Friday, February 21, 2014

Wohnungssuche: Apartment Hunting!

We've turned our full attention to finding a Wohnung (apartment) in Berlin so that we won't be homeless come mid-March when our sublet comes to an end. Because I don't think camping in the Tiergarten in winter would be that fun. Character-building, sure, but not fun. Also the polizei might not like that.

So, there are a lot of quirks to the apartment hunt here in Berlin, and we're just getting acclimated to them.

First off, Craigslist isn't used much here - it does exist, but looks like it's mostly used for advertising vacation rentals to tourists. The most popular site is Immobilien Scout 24, and there are a few others. It's a pretty good search engine, much swankier than Craigslist, and has been relatively easy to use.

We applied for an apartment in this colorful building.
Second thing that is important to know is that many German apartments come without a kitchen. People install their own kitchens, or sometimes buy the existing one from the departing tenant. So, if you don't want to spend thousands of Euros buying cabinets and a stove and all that, you must remember to check Einbauküche (fitted kitchen) on your search terms.

Many rental agencies charge fat commissions on top of your first month's rent and security deposit, so another must is to check Provisionsfrei (free of commission) and steer clear of any listings that don't say that explicitly. From what I've seen, the commission can be twice the monthly rent, or more! That's hefty.

Another quirk is that some of the units with attractively low rents are only that low because they are subsidized housing, something called Wohnberechtigungsschein or WBS. I'm not sure how one qualifies for that, but it does appear to be income based and is some kind of government program. We're undoubtedly too new to the country to get that yet. So our searches also include checking nicht erforderlich (not required) for WBS.

All of that narrows down our choices significantly, but on top of that we're only looking in certain neighborhoods. Some parts of Berlin are too posh, or too quiet, or too remote, so we're looking at the denser central districts for the most part. We're trying not be overly picky, because above all we'd like to have a place that's not too expensive so we'll have money for travel. But, we're also here to get inspired and to feel connected to new experiences outside our door, so we're trying to find a place that is in the thick of something, if that makes sense.

Fortunately, rents in Berlin aren't insane. We're definitely going to be paying less than we were in LA, although we may sacrifice some space.

So far we've gone out and seen a few listings. One was for a very odd little flat in the southern part of Kreuzberg, near a bunch of Turkish shops, food stands, and some seedy casinos, but then peppered with posher shopping centers as well. Interesting neighborhood. We arrived at the apartment building a few minutes late, and the rental agent had already shown it to the people who were on time. Fortunately there were a few other late arrivals so we weren't completely scorned. But, the agent did seem a little flustered at first that she had to truck up five flights of stairs again. So, she didn't bother to speak to us in English, talking past us for the first five minutes, only to the German natives. Luckily there was an English-speaking girl who translated a few things for us, though she seemed a bit annoyed! Once we were upstairs, the agent became friendlier and did talk to us a bit.

A lovely flat lies behind this gate!
But, the apartment itself was... umm. Well, ok, it had a good sized kitchen with all the fittings, and a decent bath. The floors were hardwood, and the living room was very spacious. But someone had painted the walls with a giant heart monitor line in bright orange and yellow. So, this unit literally had a heartbeat. A huge, inexplicable heart beat. And the landlord had apparently decided it was perfectly fine to keep it in place for the next tenant to deal with. We thought it was pretty funny. Perhaps an obsessive heart surgeon had lived there previously, cackling in delight at the absolute, timeless perfection of his gargantuan painted heartbeat.

Next we went to check out the bedroom, and... well... it was basically a closet. You could fit a bed in there but it would actually touch either wall. You'd have to wedge it in. Lastly, the living room was very dark, with only one small north-facing window. We have to live and work in the same space, so light is important for our mental health, to say the least. We politely accepted an application but left knowing we wouldn't fill it out.

However, it was a great learning experience. Every thing we've read has warned us that house hunting in Berlin is a long and difficult process, and that you have to be prepared for lots of rejection. Landlords commonly want to see proof of income, which is standard enough, but they also want a credit report from the German agency known as SCHUFA. Being brand new to the country, we have no credit history at all, so our SCHUFA reports will be blank. They don't import your credit history from your home country. We'll have to hope we find a landlord that isn't difficult about this. Additionally, we have to provide proof that we don't owe back-rent to our previous landlords. We weren't expecting to have to prove that, so we're working on getting that now.

Today we went to three showings! One at 10:00am back in Kreuzberg, and two in Neükolln in the afternoon with the same listing agent. The first one was another decent apartment, with nice floors and windows and a great location, but it was on the ground floor facing a courtyard, overshadowed by the tall building on the other side. Again, it was just too dark for our needs. That didn't matter to the other 20 potential renters, packed into the small flat, all fighting over counter space to fill our their applications on the spot. We were actually relieved that we didn't like the apartment, so we didn't have to compete.

The second apartment was sort of in a distant neighborhood that we didn't feel very at home in. The apartment was in the process of being renovated and the agent said they would be putting in new floors and a large refrigerator. Oddly, they wouldn't be installing a bathroom mirror or light fixtures...

The third apartment checked a lot of our boxes. It faced a busy street (lots to look at while working at home!) and was near a U-bahn station, which, although not necessarily rare, is very convenient. There were two main grocery stores on the block and the sidewalks were filled with people of all kinds. The flat was quite beautiful, mainly because of its numerous large west-facing windows that sort of encircled a balcony. It wasn't actually that large of a flat, but because of the way the rooms flowed together (the bedroom actually has a window facing the balcony as well as two facing the boulevard) it felt just spacious enough.

There wasn't that much competition, only one nice girl who also took an application. We aren't fond of competition, as alluded to above, but we came home and immediately filled out our application and send it in with all of the documents we have. We have no idea if or when they will respond, but in the mean time we have another two listings to check out tomorrow!

The living room of the third flat :)
The bedroom - look how bright!
A tiny fridge hides in one of those cabinets...

We're not attached to this place... I promise...


  1. How did the landlord respond to your application? The place looks nice, and it's conveniently situated near a train station. It would be perfect for people who have just moved in from across the world, and who are still getting familiar with the whereabouts of your new environment.

    Rick Greer @ Finlay Brewer

    1. The landlord approved our application and we have been living there ever since. Thanks for reading our blog!

  2. Thanks for sharing this beautiful information with us. I am amazed with the beauty of the house really very nice home. I have never seen this type of home in my life. Recently I bought a home in Berlin with the help of a real estate agent Gate Berlin. Keep blogging like this.