A couple of weeks ago, a reader of this blog contacted me about finding an apartment here. His girlfriend has a grant, he's coming with her, they're going to live here until next summer. So far, so straightforward. They want to live in the east, naturally, since it's Hip! Edgy! Berlin! and to tell the truth, if I were in the same position, I would, too. This narrows down the possibilities, because apartments are slightly harder to find on this side of town, but not by very much.
It occurs to me that there may be one or two of you out there in blog-reading land who are entertaining similar fantasies, and so I thought I'd take a few minutes to say some things that people here would find incredibly obvious and elementary, but might be less so especially to residents of the U.S. So, in no particular order:
* In Europe, the first floor is the second floor. In other words, you have the ground floor, and above it the first floor, then the second floor, and so on. It took me a couple of years to internalize this.
* What you're renting is a box. It is empty, although the chances are the kitchen will have a stove and a very rudimentary refrigerator of the type Americans call "dorm-size" because it can just accommodate a six-pack and what's left of last night's pizza. (It should also be noted that American pizzas are bigger than European ones). Oh, and there'll be a toilet and a shower and/or bath in the bathroom. Everything else, you're going to have to provide yourself. There are no closets. You'll have to buy a clothes cabinet to hang your clothes in. That wire sticking out of the ceiling? You'll turn off the electricity at the fuse-box and install a light fixture and a ceiling lamp, if you want one. Otherwise, you can get floor lamps like I did. You'll provide your own rugs or do without. In other words, a lot of the stuff that's already there in an American apartment rental isn't in a European one.
* The electricity may be on, and the heat almost certainly will be. If you're very, very lucky you'll have a gas stove and the gas will also be on. The cable for the TV will also be on. You'll need to get all of this stuff in your name immediately. The telephone will not be on, and after prostrating yourself to Satan, ie, Deutsche Telekom, you'll wait a couple of weeks for that, which may be one reason so many people have given up on land-lines here. Also: check to see if the rent is "warm" or "cold." If it's the latter, the utility bills aren't included. Also check what the "Nebenskosten," the yearly maintenance fees, for cleaning the stairwells and other services, come to.
* You can't get a bank account without an address. You can't get an address without a bank account, unless you find a landlord who doesn't want money. These people are usually identified by a thin glowing toroid hovering several inches above their heads, I'm told. Having had my first address given to me free, I never had to wrestle with this, so I can't advise you here.
* The absolute best way to find an apartment used to be -- and may still be -- to head down to Zoo Station on a Saturday night and offer sexual services to...wait a minute, I mean pick up a copy of the Berliner Morgenpost's Sunday edition when it arrives from the printer. Throw out all of it except the Immobilien pages, find the area of town you want to move to, and start trying to figure out the abbreviations. Don't worry about calling the numbers you find at any time of night or day; nobody else does, and do you want to miss the apartment of a lifetime? And don't worry about the person renting the apartment speaking English. You can be assured they don't.
* You will notice that some -- most -- ads contain the word "Makler." This means broker, and it also means that you'll be parting with at least one month's rent for the honor of renting from this person. Often the Makler conducts a "Besichtigung," which is a cattle-call for all the people who have called expressing interest in the same apartment. Walking down the streets of Berlin on a Friday night, you sometimes come to these groups of people, gathered into clumps of two or three, each clump eyeing the other clumps suspiciously, the odd single person looking paranoid. These people are all competing for the same place, and the wily Makler, who is showing up late to show it to them, almost certainly has two or three other apartments in the building for those who want to strike deals or have lost out on the (invariably bargain-priced, to provoke an on-the-spot auction and attract the suckers who'll bid on the other available apartments) place that's been advertised. The way to avoid Maklers is to look for the word "privat." That way you're dealing with the owner directly.
* Another couple of words to look out for are "Untermieter" and "Nachmieter." An Untermieter is a sub-letter, and subletting is a very popular activity in a place which, the 100,000-plus vacancies currently on the market notwithstanding, still remembers the days when it could take, conservatively speaking, a year to find an apartment. You'd get a place. You'd meet a girl. You'd move in with her or she'd move in with you. One of you sublets the unused apartment. That's how I -- and many other people I knew -- got their first apartments here. A word of caution, though: make sure the sublet is legal. Many rental contracts specifically forbid subletting, which doesn't stop most people, because for the most part nobody concerned cares as long as the rent is paid. Nor does this stop people from offering sublets which are illegal and not telling the poor renter. One more strip of paper goes on the mailbox, which is already collecting mail for a half-dozen past tenants, you add "bei So-and-So" to your address and it's cool. Unless, as happened to me, your mailman is a stickler for rules, his ponytail and John Lennon glasses being just a disguise for a rigid, rules-for-their-own-sake kinda guy. The eviction notice comes quickly and is enforced by various police. But hey, that's the kind of thing that only happens to me.
* Now, a Nachmieter is something else entirely, and it's a much friendlier situation. If you can't serve out your lease, you may offer it to someone else. Of course, the landlord has to approve, but because this is Germany, it has to be complicated. By law, you have to offer the lease to three people, of which the landlord will pick one. This is the only way the lease can be transferred. I happen to be the Nachmieter in the apartment I've been in here for almost ten years, and the way we handled the situation was this. The woman who lived here before me had inherited a pile of money and bought a gorgeous house elsewhere in the city as a tax dodge. She put an ad in the Morgenpost -- see above -- for a Nachmieter and I called her. Turned out she knew who I was because she worked for an American wire service here and she decided the landlord would like me, so she arranged for two of her friends who had no intention of moving out of their own apartments to apply before me. Then I met with the landlord, and the next thing you know I was out of my postman-informer situation and in here. Just remember: applying for Nachmieter status doesn't mean you'll get it. But it does mean the rent won't go up as a result of your moving in.
* Furniture is the least of your worries, which is why I find it bizarre that the folks I referred to at the start of this post are insisting on renting a furnished apartment. Who wants to be responsible for someone else's furniture? Who wants to live with what someone else finds attractive? But those considerations pale against the fact that there aren't any furnished apartments anywhere you'd want to live in this city. People throw out nearly-new furniture every day in Berlin -- I'm currently eyeing a nice clothes-cupboard one of my neighbors has out, although I'm not sure if it's for the taking or not, but it'd make a nice replacement for the falling-apart one I have in the bedroom. People give away furniture in the classifieds and on Craigslist. People sell beautiful pieces of antique furniture for fifty bucks. In large part, this is because people are getting the hell out of here. But you can also buy an apartment's worth of new furniture at Ikea and they'll deliver it for a flat fee of €40. There's no reason to rent a furnished apartment in Berlin.
* Remember, too, that apartments are small. You may see ads for big ones, but there are restrictions a lot of the time on how few people are allowed to live in an apartment. If you're a single person, you may or may not be allowed a huge place. Best to check with the owner and see what the restrictions are. I have a couple of friends who bought an apartment and have a ghost roommate because the two of them wouldn't have been allowed to own the place by themselves. (And no, they can't have a baby because they're both guys. Although, come to think of it, they could adopt).
I'd advise against moving here period, but I know that's not going to stop anyone who'd heard the Hip! Edgy! chant of the media and the perfectly real statistic that it's by far the cheapest city in Western Europe to live in. Mind you, you get what you pay for, but it takes a while to realize that.
And finally, no. I don't know of any four-room, sunny, parquet-floor, quiet apartments in Prenzlauer Berg for around €400 warm, so don't ask.