The friends we left behind in London all had one thing in common – their desire to get themselves on the property ladder. Had we stayed I suspect we would have started hunting around for somewhere to buy in just the same way. It is simply what you do when you’re a young professional in the UK and if you don’t you worry you’re going to be left behind, you’ve not made it, that you’re destined to be one of those unsuccessful people who only ever rents a flat.
What a surprise then to move to Germany where being ‘only’ tenants instead of homeowners does not come with such class associations. That Germany has the lowest rate of homeownership in the EU has been written about elsewhere on this blog. What I am interested in here, is how this phenomenon effects the experience as an expat of first finding a flat to rent and then living in a rented flat in Germany in contrast to the experience in the UK.
The British high street is swarming with estate agents. Windows brimming with photos captioned ‘a two-bed, modern fitted bathroom, wooden floored period conversion’ nestle between Starbucks, Tesco Metros (a ubiquitous UK supermarket chain) and charity shops. Yet when I cast my mind’s eye over the familiar streets of Berlin, I am pushed to think of even one. This would suggest that property hunting is not such a predominant part of the German national psyche as it is in the UK.
When I first lived in Berlin as a student – now over 10 years ago – I found my room in a WG (Wohngemeinschaft – shared flat) by ripping off a phone number from a paper advert hanging on the noticeboard in the language school I was attending. I rang the number, was shown round the flat by one of my would-be roommates and an hour later the room was mine. Given the number of adverts you still see stuck on lampposts and pinned on boards in various university institutions it seems that there are plenty of students in Berlin who still find the place to rest their head in this particular way.
For individuals, couples or families in Germany looking to rent not just a room but an entire flat the chances are these days that they will find themselves hunting on the internet; the biggest portal for which is immobilienscout24.de. This had its practical advantages when making an international move: we could easily flat hunt from our settee in London, though my other half did have to be present in Berlin to attend a few viewings in person and sign our names on the ‘we want to live here’ application form. Luckily he was working here in Berlin half of each week at the time.
These collective viewings – a specific time when the flat is shown to everyone who is interested in living there – and which he (and anyone who hopes to rent a flat, at least in Berlin) was obliged to attend, mark another difference in the experience between flat hunting in the UK and Germany. I had always viewed the flats I had rented in the UK before signing the contract, but invariably on my own or with the person with whom I would be sharing the flat. We would be accompanied by the respective estate agent and we would have arranged a time (usually after work or at lunchtime or on a Saturday morning) which suited us. In Germany, your commitment to the flat from the outset is greater – you make space in your time to see a flat you’re really interested in and request to be considered to be allowed to live there. It is a different type of decision.
Once moved in, our experiences in Germany continued to diverge from those of renting a flat in the UK. We were lucky that our flat had a fitted kitchen (something we specifically looked for – again written about in detail elsewhere in this blog), so we didn’t find ourselves making a mad dash to Ikea for cupboards, but we did have to buy ourselves a dishwasher, washing machine and light fittings – this felt like enough of an investment of time, money and effort to get the sense that renting is not considered the same ‘short-term’ option as it is in the UK.
The attitude of our neighbours equally came as a surprise. (Now here I can only compare London with Berlin, and not the UK and Germany more generally, as this may really be a big city thing.) We consider ourselves relatively friendly types, and have always made an effort on moving to a new property whether in London or in Germany to invite our new neighbours over for some tasty nibbles and a glass of something palatable. Though universally well-received, the immediate reaction in London of the people next door or in the same building was invariably one of surprise – it is not the expected thing – and we have rarely, if ever, been invited to another such event. In Berlin, by contrast, our neighbours were falling over themselves to invite us round for a cup of coffee. New neighbours who have subsequently moved into the building have always organised a little get-together with the most impressive spreads. Here, it appears, people invest time in their neighbours just as they invest time in screwing in the old light fittings – they are planning on being here for a while.
I don’t know which is better. The English girl in me still worries that we are not yet seriously considering buying somewhere. I enjoy knowing my neighbours, but I’d rather not have to always bring the washing machine with me. It all depends on what you want really.