A place called home: flat-hunting in Hamburg

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Just one example of the gorgeous quiet residential streets you can easily find in the city

In a recent post concerning the probable order of your setup in Hamburg, I set out that Flat hunting was going to come after you obtain your Anmeldung and Schufa. Given that the Lovely One already has the latter, we were able to start our house hunt earlier than anticipated, and I‘m happy to report we are now the proud tenants of a lovely flat in Rotherbaum (not pictured cos it‘s my flat and you‘re not invited!).

I’m fully aware that house and flat-hunting is the bit which a lot of people struggle with when moving to Hamburg, because it’s a very different system to the UK. In fact, it’s a bit more transparent and open, but the set up is designed to make you feel a bit like you’re participating in the Hunger Games.

Step 1: Find a flat you want to see

This is easy enough – there are a few websites which come recommended:

  • Immoscout 24 – allows you to search by area, it is more expensive to advertise on for sellers so has a certain “premium cachet”, but is by far the biggest player in the German marketplace. Kind of your Rightmove for Germany, if you will. 
  • ImmoNet – Running hard on the heels of Immoscout, this has a smaller selection but has a really great app and website with the ability to search by map view which can be great when you’re in the early stages of looking for a new home and want to suss out different areas. 
  • Immowelt – A further option for places for let. 
  • WG-Gesucht – more useful for searching for flatshares, sublets and short-term stays, but has a better reputation for students and temporary workers. Can work in a pinch if you’re searching for *anything* pretty fast. 

A couple of things to note: 

  • House prices are described as “Kalt” (cold, I.e. without council, water and energy bills incorporated into the price) or “Warm” (warm, I.e. with those costs). Often both prices will be shown, just be aware that you will be obliged to pay the warm price, it’s not indicative. 
  • Unfurnished flats often come without fitted kitchens, fridge/freezers, lighting and/or washing machines. Some may not even have ovens or hobs. Literally there will be a room which is the kitchen room – often identifiable by the sink or the water pipes. Check the listing carefully and if it’s not clear, ask before the viewing. You’ll need to think about the cost of this before agreeing a move-in date.
  • Similarly, you may need to pay extra for any underground or off-street parking options, if that’s something you need to consider. 
  • On the upside, most if not all flats come with use of dedicated lockable storage space in the cellar as standard, creating more room for you to store things like little-used items, drinks or household items and tools. 
  • Finally, floor space estimates for flats will include any outdoor balcony spaces, so if the flat is on the small side from the description and has a balcony, be warned it may be pretty petite!

**Scambusters** – pretty universally, the advice to those moving to Hamburg is never agree to a long-term rent online and/or without seeing the place first. As described below, the process for renting a home usually involves a few crucial steps and it’s likely that someone very keen to let you have an entire flat without checks or meeting you is going to take your money and run. If you’re moving, Airbnb is a great option in the early days or you can search corporate lets or WG-Gesucht for temporary stays and/or sublets while you search for a longer-term option. 

Step 2: ask for permission to see the flat

The casual observer will ask themselves “why the heck is Lewishambles describing this as permission rather than an appointment?” The answer, dear heart, is that you do not simply “make an appointment” in this city. You don’t simply “pop by after work to get the flat sorted,” babes. 

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Of course, sometimes you do, and that’s lovely. However in a majority of instances you’ll be asked to supply some basic details about yourself in order that the agent can assess if you’re even worth letting into the viewing pool. For example, some landlords don’t want people with pets, students or unemployed people renting from them, and this step will be used to screen out people who don’t have a chance at this early stage. You’ll be asked your name, age and occupation as well as your income level under some circumstances. 

**Scambusters** – think carefully before handing over super-private information/documentation about yourself at this stage, such as ID, copy certificates etc, especially if it’s a private landlord. You can be expected to provide basic details about yourself such as saying whether or not you’re in receipt of benefits etc but you shouldn’t be asked to provide your documents and/or credit details at this early point.

If you pass the entry-level criteria, you’ll be sent some options for a viewing. Often you’ll be asked to phone to make an appointment, and you should try to follow the instructions where you can. 

At this point there is often the opportunity to make a good impression if it’s an agent. For example, we happened to get an email asking us to make an appointment and were opposite the relevant branch of the agents. We popped in, and while we didn’t meet the agent in question, her charming colleague told us that it was lovely that we stopped by and invited us to send our details regarding what we were looking for and our budget to her colleague, who was out of the office when we called. She explained that the office kept the contact details of flathunters they knew and often called them first before flats went on the market. We sent a nice email and got confirmation later that day that we were on their list PLUS an invitation for another viewing which wasn’t posted online yet. It’s not the same for every agent but if you strike up a rapport, do see if it might work for you. 

Another top tip and the one which worked for us was to prepare a detailed description of ourselves in our “application email” which made clear what our personal circumstances were but were clear on what we could provide if required, including proof of savings, deposit and Schufa, despite our unfortunate status as Aussengelender. This persuaded the agent who was prepared to do a one to one viewing for us which was brilliant. 

Once you have an appointment, all you need do is make sure you arrive on time!

NB – remember to take a pen and something to write against for the viewing. You’ll see why later. 

Step 3: view the flat 

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Actual shot from one of our viewings. There were 8 people in the living area EXCLUDING the agent and owner.

This is the true arena-thunderdome-deathmatch moment. You see, you thought you’d be setting up an appointment to see this place one on one, didn’t you? You thought your carefully-crafted application was to let you through the front door whereby you were at your leisure to decide if you wanted to live in this flat/house/deathtrap? 

YOU THOUGHT WRONG. 

