Before you even get to Germany: start the flat hunt

Finding somewhere permanent to live in Berlin is getting harder and harder - competition is fierce. Although cheaper than most European capitals, rents are going up steadily (much to the annoyance of the natives) and Berlin is now the 10th most expensive German city. I won’t lie, flat hunting in Berlin can be quite stressful, particularly if you are not a German speaker and have a deadline.

You can expect the process to take a couple of months, especially if you are working and trying to look for a flat at the same time. The good news is that you can do some of the ground work before you move over, saving you some time - preparing some of the paperwork, searching for flats over the internet, building a list of contacts.

As a first accomodation, it’s worth getting a short let via airbnb or a Facebook group (people who want to let their flats while they go travelling often advertising there), even better, a WG (a shared house), so that your more experienced flatmates can give you a hand.

Where to live in Berlin

Everyone has a different view on which parts of Berlin are nice and which aren’t - obviously it depends on your lifestyle and what you are after, whether you are a young person looking for kicks or a have a family with children, etc. This is a good guide to various Berlin areas - a couple of years old but it still holds true. What is missing is the new areas who have since became gentrified / acceptable like Pankow, Weißensee, Wedding, Moabit. Even Lichtenberg and Marzahn are not as dire as they used to be (although personally I wouldn’t move to Marzahn, and definitively not Heinersdorf). Generally speaking you want to keep within the ring S-Bahn that circles the center of town, although as the city is getting full up and the outskirts gentrified this is less and less important.

Here’s a map of the 2016 elections, where you can see which area voted for which party - the NPD (neonazi) and AfD areas (neonazi lite) are the ones to look out for.

I wouldn’t pay too much heed to crime statistics - the colour keys in this 2012 Berlin crime map, for example, makes it looks much worse than it is. For a more recent, but not nicely visualised, source, here is Berlin’s official 2016 crime report. Bear in mind that Europe has no city in the world’s top 50 most dangerous city (the USA has four), and within Europe Germany is about average, roughly level with Rome or Paris and well behind places like Newcastle.

Flat hunting in Germany

You can find a flat either via an estate agent (a ‘shark’, as the locals call them, although the official name is Makler) or directly from another tenant (if you are have connections). If you already have a job in Berlin waiting for you, you may also want to ask your employer for help - they may be able to post a message on the company intranet or just ask around. The good news is that agents no longer demand two months rent + tax as fee. Realistically you may have to bite the bullet and use them, as going direct is more time consuming. When flat hunting on the internet, I found Google Chrome very useful, as you can set it to automatically translate pages with rental ads into English for you. The translations are quite good for that kind of information.

Finding a flat without an estate agent

Generally people find flats on the internet or by word of mouth - “back in the day” people also advertised in local shops or lamp posts, but those days are over. Worth subscribing to Facebook groups for expats, as sometimes they advertise short lets. Craigslist is also popular among expats. and of course, airbnb, although it is heavily regulated.

Besides those, you can try one of the following (do bear in mind estate agents also advertise there). Use the word “immobilien” for your searches:

Finding a flat via an estate agent in Berlin

In general you can expect estate agents to be quite useless. As opposed to, say, the UK, where at least they dance for their dinner (in that smarmy estate agent way), here in Berlin there is so much demand they couldn’t care less. They organize group viewings with 20 or more people at once, hand out application forms, collect paperwork from applicants, then throw away most of it, except for a couple they will pass on to the landlord. The others are a waste of time for them, so don’t ask estate agents for advice or trust what they tell you. For example, a few told me I didn’t need a credit check because I came from abroad. That’s nonsense, they just didn’t want to have to deal with the paperwork (and by “deal” I mean throw in the bin without even looking at it).

By far the most widely used website is ImmobilienScout, but there is also ImmoWelt. One of the reason to start looking early is that estate agents often leave only the worst flats they can’t get rid of on those sites, or good ones that have already gone, whilst keeping the good ones for themselves. It’s worth building a list of contact details of agents, getting in touch with them, filtering out the ones who can’t be bothered with non-German speakers, asking for available flats and / or subscribing to their newsletter - many sends weekly mailouts. You can then arrange your viewings for when you get to Germany.

Things to know about flat rental in Germany

For a long let you need to pay a deposit (Kaution) which can be up to three months. For your protection the standard procedure is to put the money in a special joint bank account which needs both your and your landlord’s signature before moving funds.

Flats are generally unfurnished. And by unfurnished they really mean unfurnished - no kitchen, no lamps, nothing except bathtub, toilet, bathroom sink and light switches. So you’ll need to be prepared for that - we had a camping stove for a few weeks while waiting for the kitchen.

The flat will have white walls, and you are expected to repaint it white before you leave, as well as filling any holes in walls, etc. You should make a list (with photos) of all defects when you sign the rental agreement.

