In Ireland, where I’ve been living for the last five years, finding a new apartment and an agreement with a landlord was never hard. It mostly boiled down to viewing a place, shaking hands, and paying a deposit in cash, up front.
In Berlin, I’ve recently discovered, it’s a different story. For example, prospective landlords and property agents require you to submit the following: a copy of your passport; a letter from your HR department confirming your income and your full-time open-ended contract details; copies of your last three pay slips; a copy of your most recent bank statement; a letter from German background-screening company SCHUFA; a letter from your current landlord confirming that you have no rent arrears; an income tax statement in case you work as a freelancer; the right to your first born child.
OK, I made up the last one, but the process made me wonder where all this comes from. Is it the German sense for safety and security, deeply encoded into the people’s minds after 70 years of Nazi and GDR regimes? Is it simply a national love of bureaucracy, a general mistrust of one’s fellow human?
Intrigued, I talked to a friend of my in-laws who runs a property management company (and who shall remain anonymous). “I personally assume that people who are not providing these documents are hiding something and I do not consider them as potential tenants,” he states, somewhat forthrightly. “There is, however, no Germany-wide standard of what documents to ask of your prospective tenants. I mostly use ‘Mieterselbstauskunft,’ forms for people to state their financial information — you can get these online — combined with a SCHUFA-statement.”
SCHUFA is a German company that offers background screening of people’s financial information. It’s pretty much the standard process for anyone applying for mortgages, loans, or renting an apartment, and since SCHUFA also offer their services for non-nationals, it’s a must for all landlords or property managers in an international city like Berlin.
“I want to make sure I rent the place to the right people,” says my contact. “German law is very protective of tenants, which is a good thing initially. Tenants can only be evicted if they are two or three rents in arrears. And that does not mean they’re moving out. If the tenant stays, the landlord has to get an ejection notice from local courts to remove the tenant forcibly. The landlord also has to cover all costs up front, and especially if the tenant has no funds available, the legal fight can take years and years before any reimbursement reaches the landlord. This is obviously a worst-case scenario.”
“Mietnomaden” — rent nomads, or people who move into a place, live there for three months without paying rent, then move on to the next — are one of the main reasons cited for the high agency deposits one finds in Berlin. Germany as a whole is one of the few countries in Europe where the majority of houses and apartments are rented out in this way. There is no government regulation of how much agencies can charge for commission, hence the standard in Berlin is between two and three “cold” rents plus VAT, which immediately puts this option beyond reach of many people.
So what about subletting? “Subletting will be covered in most German leases and it’s completely legal to rent out your place in Germany,” states my contact. “You should, however, inform your landlord of any prolonged absence and the subletting out of courtesy. Bear in mind that the main tenant stays fully responsible for the place even in his absence. So if the lodger throws a party and renovations are required, the main tenant will have to front this up. The rent also needs to come from the main tenant’s account. The only time a landlord can refuse subletting is if this is against the lease — i.e., a prostitute receiving punters at the premises, etc.”
I do, partially at least, understand German landlords. However, Berlin seems to be a bad place to try and find rental properties at the moment. Even if you bring all the documentation required, it’s no guarantee you will find a place since the market is so crowded. There may be up to 20 or 30 other applicants, and the landlord/property management company will decide based on your documentation if you’re the right tenant. It’s very much a game of chance, especially as you do not know on what criteria the specific decision of the landlord is based.
I considered myself a dream candidate: over 30, regular income, references from my former landlord at hand, and I was only looking for a one-bedroom flat (or even a bigger bedsit). Nevertheless, I contacted 60 estate agents and property managements firms, mostly via online portals like Immobilienscout24, Immonet, Immowelt, and eBay classifieds. This led to 10 appointments and 3 applications, and I was pretty flexible concerning the location of my new place. I imagine it to be much harder if you look for just one Kiez to live in, especially in places like Prenzlauer Berg or Kreuzberg.
The era of cheap renting in Berlin is, let’s face it, pretty much over. Friends of mine who moved to Berlin three or four years ago were often singing the praises of cheap renting in Berlin, but as the Berliner Zeitung states, the average rent in Berlin has risen 7.9% in the last two years alone, doubtless even more in hip / sought-after locations like Prenzlauer Berg, Kreuzberg, and Neukölln. As this timely post on the wonderful Needle In Berlin blog points out, “living in the scenester / arty areas of Berlin is now comparable in price to similar neighbourhoods of other European capitals apart from a few like Rome, Paris and London.”
I managed to find one-bedroom flats that were still cheap (especially compared to property-crazy Ireland), but only in further afield areas like Moabit, Friedrichsfelde, and Wedding, which is where I ended up. If you do not rent from the landlord or property management agency directly, chances are you’ll end up paying out the aforementioned commission to an estate agency.
On top of that, there’s the Kafka-esque amount of paperwork and subsequent formalities. Not only is it necessary to lay open all your financial data beforehand, Germans also like to have all business interactions with new tenants documented on slips of paper. For example, when I went to a property management firm to get a set of keys to view a flat, I had to hand over my passport (which was copied), filled out a document with my address details confirming that the viewing of the flat meant no liabilities for the management in terms of giving the place to me, and received a receipt.
After viewing the place and to get my passport back, I needed to hand in the receipt and sign another piece of paper confirming I received my passport back. True, every landlord and estate agent I talked to was nice and courteous, but do they really have to hand you a bloody receipt for everything?
Many argue that Germany has the strictest data protection laws in Europe, resulting from the aforementioned 70 years of surveillance under autocratic regimes. On the other hand, I met many people here in Berlin who had applied for 10 or more apartments at the same time, happily handing all their important financial data to people and companies they did not know at all. There’s obviously a strong possibility for data mining here, though my contact believes this is not the case.
“I only keep the information of a new tenant when he signs the lease and file both together. All other documents provided by applicants get shredded.” he says. I personally resorted to a small self-written form that I handed in with my documents, which landlords had to sign to say they would not provide my data to any third party. I wasn’t too sure about its legal validity, but none of the German landlords refused to sign it.
Next week I’m flying to Berlin again because my new landlord wants me to sign the lease at his office so he can see my original passport, SCHUFA-statement, and letter from HR. He’s not happy with only the copies and refused to send the lease via post for me to sign. Needless to say, the first month’s rent and deposit have all been paid. It makes me yearn for a world where we could shake hands over a simple contract instead of being subject to such intense personal and financial screenings.
Who’d have thought Berlin of all places — laid-back, freedom-loving, anything-goes Berlin — would be the place to remind me of the German tendency towards bureaucracy I remembered from my past.
This story was written by Marcel Krueger and originally appeared at Slow Travel Berlin.