How to find a flat in Berlin

I moved to Berlin on 26th October 2013, and now, less than 3 months later, I am already living in my second flat. I’ve gathered an enormous amount of knowledge through the two flat searches, and this blog entry is a summary of my learning. Do comment below, or tweet me, if you have comments, corrections or amendments – this blog entry should become some sort of living guide.

Contents
1. Introduction
2. Mieten or untermieten, or a WG (Wohngemeinschaft)
3. Prerequisites for renting a flat
4. Searching for a flat – criteria
5. Searching for a flat – location
6. Searching for a flat – websites
7. Flat visits
8. Making an offer
9. Payments
10. Moving in, and afterwards
11. My own story

1. Introduction
I am a British citizen (i.e. also an EU citizen) in my early thirties, living on my own, and I was moving from outside Germany. I’d last lived in Germany more than 10 years previously, meaning there were no records of me, financial or otherwise, that anyone could find. It’s as if I was starting from scratch. I had no bank account nor address in Germany at the start, and am partner in a small IT company with its registered address in the UK.

This guide hence comes from the perspective of an EU citizen moving to Germany. Some points may be relevant for people moving within Germany, or with records here, but I cannot vouch for that.

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2. Mieten or untermieten, or a WG (Wohngemeinschaft)
The very first German terms to learn. Mieten means to rent or to let, and untermieten means to sub-let. A WG (short for Wohngemeinschaft) is a flat share.

Anyway, this is your first choice when seeking to rent in Germany, and it is where the headaches can start. For me my first flat was through untermieten, and second time I have a proper contract (mieten).

Unless you are either extraordinarily rich, or extraordinarily lucky, do not try mieten at the start as a non-resident in Germany. When you rent this way you sign a contract directly with the landlord, and – under German law – this gives you strong rights. But if you want strong rights you also have hefty responsibilities, and this means the landlord is going to want to carefully check your reputation. As a non-German you are going to struggle to make it clear that you are reputable due to the documentation requirements (see below).

Untermietvertrag_11_2013_6s_pmUntermieten means that you are renting from the person that has the proper contract from the landlord. This tends to be for a shorter period of time, perhaps to fill in for a temporary absence from the country, or if the main tenant cannot leave their contract for some reason. Normally the documentation requirements are going to be less stringent, and such arrangements are struck between friends and acquaintances. I found my untermiete (my first Berlin flat) thanks to this blog entry and Twitter.

The problem with untermieten, and why you should not do it for too long, is that your rights are weaker and such arrangements are often struck without the express agreement of the main landlord. If something goes wrong (as I found to my cost – the main landlord wanted to sell up) you’re screwed.

An absolute pre-requisite of untermieten is that your name must be displayed on the doorbell and letterbox at the property, and this must be checked before any contract is signed. Without that you cannot complete any of the steps to getting a proper rental flat later (more on that below).

An alternative option is to move to live with others in a Wohngemeinschaft (WG). Here the same attention is needed as when sub-letting, although long term living in a WG is legally possible, but if your aim is to find your own place then again make sure your name is displayed on the doorbell and letter box.

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3. Prerequisites for renting a flat
Before you will be able to sign a proper contract (mieten) you are going to need a bank account in Germany. Yes, theoretically you could make all the international transfers from somewhere else, but this is going to inconvenience either the agent or the landlord, and is going to put you at a disadvantage when dealing with agents (see below).

So get yourself a German bank account before you start your search in earnest. My own experience here was good. I managed to get an account with online bank DKB within about 10 days, and they also offer a Mietkautionskonto that will come in handy later. DKB, unlike ING-DiBa, has no required monthly stable earnings – handy for me personally as my income varies from month to month. Any account you open will however require you to have an address in Germany – hence the name on the letterbox thing stipulated above.

referenzen_schufaA German bank account, and a German address, are the two things you will need to get a SCHUFA Auskunft. This is a standardised credit check that is demanded by most agents and landlords in Berlin. What SCHUFA could possibly know about me after just 2 months in Germany when I demanded my SCHUFA Auskunft I have no idea, but the unblemished record helped reassure landlords (see below for full documentation requirements). You can demand a SCHUFA Auskunft here, and mine took 3 days to arrive in the post.

On this point, as in so many aspects of this search, do not ask about the logic behind the process and instead just focus on the outcome.

