Renting in Berlin: How to find your perfect home

18.07.17
14 minute read
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Berlin is Germany’s capital city and the country’s largest. One of the most populous cities in Europe, Berlin is home to fantastic architecture and a wide range of cultural activities and festivals. No wonder it attracts global businesses while still being dynamic enough to pull in startups and tech entrepreneurs from all over Europe and beyond. So whether you’re coming to work in Berlin in a corporate office or in one of the exciting SMEs making up the huge creative sector, or even to start your own business here, it’s a fantastic expat destination.

Whatever brings you to Berlin, you’ll still need to find a place to live. Prices for accommodation in general in Berlin are pretty reasonable - although recently rents have been increasing significantly, causing controversy and debate.

A one bedroom apartment in the city centre, on average, will set you back around €722 a month excluding utilities. In a suburb outside of the centre, €532 will get you a similar place. Accommodation elsewhere, even in Germany, is much more expensive. For example, finding a place in Munich is on average 41% more expensive than finding a place in Berlin. If you need any more convincing, consider this: average rents in Paris are some 50% higher than in Berlin, and in London, the average rent is nearly 150% that of the German capital. Amazing.

As with any large city, Berlin offers a lot more than just city centre apartments. Each neighbourhood has its own flavour - and if you’re working on a budget, or simply want a bit more space for your family, the suburbs and outer areas are equally attractive. Rental prices tend to fall the farther you move outside the city centre - but naturally the specific neighbourhood and how well connected it is, makes a difference in the the cost. Check out this fascinating map of rental prices in Berlin based on location and public transportation connections to give you an idea.

All that said, if you’re just making plans, it’s important to take into account all** the costs associated with your move to Germany. Compare the costs in Berlin with that of your home town using a comparison site such as Numbeo, and check out this quick guide to renting in Berlin to find the perfect place for you.

What are my housing options in Berlin?

Although there are several different options when it comes to housing in Berlin, what suits you will depend very much on your budget and personal preferences.

It’s worth being aware that there's a debate raging about the prices of accommodation in Berlin, as rents have recently increased significantly. This has led to, among other actions, a crackdown on the way landlords can make use of Airbnb in Berlin. The issue is that Airbnb is a great way for landlords to make premium rents by renting to foreign visitors, but this further limits the amount of housing available for local and long-term residents and inflates prices artificially.

While Airbnb is a popular option for both vacations and short-term stays, you should keep in mind that, technically, landlords can’t let out more than 50% of their main home on this platform without a license. This doesn’t apply to second homes, following a court challenge to the initial blanket ban. This rule is currently flouted and, in reality, any penalty or challenge would affect the landlord rather than the tenant, but it’s something to bear in mind when looking for a place. Further legal challenges may change the situation in future, as housing is a particularly political issue.

Furnished vs. unfurnished flats

Most private rentals offered for long term - renting longer than 12 months - come unfurnished meaning that you’ll take on a property with no floor coverings, curtains or even light fixtures. In practice, you might be able to negotiate with the previous tenants to buy the existing lighting hardware, but you’ll need to talk this through with your prospective landlord.

The arrangement has its upsides and downsides. You can usually repaint and decorate the place any way you like - much like owning your own home. However, you should check your tenancy agreement carefully, as when you move out you might have to return the property to an un-furnished state. That means you’ll have to pull up carpets, remove lights and repaint walls - or bear the cost of doing so.

It’s possible to find partly furnished properties with curtains, carpets and some appliances, or even a fully furnished place, although these generally don’t stay on the market for long.

If you’re only in Berlin for a relatively short time, under 12 months as a benchmark, then a fully furnished short-term place or even a sublet might suit you better. Although subletting doesn’t afford you the same legal rights as being a tenant, it's common and means you’re taking on a place that another tenant has already brought up to a habitable standard. If you’re considering this option, you’ll want to read the later section about credit checking for more details.

