2015 ushered in new laws and regulations in Germany. Our overview of new things that expats and travelers need to know also reveals a lot about daily life and customs in Germany.
If you drive a car, use public transportation, rent a place, watch TV, take out the trash, get paid in euros, or use the post office in Germany, there are changes that can affect all expats and travelers. We’ll start with one of the more bizarre things that the new year introduced to German law and life (and it’s not the precipitous fall of the euro).
A Tenant’s Right to Pee Standing Up
Okay, you think I’m kidding, but this is Germany, and they don’t kid about renters’ rights – or most other things for that matter. On January 15, 2015 a judge in Düsseldorf ruled in a case brought by a tenant against his landlord. The landlord had withheld €1,900 of the tenant’s €3,000 deposit to pay for marble-floor damage that he claimed was caused by the male tenant’s careless urination. He even had an expert witness testify that the renter’s urine did indeed cause the floor damage.
It helps (slightly) to understand the true gravity of this case, if you know that in Germany, Sweden, and some other European countries, men have been under pressure in recent years to sit down to pee, thereby avoiding the horror of splashed urine. Some German men have rebelled, but apparently only women clean toilets in German households, and their husbands or partners seem to be losing this fight – despite the German word Sitzpinkler, an insulting term for men who sit down to pee (pinkeln).
In his decision, judge Stefan Hank stated that despite the increasing “domestication” (Domestizierung) of German men, urinating while standing was still a very common practice. The landlord had failed to inform the tenant in advance that his splattered urine could possibly damage the floor. Therefore, ruled His Honor, the landlord was not entitled to withhold part of the tenant’s deposit to cover the cost of the floor repair. A German judge thus stood up for German masculinity, and against Sitzpinkler.
Who Pays the Maklerprovision?
I have written before about how Germans sometimes do things back-asswards. A prime example: Even though landlords hire real estate agents (brokers, Makler) to get tenants for their property, traditionally (and by law) the landlords have pulled off the neat trick of getting the renters to pay the broker’s commission (Provision), often equal to two months’ rent without utilities, plus tax. Pretty slick, right?
But beginning in the spring of 2015, if a German landlord engages a broker, the landlord has to pay the commission – not the tenant. In other words, the person who hires the agent pays the fee. Logical. But, just when you think the Germans have finally come to their senses in this area – no, they add a special new twist. Under the new law the landlord can recover the cost of the fee either by including it in the rent or by drawing up a contract with the renter for a minimum period of time that makes paying the fee worthwhile for the landlord. Either way, for all practical purposes, the renter still ends up paying the broker fee!
But there is a silver lining. According to the new law, a rental broker contract must always be in writing. Such a contract can no longer be an “implied contract” arising through “schlüssiges Verhalten” (conduct implying intent). In other words, there must be a written contract complying with the provisions of German rental law (WoVerRG, Gesetz zur Regelung der Wohnungsvermittlung). Basically the Germans haven’t really changed who pays, but they did make it more complicated.
MORE > House and Home
Driving and Public Transportation
Car License Plates (Kfz-Kennzeichen)
In the past, someone who moved from Frankfurt to Berlin, say, had to get a new auto license plate – with a B prefix instead of an F. Although some states in Germany already allowed motorists to keep their old plates, this is now permitted Germany-wide (bundesweit).
The catch is that you still have to de-register (abmelden) your vehicle in your old location and re-register (anmelden) it in your new home district. That’s because your residence location affects your insurance premium. The good news: This can now be done online. The bad news: Online re-registration (Ummeldung) only applies to plates registered in 2015 and after that. The new plates and registration certificates now have a special hidden security code for this purpose that older plates don’t have.
Temporary Plates (Kurzzeitkennzeichen)
As of April 1, 2015 the use of temporary plates will be much more limited and more tightly regulated. A Kurzzeitkennzeichen is only valid for up to five days. The temp plates were particularly popular with antique-car (Oldtimer) buyers who wanted to drive their vintage car to a new location, and avoid using a car trailer. All that was required was a verbal assurance that the car was safe to drive. Under the new law, temporary plates will only be issued for vehicles with a valid TÜV safety inspection (Hauptuntersuchung) sticker. The only exception is for a vehicle that is being driven directly to the nearest repair shop or vehicle inspection station.
Speaking of the dreaded TÜV inspection, for 2015 the mandatory vehicle safety inspection in Germany will now include checking the computerized features that many newer cars now have: ABS, ESP, lane-change assistance, or automatic distance/parking sensors. They will be checked out electronically, but there is no TÜV sticker related to testing these features.
First Aid Kit (Verbandskasten)
As of January 1, 2015 the first aid kit (Erste-Hilfe-Set) in your car must have two wet-tissue wipes (Feuchttücher) and a 14-piece set of bandages (Pflasterset). Sets sold in 2014 already meet the new requirements, but you can buy supplementary sets for older kits. It’s also a good time to see if the first aid kit that’s been sitting in your trunk for several years is still ready for an emergency.
Coming in 2016
A proposed general road toll for passenger cars (die Pkw-Maut) in Germany probably won’t go into effect before 2016. That law is still being debated/developed. Will the German saying “freie Fahrt für freie Bürger” (free driving for free citizens) be a thing of the past in 2016? Will Germany follow Austria and Switzerland in charging for driving on the now free autobahn? It’s only a matter of time.
Riding on public transportation in Germany without a ticket is getting more risky. Beginning in the spring of 2015, the fine (Strafgeld) for getting caught on a bus, tram or train without a valid ticket will cost €60.00 instead of the current €40.00. I always thought the €40-euro fine was too low, and now I’m proved right.
