So it's official. You're coming to Berlin and you need to find a place to live. You don't speak German, you don't know how much to pay in rent, and you have no one to help you.
You have likely found a few articles like this one. They're sitting in other tabs waiting to be read, and they are all copies of each other. Most of them written by fresh, starry-eyed Berliners seconds after landing in their tiny, overpriced furnished room in Kreuzberg, and might still bear the marks of a novice apartment hunter.
Few of these articles get updated once the authors figure out by how much they are overpaying. By this time, they have joined the ranks of True Berliners™, and are actively distancing themselves from the Ausländer who could benefit from their newfound wisdom.
In this article, I hope to clear some misconceptions about flat-hunting Berlin, and hopefully make it easier for you eager fresh Berliners to settle. If you are looking for the first steps to move to Germany, I also got you covered.
A brief history of the Berlin rental market
Quite a few things have changed in Berlin since I first arrived in spring 2015, and I believe it had a noticeable impact on the rental market. As a result, some guides are slightly outdated.
Prior to March 2015, renters would need to pay a significant fees for the privilege of dealing with chronically unreachable and habitually late apartment brokers. However, the German government passed a law to pass this fee to the landlord.
In practice, the fee is still passed to the renter by selling extras such as the kitchen cabinets (which are not included) at outrageous prices. If you don't want to buy the kitchen, the next visitor will. There was also a noticeable rent hike on ImmobilienScout24, a site dominated by brokers. More on this further below.
In 2016, Berlin severely restricted the practice of turning apartments into Airbnb rentals to dampen the worsening housing crisis. As a result, it might be harder to find a temporary accommodation when you arrive, but it plays in your favour as a renter.
If you move anywhere in Germany, you need to register at your new address. This is done by booking an appointment with your local Bürgeramt and getting a piece of paper stamped. The Anmeldung is the first piece of the puzzle. You need it to open a bank account. During your first visit, they will also give you the tax number your employer needs to pay you.
In order to do your Anmeldung, you need a letter from your landlord certifying that you live here. Some temporary accommodations don't provide those documents, so make sure your does before giving them any money.
The best way to get a Bürgeramt appointment changes with the seasons. You need to go in person, unless you're told to book online, in which case you should do it by phone, but some swear that emails work best. In any case, getting an appointment is a well-known struggle.
There was a brief period in 2015 when some crafty entrepreneurs used software to book all available appointments and sell them to people with more money than free time. Some citizens responded by writing their own scripts. The city put an end to it by only booking appointments by phone, and it seemingly worked.
I won't tell you how things work now, because it might as well change again in the next few months. This is the official site and this is their page about the Anmeldung. Pick your nearest Bürgeramt and follow the instructions.
Before the hunt
Before you start looking for an apartment, please make sure you have all the paperwork sorted out. This will matter when you visit the same apartment as a dozen better-paid German-speaking apartment hunters.
First, you need a Schufa, the credit report landlords use to establish your credibility. Most landlords are aware that yours likely won't contain much information, but it doesn't hurt to have it with you. You can get a Schufa for free, but if you need one on short notice, you can obtain one from various places.
Second, you need money. Most apartments require a deposit (Kaution) that's equivalent to 3 months of rent. If you can't afford that, your bank can cover it for you at a price (Mietkautionsversicherung). However, you will still need extra cash for all the things that are not always included, such as the kitchen, the appliances, the light fixtures and the curtains. Furnished apartments are also a possibility, but they're usually much more expensive, or only available for a few months.
Where to look for flats
There is a myriad of places to get your apartment hunting tips from, so I'm only going to stick to the advice that's missing from other articles on the topic.
Everyone recommends ImmobilienScout24, but it should be your last resort. It is incredibly well-designed and most listings include multiple photos, floor plans and heating costs. However, like the restaurants that are featured in every travel guide, you'll end up waiting too long and paying too much, and that's why the locals go elsewhere.
If you want to get rid of your flat, it only takes a Facebook post and a few minutes. In such a market, no sensible person would pay 24 euros to list their flat on ImmobilienScout24. However, brokers who charge a few thousand euros in commissions are quite happy with half the western civilization calling to visit their overpriced flats. As a result, ImmobilienScout24 is almost strictly broker listings.
The individuals selling their flat with no intention to turn a profit are on eBay Kleinanzeigen, Germany's largest classified ads website. Its awkward interface and low quality listings are a blessing in disguise for smart flat hunters who want to distance themselves from the competition. I found the prices to be noticeably lower on average, due to the absence of apartment brokers.
There are other alternatives. Facebook has a few popular flat-sharing groups for Berlin, and the general expat groups also feature the occasional flat listing. I used Nestpick to find my first place. It's noticeably overpriced, but quite convenient when flat-hunting from abroad. The /r/berlin wiki has a list of apartment listing sites for you to peruse. You should avoid Craigslist, as most of the listings are scams.
What to look for
While it might be tempting to play into the cool areas game, it shouldn't be your only preoccupation, especially if you don't have an unlimited budget. You can use Mapnificient to figure which areas are the easiest to commute from and save on rent by adding 10 minutes to your commute.
You should also look at the noise map of Berlin. I would recommend against the red area around Tegel, having lived there myself.
The S5, S7, U1, U6 and U8 lines are the most useful lines to live close to. Living anywhere close to the Friedrichstraße/Gleisdreieck/Warschauerstraße triangle puts you close to most of what is happening in Berlin, but it's by no means a requirement.
The Ringbahn is a railway that circumvents Berlin. It is often used to draw a line around what's considered in Berlin and out of it, but there are plenty of nice, affordable neighbourhoods outside the ring.
As petty as it may sound, I would be wary of areas that don't have spätis, bars and kebab restaurants, as in my experience, they are usually devoid of life. This means you need to go a few stations in any direction to do anything interesting. Again, this is not a bad thing, depending on what your priorities are.
In my personal and very subjective opinion, there are a few other things you should know about the various areas of Berlin.
- Prenzlauer Berg, Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain and Neukölln are the young, hip spots. You will usually end up in one of those areas on a Friday night. These areas are especially desirable, and this is reflected in the rising rents.
- Mitte is the touristy part of the city, but should not be perceived as "downtown Berlin". This part of the city is mostly dead after 10 PM. Given that it's the most expensive area to live in, it's probably not the best bang for your buck. However, it's well connected, close to everything, safe and quiet.
- Moabit and Wedding are part of the Mitte administrative region, but are never treated as such. These areas are far more affordable, and give you a wider selection of restaurant, bars and shops.
- Reinickendorf and some parts of Pankow are in the flight path of the Tegel airport (see this noise map). If you live around Kurt-Schumacher-Platz, it's hard to sleep with your windows open. Having lived there myself, I can say it's a considerable annoyance in the summer.