While not strictly necessary a German mobile phone will help. I’ve tried prepaid SIM cards with O2 and Congstar. O2 can be recharged with a non-German credit card, while Congstar requires a German bank account – not sure if Congstar’s better network coverage outweighs the inconvenience. But you are going to need to call and be called by agents, and hence a German number helps.

Lastly I found I was printing and scanning documents all the time. Yes, you might manage all of this with a mobile phone with a camera on it, but my printer-scanner was heavily used during my search.

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4. Searching for a flat – criteria
Flats in Berlin are categorised by numbers of rooms, excluding kitchen and bathroom in this number. So “1 Zimmer” is a studio, plus kitchen and bathroom. “2 Zimmer” is a bedroom and sitting room and kitchen and bathroom. You will normally also get a surface area figure in square metres, and every flat I saw also had cellar storage space.

Two rental prices will be quoted. Kaltmiete (cold rent) is the price of the flat rent alone, with no extras. Warmmiete (warm rent) is not always so clearly defined, but normally includes any charges for communal spaces, janitors etc., and heating and warm and cold water. Electricity is normally not included within it. These numbers are important not only for your monthly calculation, but also for the amount you might have to pay an agent (see below).

A further vital criterion is the Einbauküche (built in kitchen). Outside Germany I have never encountered flats for rent without kitchens, but in Berlin this is normal. If you rent a place without an Einbauküche you will get a sink and the unit below it, and maybe a stove, but nothing else. With Einbauküche you will get kitchen units and possibly (although not necessarily) a fridge and dishwasher. In my experience about 40% of flats I was searching for (central east, 2 Zimmer) had an Einbauküche.

Lastly some places say “WBS erforderlich” – these are flats subsidised by the state. Unless you have a WBS certificate you cannot get one of these, and if you’re coming from outside Germany these flats should be avoided when searching.

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5. Searching for a flat – location
Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 10.42.19Location matters, and not always in a good way.

Firstly a little history. Everyone in Berlin still thinks in terms of the old Bezirke (boroughs if you like) – things like Kreuzberg and Prenzlauer Berg. You can find a map of these Bezirke here. These were then reformed into 12 larger Bezirke in 2001, and a map of these can be found here. Plus if that’s not enough Berlin is then sub-divided into 96 Ortsteile, also shown here. You will see that some of the former Bezirke are now classified as Ortsteile.

All of this matters because price of a flat depends on (old) Bezirk. I first lived in the north western part of Prenzlauer Berg, an area that in my subsequent search I would never be able to afford, but crossing the bridge to Wedding (Gesundbrunnen) reduced prices enormously, for rather similar flats.

Secondly, searching by Ortsteile might draw in areas that are cheaper, but still within areas that are accessible for where you want to be (I included Alt-Treptow and Plänterwald for example). Also do not let your search be distorted by the Berlin U- and S-Bahn Map for this bears almost as tenuous a resemblance to geographic reality as the London Underground map does.

Thirdly, some websites allow you to search using the old Bezirke and Ortsteile, so knowing what’s what is handy.

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6. Searching for a flat – websites
Berlin is not a city (unlike Brussels, for example) where you can search for a flat to rent by walking the streets and looking for signs, or a city where you can wander into a rental agent’s office. Most flats for rent are not signposted, and very few agents have offices. So instead you need to search online, and organise visits. I used 5 websites for this purpose.

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 11.28.42ImmobilienScout24 is the most comprehensive website for proper rentals (mieten), and some untermieten is also available here. You can create an account on the site, make notes about what you find, and save your searches. These searches also sync with the site’s mobile phone app. The search functions can be refined quite precisely. The downside of ImmobilienScout24 is the sheer quantity of information (you find more here than anywhere else), and as the site is loved by the bigger agencies the same properties keep being posted and re-posted.

Immonet and Immowelt are two sites similar to ImmobilienScout24, but each delivered less than half the number of matches for my search criteria. Some, but not all, properties are posted on all three sites, and some of my most promising finds were through Immonet. So do not discount either of these.

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 11.28.06ebay Kleinanzeigen is a fast-moving location for untermieten and some proper rents too. The challenge here, unlike with the 3 main immo sites, is keeping on top of what is and is not available, and what is new, is a really hard task. Offers are put on Kleinanzeigen and withdrawn very fast, and I found no proper substitute for just hitting refresh on the page – not very efficient. But if you need untermieten you can’t avoid it.

