So you’re moving to hip, vibrant Berlin. Either you’re an artist, a student, a musician, someone involved in a startup, or you’re tagging along because your partner’s going. Whatever the reason is, I’m sure you’ll need a place to live. And just in case you don’t know it yet, finding an apartment in Berlin is becoming harder and harder by the day.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

But if you are hell bent on moving here (it is a fun and vibrant city after all), then read on as I list down the things you need to know before you undertake this headache-inducing quest!

First things first

Before we arrived, my husband and I were already spending lots of time stalking apartments for rent online. We’ve read that the market is very competitive yet somehow, I still ended up underestimating it. Sure, it’s not as expensive nor as ruthless as Paris, NY, or London. But you have to know that those cities are just way too intense. If you’re coming from Southeast Asia like we were where there are a ton of options, prepare to get a major culture-shock.

Here are some sites that you can look at. Remember, they are mostly in German so it is best to have a Google Chrome browser that lets you translate a whole webpage easily.

If you’re someone looking for shared apartments, you can check these two sites:

*Note: Wohngemeinschaft or WG means shared flat.

During our search, we found out that a lot of apartment hunting sites share the same listings so Alvin and I stuck with the two most popular – Immobilien Scout 24 and Immowelt. Immobilien Scout even has an app version so it’s easy to keep checking for new listings even when you’re on the go.

Location, location, location! Which Kiez?

In Berlin, your neighbourhood or Kiez says a lot about you. I’ve heard of friends who lost touch just because the other lived in a different Kiez and they simply grew apart. Where you live and your workplace often dictate where you eat and hang out. Thus, friendships remain stronger if you’re in the same Kiez.

Mitte which literally means ‘middle’ is a thriving city-centre and has quite a lot of tourist attractions. There won’t be a shortage of shops or restaurants here but you’ll also get hordes of tourists on the daily. Kreuzberg or Xberg is the home of a huge Turkish population as well as hipsters, cafes, and awesome restaurants.

Almost Diplomatic - Diplomat's Wife - Berlin Flat - Apartment Hunting

How central would you like to be?

Friedrichshain is a former East Berlin neighbourhood and like Prenzlauerberg, it’s where a lot of young and hip families live. Gentrification is in full swing in both areas so rent prices are currently skyrocketing. Schöneberg is the gay district with lots of bars and restaurants catering to the clientele.

Wilmersdorf-Charlottenburg these two, West Berlin neighbourhoods often attract a genteel crowd. They both have a huge chunk of Berlin’s Champs-Élysées called Kurfürstendamm. It also has Kantstraße which is the city’s de facto China/Asian Town (street, in this case).

How many rooms?

Germans count rooms differently from the rest of the world. When an apartment listing says “4 Zimmer”, it doesn’t mean you’re getting four bedrooms. It means you’re getting literally four rooms, excluding the toilets.

Almost Diplomatic - Diplomat's Wife - Berlin Flat - Apartment Hunting

Pick an apartment with huge windows for brighter rooms. European winters can be extremely gloomy.

Looking at floor plans may be tricky so here are the words used to indicate which rooms are which:

  • Living Room – Wohnzimmer
  • Dining Room – Esszimmer 
  • Kitchen – Küche
  • Bedroom – Schlafzimmer
  • Bathroom – Bad
  • Guest Toilet – Guest WC

What do Kaltmiete and Warmmiete mean?

You often see two different amounts on apartment listings that somehow indicate how your much monthly dues to your landlord will be. They are Kaltmiete (cold rent) and Warmmiete (warm rent).  Kaltmiete means the rent exclusive of any of the utility bills. Warmmiete is your total monthly rent including water and heating costs. Some apartments will even include electricity bills in the Warmmiete but internet and telephone bills are paid separately by tenants.

The Altbau vs Neubau debate – which one is for you?

There are also two major kinds of apartment buildings in Berlin. The Altbau (old building) and the Neubau (newly built).

Altbaus are buildings built before 1949. They have high ceilings which make for brighter rooms. Their thick walls and double-paned windows keep you toasty in the winter and cool in the summer. They usually have balconies and/or a wintergarten (wintergarden) and normally offer bigger floor plans. Not to mention that these buildings are often gorgeous, sporting old-European architecture.

Neubaus, on the other hand, were built after 1949. My suggestion is to get a Neubau built in the last five years as they would usually have modern features such as electric blinds and floor heating. They do tend to have lower ceilings and smaller floor areas though.

One thing to take note of is that older versions of the Neubau tend to be cheaper. One particular kind of (an older) Neubau is quite in the middle of the two usual Alt and Neu debate.

The Plattenbaus (pre-fabricated buildings) were built around the 60s, usually in areas that were formerly part of East Berlin. They are boxy, no-fuss buildings reminiscent of Soviet-style architecture. If you’re someone who has a thing for Ostalgie, then this might be for you. Look for one that’s well-maintained, though!

