Finding an Apartment in Berlin: Why I Wish I Had Used Relocation Services When Moving to Germany

Finding an Apartment in Berlin: Why I Wish I Had Used Relocation Services When Moving to Germany is the second part of a series about my move to Berlin in 2016. If you haven’t, please check out the first post!

Admiring the view in Berlin - Finding an Apartment in Berlin: Why I Wish I Had Used Relocation Services When Moving to Germany by Expat Empire

Finding an Apartment in Berlin – moving to Germany, I was well aware of the reputation of government workers for being cold towards outsiders. I figured that if I had my things in order and was showing myself enthusiastic, polite, and prepared that I would be treated normally in trying to enter German society. Well, that wasn’t true for everybody. In my last post, I wrote about how one immigration official nearly torpedoed my entire plan of living in Germany, then pretended it was all my fault.

The experiences I had living in Berlin and dealing with unnecessary bureaucracy have been character-building experiences, to say the least. I struggled to get Internet access hooked up in my new apartment and it ended up taking 4 months while I was jumping through hoops and spending money in cafes just to stay connected. After I took over my apartment from the previous tenant, I wasn’t aware that I had to go through the drawn-out process of registering my name for the utilities. It ended with my electricity getting shut off during winter and some staggering €1,000+ fines to get things going again.

Getting Settled: The Struggle of Hunting for an Apartment in Berlin

The way I found my first apartment in Berlin is also one of mind-numbing bureaucracy and careless authority figures. It started in the right direction, again because one of my company’s apartments was available for a few months so I could plant my feet on the ground. This turned out to be a huge benefit, since so many tasks you need to complete in Germany require a verified home address. This includes major things such as setting up a bank account in addition to applying for a residence permit.

Any expat who has relocated to Berlin in the past few years can tell you about how crazy Berlin’s housing market is. In September 2021, Berliners voted in a referendum to expropriate properties owned by large corporations and convert them to public ownership. Back in 2016, it was getting increasingly expensive to rent an apartment in Berlin and that trend has only continued. For several reasons, I lucked out on both of my apartments in Berlin: the company apartment and the one I took over from a colleague.

Apartments in Berlin
Apartments in Berlin

Constant Headaches: The Horror of Trying to Communicate With My Landlord

Even if you find a good apartment that you want to apply for, getting the landlord to simply communicate with you may also become an arduous task. One of my colleagues from my new company decided to move back to her home country, so she needed to break her lease early. Luckily, I wanted to move into a long-term apartment by the day after her flight out of the country, so we discussed how I could take over her lease. This would get her off the hook for further rent payments and enable me to keep the same rental terms that she had agreed to, which were lower than the quickly increasing average rent in Berlin at that time. Since most German apartments come unfurnished, it was a blessing that she also wanted to sell me her already-made furniture at a discount to avoid having to spend thousands more on brand-new furnishings.

Despite our best efforts, the landlord proved herself to be hard to reach for anything I needed right from the get-go. My colleague had contacted the landlord and sent in the written notice by postal mail that she wanted to leave the apartment and cut her lease early, but the landlord did not acknowledge her contact for a few months. This started our process on the wrong foot and slowed us down significantly. Once I gathered my bank statements, work contract, and other relevant documents, I sent my application to the landlord in order to take over the lease, but it took weeks of pestering the landlord to review my application. She did not speak English and rarely returned emails. Her office was also only open for limited business hours two days per week, so trying to get through on the phone to speak in German was a fool’s errand. She even lived in an entirely different area of Germany, so trying to appear in person would not have been possible. In the end, I was just one of many prospective tenants for properties that her company owned around the country and felt the increasing pressure of trying to do everything myself as a new arrival to the German capital.

At the end of November, just as my time in the company apartment was ending, the landlord was keeping me hanging regarding her decision. I didn’t know if it would come through until the last minute, which left me frantically trying to contact her and looking into Plan B, C, and D options in case everything fell through. Literally two days before I needed to leave the company’s apartment, I tracked her down and she finally approved my application so I could move in. I can’t describe the relief I felt when I received that approval notice and was sure I would stay in that apartment for as long as possible to avoid having to go through this painful process again. 

Getting around in Berlin

Navigating A Different System: I Didn’t Know How Much Help I Needed

Another facet of apartment hunting that was lost in translation for me was the fact that I’d need to thoroughly check the apartment and take a detailed inventory myself to have the landlord agree to and sign. I was used to checking for issues like cracks in the walls, a leaky sink, or a broken floorboard with a realtor or landlord in person and simply paying a security deposit. Though nothing serious happened during the time I was in the apartment, I would have been on the hook for any “damage” that I may have incurred. The next person who moved in after me was a German citizen and was much more thorough in pointing out issues. Unlike me, this renter was much better prepared to avoid unnecessary charges at the end of his lease. 

Looking back at those three years I spent in the German capital, I can see a few things rather clearly. A relocation service would have helped me find apartments and negotiate with landlords. They would have helped me understand how precise I should be when inspecting the apartment for issues. They would have helped me understand the lease agreement and translate any concerns or questions I would’ve had. 

Beyond just rental assistance, a relocation service would have been there with me as I set up the utilities in my apartment. I would have completely avoided those ridiculous late fees and probably would have achieved a comfortable lifestyle in Berlin much sooner. I would have definitely saved myself money and lots of worry about my situation. I certainly learned from this experience because when my wife and I moved to Portugal in 2019 – we didn’t hesitate to work with a relocation company to get settled as quickly and painlessly as possible. These relocation services made all the difference.

On the ground in Berlin

Avoiding My Mistakes and Making the Right Choices for Your Move Abroad

I founded Expat Empire in order to help future expats achieve their dreams of moving abroad. All of the tough times that I’ve been through since moving abroad permanently in 2014 have helped me develop my expertise as well as compassion for helping others going through the stresses of moving abroad. As the company has grown, we have added team members from around the globe that have each lived in many different countries, each with their own failures and successes. 

If you’re interested in moving abroad and you’re not exactly sure how to get started, we’re happy to help get you started. Our wide range of services will help you build the life abroad you’ve always dreamed of!

As the founder of Expat Empire, David McNeill is focused on inspiring people to move abroad and showing them how to do it. David started Expat Empire because he has a genuine passion for living abroad. He left the United States in 2014 and has since lived in Tokyo, Berlin, and Porto.