Schaffe Schaffe Häusle Baue

That’s nice thick Swabian for “work and work to build a house”. The Swabians are probably the most home-owning obsessed of the Germans, and even here, I’m not even sure that the majority of people live in their own property. Continental Europe in general is very different than the Anglo-Saxon world in terms of property ownership. Most Europeans prefer to rent, usually apartments near a city. Property ownership here is just not as popular, and people (hopefully) invest their money elsewhere. Our adventures with finding a home to buy took ages, then we gutted and completely renovated the darn thing. On the topic of Handwerker (a lovely catch-all term referring to builders, electricians, painters, plumbers, etc.) alone, I’m sure I could fill pages… but I’ll spare you (for now!)

In a rental property, as various other blog posts here have referred to, you get the walls and floor and ceiling and a functioning bathroom when you move in. Light fixtures, window coverings (except for external shades, Rollladen), and kitchens must typically be provided by the tenant. Many Germans have told me that it’s obvious why renters should buy and install their own kitchen: it is such a personal thing. Really? In a rental? Hm, along those lines I would assume a toilet and sink might be equally personal, yet those are included. I digress. The point is, most rentals are pretty bare when you move in and unless you are handy with installing light fixtures and building and installing kitchen appliances, you’ll probably need some help.

This obsession with personalizing rental property must be connected to the fact that Germans don’t move often. They find an apartment, install their kitchen and ceiling lamps, and then stay there a good long time. (and who wouldn’t, after all that work?!) It is common for tenants to stay most of their adult lives, and the laws protecting renters in Germany are very strong. The downside to this long-term housing affair is that the turnover in property, even rental property, is low. You can imagine that if a German actually owns a house and has installed his kitchen and light fixtures in it, that he is even less likely to move out. And you would be right.

When Germans buy a home, they typically plan to stay in it for most of the rest of their lives. There is no concept of the “starter home” that young couples will buy and fix up, live in for a few years until their salaries increase, and then upgrade to something in a better neighborhood, or something larger, or somewhere in a good school district. There are just homes, and the turnover in the homes is so painfully low that the market is incredibly tight for buyers.

Those of us who learned about supply and demand in high school economics class would simply deduce that prices go up accordingly, since the demand for houses by yuppie types is actually quite high in the cities, but the availability is low. The pragmatic Germans surprise me here as well. They are unwilling to invest more in a property than its square-meter value would indicate, unwilling to get engaged in bidding wars, and generally very down-to-earth given the potential opportunities in such a seller’s market; it’s as if the buyers refuse to allow it to become that. Those who want to make an initial investment in property generally need either time and luck or a generous relative. The generous relative will help them over the financial hurdles of buying property – most houses on the market are well out of the range of adults early in their careers. Those with a good amount of time to invest in researching and viewing properties and a little bit of luck in the end, can also end up with one of the few affordable places. If you have the funds to buy a house at the top end of the market, you have plenty to choose from and less competition.

For my west-coast American standards, it was very difficult to come to terms with what you can get for your money here. This is Germany: it is crowded, there are 80 million people in a country not quite as big as Oregon and Washington put together (which together have about 8 million people). The entire country is a bit like one big park, and all those people have to live somewhere. Entire neighborhoods and housing complexes are designed with the sole purpose of packing as many families onto as few square meters as possible. The current standard Reihenhaus (row house or terraced house) is not much more than a flat-roofed box containing all the rooms deemed necessary for families:  entry level: kitchen, living room, dining area, guest half-bath; upper levels: 3 bedrooms and one bathroom; basement: laundry room, utilities room, storage. Little thought goes into making the spaces architecturally interesting to live in or to look at. I had a hard time imagining investing my money in a cookie-cutter house that I couldn’t connect with. We did the alternative, and bought an old house that needed lots of work. Lots. We’re still working on it, in fact. The area I did find that builds loads of houses for the middle class in a style that I could have loved, was Schleswig-Holstein. They have plenty of lovely brick homes on larger lots that would have suited me very well. Unfortunately we don’t have jobs there…

When you buy a house or an apartment in Germany, you sign a contract and set a date for a visit to the public notary. The final sale contract is negotiated and signed in front of the notary, and is sent to the city for the public records. Sometimes the process may include signing an intent to purchase, paying a small deposit of a few hundred euro, then arranging financing. With the financing prepared, you can then show the notary that you can afford the purchase, and only then is the sale approved.

The best resource for finding property in Germany is the website It has properties for rent and for sale, in all cities across Germany, and has a powerful set of filters to help you find exactly what you are looking for. Real estate agents here are typically small firms, or self-employed individuals. They get a cut from the buyer and the seller. If an agent helps you find a rental place, you will also be paying about 2 months’ rent in location fees.

One thing about real estate is universal, and that is moving day. There are moving companies (and the ones I have experienced in Germany are so professional!) to do the heavy lifting, you are left with loads of boxes to unpack and furniture to arrange. And you call your friends to come and help, then order pizza and serve beer after a long day moving into your new place.

Hope you remembered to install a few light fixtures before the sun goes down.


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