What actually often happens is that you and 4-12 other interested parties all see the flat at the same time. You have around 10 min to see the property, charm the agent and the owner (who is often present for the showing) and find out all you need to before the next step. Sometimes you’ll get to see a place one on one – but don’t treat this as a done deal. You are still the one being tested and if it’s a one-on-one viewing then the reason is that the agent and/or owner is keen on asking YOU questions about yourself. 

It sounds awful, but this step is a viewing you as much as of the property. Your appearance, your approach to the property. How you speak and act. If your German is good  and your appearance clean and respectable, you stand a better chance of standing out for the right reasons. Particularly if you’re in a crowd of people. 

The expat facebook groups tell of wearing smart clothing to make a good impression, taking along German-speaking relatives, bosses and friends to ensure clarity of communication and asking the right questions in the right manner. I’ve even heard of people taking along an introduction letter with pictures of their families if their German isn’t too hot, so that the agent can see the smiling faces later on. Make sure you charm both the agent and the owner if both are there. They’re looking to choose the right tenant and you are there on show as much as the flat is! 

**Some German etiquette hints which will almost certainly assist during this step: 

  1. It’s a tiresome cliche, but it’s true that most Germans are direct and straightforward. Whether asking or answering a question, be direct, or you may look like you’re dissembling or being shifty. I.e. if you’re asked a question about what date you can move in, give an actual date, or say that you’re flexible around particular dates. Don’t say “it depends” – it won’t make you look flexible, you’ll look flaky. 
  2. Always offer to take off your shoes before you enter. Most Germans have a horror of outdoor shoes in the house. 
  3. Be on time. Agents will not appreciate waiting around for you, especially if they’ve managed to stagger appointments for you. 
  4. Try and get the balance right on the chit-chat. Too many questions apparently can make you look like a difficult tenant, whereas few/no questions means you risk being unmemorable or looking like you don’t want the place. Impossible advice, I know, but something that a lot of sources mentioned, so bear it in mind!

Step 4: apply for opportunity to rent the flat 

Once you’ve checked that the flat is to your liking, you notify your intent to make an offer by filling in a short application form, often while you’re still at the viewing. Make sure you have your pen handy. The forms will make it easier for prospective landlords to weed out the wheat from the chaff, so make sure you plan beforehand what’s going on the form. 

The form will ask for your name, details and occupation and monthly income. It’s important you make sure it’s clear what you do on the form and that you show yourself in the in the best light. For example, explaining the business you work for rather than just „secretary“ or „project manager.“ DO. NOT. LIE – you‘re likely to be asked to provide evidence for your claims on this form (i.e. the details of your employer etc.), so any failure to provide the relevant document will embarrass you later on and likely cause the loss of the flat. 

However, feel free to ensure you put yourself in the best light. If you’re new to Hamburg and seeking employment do put your qualifications – as it makes it clear you’re seeking a particular role as opposed to just any old job.

You’ll often be asked to set out your monthly income. If you’ve not yet got a job, this can be a stressful thing as you’ll panic and be like “I don’t have an income!!!” Again, DO. NOT. LIE. You can set out any savings you have to provide reassurance that you’re able to pay the rent, if this is relevant, or potentially the names of guarantors, again if relevant. If you don’t have the ability to prove you have means of funding yourself (I.e. bank statements etc), don’t say that you do. However it’s useful to be prepared to provide evidence of your savings in lieu of an actual job to try and improve your chances, if you’re able to do this.

In addition, you’ll be asked when you can make the move. If the flat you’re seeing is immediately available, make sure you don’t try to leave it a month or so before the move-in, because time is money and a lot of landlords will want someone who is available straight away. If you’re flexible on move-in dates, say so, but be clear about the earliest you can actually move in. 

Step 5: sign contracts, hand over money

If you are the successful candidate, you’ll get the email or call from the agent and be asked to start the process of checks and provision of details. Don’t delay on this step, as they likely have a number of backups to move to if you start looking like you’re not the best option. We found that out about 2 weeks after we saw one place in Eimsbuttel. We’d already forgotten about it when out of nowhere we got a message asking us if we still wanted it, and that the contracts were ready to go that day if we wanted! We smelled a rat and asked if we were the first couple called – turned out that the first choice had failed to provide their Schufa and the landlord had rejected them at the last minute. The agent was desperately ringing around seeing if anyone else on the “list” still wanted it. 

**Scam-buster** – don’t agree to make any payments until the contracts are signed, and the keys in your possession if possible. One of the scams I’ve been made aware of is described below: 

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Then, prepare to move!

The key to winning the Hunger Games of House-Hunting

Everyone I’ve spoken to has agreed that flat-hunting in Hamburg is a matter of patience and luck, as well as the ability to be flexible with your times and dates for viewing. In a market like this, good homes are hard to find and you’ll need to be prepared for disappointment before you strike it lucky. 

Apparently, this system is not unlike the way it works at the moment in Sydney and other Australian cities, so game away, fellow competitors. We were pretty lucky in that we were not operating in the most competitive cost brackets (be prepared for a LOT of flat viewings if you want a 2-bed place for less than EUR1000 p/month) and had the good fortune to find an agent who prefers one to one viewings. 

When we finally heard the good news I was BESIDE myself – because it’s hard, it sucks and it can sap a lot of your energy. I can only advise that you persevere, keep your chin up and avoid negativity. And in addition, keep an open mind. Some of the best places we saw were ones which we didn’t have the highest expectations of, and we were amazed at what you can get fairly close to the centre of the city. 

I speak as someone with a lot of privilege here, having rented in the frankly vicious London market and having learned a lot from it. All I can say is that while London is tough in terms of what you can afford, at least there’s lots out there, and the challenge is totally different as a result. In Hamburg the opportunities are fewer, so lots of people are out there chasing the same flats. If you’re still searching, my best wishes to you. May the odds be ever in your favour. 

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