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Saturday, July 13, 2024

Why everyone in rents in Germany

I’ve moved house. One of the more humiliating experiences, I find, is walking through an empty, well-kept flat alongside a facility manager who inspects it and points to three minor spots in a corner behind the door, condescendingly asking you to smooth them out evenly with paint.

Eagle-eyed, he then discovers four tiny drill holes in the balcony wall, raises an eyebrow, informs me that drilling in the outdoor section of the building is strictly prohibited and I should fill them before leaving. My mother’s advice (“use toothpaste, dear”) didn’t work, my red-blue-white Colgate wasn’t a match for the grey mortar tile gaps. I left them unfilled and now live in fear of the consequences.

With that one gone my partner and I now have two flats left, one in Hamburg, one in Berlin. Naturally, we don’t own them. We are German (i.e. stupidly lazy when it comes to real estate) and Germany has the lowest home ownership quota (around 45%) in the EU. OECD-wide only the Swiss own less property, although I suspect they have secretly drilled hideaway cave-chalets-bunkers into the Alps.

Why the lack of real estate? Multiple reasons: The threshold to get a mortgage is big and the banks demand a lot by way of security. The same German banks fueled the financial crisis, happily relying on mortgage-backed-securities in the US (if you remember the Florida stripper in The Big Short, you know what I mean), but back home they strip you for financial guarantees. Plus: Interest charges in Germany are tax deductible if you rent out a house or flat, but not if you live in it.

Secondly, Germany has a very well-functioning rental system. Naturally there are extremes of hyper-trendy inner-city hotspots and deserted countryside villages. But generally, renting is the affordable, easy option.

Footnote: Instead of building more flats the local, not-just-bordering-on-socialism Berlin senate forced landlords into lowering above average rents. With the constitutional court ruling on this still pending, well-off columnists such as myself – in 15 minutes’ walking distance from Brandenburg Gate – now pay 300 euros less per month. But even before that: what our two spacious, centrally located apartments in Germany’s two largest cities cost is laughable by UK standards. Together, what we pay for them would probably pay for a damp bedsit in Hackney.

Third reason: Tenancy law in Germany is tenant’s law. You can terminate a contract with three months notice. Your landlord cannot. There are fewer than a handful of legal ways for a landlord to throw you out and end a tenancy. If, for instance, rent hasn’t been paid for a lengthy period of time, if the tenant is secretly subletting, or the owner wants to use the place for his or her family or can prove that not being allowed to renovate it would be an unfair discrimination. In case you wonder: Fixed term tenancy agreements are only allowed under very strict conditions and are thus extremely rare.

So the majority of Germans enjoy the safety of a home without actually owning one – with the powerful tenant association Deutscher Mieterbund carefully watching over them. It comes at a cost though. An Englishman’s home may well be his castle. In Germany this proverb has no equivalent, as a castle surely has no Hausordnung – the set of rules instructing you of the expected behaviour for residents.

We Germans do – sometimes pages of it, in small print, telling you to not leave kids unsupervised, to air your flat regularly, to observe quiet periods, and on and on it goes.

Until the 1990s, these binding regulations would even ban running a bath after 10pm. One Hausordnung stated I wasn’t allowed to hang the washing or a duvet out on the balcony (What would ze neighbours say?! Zis isn’t Italy!) – and given that it was a very windy 12th floor flat above the river Rhine I had no intention to do so. But I will run a bath now, after 11pm, if only to annoy my upstairs neighbour who hasn’t observed the Hausordnung’s quiet period from 1-3pm, on numerous occasions.

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