Flatshares and student housing

Most students in Berlin - even those coming from abroad - tend to find a place to live on the open market. Private rentals tend to be fairly expensive so for students or those looking to find a cheaper deal, a flatshare - known in German as a Wohnungsgemeinschaft or, simply, WG - might be a better option. Flat shares are more one-off individual arrangements. That means looking through your contacts and friends is a good start in addition to joining Facebook groups specifically created to help people find roommates.

There are several different Facebook options but, whichever you choose, remember it's a small world. Landlords may post flat share offers in several different groups. Being quick to respond, honest and straightforward in your dealings will reap the best results.

Another good option is to look at one of the sites listed below, or the Berlin specific WG Berlin, which connects people with potential new flatmates.

Alternative options

One common issue faced by expats arriving in Berlin and looking to rent a place, is that the landlord often wants a Schufa (credit check certificate) before they'll even consider your interest. In a quick moving marketplace, a landlord has plenty of prospective tenants to choose from and is unlikely to even want to allow viewings for those without all their documents in order.

This gets tricky for expats in particular, as to get a Schufa you must have an address. But to get that permanent address, you must have a Schufa.

One option which many people take is to initially sublet or share a place where they can register their residence. You’re then able to open a bank account in Germany, using your temporary residence as the registered address. After a few months you can build up some credit history which allows you to get the credit check completed.

Subletting for an extended period isn't such a good idea, as you don’t have the legal rights of a tenant. However, as a short-term solution, if you can arrange to sublet from a friend or acquaintance you trust - it can be a handy stopgap.

Where are the best locations to live?

Naturally, where you choose to rent in Berlin will be largely dictated by the location of your job or university. Not to mention your budget. As you might expect, the further away from the heart of town you go, the more affordable the rents. So you can get more for your money if you’re prepared to have a bit of a journey into the city.

It helps to know that prices of rental properties are somewhat influenced by the historical divisions of the city into boroughs called Bezirke. Although the maps have long since been redrawn, the fact is that people still tend to think of which neighbourhoods were more or less desirable according to the old boroughs. This means that flats relatively close to each other could be at quite different prices, because they’re either side of a - now defunct - border line. It’s worth spreading your search area relatively wide to take this into account, and then if you’re in any doubt as to the desirability of the neighbourhood today, go there for a look round before making a final decision.

City centre districts

Mitte, the geographic centre of Berlin, is a densely packed area with government buildings, embassies and international schools making it popular with both locals and expats. Accommodation is typically in older houses converted into apartments, and although it’s a great place to walk or cycle, driving is a no-no in this congested heart of the city. Instead, young professionals tend to favour Pankow, which has a range of housing options at prices that decrease the further out of the city centre you get. There are also parks and green space, as well as nightlife for residents to enjoy.

South of here, you have Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg neighbourhood, which has an artistic atmosphere and is home to a mixed community with an international flavour. As with elsewhere in the centre, it’s a place to get around on foot or by bike. Parking is a nightmare and the streets tend to be congested.

On the other side of town, Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf is popular with British expats because of the British school there. There are other international schools based in the neighbourhood of Tempelhof-Schöneberg, making this another popular place for expats to find a base.

Outside the city centre

Because of strong public transport connections, you can actually live outside the Berlin city limits and still have a perfectly reasonable commute into the centre. That means you can find a different range of housing - often at a lower cost, and in areas likely to have more of a ‘town’ feel to them.

A great example is Potsdam - a historic city out of Berlin to the south west. It’s a community in its own right and a very popular place for families, but a 40 minute train ride or drive into the Berlin city centre. If you’re working in the north of Berlin, you can also consider Oranienburg. This town is just 25 minutes by train or motorway into Berlin, and there's plenty of housing for families looking for more space. Wandlitz, also north of Berlin, has good housing options and is close to nature reserves if you want to be able to escape the city easily enough.

