Not even the kitchen sink

Apartment or house hunting in Germany can dramatically reveal some of the more important cultural differences between the US and Germany. One of them is what I call the “four bare walls” tradition.

When prospective buyers or tenants are house or apartment hunting, they may look at places that are still occupied and have full furnishing. Even if the real estate agent tells them that the furnishings aren’t included, inexperienced buyers may be totally shocked when they later discover exactly what that means in Germany. They open the door to their new abode, walk in, and… gasp! Not only are the walls bare, even the light fixtures are missing! Moving on to the kitchen, they see only roughed-in plumbing and electrical outlets. There’s not even a sink, much less cabinets, counters or a refrigerator!

Not knowing this German real estate fact of life can be a big problem. I once spoke with a young American lady in Germany who told me that she had to wash her dishes in the bathroom sink for several weeks before she was able get a kitchen (and sink) installed in her new home. Not only that, in the evening she had to do the dishes by candlelight until she got lighting installed in the bathroom. That is true culture shock!

Only about 42 percent of Germans own their own home. (The lowest rate in the EU.) The other 58 percent are renters. (Only 12 percent of Berliners own the house or flat they live in.) In the US and Britain the own/rent ratio is approximately the reverse of Germany, although the recent mortgage meltdown may change those figures a lot. German housing can be expensive and home buyers need a down payment of 50 percent or more, which is why they have lower home ownership rates – and why they did not have a mortgage crisis like the ones in the US and Britain.

Actually, this “four bare walls” phenomenon is a European, not just a German custom. The same thing happens in other European countries. It is possible to get a furnished home or flat in Germany, but that is rare. You should always assume that the furnishings, even the kitchen and lighting fixtures, are not included – unless other specific arrangements have been made. Make sure both the seller and buyer clearly understand what is included or not included in the purchase. A good real estate agent who deals with foreigners should take care of this, but the ultimate responsibility is yours.

A few other items to consider:

Flooring is usually safe, but carpeting may not be. However, German homes and flats are less likely to have wall-to-wall carpeting than in the US and Britain. Tile, parquet and wooden flooring is more popular, and more permanent.

Closets are rare in German housing. Only some new housing features real closets. Much more common is the Garderobe (wardrobe), a piece of cabinetry that stands in the bedroom to serve as a closet. Plan on buying wardrobe cabinets for each bedroom.