily painted over an existing pink stripe in the master bedroom with blue. We’re also expected to clear snow in the winter, and sweep the cellar storage area and attic clothing drying room on a schedule. If something breaks that requires a plumber or a carpenter, we call and set up the visit, and pay for the first 100 euro of any repair. A friend’s lease tried to stick him with the entire repair costs for any repair, but that’s not as common (I hope!)

Apartment kitchens are getting their own paragraph, because they are CRAZY. Where in most places you would get a kitchen that comes with your apartment, in Germany you are only guaranteed a room that’s got the utilities such that it could be a kitchen. Frequently, when people move here, they take their kitchen (and light fixtures!) with them, and moving companies here specialize in that kind of removal and installation. You can look for apartments with ‘einbaukuche’, which means that the kitchen is staying with the apartment. Typically, this means that you need to come to an agreement with the previous tenant on the worth of the kitchen and compensate them accordingly. I’ve seen ‘einbaukuche’ fees ranging from 200 euro to 5000 euro. We really impress our friends when we tell them we got our ugly but functional kitchen for only 250 euro. Unfortunately, one of the door shelves on the refrigerator broke, and it’s missing all its drawers, so we are currently refrigerator shopping. We are debating whether a Slovenian fridge would be better than a Polish or Turkish one – the Germans will tell you that you should always buy the good German brands of Bosch or Siemens. There are also no built-in closets in any German apartment, so you have to buy a giant IKEA wardrobe. It could be much worse, though – a friend who worked in Poland said there you rent an apartment and it has no finishes – just cement floors and walls.

Justin and I looked at apartment after apartment. We’re not too picky about apartments, but there was another problem: we’re not German. Specifically, we don’t have the deep German credit history that other people looking at apartments had. Additionally, you need to decide fast. There’s no waiting, looking at more apartments for a week, and then getting back to the one you want. If you want the apartment, you must say so as soon as you see it. Otherwise, someone (probably with better credit history) will claim it. Additionally, some properties allow the current tenants to help in the decision-making process. This muddies the waters further since you can negotiate with the current tenant, saying you’ll pay them X amount more for their kitchen/washing machine/leftover furniture/etc. and then they can recommend that you get the apartment to the landlord. We looked at one glorious, inexpensive apartment with a garden, but it was clear we weren’t going to get it because a. there were about 10 German couples at the viewing and b. one of those couples was a coworker of the current tenant, and he was clearly partial to them.

Finally, we found an apartment, said it was good and we would take it the day Justin viewed it, and passed the credit check. It doesn’t have the outdoor space (garden or balcony) that we were hoping for, but it is in a good neighborhood, has a spare bedroom to serve as an office for me, and the previous tenant not only sold us the kitchen for a fair price, but also the sofa, coffee table, TV stand, bed, closet and kitchen table. It also has a garage, so I am enjoying not cohabiting with four bicycles for the first time in 5 years.