Student areas

If you’re looking for student accommodation, then you can either look for a company specialising in this form of housing or on the open market. Specialised companies focus on locations near university campuses, but might give more budget-friendly choices. Ask your university for their advice on reputable agencies, or try an established organisation.

If there’s not a suitable place in a specialist student hall of residence or housing complex, then look for a flatshare. This is really common in Berlin especially and you might find a whole group of new friends, as well as a cool new home.

The eastern Berlin neighbourhood of Lichtenberg is especially popular with students due to the relatively low prices of accommodation here. This is a great place to start your search if you’re on a budget. The area is fairly well served for amenities, with bus and metro connections to the centre, and prices get cheaper the further away from the centre you’re able to go.

What are the best websites to find a rental?

You can choose from a wide range of websites which might work across the entire country, or have a more local slant. As a starting point, try one of the following:

  • WG Gesucht allows you to search for flats, homes or flatmates and has an English language site.
  • Wohnungsboerse puts you into direct contact with landlords, so there's no agent’s fee. However, this will mean that you have to do your own research to make sure the place is suitable for you.

Where are the best sites to find a flatshare or roommate?

  • Aimed at students, Studenten WG allows you to search by city for flat share and similar arrangements. Otherwise try WG-Suche.
  • Facebook groups tend to be closed, so you’ll need to ask to join. A quick search within Facebook will pull up several options.
  • Craigslist - Rooms, apartments, and houses are all listed, but as with similar services anywhere, be wary and apply common sense and caution.

What should I be familiar with in the local market?

It can feel daunting if you’re just setting about finding the right place in another country and culture. Here are some of the things that can help you be more prepared.

Apartment viewings are often done with groups of people

It’s worth knowing that viewings are often done in groups, and somewhat competitive. An agent or landlord will advertise a place, which - if it’s in demand - will generate a lot of expressions of interest. They’ll then select which of the prospective tenants to show round, and the ‘shortlist’ will visit the property together. This means it’s well worth thinking about your approach. When you email the landlord or agent, you can tell them a bit about yourself and your lifestyle to show your enthusiasm for the place and check the fit. And when you arrive for the viewing, make sure you’re presentable and polite to everyone. It’s a competitive market, so showing you’re responsible and responsive is definitely a smart policy.

You might find that the rental arrangement you see in an ad is described as either cold or warm. This phrasing is actually to do with what utilities or services are included in the price you pay for rent. A cold rental agreement means that the price quoted is for rent only, no utilities at all. A warm agreement means the price you’re looking at includes the basic rent, fees associated with the building such as service costs and waste disposal, water and the heating costs if there’s a central heating system. However, even with a warm arrangement, the tenant is liable to pay their own electricity, gas, TV and internet costs. For other German language quirks you need to know about when renting in Berlin, more later.

Once you’re in your new Berlin pad, you’re relatively protected from steep rental increases. Under the local laws, increases can’t happen more than once per year and are capped at no more than 20% in three years. As prices in Berlin are currently rising so sharply - up to 10% a year in popular places - this offers some protection while you’re there.

What are the local terms I should know?

Even if you don’t speak any German, it can help to have a few words on hand when you’re trying to find your perfect rental in Berlin. Many sites have English translations, and levels of spoken English are excellent in Germany, but here are a few terms you'll see:

  • Mieten - Rent
  • Untermieten - Sub-let
  • WG (Wohngemeinschaft)- Shared accommodation such as a flatshare
  • Mobiliert - furnished
  • Kaution - Deposit
  • Provision - Agents fee
  • Kaltmiete/Nettomiete - The cold rent, which means only the basic rent is included, no utilities
  • Warmmiete - The warm rent, usually including service charges, water and waste disposal
  • Heizung Kosten - Heating costs
  • Nebenkosten - Service charges for things such as maintaining communal areas of an apartment
  • Wohnungsgemeinschaft - Flatshare, usually shortened to WG
  • 2 Zimmer - Although the name makes it sound like there are two bedrooms, this actually just means there are two main living rooms, so usually one bedroom and one living room

Rental ads can read like code - full of abbreviations difficult to interpret even for a German speaker. However, there’s a handy guide here to the language used in German rental adverts to help you figure out phrases such as this ‘EBK (Abl VHB 600)’. If you’re wondering - it means there's a kitchen in the property, but it’ll cost you an extra €600 to get it!

