Monday, December 10, 2007

Numbers, Numbers, Numbers

My head hurts. I've just spent another hour looking at people's living spaces on Immobilienscout24, the website where people post offers of apartments and they have a search engine set up so you can find what you can afford in the neighborhood you want, plus sign up for an e-mail alert service which'll clog your in-box or your money back.

My first time through, I punched in some criteria: 1 1/2 to 2 rooms, in Mitte or Prenzlauer Berg, rent 200-400 a month, cold. Push the search button and see what comes up: 12 pages of offers. Now to winnow out the things the search criteria don't offer: not too many stairs (I've developed a bum knee with the cold weather, which clearly means I have to move to a warmer climate!); not in one of those grim communist Plattenbau or even grimmer post-communist shoeboxes; in a neighborhood I may actually have heard of (although this is proving a great way to discover places I'd never seen before). Then start reading the descriptions.

No, Wedding is not Prenzlauer Berg, although it may please you to think of it as such for the purpose of drawing eyeballs, Mr. Real Estate Agent. No, oven heating is not "romantisch," as someone put it. I prefer to think of it as "unhealthisch." No, I don't want to "live over the roofs of Berlin" if there's no elevator.

* * *

That's as far as I'd gotten with writing this post on Monday when the phone rang. It was a Makler, a real estate agent, calling to ask me if I'd like to look at one of the apartments I'd found on Immobilienscout24, a particularly affordable one on a street I'd checked out and liked in Prenzlauer Berg. Naturally, I said yes, and there went the rest of the afternoon.

It looked good, it really did. Not particularly light, I suspect (although by 3, when we met, the light was going anyway), but with a lot more space than I have here, and that particular object of lust for someone who likes to cook as much as I do, a gas stove. Easy stairs, shopping nearby (I can't believe how many people here live far from grocery stores and other necessities), and, well, I liked it. Met the landlord yesterday, and if the lease doesn't have any hidden trap-doors in it, I'll go in Monday to finalize the deal and pick up the keys; I can move stuff in gradually and the clock won't start ticking until January 1.

But what I wanted to do with this post was to outline, for those of you who are contemplating living here, what the various real estate listings mean by what they say -- at least, to the best of my knowledge. I'm sure smarter commenters will come along to refine and correct what I say, so read the comments. Given the number of searches for "long-time apartment Berlin" and "long-term rental Prenzlauer Berg" and so on, I know there's interest out there.

Now, the first thing you want to do is look at the rent. This is expressed as "Kaltmiet," or cold rent. In almost every case (except when the sole heating is coal), the landlord pays to heat the building and adds "Nebenkosten," or service charges, to the rent. Nebenkosten also include the fees for garbage and recycling pickup, cleaning the halls, and maybe cable television. So the rent on this place is €350 a month cold, €480 warm, including a €50 charge for the gas.

In addition, I'm going to have to come up with €833 as a one-time fee (Provision) for the Makler, in addition to the €500 "Kaution," or deposit, for the landlord. Note that not all apartments are offered through Maklers, and many folks who aren't in as much of a rush as I was like to avoid them. You can find "Provisionsfrei" apartments that are part of a co-op arrangement (Genossenschaft) or offered directly by the landlord. Another way to do it is through becoming a "Nachmieter," a term which doesn't really translate -- next-renter? The way that works is that one way you can get out of your lease quickly is to fine someone to take it over. If I remember how this works correctly, you have to come up with three potential renters, and the landlord meets with them. This satisfies the legal requirements, although some landlords will be happy to say they've met people they haven't or let you come up with two friends who have no intention of moving but go through the motions, then the person you've selected as your Nachmieter.