WG Gesucht is, as the name suggests, the place to look for a flatshare, and it also offers complete flats available for untermieten. Again, like eBay, trying to make it work in a systematic way eluded me.

NEW, July 2014DreamFlat is a startup that is trying to streamline this whole process. They found this blog entry of mine, and e-mailed me, so I’ve added a link. The interface and idea look neat, with a good range of WG rooms for the moment.

NEW, July 2015 – the folks at Vergleich.org have e-mailed me, saying they have compared and rated the sites for finding a room in a WG in Berlin. Their review is here. DreamFlat and WG Gesucht come out on top at the time of writing.

NEW, July 2015 – Carsten Wagner, the founder of WG Suche, has also e-mailed me. The site looks smart, and an English version is also available. Do have a look!

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7. Flat visits
Once you have found what looks like a suitable place, e-mail or phone the agency listed, and ask for a time to be able to visit the flat (a Besichtigungstermin). Normally agents will group interested people together, and show them all the flat at the same time. If this time is publicly listed on ImmobilienScout24, or on an agency’s website, then you can expect a dozen or more people to turn up. Not all appointments require you to confirm with the agent – those that do tend to have smaller groups, so should be prioritised.

All the dozen or so places I saw on my second flat search were already empty. Normal procedure is for a tenant to move out, and then for the flat to be re-let. This also means that normally there is no bell to ring, and groups of people gather in front of the property. Always make sure you have the telephone number of the agent for every visit – you’ll have to call them if you can’t find where they are in a property.

I’ve heard stories from friends of people trying to charm agents at these visits but in my experience I do not see the point of this – you would be spending your time charming a person who actually will not be taking the decision at the end of the day, and may just manage the process for the landlord who you may never meet personally.

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8. Making an offer
If you like a place you will need to make an offer to rent it. At the visit you will normally be able to get a Bewerbungsbogen – essentially a form to fill out to register your interest. A selection of the forms I picked up can be downloaded here (PDF).

The form is normally filled in, scanned and e-mailed through to the agent. In addition some extra documentation is standard:

  • A copy of your passport or ID card
  • A copy of your SCHUFA Auskunft (see above)
  • Proof of earnings in the last 3 months (payslips), or a letter from your accountant / Steuerberater
  • A letter from your previous landlord confirming you have no debts to them

For me the third of these was the most complicated, as my company is registered in the UK. A letter from UK accountant, detailing my earnings for the past 3 years (more reassuring than 3 months!) proved to be adequate.

If you have an Anmeldebestätigung (registration of where you live in Germany), and Haftpflichtversicherung (personal liability insurance), it may well be worth additionally including these documents in the information you send to the agent.

The person doing the visit should be able to tell you when a decision is going to be taken as to who they choose. In my experience these deadlines often slip, but do make sure you know when a decision is going to be theoretically made.

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9. Payments
To sign a contract (mieten) you are likely going to need a lot of cash up front, in two parts.

The first part is Kaution (deposit). This is normally 3 months of Kaltmiete (see above), and indeed cannot exceed this amount. This cash should be set aside in a blocked bank account that requires signatures of both tenant and landlord to unblock, and the tenant is entitled to the interest on this sum. One agent demanded this sum from me in cash up front – actually legal, but far from reassuring – while the landlord I eventually rented from was fine with doing this via standard Mietkautionskonto (also see above). By law it is possible to pay this Kaution in 3 equal instalments in the first three months, but the administration of doing so might mean the hassle is not worthwhile.

The second possible upfront charge is the Provision. This is the charge the agent or landlord levies on the tenant at the time of signing a contract. In the UK and Belgium this cost is borne by the landlord, while in Germany it is borne by the tenant. This charge can be as high as 2 x Kaltmiete, plus USt (VAT) at 19% – so 2.38 x the Kaltmiete. Some agents charge less than this, and if you somehow rent without an agent a flat can be Provisionsfrei (i.e. no up front charge).

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10. Moving in, and afterwards
So your offer has been accepted, and you have paid your Kaution and hopefully no Provision, and you have your key. Normally if you have a proper mieten contract you will have to give three months of notice to leave the place, and if the rent is to increase at any point over the time you are resident this will be stipulated in the contract. You will have to take meter readings for gas and electricity, and sign up with companies for the provision of those. Most flats will also have telephone and cable tv sockets already fitted – it’s then a matter of choosing whether you want cable (with Kabel Deutschland or telecolumbus) or vDSL internet (many providers) and getting that fitted.

