If you’re anything like me, I imagine this is one of your biggest concerns in advance. Until you find housing you can’t do anything in Germany — open a bank account, register your residence so you can then get your visa, register children for school, forward your mail from home, etc.
And then, if you own a house at home, there’s the worry of what to do it while you’re away, at least if you’re leaving for six months to a year and have a mortgage to cover on top of your rent in Germany.
I’ll address both in this post. Most of what I say will be based on my experience, which means we left home for a full academic year and moved to a single residence in Germany for our year there. Some of what I say, especially the references for short-term housing, will also be applicable to shorter stays.
Renting Your House at Home
Though I was quite worried about this, renting out our home turned out to be easy. A colleague recommended SabbaticalHomes.com, so I listed our home there a year in advance (worth noting: Our colleague rented his home for 3 or 4 months through them, while we rented for a full year). There was definitely some noise,1 but I also had lots of very solid inquiries. I had no problem finding a good family that fit our little neighbourhood well, and have had a great experience with them. There is a charge to list your home for a year on Sabbatical Homes — I believe it cost us something like $45.
There’s also always the option of listing your home with your university’s office for visiting faculty — or whatever the equivalent is, although we didn’t need to do so.
Finding a Home in Germany
This has been the most consistently difficult point for us over three sabbaticals in Germany. Looking for more than one bedroom complicated things even more for us on the latest trip. Perhaps this is easier in Berlin, but we’ve found that even in Munich it’s not easy.2
A couple of things to keep in mind: When on the general market for an unfurnished apartment, we have found that German landlords tend to prefer long-term commitments (more than a year) from native speakers (with whom they feel more comfortable communicating). As foreigners, we found it impossible to find an unfurnished apartment on the normal market in advance from North America. The face-to-face communication is important, especially if you’re foreign. If you can make a trip to Germany a month or two in advance to look for housing, you may be able to find an unfurnished apartment this way,3 though if you’re looking for something for a year or less, you’re likely at a disadvantage. You will also have to furnish it yourself, possibly even down to buying a kitchen.
If you are in the market for a short-term, furnished apartment, you can work through a company like HomeCompany or HC24. The Welcome Centres at two universities recommended HomeCompany. (HC24 seems to be a recent splinter off HomeCompany.)
We’ve worked with HomeCompany on three different sabbaticals now, and have had mixed experiences. As they are often the only game in town, though, they’re unavoidable. You may see listings for short-term, furnished apartments on big apartment listing sites like Immowelt.de, but in my experience they always lead back to a HomeCompany listing. Caveat emptor.
Here’s our experience, with two different affiliates, over three sabbaticals in the past ten years:
- We rented apartments through the Munich affiliate twice.
- The first time the landlady stole our large security deposit when we moved out;4 we hired an attorney and got a judgment in our favour but she had all her accounts listed in relatives’ names, so we’ve never recouped. She did this to multiple HomeCompany renters, as we found out when our attorney found another suit against her. (HomeCompany claims to have delisted her once we notified them, but that was the only restitution they offered. They didn’t refund the finder’s fee we paid them.)
- The second time, their landlord signed a rental agreement, wanted no deposit, and then was nowhere to be found when we were trying to arrange to get the keys on arrival. He refused to respond to email or calls, from us or HomeCompany. In the end, my spouse moved into HomeCompany’s office with all his luggage and told them they had to find something since he’d paid a finder’s fee, which they did (of course, it was a more expensive apartment, but he was able to get the keys, and we got our deposit back at the end).
- The third experience was with the Würzburg affiliate. We found them to be slow to respond and relatively uninterested in helping us. We contacted them with our details a few months in advance of our move-in date, only to be told they wouldn’t talk to us until within 30 days of move-in. Once we were in that time frame, they told us they never have apartments that met our requirements.5 Then we found an apartment listed on their site that looked as if it might work, if we paid to buy furniture for an empty room in the apartment. It took them a week to respond to our inquiry saying that they would ask the landlord, and another week to get back with a response. At this point, we were within weeks of the move, and went elsewhere.
HC24 was a better experience. We worked with them as the Nürnberg affiliate of HomeCompany, and found them much quicker to respond and more helpful than the other affiliates we’ve dealt with. They now list on a completely different website from HomeCompany.6 The house was exactly as was pictured on the site. Our landlord lived next door, and was prompt in addressing any issues, taking care of the house and yard, etc. We paid our rent and security deposit to them, so we should have some recourse with them if something goes wrong (unlike in Munich).