Glossary - Abbreviations used in German Rental ads

Kaltmiete (KM)
"cold" rent (the actual rent). Unusual
Wohngeld or Nebenkosten (NK)
various costs like the Hausmeister (looks after the building) and cleaner for the common area. They are paid by the tenant
Warmmiete (WM)
"warm" rent, i.e. actual rent + utilities + Wohngeld
Estate agent
Wohngemeinschaft (WG)
flat share
Dachboden or Mansarde
Dachgeschoss (DG)
attic level (floor)
Einbauküche (EBK)
built in kitchen (not common)
furnished (rare...)
wood floor
mit F.
with window
3. OG (Obergeschoss)
third floor (UK) or fourth floor (US)
Erdgeschoss (EG)
ground floor
Kaution (KT)
Monat (MM)
a tenant who takes on another tenant's contract because they want to move out earlier. Fairly common
Postleitzahl (PLZ)
Post code
Vertrag, Mietsvertrag
(rental) contract
prov.-frei, provisionsfrei
no commission
one romm
2 Z(immer = rooms), K(üche = kitchen) B(ad = bath)
Altbau, AB, Altb.
Old building
NB, Neubau
New building
HZ, Hzg
mit Ki., kinderfreundl.
with children, child friendly

Getting ready: preparing the paperwork

All estate agents ask for pretty much the same paperwork:

  • photocopy / scan of passport(s)
  • payslips for the last three months
  • credit check
  • landlord references.

You can either give it to them in paper form, or via email, although some will only accept email. You can start preparing a folder with scans of all those documents to email to estate agents, and possibly photocopies if you want to hand in your paperwork at the viewing - it won’t increase your chances of getting the flat, but at least you won’t have to send personal data around, and your scans won’t sit in some else’s unsecured hard disk.

The landlord reference is something you can prepare before arriving in Germany - you may want to get a German translation as well for good measure. If you already have a job contract, you can scan / photocopy that as well, in lieu of payslips for the last three months. The same for your passport. The rest you need to get once in Berlin.

After arriving in Germany

Once you get to Germany you want to start sorting out your paperwork as quickly as you can.

Step 1: the Aufenthaltsgenehmigungen (residence permit) and Steueridentifikationsnummer (tax number)

The Aufenthaltsgenehmigungen is a document ‘proving’ that you live at address X. This is the first port of call, as you will need to produce it for most of the following steps. You will also need to provide the Steueridentifikationsnummer to your employer. You can get them together, at the same time - the Aufenthaltsgenehmigungen is free, the Steueridentifikationsnummer costed five euros at the time of writing.

Getting it is a formality, at least for a EU citizen, but there is the issue of what address to declare. You must show a tenancy agreement or provide a landlord name. When I did it, I just said I was staying at a friend’s and they were OK with that, as long as their name appears in their register at the address you are declaring. Just make sure the address you are giving is one you can collect mail from for a few weeks. In Germany they are strict about mail delivery - if your name does not appear on the mailbox, the postman won’t deliver mail to it. Sadly you can’t give your employer’s address, they want a physical person.

The procedure is as follow:

  • download and fill an application form (you can leave the tax band blank) from here
  • bring the filled in form, your passport, and a dictionary if you need one to a Rathaus - luckily it doesn't matter which Rathaus you go to, so pick any one that is convenient from this list. I found the one in Mitte to be the one with the fastest queues, but I didn't try them all
  • find the Burgeramt office, and tell the person in reception what you are there for, and get a number from them
  • wait for your turn and then get it done

Once you find a flat, you’ll need to go back to the Burgeramt and declare your new address.

Step 2 (optional): get a pre-paid mobile phone

Some banks require a German mobile number to enable internet banking, so it may be worth getting a mobile as soon as you can. Always useful to have, anyway. You can pick up a cheap prepaid one at Saturn in Alexander Platz (or any outlet of your choice). You’ll need a passport and your Aufenthaltsgenehmigungen to get it. You buy credit at the till, it’s just a receipt with a number you dial in.

Step 3: bank account

Getting a bank account is relatively easy, as long as you have an address all you need is your passport, Aufenthaltsgenehmigungen, and in some banks a mobile. Which bank to choose is a matter of debate, I picked the Berliner Sparkasse because they have branches at almost every street corner, useful as you pay to withdraw money from other banks’ cash machines. On the other hand they charge a couple of euros a month. Some other banks are cheaper but have fewer branches. Your call really. If you can’t receive mail you can create the account with the address in your resident permit, then go back to the branch and change the address to c/o the address of your employer.

Step 4: Schufa (credit check)

Once you have a bank account you can get a credit check document for estate agents. I found the easiest way is to go to a place called Easy Credit (they have a branch in Alexander Platz train station) and get it done there and then. It costs 18 euros which they’ll deduct from your bank account, so make sure there are enough funds to cover it. Then you can scan / photocopy the letter and add it to your estate agents documents folders.

Now you have everything you need to get yourself a flat. Good luck.