If you’re needing to move anything in Berlin and need a hire van don’t look any further than Robben & Wientjes – yes, their service is basic, and payment has to be done cash, but their prices are considerably lower than anything else I found.

Within 14 days of moving in you need to complete the Anmeldung einer Wohnung (registration of a flat) with the Berlin authorities. Details of the process for Berlin are here in German. You need to take along your rental contract and your passport or ID card, and the process is swift and easy as an EU citizen. You can book a time at the office nearest to you (bottom of the page here), ideally in the same Bezirk as your flat – although here the modern boundaries apply (see above). Once this is done you will receive letters in the post about the Rundfunkbeitrag (TV/radio license) and from the tax authorities.

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11. My own story
I was searching for a 2 room flat to rent, ideally with a balcony and an Einbauküche, somewhere within about 20 minutes by bike from the political district of Berlin (Mitte / Friedrichstraße). I aimed to pay up to €700 / month Kaltmiete or €800 / month Warmmiete. I was not worried by the type of building the flat would be in – I was not necessarily seeking an Altbau (pre-WWII building).

I first sub-let a place on Schivelbeiner Str. in the northern part of Prenzlauer Berg. I signed for just over 2 months, with the idea that I would then sit down with the main landlord and take over the contract from the person from whom I was sub-letting.

In the end the main landlord decided to sell the place, rather than continuing to let it, and on 13th December 2013 I was told I had to move out by the end of December. However by this point I had an address and a bank account, and hence could also obtain a SCHUFA Auskunft.

So second time around I sought a proper rental contract (mieten). The criteria for my search were the same as previously. Over the course of the week 15th-22nd December I visited 13 flats, in Wedding, Moabit, Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain, Mitte, Treptow and Neukölln, haring around between all of them on my bicycle. I made offers for 5 – in Moabit (1st choice), Mitte (2nd), Kreuzberg (3rd), Neukölln (4th) and Wedding (5th). I was unsuccessful getting the Moabit place, the timetable was delayed for the Mitte place so I withdrew there, and I was successful with the three others. I signed for the Kreuzberg place (off Bergmannstraße) on 27th December, having only seen it on 22nd December, and moved in on 29th December.

All of this – the move and indeed this blog entry too – would not have been possible without the help of numerous blog readers and folks on Twitter. Particular thanks to @nonformality and @huettemann (who both even helped move furniture!) and @annelaumen, @La_Lynne, @melican, @sahlbln and @beatricemartini – your tips and suggestions made this whole thing work.

In conclusion: finding a good flat in Berlin, even at short notice, is possible. I hope this guide might help you find what you’re looking for and make the process a little simpler!

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[UPDATE 2.12.2014]
Almost a year after moving to Kreuzberg, I am still there, and am very happy. In retrospect it is a better place to live than either the Moabit or Mitte places mentioned above would have been! This blog entry has also now been read by more than 10000 people, and has even been covered by BBC Radio 4. So enjoy Berlin, folks, and do comment below if you have questions or comments that could help others!

128 thoughts on “How to find a flat in Berlin

  1. Really helpful thanks, I’m in a similar situation working for a UK company but living in Berlin so this was invaluable cheers!

  2. Great article and great blog! Thank you so much for a well organized and written post! Your article made me aware of the process and loopholes in search for an apartment in Berlin. You have gained a new follower! Hope all is good in Berlin! Danke!

  3. This post is really helpful, I learned a lot, thanks! I was trying to find an apartment in Berlin for quite a long time. I found one here: http://www.white-apartments.com/ The apartments there are maybe a bit more expensive but they are really beautiful. So if you have the budget I do recommend the website.

  4. I’m curious on how reliable craigslist is in Berlin? I’m looking for a short term apartment (3 months) and am looking from NYC so its hard to know how to validate any responses I’m getting. Any advise would be great!

  5. Dear John,
    Thank you so much for your post; very helpful.
    I am looking for a flat, and as such require a Schufa. However I’m caught in the Catch 22 of not having an address, which is required for the Schufa.
    Is it possible to put a temporary address, say that of a friend I’m staying with, as the Schufa address?
    Many thanks,
    Jack

  6. Start searching online 3 weeks or so ahead of time, but be aware that most places you find will be available immediately. So doing it only once you’re in Berlin is no bad idea!