You’ll be needing a kitchen

Einbauküche (EBK) is a term that means “with built-in kitchen”. When going for an unfurnished flat in Berlin, expect to get an apartment that is literally bare. There won’t be any lights and for a kitchen, you’d find holes and sockets on the wall where you will connect your own.

This, some real estate agents say, is because car is to man and kitchen is to woman. They say this gives the lady of the household a chance to choose the configurations of her own kitchen. But since it’s 2017 and women don’t spend all day in the kitchen anymore, apartments with EBKs are getting snapped up a lot quicker.

Save yourself from the hassle of going to IKEA and/or building your own. It’s not worth the headache, the time, and the body pain. You’ll have enough of that when you deal with your other pieces of furniture.

Do you need an agent?

It used to be quite difficult to find an apartment in Germany without an agent. Difficult, but not impossible. The real downside of this was you as the tenant (not the landlord) will have to pay for the Provision. Simply put, this is the real estate agency’s commission that will cost you more than twice your Kaltmiete. Crazy expensive. Especially if you think of the fact that you’ll also have to pay the Kaution which is your deposit (three months rent). You get the Kaution back at the end of your contract but the Provision, no.

Thankfully, this was amended a couple of years back.

Nowadays, the burden of the Provision has been moved to the landlord, should they choose to list their flat under an agency. Honestly, I found the whole tenant-pays-the-commission thing quite ridiculous and horrible for our wallet. So that was such a huge save for us.

The Viewing

“We had to view over 10 apartments before we found ours,” someone recently told me. Viewing is always fun at first but it tends to get tiring, boring, and anxiety-inducing after a while. On some cases, you’ll even have to do it with 3 or more prospective renters. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like that. It makes me feel so pressured!

We viewed a total of six apartments (3 alt, 3 neu) before we decided on ours. This was a fairly low number and fellow expats still get surprised when I tell them this and that we found our flat in a little over a week.

Luck really does come into play.

Another piece of advice I can give is bring a friend who speaks German. This way, nothing gets lost in translation and you get to ask the complicated questions. Also, dress properly – most especially if you’re meeting the landlord. Landlords know that there are more people in need of flats than actual flats in the city. So, they have the wiggle room to pick who gets their flat.

Don’t look like someone who just left Berghain after partying from Friday to Sunday.

The (basic) documents you’ll need

Since my husband works for our embassy, we had a lot of help from the team when it came to documentation. But I did do my research as to what one will need here:

You’ll be needing proof of employment so some payslips and your contract would be nice. You’ll also need an Ausweis or an ID card. Lots of apartments will also ask you to hand over a SCHUFA statement. This is some sort of German credit statement which you can get after you’ve been in Germany for a while. If you’re really new to the country, it’s best to look for a landlord that doesn’t require one and build your financial rep from there.

Be flexibile 

Finding your perfect apartment in Berlin is near impossible. There will always be something that you’ll need to give up or find a compromise for. Early on, you’ll have to list down the things that you want. Number of bathrooms, bedrooms, floor area, kitchen, balcony, parking, etc.

Know which ones you can live without and compromise with your partner.

Costs for certain things tend to become unreasonable in some areas too. We viewed a flat in Mitte right on top of the Mall of Berlin. I was willing to overlook the fact that it’s on top of a mall and can get too busy every now and then. The ceiling also wasn’t as high as I hoped – it was still ok though. However, for parking, there’s no other choice but to rent at the mall. A monthly ticket would cost EUR267. That was obviously a deal breaker for me.

Almost Diplomatic - Diplomat's Wife - Berlin Flat - Apartment Hunting

The apartment that broke my heart is in this building’s inner courtyard.

A beautiful Altbau right next to Viktoria Luise Platz had me falling in love with it before we even left Kuala Lumpur but we had to nix it after viewing. It wasn’t as bright as it was in photos and there was no underground parking available.

Parking and security

If you’re looking into buying a car, there are three options where you can park – on the street, in your building’s underground garage (if you’re lucky), or your neighbouring building’s parking garage if yours doesn’t have one. I would definitely suggest secure parking buildings over street parking as there have been quite a lot of reports on tires being stolen and windows being smashed.

Also, having a vertical bolt going through the whole length of your door can go a long way. Break-ins are also quite popular. We know of 4 people who have had their homes robbed. Get insurance just to be safe.

Location (in your building) also matters

The floor (etage) where your apartment is also plays a huge role. Statistics say ground floor apartments are more prone to burglaries. Heating is easier and more cost-effective in apartments on sandwiched floors. Top and ground floors take longer and costlier to heat up.

If you wish to take an apartment that’s a couple of floors up, make sure your building has a lift. Delivery costs for furniture and appliances go up depending on your floor. Having a lift keeps these costs at bay as the delivery guys won’t have to carry them while taking the stairs.

That’s all I have for now. Did I miss anything or do you have questions? Let me help you out! Send an email or write a comment below.

More later.