So you want to move to Berlin—mythical land of cool start-ups, endless weekends, 1001 kebab shops, and beer that is cheaper than water at the shop (yes, seriously). Or perhaps you already live here, in some crowded flatshare where people keep stealing the goodies your mum sent you, and one roommate keeps inviting randomers over for an afterhour and they don’t leave for days, while the other is constantly having loud sex with her boyfriend and there are weird hairs all over the bathtub and no clean forks and OH MY GOD it’s time for you to get your own place.
Whatever the situation, you’re on the hunt for an apartment, in Berlin, where your name is on the lease and you can set down some roots. But, as you probably know, the glory days of cheap rent and ample housing are over, and competition is fierce for a place to live anywhere that might be considered a trendy or up-and-coming kiez.
Having done the hunt late last year, there are some things we wish we had known beforehand that might have made the process easier. And while everyone’s situation is different, and the situation is always changing, hopefully our seven tips for apartment hunting in Berlin will come in handy to someone, anyone.
1. Don’t do it
So you really want to move to Berlin? You… and everyone else in Europe between the ages of 21 and 34, my friend. This town is swarming with people exactly like you: Bourgeoisie bohemians on their laptops, searching for cheap altbau apartments while sipping flat whites at cafes staffed by gap year tourists that are dressed like high school goths, because how else are they going to get into Berghain? Berlin is crowded, pretentious, and gentrifying at the speed of light.
Make life easy for yourself and just don’t do it. Explore your other options—all those other places identified as ‘the next Berlin’, like Lisbon, Warsaw, Leipzig, or, hey why not, Detroit. Because Berlin is so over, don’t you know. Don’t come to Berlin.
No, actually, I’m kidding.
2. Find a place to stay… for a while
The thing about finding an apartment in Berlin is that it’s really hard. You, like everyone else, probably want to live where the action is: somewhere in Friedrichshain, Kreuzberg, Neukölln, and maybe Prenzlauer Berg. The demand for affordable apartments in these areas is much, much higher than the supply. Depending upon your budget, you’ve got a long and hard battle in front of you. In fact, according to our completely unscientific research, it takes most people somewhere around two or three months to finally score an apartment in Berlin. Two or three months!!
That’s a looooong time to live in a hostel or an airbnb. So your best bet is to find a temporary flatshare (look on Facebook and WG Gesucht) for a couple of months. Don’t get all optimistic and only find a place for a few weeks. You’ll regret it later, believe me.
Unless you already have a bike, shell out for a monthly train ticket (the post-10am ticket is the cheapest) because you will definitely be using it when you start scoring appointments to view apartments all over town.
3. Register at the Bürgeramt ASAP
Once you’ve got a place to live, the next important step is to register (or anmeldung in German) at a Bürgeramt, which is kind of like the town hall. You’re required by law to do this within the first two weeks after you move in (though these days they’re flexible about the deadline), and along with scoring a tax number and some other bureaucratic crap, doing your anmeldung makes you eligible to get your SCHUFA, a VERY important piece of paperwork that we’ll talk about in the next step.
4. Get your documents together properly
If there’s anything Germans love, it’s paperwork. And you’re going to need quite a lot of it to find an apartment. Regardless of whether you’re dealing with a real estate agent or a private landlord, it’s highly likely that they’re going to want from you as many of the following documents as possible:
-Tenant questionnaire (mieterselbstauskunft)
-Photocopy of your passport/European ID card (both sides)
-Proof of registration from the Bürgeramt (meldebestätigung)
-A letter from your current or previous landlord stating you are debt-free (mietschuldenfreiheitsbescheinigung)
-A letter from your employer stating your contract details (preferably in German or English)
-Pay stubs from the last three months OR
-Invoices from the last three months (if you’re self employed) AND/OR
-Bank statements from the past three months (with income only, expenses are embarrassing and unnecessary)
-SCHUFA credit report
Wait a minute… a credit report? YES. In Berlin, tenants’ rights are really strong, and once someone has signed a lease, it’s extremely difficult for a landlord to boot them out. This is great news for us, the tenants, but for landlords afraid to get nightmare, non-paying sleazebags in, the situation is a bit different. Landlords want to make absolutely, 100 percent sure the people they’re entrusting their property to are a safe bet, particularly on the financial side. So this is why it’s customary to provide all this personal, rather invasive paperwork, including a credit report.