  7. Great post Jon! Thanks! I do have one question however, how early should I start looking for a flat? Do I wait until I’m actually in Berlin?

  8. Hello Jon

    Great blog – I moved to Berlin from London in March 2016 and this helped me find a place to live!

    Have you written anything regarding ‘Which bank to join in Berlin’ – I’m starting to research this but any extra advice would be most welcome.

    Cheers.

    Robin

  9. Great advice. Well expressed. Thank you.
    I’m moving to Berlin from Melbourne ,Australia in November 2016.
    It’s a sabbatical, but I will be also touring with a band, so some income but that’s a bonus.
    My daughter has been accepted into a secondary school, so that part is done. Phew!
    Next is an apartment. 2 bedrooms. Central East.
    Would you recommend using and gaining a relationship with an agent, as I’d like to lease before I arrive?
    I could, if needed, pay my years rent in advance if it provided some bargaining power?
    The record label I’m signed to has an office in Berlin and they may help provide an address and help me set up a bank account before I arrive.
    My wife holds an EU Passport.
    Any advice would be greatly appreciated.
    FT

  10. THANK YOU so much for this!!! I am moving to Berlin from Glasgow in June and you have just put what was a jumbled array of anxious thoughts into a calm and logical order for me. You are a legend! I am very happy you are loving Berlin. All the best man!

  11. Hi Jon, your blog is very helpful, so many thanks for that. One of the main problems with the sites you mention above though is that they don’t have an English version, which is quite frustrating for those not speaking German. I am assuming that there are plenty of people that move to Berlin and don’t speak German, so I’m wondering if you happen to know of any English sites for either untermieten or mieten.

    Many thanks!

  12. Hey Jon,

    Great post 🙂

    I have a question about living in Berlin’ while having your company registered in another EU country. Did you have to inform the german tax office about this? And will they tax me here in Germany as well, or compensate in another way. I would love to stay in Berlin, but would love to keep my company in Sweden. Any advice (based on your own experience would be very appreciated).

    Best,
    T

  13. “The second possible upfront charge is the Provision. This is the charge the agent or landlord levies on the tenant at the time of signing a contract. In the UK and Belgium this cost is borne by the landlord, while in Germany it is borne by the tenant. This charge can be as high as 2 x Kaltmiete, plus USt (VAT) at 19% – so 2.38 x the Kaltmiete. Some agents charge less than this, and if you somehow rent without an agent a flat can be Provisionsfrei (i.e. no up front charge).”

    This is no longer true. Charging “provisions” is no longer allowed, and ImmobilienScout24 will remove any property ads that state the tenant has to pay such a fee.

  14. Hi Jon, I read your blog it has helped a lot but I still have doubts. Do you have some free time on your hands would you mind helping me. I arrive in January and I have a place to stay for a couple of months but would like to search for an apartment for myself I am not too big on sharing living spaces.

  15. Thank you so much for taking the time and sharing your experience. Your article is so helpful!
    I’m currently searching for a compact 1-2 room apartment (anywhere Kreuzberg, F–hain, Treptow, Neukoelln) for my dad who is moving to Berlin in November, as he has a new job contract here.
    He is the nicest gentleman aged 63.
    If you are looking for a decent tenant with a stable regular income, please drop me a line:
    o.sundejevs (at) gmail (dot) com

  16. I’m planning a move within the next 2 months, still undecided between Berlin and London but this guide is a great insight, Thanks!

  17. Thank you for your blog, so kind and generous of you. So helpful!

    I am applying for a job with a UK company who have offices in Berlin and I don’t speak German. I will learn ASAP but will I be able to rent a flat speaking English only?

    Also will it be a problem being paid by a UK company?

    Thanks in advance for your help 😊

  18. The most concise and comprehensive summary on “how to rent a flat in Berlin” ever. Jon, I’d suggest you add a “suggest a place in Berlin” page to this blog.

    Val

  19. Hi Jon, thank you for your really helpful blog. I do an graphic design internship in Berlin since 2 weeks (i stay 4 weeks in total). After having issues (was too late) to find a room in flat (WG) I found my apartment here: http://primeflats.com/. Just as an inspiration for other people that stay in Berlin for a shorter period.

    Cheers and greets
    Mateo

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