Once you've got your place, of course, the fun really starts. You have to arrange for electricity and telephone service. This last is the most fun because Deutsche Telekom likes nothing better than saying no. They'll take your order and then get back to you and tell you that, due to a lack of new telephone numbers, you'll have to wait until 2048, but they'll be happy to cut you a deal on a mobile phone (which the Germans call ein Handy, after the extremely early Motorola Handy Phone), the details of which, once you whip out a magnifying glass to read the extremely fine print, resemble three years' indentured servitude.

And then there's furniture, and, well, the most fun of all.

Moving.

That's the part I'm really looking forward to. I remember when I left Texas, on the real crunch day of the move it was 107 degrees Fahrenheit (that's 41.667 degrees Celsius) and suddenly all the people who'd offered to help just weren't there. I'm sure there'll be a series of ice storms or something similar as this month draws to an end. But here goes another adventure.

23 comments:

Ed Ward said...

Weird. This is dated Monday, but was written on Friday the 14th. Just so the second half makes sense...

Karl-Marx-Straße said...

Come on Ed, when did you last apply for a phone? In the early 90s, in the east, perhaps? Ok. But times have changed...

Karl-Marx-Straße said...

Anyway, pleased to read you've found somewhere. How big is it, how many rooms?

SeanM said...

While you did mention that here in Germany it's the tenant and not the renter who has to pay the real estate agent's commission (and sadly there's no filter on immobilienscout24 to only show you "provisionsfrei" places), you forgot to mention the most shocking thing to most Americans getting a place in Germany: The absolute barrenness of the apartment.

No lights, just wires danging from the ceiling. Go down to the hardware store, get some light fixtures, and drill into the ceiling to put them up. (Don't forget to shut off the power to your apartment so you don't electrocute yourself, and hope you don't drill into some wiring that leads to a different apartment in the building.) Or just get lamps, and leave the wires dangling.

No blinds or curtains. Gotta get those yourself. Which means drilling holes in the wall to put up curtain rods. Which means trying to drill into the wall with the little drill you already have, finding out it's concrete or brick, going to the hardware store to rent a bigger drill with hammer-action, putting up your rods and curtains, standing back to take a look and realizing they're crooked.

Oh, and putting up those lights and curtain rods? If you're in an altbau with high ceilings, pick up a ladder while you're at the store, too. Standing on a chair won't be enough.

The kitchen is an empty room. (At least in Berlin they're legally required to give you a stove and a kitchen sink. In Düsseldorf it was just a couple of water pipes sticking out of the wall. When I moved to Berlin, the landlord asked me if I wanted to get my own kitchen sink, because the one they would provide would be the cheapest one possible, to complement the 20-year-old stove. At least he was honest.)

...go back to the hardware store to pick up some cheap flat-pack kitchen counters and cupboards. Unless you get turned on by the idea of a beautiful fitted kitchen, then start shopping around and be prepared to put out some money for something you may have to remove when you move out. (Make sure you use the right kind of wall anchor when putting up the cupboards! It depends on what material the wall's made out of!)

No built-in closets, so it's off to the store to get a (if you're on my budget, again) flat-pack wardrobe for the bedroom, broom (& other cleaning supplies) closet for the bathroom, and coat rack. Unless you don't mind you and your guests just flinging coats over chairs for all eternity.

The bathroom has no shower curtain, no shower curtain rod, no towel rack, no toilet paper dispenser, no mirror, no cabinet, and probably nowhere to mount the showerhead. Pick all those things up at the hardware store, and learn how to safely drill through tile!

And when you move out? Learn how to fill all the holes in the wall from where you had curtains, lights, cupboards, towel racks, etc. If your place was freshly painted when you moved in, you'll have to paint it again when you move out. The paint's sure to be in bad condition as it's the cheapest paint possible, which, if you so much as breathe on it, gets a dirty black smudge on it that won't come out. Seriously, if you try to wash it, the paint will start to dissolve and chip off. Why does everyone always choose the cheapest paint possible? Because (ingeniously) people have to paint when they move _out_...

SeanM said...