How and when are rental contracts signed?

To protect your interests, you should sign a contract before handing over any money or moving in. Make sure you understand what you’re agreeing to before you sign - including details like clauses about terminating your agreement and notice periods. In most cases, you'll have to give three months notice if you want to leave a property, as would the landlord if for some reason they needed to take back control of the place.

Most rental agreements are made open-ended - so you don’t need to renew them on an annual basis. Some have an initial term of a year or two before automatically changing to open ended tenancies. Short term lets, which run for a fixed period of 12 months, are available - but usually more expensive.

What are best practice tips for dealing with landlords?

Good landlords are the majority, but in Berlin as in any other city, you’ll also find your share of unethical individuals or agents.

Give yourself the best possible chance by taking a short-term place in a hostel or hotel at first to buy some time, and always have a friend along with you when viewing flats to make sure you’re not overwhelmed with information. That way, you can discuss your impressions of a place and a landlord and then trust your instinct when you have to move fast to grab your perfect Berlin apartment.

Don’t forget many Berlin apartments are rented out by word of mouth. If you're in Berlin for work, then make sure your colleagues and local friends know you’re looking. You might find that they can hook you up with a place with a friendly landlord without incurring agent fees.

What's the normal amount for a deposit?

For a deposit, known locally as a* kaution*, you can expect to be asked for up to three months of rent. Legally, landlords can’t ask for more than this amount.

The deposit has to be held in an escrow account separate to the landlord’s everyday cash. Either you’ll open an account on which you’re both signatories, or the money could be placed in a savings account in the tenant’s name with the landlord holding access to the account. Once the tenant leaves, the landlord will give back the deposit, minus anything for repair costs, and any interest accrued on the money in the meantime.

Any realtor fees incurred are usually paid by the landlord.

Can I pay my rent or deposit from abroad?

If you’re just arranging your relocation to Berlin, you might find you need to make a deposit payment before you’ve opened a local bank account or even arrived in the country. If you do, it’s worth remembering that your bank might not offer the best value when it comes to making an international money transfer. Often, banks will add hidden fees by using a poor exchange rate, even with their own account holders.

Instead, try a specialist service like TransferWise to make your payment directly to your new landlord or agent, with no hidden costs and the same exchange rate you see on Google.

Anything else I should know?

Be wary of common scams, such as properties offered for rental without proper contracts or landlords or agents who ask for fees for a service you don't want or need. However, the good news is that the rights of a tenant renting in Germany are well protected by law.

A common issue could be the landlord withholding deposit money for a long time. Under the law, a landlord actually has several months to pay the deposit money back after the tenant vacates. It’s worth keeping on good terms to reduce the likelihood of this happening.

A landlord might also try to withhold a portion of your deposit for reasons you think are unfair. You should catalogue any damage present when you move in by taking photos of things like scratches on floors or areas where painting is in poor condition. It’s worth also keeping a record of minor repairs as you do them, to show you’ve taken good care of the place and any issues are just normal wear and tear.

If you can’t resolve your issues directly with the landlord, the Berlin Tenants Association can help with any problems or queries you might have about your rights.

The rental market in Berlin is developing rapidly. It offers excellent value for your money compared to other major European cities - especially when it comes to other capitals - but prices are on the rise, and as an expat it’s worth being wary of being made offers well above the market rate.

Not to worry, though. Great deals are still available out there. By casting your net wide, using your contacts well and doing your research on the current state of the market in advance, you can have your dream Berlin rental in no time.

Good luck!

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