Apartment-hunting
How to approach the search in Berlin

As I relocated to Berlin for a new job recently, I’m currently searching for a rental apartment. I already knew that the housing market is tough these days, but I was surprised how tricky it turned out to be eventually.

Although I prefer some districts and am looking within a specific space range (45–65 m²), I wouldn’t say that my criteria are particularly picky. Instead, the competition is just overwhelming: I heard from a landlord the other day that she received 700 inquiries within 1 week.

Looking for a rental flat is not just annoying and exhausting, it is also tremendously time consuming: So far, I can estimate my efforts to roughly 25 hours per month.

So, if you are looking for a nice place, you need to be both persevering and efficient. I condensed my experiences in this blogpost in the hope that they will be a useful resource for someone else. Moreover, the information are not specific to Berlin, but they are applicable for all of Germany.

The search

Where to look?

These are the common places to go:

Apart from that there are various fee-based services that let you place a “wanted”-ad. I never tried one of these and I have never heard anything good about them.

Necessary documents

Every landlord requires you to provide the following documents:

If you don’t have one of these documents, you should try to provide equivalent attestation in order to avoid any disadvantage.

Communication

One thing I learned is that you need to be lightning fast and super responsive. I saw flat advertisements that had been enabled for no longer than a couple of hours. So just checking the platforms every evening means that you will probably miss some good opportunities.

A lot of inspection appointments are invitational-only. In order to stand out of the mass, I always take the time to write a few personal lines in my initial inquiry. Furthermore, passing a photo along with the other documents can help you being recognized and remembered.

However: be careful how much personal data you want to reveal before actually meeting someone in person. There are also fake advertisements being published every now and then.

Bribing

A colleague asked me the other day whether he could increase his chances by offering the potential landlord a “bounty” or suggesting to pay a higher rent. I don’t have any experience with this, but bribing is a highly uncommon thing in Germany and usually considered criminal. I guess that it will rather raise suspicions instead of making anything better.

Bridging the first time

Finding a good place can take several weeks or months. Even if you have all your documents and are always the first one to get in touch, it still remains a game of luck. One landlord called me after the inspection and said that she literally rolled the dices. (I was unlucky, though.)

If you don’t want to put yourself under pressure, you need to find a solution for the transition time:

Subleasing may be a bit stressful, but you can take advantage of it, because when you move around the city you get to know several different places in a short amount of time.

Law of tenancy

In Germany there are special laws and rules that govern the apartment market. Therefore rental contracts are usually standard and just a few parameters are up for individual agreement. However, these are good to be informed about, so I always ask for these things early on.

Minimum rental period

The statutory notice period for terminating a rental contract is 3 months in advance. But: the landlord can suspend this for the first time in order to prevent overly frequent fluctuation. This is called “Mindestmietdauer” or “Kündigungsverzicht” and can last up to 4 years. Only after this term has expired the tenant is allowed to cancel the contract. (From then on with regular notice period.)

Some people underestimate the severity of this clause. Consider the following scenarios and the entailing consequences:

In all of these cases you wouldn’t be legally permitted to cancel the contract early. At least, it would be completely up to the goodwill of the landlord – in the worst case, there is no way out. Of course you could try to sublet your apartment for the remaining period, but you are still solely responsible for everything what’s happening inside.

Personally, I think a minimum rental period of one year is acceptable, but I wouldn’t go higher than that. Just do the math: If the apartment is EUR 700 a month with a minimum time of 4 years, you would owe EUR 33,600 as of the moment you sign the contract.

Stepped or indexed rent

With a regular contract the rent is fixed once the contract has been signed. It can only be increased afterwards when the landlord provides a really strong reason, for instance substantial modernisation works on the building. Therefore, other contract types have come into fashion in the last couple of years:

Commission fee

Sometimes you don’t deal with the landlord directly but with a real estate agency that acts as middleman. Since 2015 there is a law that clearly states who has to pay the commission fee:3

That means, if you just react to an advertisement, you can never be charged with a commission fee. Infact, this would be illegal. If they try to do it anyway, they would be guilty of fraud and liable to prosecution.


  1. The Schufa tries to sell some extra service around their appraisals. This is not mandatory, you can request it without paying anything! [return]
  2. In Berlin I can recommend Pickens – they are super friendly and uncomplicated. [return]
  3. This law is called “Bestellerprinzip”. The commission fee is usally 2 month’s rents plus taxes. [return]