What We Heard:
We heard mixed things about finding an apartment in Berlin. Some insisted that Berlin rents were dirt cheap – that you could find huge lofts for a fraction of the price that it would cost you in any other German city. Some cautioned about super high commissions charged by the real estate agents – costing as high as two or three months rent. Some warned us that finding an apartment in Berlin wasn’t easy – nice apartments were difficult to come by. Even when you found something decent, it usually wasn’t in the right neighbourhood. And finding the right neighbourhood is key in Berlin – it is such a big city that typically residents stick to their area when going out – venturing to the other side of the city for dinner just doesn’t happen as often as it should. Some warned us about living in Prenzlauer Berg, where the yuppy mommies hang out with their baby bjorns and their strollers. Some encouraged us to find a place in Kreutzberg – the coolest area in town where the clubs and after-hours clubs kept you partying from Friday night to Sunday morning. Some mentioned that Neukoln was the next hot spot and to get a leg up on it by finding an apartment there now, even though the area is still a bit dodgy.
Well, we just went through the experience and I actually think all these warnings have some merit. There are apartments that are dirt cheap in Berlin – but these are either apartments that are in neighbourhoods that no one really wants to live in (Steglitz, Tempelhof, Wedding, etc.) or these are apartments that are really old or have really strange layouts.
It’s true that apartments are really hard to come by – our theory is that people hoard apartments in this city. The leases in Germany are usually unlimited and there aren’t many barriers against subletting. So once you find a great apartment (penthouse or with a balcony), you wouldn’t dare giving it up – you would keep it and sublet it if you don’t need it anymore. That way, if you ever come back to Berlin, your perfect apartment is there waiting for you and you don’t have to worry about paying those pesky commissions. It’s rare that these apartments make an appearance on the internet apartment sites (which there aren’t that many, by the way – the main one is Immobilien Scout 24 with Craigslist coming in second place). So everyone is looking on the same site for an awesome apartment. There could be hoards of people waiting for an apartment viewing and each apartment could then have as many as 50 applicants. Great.
We realized that it pays to know people in Berlin – word of mouth is how apartment news travels. Friends give or sublet their apartments to their friends or friends of friends. And we have a few friends in Berlin but we are not nearly as connected as we need to be to land an awesome apartment.
So what did we do?
We started testing the neighbourhoods out. Before arriving in Berlin, we thought that we would want to live in either Mitte, Kreutzberg/Neukoln or Friedrichsain. So, we rented an apartment in Kreutzkoln (on the border between Kreutzberg and Neukoln) – an up and coming trendy area. We thought if we are going to live in Berlin, we might want to live in this “ultra cool” area – so why not give it a test run? What an awesome mix of young, old, hippies, hipsters, babies, students, etc. It felt very laissez-faire but almost a bit too much for us….almost a little TOO hippy and a little TOO young, if you know what I mean. It was great to walk around and have dinner and absorb the feeling, but to think about living there every day – it didn’t seem to be the right fit. Also, the apartments we looked at were not that affordable compared to the looks of the area. We sort of expected to be able to find 70m2 apartments or 750 square feet (they use square meters vs. square feet in Germany) for around 600 euros or so. Not from what we saw. Most were around 900 Euros and up. The rents didn’t seem negotiable and the apts weren’t that nice 😦
Next, we checked out a few apartments in Friedrichsain and there were some real beauties here. Beautiful converted lofts for decent prices (although there was still a high commission). We walked around the area and found some awesome graffiti.
But around the famous Simon Dach Strasse, we were a bit disappointed with the vibe. It felt like an endless street full of college bars and patios and as lovely as it was during the day, I knew that when the sun set, this place was a breeding ground for young partiers getting shitfaced from Thurs-Sun. Nein danke.
As much as we were trying to avoid Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg (because of everything we had heard), when we arrived there to check it out – the area automatically fit! There are tonnes of restaurants, cafes, bars, parks and all sorts of people – mixes of tourists, locals, expats, young, old, families, hipsters, nerds, actors, etc. Plus the apartments that we viewed were really nice and well-priced. Some were even nicer than the ones we saw in Kreutzberg but cheaper in rent.
So either everyone lied to us about Mitte/PB being terrible and lame or we just fit perfectly into the stereotype of who is meant to live there. We found a beautiful apartment on Odeberger Strasse.
What About the Apartment?
Then it came down to the actual apartment. I didn’t realize that apartments in Germany don’t come with any closets – not in the hallways, bedrooms or even in the bathrooms. Some don’t have fridges or stoves either. Some don’t have kitchens at all. Usually when you move, you take your kitchen with you! Good thing though that in Berlin the trend seems to be more towards “North American” style apartments where they are including the kitchens in the apartment, but not closets, etc.
Since we still don’t know how long we will be here, we opted for a semi-furnished apartment so all of that work is already done for us. We will have closets, a kitchen, washer, dryer, etc. and all for a decent price without having to deal with hoards of people and hundreds of applications. After a year, we can decide whether we want to stay in Berlin..and that also buys us enough time to make all the connections we need to find a great apartment.