Panorama of the Berlin skyline, Germany with television tower, Berlin Cathedral and Leipziger Straße
© shutterstock / Ariane Hoehne

Living the dream in Berlin

First-hand experience of the rental market

Packed full with all our possessions, the removals van set off for Berlin. Seventeen years ago, I moved to Munich with just three boxes of stuff—this had expanded to over 33 cubic meters, now on its way to Berlin. After 6,200 days in comfortable, cozy Munich, with a wife, family, friends and job, I was now off to pastures new in the pulsating German capital.

Berlin had somehow always been an idea, but never a serious alternative. We had settled very well into life in Munich, built up a circle of friends and a few years ago we even bought the apartment we had been renting. A move to Berlin hadn’t been on the cards, but, thanks to a new job, it was now happening—and quite suddenly. Nevertheless we thought it wasn’t a bad idea, and began to look forward to it. That optimism lasted until we started to look for a good, affordable apartment. “It’s never been a problem in Berlin,” I somehow remembered—the usual cliché of Berlin always having been affordable. Living and renting in the city are generally regarded as manageable. So, if you had a decent salary, then life would be quite easy there … wouldn’t it?

Well, things have moved on in Berlin, too, and that image is no longer (quite) true. Berlin, like other conurbations, is struggling with a large influx of people, a lack of affordable housing and property speculation. Experiencing the effects of that first-hand was an eye-opener. For years we had had no need to look for an apartment, so the rents in Berlin and the highly charged discussions of the Berliners about housing came as a bit of a shock.

The housing market in Berlin had always been very heterogeneous. In no other city in Germany do the individual districts have such a strong identity, nowhere else do you feel the differences between east and west and between rich and poor as directly as in the capital. You can see it, too, in the trends in rental prices: New prestige projects are shooting up out of the ground in Friedrichshain, right next to dilapidated old tenement blocks. In an old unrenovated backyard apartment block, rents might be EUR 4.50 per square meter (plus bills), while in the stylish new apartments on the street front, you’ll be paying EUR 25.50.

© IBB Wohnungsmarktbericht 2018

On the property website, rents for new tenancies (as of June 2019) in the district of Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain range from EUR 10.85 to EUR 25.28 per square meter. In a city like Berlin, where around one fifth of all residents and a third of all children under 18 were living on benefits in the year 2015 (Source: Report on poverty trends in Germany, Paritätischer Gesamtverband 2017), such prices seem utopian and out of all proportion. Especially in left-leaning Kreuzberg, a district that traditionally provided affordable housing for workers.

I was aware of this background, at least in theory. Not least because around Easter reports about this situation were appearing in the newspapers and on TV almost daily. And just before the European Elections, the debate about the housing crisis rekindled with the petition (“Deutsche Wohnen und Co. enteignen” ) to force the Berlin authorities to hold a referendum on expropriation of the rental stock of large real estate companies. So, despite the cap on rents and a wide (although confusing) choice on the market, getting an apartment in Berlin turned out much harder than we imagined. We searched via the usual online portals and set up user accounts. We didn’t want to go via an agent. One important piece of information to include in the profile was income. Because, as one of the platforms openly admitted, “it boosts the landlord’s image of you, as compared to your competitors.” Completing all the personal details for an online profile took only about five minutes.

Then we started sifting through the properties on offer. Many we rejected, some we liked. And—much as you would do in other cities— we used the first days there, while renting from a friend, to explore the different districts. At this stage we weren’t viewing the apartments themselves. We just looked at the district and immediate surroundings of the ones we liked. That saved a lot of time, because at least half of the ones we selected failed this test, so we didn’t then bother with a viewing. For example, one was in an apartment block on a four-lane highway with above-ground subway station, another had more bars nearby than you would ever need for quenching your thirst, and another had poor public transport connections. Using this search method, we came across some really authentic parts of Berlin which we would otherwise never have discovered.


Fact check BERLIN

  • Population (2017): 3,613,495
  • Number of households (2017): 2,002,900
  • Completed new-build apartments (2017): 22,315
  • Demand for new-build apartments to 2030: 194,000
  • Stock of apartments (2017): 1,932,296
    • of which rental apartments: 1,638,800
    • of which rental apartments designated as social housing: 103,441
  • Average rent advertised, existing stock (2018): EUR 10.32/m² net, plus bills
  • Average rent advertised, new-build (2018): EUR 14.04/m² net, plus bills
  • Average rent advertised, inner-city area: EUR 12.00 m² net, plus bills
  • Rental apartments re-designated as private residential property (2017): 16,548 (almost one in a hundred)
  • Average household income (net) 2017: EUR 2,025/month
  • Number of households that could apply for a certificate of entitlement to social housing (Wohnberechtigungsschein/WBS): 831,300
  • Number of households that have a certificate of entitlement to social housing (WBS) (end of 2018): 43,415

Source: IBB Housing Market Report 2018

In Berlin, too, there are generally group viewings of properties to rent, so you are one of a crowd of potential tenants. If you can’t make the viewing time, then it’s your bad luck. Alternative times are seldom offered. For us it was an unfamiliar experience to jog up five flights of stairs, along with 30 (!) other young couples, in a fully let old apartment block on Frankfurter Allee. Arriving out of breath on the top floor, we realized immediately the flat was much too cramped. The photos on the internet, taken with a wide-angle lens, had suggested a much bigger space; and the quoted figure for floor space had been generously rounded up.

During our search we found that the details given for the apartments advertised were often inadequate or just plain wrong. One basic principle emerged: the cheaper the flat, the worse the quality of the accommodation, the local area and transport connections. Also, we didn’t bother responding to ads where the landlord wanted a “letter of motivation” from prospective tenants explaining why they would be suitable. Another no-no was rental contracts where after one year at EUR 950 per month (plus bills), the rent would then rise to almost EUR 2,000.

Despite all this, our search did prove successful. As of recently, we have an apartment in Charlottenburg, a not-at-all “hip” district often looked down upon as too bourgeois. The rent, the size of the flat, the neighborhood and public transport—it was all right, even though we are living on the fourth floor of an old apartment block with no lift. Now all we have to do is find room in cupboards and on shelves for all that stuff in the boxes. Then we can start to settle in and feel at home in the restless metropolis of Berlin.

Published on September 19, 2019
By Tim Westphal, freelance journalist and technical author