Renting in Berlin: how living in the German capital compares to being a tenant in London

·9-min read
 (Chloe and Michael Smulian)
(Chloe and Michael Smulian)

Renting a home in Berlin is very different to renting in London. For a start, this is a property market with very few owner-occupiers. Around 85 per cent of Berliners choose to rent — in London that figure is under 50 per cent — and protection for tenants is strong.

Once a tenant has a legal long-term contract, anything over six months, it is very difficult for a landlord to evict them.

At the same time, a policy known as Nachvertrag makes it legal to take over an old contract directly from a previous tenant and preserve the same low rent.

Consequently, as a rule, tenants take care of their properties and invest in them, considering them their long-term homes.

How much does it cost?

Germany is the largest economy in the EU yet while rents in Berlin have long looked like good value compared with other major capital cities, they have risen rapidly.

In the five years to November 2021 they soared 42 per cent, outpacing all other German cities according to property website Immowelt.

The young, well-qualified global workers who have flocked to the city, lured by its value, its vibrant party and cultural scene and its thriving tech-start up reputation, now often struggle to find an affordable home.

Mitte, Berlin’s central core, has now become the second most unaffordable area to rent in the entire country according to Homeday Real Estate.

Rents in Berlin

42%: the amount rents rose in the five years to 2021

10%: the amount landlords can increase rent above local prices

Berlin authorities have tried to tackle this steep price escalation. In 2015 they introduced rent controls – Mietpreisbremse – that mean landlords cannot extend rents beyond 10 per cent of the current rent index for their neighbourhood, a rate set by the local government. This has been set in law until 2025.

In January 2020 the Berlin authorities went further, attempting to freeze rents in Berlin for properties built before 2014 at the level they were in 2019. This Rent Cap Act – Mietendeckel – also stipulated that any landlords charging more that 20 per cent over "acceptable" levels should repay the excess.

Maximum rates were established for residences, based on date of construction, the local area and quality of accommodation. Landlords had to repay overpaid rent to tenants and faced substantial fines if they didn’t fall into line.

Critics of this policy pointed out that rather than create more potential homes to rent, it would only discourage landlords from investing in Berlin property and make the demand-supply situation worse.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

While tenants rejoiced, landlords rebelled. In April 2021 Germany’s court ruled that this latest Mietendeckel was unconstitutional and overturned it. The rent freeze was lifted and landlords could reclaim lost rents.

What’s it like for Londoners who want to rent in Berlin?

After meeting in South Africa, Chloe and Michael Smulian, 36 and 34, left their jobs to travel abroad in 2019 and become full-time bloggers (nomadandinlove.com provides helpful guides on finding a Berlin property, securing the all-important anmeldung (the registration of your address) and area guides to the city).

They planned a six month trial to decide where to base themselves, spending three months in the UK before moving to Berlin where they have settled, renting a two-bedroom apartment in Charlottenburg.

 (Chloe and Michael Smulian)
(Chloe and Michael Smulian)

"In the UK we rented briefly in Croydon but even there rents were expensive and we had such a long commute to work, 90 minutes every day," they say.

"We decided on Berlin because it is an easier place to establish a freelance start-up and the cost of living is better. In London it was hard to follow our passion because the high cost of living meant we would both have to return to corporate jobs.

“In Berlin it’s easy to live in Zone A and B working as freelancers, and never be more than a 45 minute cycle into the city centre. We officially moved here in summer 2019."

They chose Charlottenburg in West Berlin because it's quieter and more family friendly with a smaller expat community than other central parts of the city. "We like it because we don’t want people outside our flat still partying at 4am in the morning and that can happen in places.

'I didn't dream I could afford to live on my own'

 (Kyomi Wade)
(Kyomi Wade)

Kyomi Wade, 30, from Forest Gate, London is a writer and marketer who works for an e-commerce company. She rented in Raynes Park and lived in Spain and Colombia before moving to Berlin three years ago. She rents a studio apartment in on-trend Neukölln for €700 a month all inclusive.

