Apartment-hunting in Berlin – Part 1

Ed Philp once again during Andrew’s sojourn off to Greece.

Recently Mrs. Philp and I had occasion to search for an apartment in Berlin. Some brief notes on this. Finding an apartment in Berlin is slightly different than looking elsewhere in Germany. For one thing, Berlin residential vacancy rates are extremely high. There are literally hundreds of apartments empty at any given time and rents are extremely low (think 500 Euros ‘cold’ for a spacious two-bedroom in some parts of the city, notably Friedrichshain, Moabit, etc.). Unless you want to live in a highly-prized area such as Mitte (East) around the Friedrichstraße or in Prenzlauer Berg near all of the little cafes, or in Kreuzberg in Mehringdamm, it is pretty much a tenant’s market. And it is delightfully easy to find stunning old apartments with gigantic ceilings and hardwood floors and plaster mouldings on the ceiling – the sort of apartment that Brecht might drop by to share a cognac in, if he weren’t dead in Berlin’s Dorotheenstadt Friedhof.

Sort of. (Sort of easy, that is, since Brecht is definitely dead.) In order to ‘apply’ for an apartment in our price class, one almost always needs to provide some serious documentation, including proof of income, a statement from one’s present landlord that one has no rent owing, and a statement from the German credit ratings agency, the SCHUFA. With Berlin unemployment rates high, and a notorious culture of so called "Renter Nomads" (people who rent an apartment and then stop paying rent until they are evicted, which can take up to a year), Berlin landlords are justifiably reluctant to rent to just anyone and they want clear evidence of an ability to pay before they turn over the keys.

So it came to be that I found myself in a West German SCHUFA center not long ago to apply for a credit statement. These can be obtained over the Internet, but I was in a hurry and the center was not far off from home, so I rushed out the door shortly before the center was supposed to close. Arriving, I ended up in a large waiting room with dozens of glum people. I suddenly realized that all of these people were there to argue with the SCHUFA about negative ratings, or to broker some kind of arrangement that would permit them to obtain a phone, or a bank account, or maybe to contest a judgment against them. In short, the waiting room was mainly full of people visiting one of the stations of the cross on the way into, or out of bankruptcy.

I sat there feeling very pleased that ‘this obviously doesn’t apply to me’, since I am seeking an apartment in Berlin, and this was certainly evident… Until I realized that in my haste to leave the house, I hadn’t shaved, I was wearing two different socks, an old baseball cap and a sweater that almost had a pattern of coffee stains and moth holes. The woman who handed me my statement (which was clean) seemed taken aback. Point taken.

Once in Berlin, Mrs. Philp and I managed to visit 18 apartments in 72 hours, including the one with an alcoholic living on the roof ("he just stays there in the summer – he used to rent here") and one with a bathroom that must have represented some middle-aged woman’s dream of an erotic Italian vacation. Lurid pink jacuzzi, pink romanesque pillars and broken pink tiles featuring satyrs and grapes and nymphs dancing around ruined columns. The bathroom hovered just above the level of kitsch, and there is little that is so sad as to be almost-kitsch.

Invariably, on each visit we would be asked to fill out lengthy forms that were called "Mieterselbstauskunft" (Tenant’s Disclosure"), but were in fact ‘applications’ to rent the apartment. The sneaky part of this is that in the fine print of these forms, what appears to be a simple form to provide information actually consists of an offer to rent the place, meaning that the potential landlord simply has to accept the ‘offer’ and then you are notionally committed to renting.

Mrs. Philp and I played a little dance with each landlord or agent on each such visit, exclaiming "we would love to rent here, but we have one or two more visits", and the landlords did the same thing "I’d love to give the apartment to you" (eyes dart to the door to see if someone more evidently solvent or shaven is walking in to tour the place).

After the marathon of stairs and addresses and strange agencies and bizarre apartments (one right above an anti-capitalist "free store" and one with a large bloodstain on the floor), we finally found a perfect place.  More on this in another post.