A Year-Long Flat Hunt as a Crash Course in Culture and Persistence
Learning how the local rental market worked also taught me a great deal about cultural values and how you should always try one more time.
I started out as any other young urban professional (without the affluence and business success *deep sigh*) trying her luck on the flat rental market in Berlin, Germany. As with any other crowded metropole, finding affordable housing is often a challenge, especially if you’re doing it on a budget.
The viewings take place on an ad hoc basis, so you have to be there to play the game. I lived in hostels to get a head start. I spent my daytime applying for jobs and looking for a place to live. That is: until I found a small, shared flat, cat included, where I could register. After a year or so, the need for an own, private living quarter increased, and thus my flat hunting journey started all over again.
Still used to living in shared student flats, I thought showing up at a viewing and getting liked by the landlady or -lord was enough to secure a rental contract.
For a private flat, of course you need the required documents. Pay slips or similar, a document from your current place dictating you’re well-behaved and always pay your rent on time, your credit record, and anything else that can convince the land owner you’ll be a reliable and trustworthy candidate to live on their property.
I learnt how this worked in three stages:
I was unemployed, empty bank account, not taking the fact that people want to see documents seriously at all. I thought a person’s good will would help me out. That was hoping for a miracle that would never happen.
Still unemployed, empty bank account, but this time with documents. A good friend signed a personal guarantee to help me out and increase my chances of getting lucky. Amongst the average 60–100 viewers who hoped to get lucky this time, the strength of my application got flushed under those that did have job security and bulky pay slips to show.
Armed with experienced gathered from the dozens of viewings and failed tries from the former stages, this time I arrived with a complete stack of documents, and a new permanent job for which I had documents to show. With all these pieces in place, I was prepared and I finally got lucky.
This flat hunting journey taught me about the local rental market (but it could be applicable elsewhere too):
- How it works. I know exactly what is required to successfully acquire a rental flat that meets your demands and I can replicate the process if I want or need to.
- How rental scams look like. It’s best to be inside the city during your search. To avoid scammers with their classic “I am not in Berlin right now, but if you transfer a €2K deposit via Western Union, I will send you the keys of this beautiful, too-good-to-be-true, dirt-cheap apartment on an A-location that looks like a penthouse”.
- Don’t be fixated on one property. Stay in motion. That dream flat you just viewed might tick off all the boxes, but the second you hand in your documents, it’s on to the next one. Leave it behind and spend no more thought on it. There is zero guarantee that you’ll be granted this flat. Don’t sit around waiting, but move on with the search immediately. Flats move fast in a saturated market.
- Know where to look. I went so deep in the rental market. Tell me what you’re looking for and I’ll tell you where to get it.
- Be ready to go to a viewing in one hour from now. Flats that got published today could be rented out hours later. You’d have to be on top of your game at all times, to get in contact with the land owners, make an appointment for a viewing, and show up, on time, and prepared.
- Preparation makes the difference. Once I reached stage 3 in my search, I had learnt to have two stacks of documents on me, in paper, at all times. Just in case I needed to hop on the train for a viewing right now.
These stacks were in a neat, uncreased envelope that contained every and any document that could support me in accomplishing the goal. I stuck small, colored notes between the stack to sort documents per category. And at home, I had ten further stacks already sorted, ready to go. I even had a pre-written email, in German, with files attached to it as well as a Dropbox link, ready to be sent out.
Thanks to these different formats I always had at hand, owners could choose their preferred format, putting me one step ahead of the “competition”. Often enough I saw people show up at viewings and then plead the owner for mercy because they “forgot their documents”. How even?
- Conclusion: Make life easy for the landlady or -lord to choose you.
I also learnt a thing or two about local culture.
- The rules pretty much are the rules. Adhering to them is highly valued. I tried to ignore the rules and requirements. That’s also why I failed in Stage 1 and 2.
- German land owners like (love) their documents. The bureaucracy stereotype is true. Give owners the security they yearn for and you will increase your chances of getting what you want. There are no exceptions. If a document is missing? That is a sign of sloppiness from your side and a reason to discard your entire application. Much like screening resumes for typos.
- Pünktlichkeit (punctuality) is a thing here. Treat it with respect.
- Speaking the local language makes life so much easier. It took me over a year at the time to find a comfortable flat, within the budget, in a location that I wanted to live in. I nailed all three demands. I attribute part of that to being able to speak to owners in their own language. Why so? In case any issues arise, your landlady or -lord wants to be able to communicate with you without getting a headache or bringing in an external translator.
This hunt was a long one, but sheer persistence was necessary to accomplish the goal. Towards the end of the search I noticed how far from worried I was. I knew exactly what needed to be done. It could have been the next flat, it could’ve been the 100th flat. Finally the number was somewhere in between. At each viewing I arrived on time, localised the person in charge, handed over my documents, and left, so I could jump straight on the next viewing, until persistence finally met luck.
Disclaimer: I am not a real estate specialist nor advisor, but merely speaking from experience.