She says: "I got a relocation fee from the company I was joining so initially chose to rent a place for one month close to my friend in Neukölln while I got my bearings. It was a one-bedroom apartment that cost €1,100 a month. I didn’t think that was good value so looked for a better alternative to move to.

“When I picked up the keys to my current place and opened the flat, the previous tenants had left it in a terrible state. The cooker was so dirty that when I cleaned it, I discovered it was an entirely different colour to what I had thought. It felt like they knew they could do that just because of the desperation you get to find a flat.

"That said, when I last rented in London, I didn’t even dream that I could afford to live on my own.

“In Berlin a 30-minute commute is considered a long way and to have my own place in the city I love feels like I have won the lottery. Berlin has given me a lifestyle I could never have in London.

How easy is it to find a flat in Berlin?

Kyomi says: “In London I would allow two to four weeks to find a place to rent but that just doesn’t work in Berlin. Within three weeks of arriving you need an Anmelding registration, to register that you live at an address with the local authorities, but you will never find a place to rent in three weeks.

“I moved four times, always to short-term rentals before I found my current apartment.

“I was on a real quest to find a flat, like most Berliners. You search, see something that looks good with a reasonable price, say €600 a month for a studio or one-bed, but then realise that almost all the listings are for “swaps only”, people who have an existing rental contract and want to exchange with someone who also has one but is looking to move to a different area, or get a balcony or downsize. Or else homes get rented directly within friendship groups.

 (Kyomi Wade)
(Kyomi Wade)

“I was in London for one week when I saw the advert for my flat on Facebook and knew it was what I wanted. But I also knew that if I didn’t see it and take it straight away it would go.

“You have a window of around half an hour to act when you see an advert – seriously — and once you visit it and want it, you have to have all your documents, credit checks included, in your hand.

“I called the landlord, had a video tour and asked what I had to do to get him to take it off the market. He said he would do that if I bought his furniture. I didn’t even debate – I agreed and asked a friend to check out the place to make sure it wasn’t a scam.

“The difficulties of finding a place are stressful and I know that when I am looking for something new, that I will be in competition with hundreds of people at a time.

“My financial profile, skin colour and level of German will all factor into some landlord choosing me as their tenant.

“I have now outgrown my studio and am potentially looking for another place to rent in Berlin with a colleague, somewhere closer to nature and open space. So the process is starting again.”

‘It’s common to spend six to 12 months looking for an apartment’

Chloe and Michael say: “Most people advise you to rent a short-term apartment when you first arrive, through Airbnb for example, which is expensive but at least means that you have an address for all the admin. That is relatively easy.

“It’s renting long-term, for over six months, that is hard and it is common for people to spend at least six to twelve months looking for an apartment that suits their needs.

“Since we arrived there has always been a housing shortage but it has become worse every year.

“The application system to rent is complicated and often landlords don’t even acknowledge your email. We looked for four months intensively, meaning that we checked the websites every 15 minutes until we finally landed our current rental contract.

“We pay €19 per square metre a month including utilities for a two-bedroom ground-floor apartmet with a garden — we have a dog. That’s fairly expensive by Berlin standards but it’s hard to be too picky when there’s such high demand to rent in Berlin.”

Need to know

"Berlin has plenty of tenant associations which are very affordable, around €7.50 a month for example, and this gives you access to lawyers who give excellent legal advice and will fight your corner if necessary. Our landlord knows we are part of an association and so will carry out repairs.

“In Berlin it’s common to rent without a kitchen built-in and we paid extra to our landlord for the kitchen and white goods.

“When our dishwasher broke, we asked the landlord to fix it. We went back and forth for six weeks and eventually had to contact the tenant association to send a letter to the landlord. Our dishwasher was then repaired within a week and we were entitled to a rent reduction for the six weeks when it had been out of service," advise Chloe and Michael.

"I take care of ongoing repairs myself, nothing serious has ever gone wrong, and have done lots to it, redecorated and put up pictures. I have made sure not to change anything that will be tricky to change back. The deal in Berlin is that when you leave a rental it should be as you found it and that generally means painted white," says Kyomi.

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