After you’ve done your anmeldung at the Bürgeramt, you’re officially in the German ‘system’ and eligible to get a copy of your report. These can be ordered online (and everyone is supposedly entitled to one free copy per year), but if you need one in a hurry, you can also get them at selected PostBank locations (here is a list) for 24.95€. Beware: The PostBank only accepts German debit cards. No credit cards! You also need to bring the meldebestätigung paper you got from the Bürgeramt when you registered.
With the questionnaire, most agents and landlords will provide their own either via email beforehand or at the viewing, but we downloaded a generic one like this and brought it along anyway, just in case.
For the current/previous landlord letter (mietschuldenfreiheitsbescheinigung!!), a generic form off the internet like this one is almost always just fine, though we had one agent who required prospective tenants to use the company’s version instead (we didn’t end up applying.. too much work). Because we had just spent 15 months travelling, we didn’t have a previous landlord per se, so we forged Mook’s mum’s signature (with permission!) and filled out the form as if we’d been staying at her house. We also had one of our former flatmates in London fill out a form and send it via email; we were squatters at the time, had no landlord, and were paying no rent, but the extra vouch from a second ‘landlord’ made our application look better and that’s all that matters.
Once you’ve gathered as many of these documents as possible, photocopy them, buy some cheap folders or clear plastic filing pockets, and put together your application packets. Make them as neat, nice, and well-organised as possible because THIS IS YOU. This is how you will be represented to the landlord or housing agency or whoever gets to decide the lucky winner in the apartment game. No matter how much you suck up to an estate agent, they have no real say in who gets the apartment, and they’re also unlikely to remember you in the blur of the hundreds of faces they see every day. So make your application as solid as possible.
If there’s two of you, it will absolutely make your application stronger if you both provide as many of the above documents as possible. Because I hadn’t yet done my anmeldung when we were searching for an apartment, I wasn’t able to provide a SCHUFA. We were told time and time again by estate agents that this was hurting our application. So do it!
While a lot of agents and landlords accept paper applications, not all of them do. Some want you to submit documents via email after a viewing, and the sooner, the better. So after you’ve whipped up a glowing application packet, SCAN IT AND SAVE IT AS A PDF.
There are some good apps for scanning documents with your smartphone (we used CamScanner for Android, but there is Doc Scan and some alternatives for iPhone). They will create nice black-and-white (don’t make colour scans!) PDFs that you can save in your email, on DropBox, or in Google Drive, and have ready to send at a moment’s notice. When you get an application form, either via email or at a viewing, you can fill it out straight away, scan it in and add it to your application, and then send the whole thing off before the agent or landlord has even made it back to their office. Early bird gets the Rotkäppchen!!
5. Find someone who speaks German
‘Cause ain’t nobody got time for your pidgin German. It doesn’t have to be perfect, of course, but if you can’t handle a conversation about your verdienstnachweise or the god-forsaken mietschuldenfreiheitsbescheinigung, it’s probably better if you get someone who can spreche the Deutsch to help you out. Some estate agents do speak a bit of English, but they don’t really want to. Some landlords might speak German as their second or third language, with English a fantasy tongue only spoken on TV. At one viewing we saw an estate agent tell a guy who may or may not have been a refugee, in front of 15 other people, to go away and get someone who speaks German before he comes back again. Inquiries via email or phone in a language other than German probably won’t be answered either. Make life easier for everyone by finding a really nice local to help you out.