And oh yes, I too have had the delightful surprise of real estate agents claiming their property is in one desirable neighborhood when it's actually in another.

It's complicated by the fact that now the neighborhoods of Mitte, Moabit, Tiergarten and Wedding are all in the administrative district (borough?) of "Mitte", so anyone listing property in any of those neighborhoods can say it's in Mitte. Further complicated by people still referencing them by their old districts, i.e. saying something in Moabit is actually in Tiergarten.

And how can you figure out where it actually is? Usually you can't! 99% of listings online won't give you the address of the place unless you make contact with the real estate agent. Why? I have no idea! Heaven forbid you go and look at the _outside of the building_ without the agent there with you.

Man I'm so glad I'm not looking for a place anymore.

Marie said...

Did you start writing it on Monday? You have to manually change the date to the 14th under "Post Options."

Olivier said...

Some comments:
1) Why the gratuitous dig at the email alerts that will "clog your mailbox"? It is a valuable service and it is not forced on you.
2) The NBK does not necessarily include heating, although the ad should say whether they do (on ImmoScout: Heizkosten sind in Nebenkosten enthalten Ja/Nein)
3) Most agents don't give addresses because they don't have exclusivity and might get scooped if they did
4) So much complaining about bare flats! Yes, it is so and not only in Germany: also in France, in Italy, in Austria, in Switzerland and probably most other countries on the Continent as well. Europeans don't move as often as Americans and will more readily consider outfitting a bare rental at their own expense. The market reflects the mores of the locals, not of the foreigners, which is as it should be.

quetzlcloth said...

The most disturbing thing to me was finding out that the NBK doesn't necessarily cover everything you think it will, and that you have no way of telling how much you're actually paying. After a year in an apartment with roughly the same split as yours, we got an itemized bill listing all the building's costs, and noting that some had been higher than expected. Thus, we owed another 500 euros to cover the shortfall.

A bit of a shocker, coming out of the blue. German friends have told us this is not unusual, and that some buildings lowball their NBK estimates to get people in. Not the prettiest part of the biz.

Ed Ward said...

As I expected, a bunch of good comments. Taking them one by one:

KMS: you're right; I'm sure with people abandoning land-lines and going to cell phones, numbers are, in fact, available. I still hope I can keep my old one, though, because so many people have it. The new place is 2.5 rooms, 62 qm, so I have a bit of room to stretch.

Seanm's comments are good for Americans who've moved into places in the States with a lot of stuff in place, although I guess the reason I didn't mention that in the main post is that I've taken this for granted ever since a friend moved to Paris in the early '80s and encountered an absolutely bare room, and have encountered it in my own movings here and there, as well as friends' adventures.

Olivier: Jeez, a little sarcasm about the e-mails, okay? That's a feature, not a bug, though, and I did appreciate getting notified about anything that even remotely met my specifications.

Quetzlcloth: That's disturbing, but not entirely surprising, what with the rising cost of heating oil and gas. I'll just take it a day at a time, and maybe be out of here before year's end anyway.

And Marie: D'OH! Ah, well, I was in a hurry; who knows when I might get the chance to post again.

Olivier said...

Yes, quetzlcloth is right. I think in the US the rent is a binding flat fee (binding to the landlord, that is) but here the heating costs included in the NBK are merely a series of advance payments to help spread the heating bill over the 12 months of the year and spare the tenant the sticker shock of a massive bill in the spring. With all the best will of the manager (Hausverwaltung) and landlord, estimating future costs is not an exact science, especially in the case of an Erstbezug, and with rising fuel prices a supplementary invoice is almost guaranteed. You should plan accordingly. I will note that this, too, is not specifically german: it works the same way in Switzerland and Austria and probably elsewhere, too.

Something else nobody brought up is that leases here are open-ended and can be terminated at any time with an at most 3 month notice. By contrast in the US leases are year-to-year, with a very narrow window for getting out or renewing towards the end of the lease, and breaking your lease midway can be positively ruinous. European arrangements are infinitely superior in this regard.