There are other avenues you can try for furnished housing, as well:
- You can ask the Welcome Centre at the university you’re affiliated with. Some Welcome Centres may have listings; the two we were working with did not have any. One person at the local university, in a conversation about trying to rent furnished flats, told me she and others she knows have given up on listing through the university Welcome Centre since that’s been unsuccessful. Even if the Welcome Centre doesn’t have listings, they can point you to smaller, local websites with apartment listings that you might have missed otherwise.
- There are some listings on SabbaticalHomes.com, though overwhelmingly in Berlin. This month (May 2016) there are 171 listings on SabbaticalHomes.com in Germany, 132 of which are in Berlin. There are 5 in the Munich area, two of which are well outside the city. The rest are scattered throughout Germany, so it’s hit or miss.
- There are Facebook expat communities in some cities in Germany. In Nürnberg/Erlangen there is a very active community called HENhaus. If you can find one in the city you’re moving to, join and try posting there to see if anyone has leads.
Things to Keep in Mind, No Matter How You’re Looking
- Number of rooms: Germans don’t list apartments the same way we do in North America, where we list number of bedrooms, number of washrooms, etc. Germans will tell you the number of rooms in an apartment or house. The number of rooms does not include washrooms or the kitchen. So a 3-room apartment could have 2 bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and 1.5 washrooms. Or it could have 1 bedroom, a living room, an open office somewhat set off from another room so they count it as a room, a kitchen, and a 3/4 bath. No way to know, without looking at each individual listing, so you’ll have to wade through a lot of “2 Zimmer” or “3 Zimmer” listings that don’t fit your needs to find the ones that do.
- Included costs: Look carefully at what’s included, especially in a furnished, short-term home. On the larger real estate sites and possibly on HomeCompany, you may see the following terms:
- Kaltmiete: Listed rent only covers the living space, not things like trash pickup, water, heat, gas, sewer, etc. The additional costs will be covered in a charge for Nebenkosten. You will have to contract for other things, like phone, cable, and internet, yourself, directly with the providers. I understand that these contracts can be difficult to get for a short period.
- Warmmiete: Listed rent includes all Nebenkosten. It may or may not include things like wifi or cable; check the listing.7
- GEZ: TV licenses (GEZ) are generally not included. It’s not a huge issue — €100 a year or so. You will get billed automatically after your Anmeldung.
- Einbauküche: Kitchens are portable in Germany. I know that sounds weird (at least to me as a North American), but people here buy and sell used kitchens — cabinets, appliances and all. This means that an unfurnished apartment may only have water and electricity hookups when you move in — no cabinets, no appliances, no sink — and you’re expected to buy your own kitchen. (With a furnished apartment, you can expect the kitchen to be there.) If a listing for an unfurnished apartment specifies that it has an Einbauküche, then the kitchen will already be there when you move in. If it doesn’t, you can sometimes find used kitchens for sale on expat groups, and probably also in more typical German classifieds.
1 Early on, we had responses from people who obviously didn’t read the listing — researchers looking for a home right away (despite having clearly listed the following academic year in the title and listing) and for less time, or four undergrads trying to find an apartment. But by late October we started hearing from serious renters who were a good fit, and we heard from maybe ten solid prospects over the next four months.
2 On our latest trip we had to live in a different city than we’d intended, an hour away from the university where my spouse had his affiliation, because we could not find a suitable home in the original city.
3 Though in our experience you could arrive on your move-in date to find that the landlord found a tenant they liked better in the interim — this happened to my spouse many years ago when he was moving to Germany to study. Make sure to pay a deposit and get a receipt (I’ve read in some places that in fact you’re supposed to be named as an accountholder on a separate account where your deposit is held); we’ve had good luck when money changes hands in advance, but when it doesn’t — even with a written agreement — we’ve seen a tendency to break the contract without notice.
4 She did not, as do landlords around the world, attempt to claim there was a huge amount of damage and she had to keep the deposit to fix it. She instead claimed she’d never received a deposit at all, when we could prove she had.
5 Würzburg is a very tight real estate market, as we discovered, so I’m guessing they can take their time in getting back to people and decline to read emails that aren’t for immediate occupancy. As a renter, they were frustrating for us, as their canned response led us to believe there would likely be options a month before the move. Had we known they never have apartments for families, we could have planned a trip over to look for unfurnished apartments or moved on to other cities much earlier in the game, rather than scrambling at the last minute.
6 Parts of the website are gibberish, at least in English translation. (The German makes more sense.) It seems they established themselves as HC24 in July 2015. Website aside, so far our personal experience has been good.
7 Our HomeCompany and HC24 rentals came with the Nebenkosten and cable included, and one had wifi included as well.
Photo credit: HomeCompany.