German Postal Rates
The cost of mailing a standard letter in Germany remained unchanged for 15 years, until 2013 when the Briefporto (letter postage) rate went up, then again in 2014, and as of January 2015 a stamp for a normal letter (maximum 20 g) went up by two cents to 62 euro cents, about 70 US cents versus 49 cents for first class mail in the USA.
The international letter rate to any country outside Germany is still 80 euro cents. That’s now about 90 US cents, cheaper than the international rate of $1.15 to send a letter overseas from the United States.
MORE > The German Post Office
Radio and TV Fee
Unlike postage stamps, some things are going down in cost – albeit rather modestly. As of April 1, 2015 the German radio and TV fee (Rundfunkbeitrag) that every household in Germany has to pay will drop by 48 euro cents to €17.50. The new fee is supposed to remain unchanged until the end of 2016. The 16 Länder (states) still have to codify this change before it’s official.
The Church Tax (die Kirchensteuer)
The only way to get out of paying the German church tax is to do what many Germans have done: officially register yourself as a member of no religious faith (konfessionslos). Actually neither Catholic nor Protestant, since only the mainstream Christian faiths are subject to the church tax in Germany. Jews, Muslims, and others are exempt. The church tax amounts to nine percent of the income tax due (eight percent in Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg).
The churches can look forward to even more income in 2015. Previously German taxpayers paid the church tax on capital gains by declaring it on their tax return. Following the motto that it is more blessed (for taxpayers) to give than to receive, banks and other financial institutions in Germany will now automatically deduct the church tax on capital gains. They have always withheld the capital gains tax itself, but now banks will also deduct the church tax that applies to capital gains. There is no tax due if the capital gains are €801 or less for single taxpayers, €1602 for married couples or “life-partners.”
The churches realized that not all German taxpayers were being totally honest by declaring the church tax that was due on capital gains, so now the banks will save taxpayers the trouble, making sure the churches get the full amount they are entitled to. The churches may gain an estimated 480 million euros by getting the banks to ensure taxpayers don’t hold out on them. Hallelujah!
MORE > Religion in Germany
Garbage Laws and Regulations
Say auf Wiedersehen to the yellow bin (gelbe Tonne) in 2015. Known for having the most complex waste disposal system in Europe, Germany has finally taken some modest steps to simplify how households separate and dispose of their waste.
The classic yellow bin for waste plastic packaging is being replaced by the new Wertstofftonne (“bin for reusable materials”). Rather than just package waste, the new Wertstofftonne is for waste plastic or metal that can be recycled. (Glass and paper each already have their own separate containers.) This means you no longer have to make a distinction between packaging and other waste, something many Germans did not do well anyway.
Now it is the material that matters, not its purpose. So both a plastic yogurt cup and a broken plastic toy can go into the same bin, the Wertstofftonne. The new trash procedure is supposed to take effect later this year, when the law is finalized, and once communities have adapted to the new system.
Although most cities in Germany already use the Biotonne for organic waste, as of January 1, all communities must have a system in place to collect “bio” waste (food and plant waste) separately from non-organic waste.
MORE > Garbage in, garbage out: Mülltrennung and Eurotrash (GW Expat Blog)
The Euro, the Swiss Franc, and the US Dollar
Will one dollar equal one euro in 2015? “Rip up your euro forecasts” was the first sentence in a Wall Street Journal article (Jan. 24, 2015) with the headline: “Euro’s Slide Stirs Parity Rumblings.” At the top of the page was the Journal’s usual listing of financial indicators, including “OIL $45.49” and “EURO $1.1206” – values that would have sounded insane only a few months earlier. The European Central Bank (ECB), headquartered in Frankfurt, had finally carried out some of its threats.
During the first half of 2014, one euro was equal to about $1.35 USD. In July 2014, responding to a weak European economy, the ECB, and other factors, the euro began a gradual drop against the dollar. By the end of December, it only cost $1.20 to buy a euro.
Then a very odd thing happened – in tiny but reliable Switzerland. On Thursday, January 15, without any warning, the Swiss National Bank broke with its policy of keeping a cap on the euro/franc exchange rate. It announced it would no longer support the Swiss franc against the euro, thereby plunging the euro, the franc, and the international foreign exchange business into turmoil. A day later, Friday, January 16, the euro had dropped to $1.15, and the franc had risen to $1.20 before dropping back to $1.15, on par with the euro. Many forex traders were wiped out, and some FX firms were hit hard.
Such a drastic change in the exchange rate over such a short period of time is so unusual that some traders dubbed the Swiss franc surprise a “black swan” event. In any case, the new-year event sent shock waves around the globe. Currently one Swiss franc (CHF) is worth about one euro (EUR). Some economists were even talking about dollar-euro parity! Only time will tell where the euro, the franc, and the dollar will be at the end of 2015.
MORE > The euro: The story of the euro (der Euro) (with exchange rate calculator)
New Minimum Wage Law
Until this year Germany was one of only seven EU countries without a minimum wage law. On January 1, 2015 the Federal Republic of Germany introduced a nationwide wage floor of €8.50 ($9.50). One reason Germany had no minimum wage was its long tradition of negotiating sector-wide wage agreements between trade unions and employers. The complaints about too many loopholes in the new pay law began in the first week it went into effect.
Correction (28 Jan. 2015): A reader has kindly pointed out that the German church tax is a percentage of the income tax due, not the total income.