Also, a drawback of the everything-included, fully managed nature of your typical US rental is that it works out more like a hotel suite than like a flat: specifically, the landlord and his agents (e.g., the super) will feel free to enter the flat whenever they please, without giving notice, to do anything they like in it; you'll find out in the evening when coming back. I found this absolutely maddening yet impossible to stop except by changing the locks of course but the lease typically forbids it, so this is inviting escalation. No such thing has ever happened to me here: when you rent a property here, you are almost as secure from intrusion as if it were your own. I will more than gladly put up with the inconvenience of a bare flat in return for privacy and some respect.

Karl-Marx-Straße said...

I think I might have mentioned before (in overlong comments, sorry!) that I do know my way around German tenancy law, and a lot of the stuff in these comments is just wrong. But I won't bother replying to it, as I don't want to come across as being a smartarse for the sake of it. I'd just say: inform yourself of your rights, and you won't get done over. Don't rely on rumour, or hearsay (like the 3-Nachmieter-Rule), find out the facts and then you'll always be in a much better position. Ideally before "next time"....

Olivier: "leases here are open-ended and can be terminated at any time with an at most 3 month notice."
That isn't true. The only leases that can be terminated at any time (with 1 month notice) are commercial lets, i.e. shops, bars, artists' studios etc. It is actually legally very difficult to evict anyone living in a flat as a tenant. Basically the only reason that is legally valid is "Eigenbedarf", i.e. the owner of your flat decides to want to move in him/herself - and can prove it before a court. And that's not too easy, particuarly if it looks like they just want to get you out because your rent's cheap (or just wants some kind of holiday flat, empty for 51 weeks of the year - that's not allowed either).

That doesn't mean landlords won't try anything and everything. They do. But I suppose those who let these things get done to them without putting up any kind of fight are doing the best for people like me - the "golden handshake" to get out is then much higher.... Not that any (unless it is very, very large) amount of money can help replace a very cheap, big flat. As I think I am about to find out...so I'll be staying put and giving my best!

Karl-Marx-Straße said...

so I'll be staying put and giving my best! -

while making sure my neighbours are informed of their rights as well - as they don't want to "have to" move out, either. I just thought I should point that out.

Ed Ward said...

Well, KMS, I don't think anyone would think of you as a smartass (which is how we say smartarse where I come from) if you did, for instance, refute my statement about Nachmieter, for instance.

In fact, I have a couple of questions I'd like to address to someone who knows their way around tenant law here, if you feel like hitting me with an e-mail...

Karl-Marx-Straße said...

Consider yourself hit!

Bowleserised said...

KMS – your knowledge of German law and railways should be enshrined on your blog to prevent us feeble expats bleating inaccuracies. It'd probably do wonders for German/Auslander relations.

Bowleserised said...

PS I think we all owe you drinks, so why not come to the Stammtisch some time? We'll make you drunk as a lord.

Karl-Marx-Straße said...

As drunk as a Lord who falls over when a bottle of whisky is merely opened somewhere else in the same room, I presume. I wish it was different...

It'd probably do wonders for German/Auslander relations.
Or possibly, quite the opposite...

Olivier said...

KMS, as the rest of the paragraph should have made clear, I was concerned with termination by the tenant. I signed no fewer than 6 leases in german-speaking countries and they were all alike in this respect. I am also a landlord and I know it is not so easy in the other direction...

Karl-Marx-Straße said...

Olivier, it wasn't clear to me. But now you've made it so...

Of course, there are tenancy agreements that differ (befristete Mietvertäge), but they aren't that common.

Bowleserised said...

I'll make you a cake then.

Ed Ward said...

A wise KMS will not refuse this offer...

Karl-Marx-Straße said...

I hope you'll only make it once your stomach bug has gone, though.

Bowleserised said...

I'm on the mend already!