6. Hammer down your criterion, but keep your options open
As yourself the important questions. What areas? How many rooms? Is ground floor ok? Must it come with an einbauküche? Don’t waste time applying for or going to view apartments that don’t check those boxes, even when times get tough. If you really, absolutely must have a balcony for your plant collection or smoker friends or whatever, then don’t bother looking at apartments that don’t have one!! You’ll waste so much time out of nothing more than simple desperation, and once you’ve seen the place and put in an application, you’ll realise you don’t really want it anyway.
At the same time, don’t be too picky, or you’ll be looking for an apartment until Berlin actually falls out of style. Yes, yes, you want to be where all the cool kids are, hanging out in Kreuzkölln sipping 10€ cocktails and watching the sun set from Admiralsbrücke with your Burgermeister takeaway. But why not take a walk around Wedding/Gesundbrunnen, Schöneburg or Lichtenburg and check out the neighbourhoods there? And yeah, you want to live in an altbau with high ceilings and sexy wooden floors, but so does everyone else. Don’t disregard an almost ideal apartment because it’s in a post-war apartment block or because it has laminate floors.
If possible, look for apartments that are generally undesirable for different groups of people. For instance, there will be less competition for apartments without einbauküche or ‘fixer-upper’ apartments, because it’s unlikely that people who only plan to spend a couple of years in Berlin will want to invest the time and money. On the other hand, apartments with leases of a limited duration are very unappealing to people who plan to live long term in Berlin, especially since apartment swapping (trading rental contracts with someone else without the rent increasing) is such a common custom here.
7. DON’T GET DISCOURAGED
NOBODY SAID THIS WAS GOING TO BE EASY. Over the course of one month, we sent out around 80 emails, got invited to 25 viewings, applied to live in nine apartments, and only got two successful replies. When we finally landed a place we liked it felt something like a stroke of luck, but we were the first ones at the viewing, the first to send in our application via email (followed up with a phone call), the apartment was about 50€ over our budget, it was missing a bit of altbau charm (laminate 🙁 ), and it was only available for five years max. But the neighbourhood is brilliant (and in Neukölln!), it’s got a great floor plan and a view, and there is an eentsy tiny balcony for a couple of plants. Beggars can’t be choosers….
If it seems like your applications are disappearing off into a void, take an objective look at them and think about how you can improve. You’re only as good as you look on paper in this game. And don’t forget to tell every single person you know that you’re searching for an apartment. Post it on Facebook, tell the people you meet around town, and have them keep their eyes and ears open. There’s always the chance they’ll know someone who is checking out of paradise, and they might be happy to transfer their lease over to you.
Don’t go to public viewings!!! There is no better way to sink into a hopeless depression than checking out one measly apartment together with about 150 other hopeful people, with the queue to get inside the apartment snaking down several floors.
Don’t do that to yourself. If an estate agent invites you for a viewing and it turns out to be open to the public, don’t even bother going in to look. It’s completely demoralising and a waste of time—you are never going to win that apartment lottery.
Places to hunt for apartments
There is no secret website or magic trick to score an apartment in Berlin, just a lot of legwork and sweat and tears. The major websites to browse for apartments are:
ImmobilienScout24—The biggest real estate website around. Mostly adverts by agents, but there are some private landlords too.
WG Gesucht—German- and English-language website with mostly flatshare (WG) and short-term sublet listings, but there are some long-term too. These are almost always posted by the current tenants or the landlord, making it a much easier and more personal experience.
eBay Kleinanzeigen—National classified ads website run by eBay. Almost everything posted on here is by people looking to swap apartments, and it’s pretty depressing to see how much the old guard pays in rent. A great place to score furniture once you do find an apartment.
Then there are some smaller players, mostly Facebook groups. Some to get you started…:
Salz&Brot—Kind of a boutiquey website, but all the apartments are provisionfrei (no estate agent fees)
wg zimmer wohnung in berlin room flat apartment rent (catchy name, yes?)
Have any other Berlin apartment hunting tips or stories? Let us know in the comments!!