Houses, Condos, Apartments
Schöner Wohnen (“living more beautifully”) is a popular German house and garden magazine. (Web: schoener-wohnen.de) Like Americans, most Germans dream of living in their own house with a beautiful lawn and garden. “Schaffe, schaffe, Häusle baue,” (“Work, work, build your little house.”) goes the old Swabian saying. However, Germans often find this dream more difficult to fulfill than Americans. A house in Germany, Austria, or Switzerland is a very expensive dream. The average cost of land and construction is double or triple that in the United States. Add to this a much larger down payment of between 30 and 50 percent, and you can see why most Germans live in apartments or condominiums. Only 42 percent of Germans own their own home, compared to 65 percent in the US and 69 percent in the UK. But then Germany was able to avoid the major mortgage crisis that first hit the US, the UK, Spain and many other countries in 2008.
In or around almost any German city, you will see the rows of Wohnsilos (residential towers), the tall and usually Spartan-looking apartment towers that dominate the cityscape, and were mostly constructed in recent decades to provide the higher quality housing that Germans expect today. Lacking the charm of traditional European architecture, these utilitarian living units most often resemble the unexciting condos and apartments that can be found all over Europe and the world. Built in response to a chronic lack of housing, these towers are usually located in what are termed “satellite towns” at the edges of the city.
Airing out the house or flat (Lüftung)
Due to the different method of heating German homes and apartments, it is much more important to air out your residence than in the US. With the exception of “steam heat” in New York City and some other urban centers, most houses and apartments in the US have a forced-air heating (and cooling) system that circulates air throughout the living spaces and keeps it fairly dry, sometimes too dry, especially in the winter.
But German residences are almost always heated by hot-water or electric radiant heat, not forced air. During the winter, when the apartment or house is closed up most of the time, the interior humidity level rises and the moisture can cause mold (Schimmel) to grow on walls, behind shelves, and in other areas. That’s why Germans have learned to open up the windows and outside doors on a regular basis, even in the coldest winter months, to air out (lüften) their residence. Some households air out the home daily or even twice a day – in the morning after rising and at night before going to bed. The minimum is twice a week. Allow at least 10 to 15 minutes or longer, depending on the weather outside. Unless it’s windy, it’s usually not enough to just tilt open the windows. Open them up all the way!
Expats who don’t observe this airing-out custom in Germany usually learn to regret it. Most Germans also have a digital thermometer with a hygrometer (humidity meter) so they can keep track of the interior relative humidity. Learn from them!
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German Bettzeug (BET-tsoyk) or bedding is also a bit different from what Anglo-Americans are used to. Instead of sheets and blankets, Germans sleep under a Federbett, or down comforter that lies atop a mattress covered with a fabric that is often more like terry cloth than a linen sheet. On cold nights, the German Federbett is ideal—very cozy and snug. But in the summer, on warm nights, the down comforter is too warm, and your choice is either to sleep without any cover or to sweat under the Federbett. If you want a top sheet or light blanket, you usually have to get your own. Fortunately, the German climate is generally on the cool side, so most of the time the Federbett is a good idea. Traditionally, the down comforter was hung out over a windowsill or a balcony rail each morning to air. You will still often see white Bettzeug hanging from German apartment windows in the morning hours.
Long Wash Times
Beware! When you push the start button on a German clothes washer (Waschmaschine), it may not complete its entire wash cycle for up to two hours! Shorter settings are usually possible, but the standard wash program is much longer than in the US. One more thing: While a washer/dryer combo is usual in the US, in Germany many homes have no dryer. That’s what the drying rack is for.
Although some newer homes have built-in closets, it is more common to see a Kleiderschrank (KLY-der-schrahnk), a free-standing wood cabinet with doors that serves as a closet. A Kleiderschrank may be sleekly modern or rustically traditional in design, depending on its owner’s tastes.
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The kitchen (die Küche)
The Küche or kitchen in a German, Austrian, or Swiss home is usually smaller and more compact than its US counterpart — not only because European homes and apartments themselves tend to be smaller, but also because European kitchen appliances are often smaller and more economical. The kitchen is usually more sleek and modern in style than a typical American one, with a contemporary, European look. (See photo below.)
German appliances have a reputation for being solid and reliable. A German dishwasher, oven or range is of high quality and often outperforms its US equivalent. A typical German refrigerator (Kühlschrank) used to be about half the size of an American one, but in recent times a full-size refrigerator is very common.
If you are planning to buy or rent a German apartment, be aware that it usually comes with a “bare” kitchen. “Bare” is indeed the right word. Your new kitchen may be nothing more than four bare walls with roughed-in plumbing and electrical connections—even the kitchen sink may be missing! In addition, many residences are sold without any light fixtures.
The German word Küche also means cooking or cuisine. Deutsche Küche means German cuisine.
Most German (and European) apartments, condos and houses have no built-in closets or storage space. Only in some newer residences will you find closets as part of the construction, but often not even in newer homes.
So what do Germans and other Europeans do to store clothing and other items? They buy furniture!
A typical German bedroom has an item of furniture called a Kleiderschrank or Garderobe, which is a clothing cabinet or wardobe. A Schrank in German is any kind of cabinet, whether used as a wardrobe, a pantry, or a cupboard. These standard German items of furniture come in many styles, from ultramodern to antique. The cost depends on the material, craftsmanship and other factors, but it is a cost you might have to pay. Besides no light fixtures, your new flat or house may not have any cabinets at all. The former owners or tenants usually keep them when they move out.
The toilet (die Toilette)
Traditionally, the Toilette in a German, Austrian or Swiss home was almost always in its own room (das Örtchen), all by itself. It was separate from the bathroom (das Bad), which was strictly for bathing, washing, shaving, etc. Then came a new trend known as das amerikanische Badezimmer, the American bathroom, in which everything was in a single room, American style. The type of bathroom you get (German or American) usually depends on the age of the building.
In any case, a German toilet, especially a modern one, is a marvel to behold. It usually has a water tank built into the tiled wall, out of sight, with the toilet itself cantilevered from the wall. (See photo.) The flush button is also often built into the wall, offering a two-way option: Less water to flush for number one, more water for number two. Very environmentally friendly. Even older toilets with an exposed tank, such as in public restrooms, offer this flush option, with the button on top of the tank.
Next to the toilet there is always a toilet brush in a holder, ready for use should any residue be left after you flush. When you’re a guest at someone’s house, it’s considered courteous to use the brush, if needed. That’s why it’s there.
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