Avoiding homelessness in Hamburg

In my last post, I promised to share some of the frustrations involved in finding an apartment here in Hamburg. Even before arriving, I was told to expect difficulties. I thought they may be similar to finding accommodation in London or another big city – maybe too few listings or too much competition… Turns out it is that and more!

So let me explain why apartment-hunting has caused Ian and I to sprout our first grey hairs (not really! …..lemme check). Maybe it will be a useful source of information to someone moving to Germany, might amuse others or inspire some generous soul to set up a sympathetic PayPal in our name….

1. Competition.

There are a lot of people arriving in Hamburg every month or looking to move house, yet there aren’t tons of apartments on the market. With individual rooms, it seems easier; Hamburg has several universities and students are often advertising spare rooms.

When an apartment is advertised, the landlord (or current tenant) gets inundated with messages. You might see thirty “I sent you a private message!” comments on one Facebook post alone, so my friendly little message gets buried under the avalanche. In Hamburg, they have open viewings where a landlord will say “The apartment can be viewed this Sunday between 12-3”. A very efficient way to manage multiple viewings but what happens is 50 or 60 people might arrive to view the apartment at the same time. Luckily Ian and I didn’t go to any open viewings but another expat told me she and her boyfriend will drive to one, count the number of people queueing outside, calculate the probability of them actually being chosen and more often than not, drive back home without stopping.

Tip! Make sure you are on as many housing websites as possible. Here are the ones we use:

I haven’t used it yet but Tempoflat has furnished accommodation for short-to-medium rental periods (between one month and two years).

As always, word-of-mouth is really useful. Join the online expat communities and ask friends/colleagues/neighbours/random strangers on the street if they know of any available apartments.

2. Unfurnished apartments

In Hamburg, there are a lot of unfurnished apartments, and this means unfurnished. Often apartments don’t have built-in cupboards, wardrobes, sinks, sofas, beds, ovens, curtains, blinds or even light fittings. New tenants must move all their own furniture in and pay for the apartment to become livable.

There are some alternatives to buying everything new. If the current tenant is moving to a new, furnished apartment, they don’t need the furniture so will sell it to you for a discounted rate. Or he/she may have bought it second-hand from the previous tenant, so you continue the chain of buying the second-hand furniture for a reduced cost. This system seems to work fine for people who have most of what they need (so they may only need to buy one or two items from the current tenant) or they are happy to invest because they plan to live there long-term and want to make the place their own. This system poses a big problem for us – we have no furniture whatsoever and we don’t want to buy any because we plan to move so often, from country to country. So we need furnished apartments otherwise it would be initially very expensive then a big hassle trying to sell it on when we leave.

Tip! If you want to furnish an apartment on the cheap, Ikea is good for furniture and homeware. Look at flea markets, charity shops and online buy & sell groups. I am a member of Girl Gone International (a great community for female expats around the world) and their Hamburg buy & sell group is really good. Ebay Kleinanzeigen is a particularly good German website.

3. Housing associations

As Ian and I are freelancers, we are immediately less desirable to housing associations, who like the security of steady salaries (don’t we all?). Given that housing associations also charge administrative fees and want tenants to pay for their own credit history checks (called a SCHUFA), we will try to avoid using these associations for the timebeing. I’m scarred from my experience of UK estate agents who seemed to charge £10 per email, so much prefer private landlords.

4. Location, location, location.

I thought I was flexible about location, as long as I was near a U-Bahn or S-Bahn station (i.e. the Underground or Overground). Then I realised how strange the public transport ticket system is here. There are many U-Bahn and S-Bahn stops scattered across the city, which is divided into rings. 000 for the city centre, 103, 105, 106, 108 for more residential areas, then all the way from 200-900 for various suburban areas. It is a vast, complex system – have a look!

Instead of saying “I want a monthly travel pass that includes everything in the city centre and everything in Zone 1”, you have to really specify exactly which areas in Zone 1 you want. Zone 1 is divided up into seven parts so you need to include where you live and work. If your friends live in a different section of zone 1, you either need to pay more for a monthly pass that includes their area or buy individual tickets whenever you visit them. Buying individual tickets adds up, a standard one-way journey on the bus/subway is €2.20.

Tip! Buy a bike! No more confusion over this zone malarkey. An alternative to buying a bike is renting one through Stadtrad. As neither Ian nor I have ridden a bike in at least 15 years, we’ll start with Stadtrad. Plus journeys under 30 minutes are free!

5. Cold / warm / hot rent

Based on my renting history, the price of an apartment is usually advertised as the total sum of rent & bills, everything included. If the apartment says “Rent + bills”, I know to ask how much the bills are, approximately, each month. Our first viewing in Hamburg was a beautiful apartment, really modern, stylish and comfortable. I double-checked the price was €1000 per month, because it seemed low considering how lovely the apartment was. “Yes, that is the cold rent”. Cold?” . The landlady kindly explained that in Hamburg, they have a cold price (just the rent costs) and warm (rent plus bills).

However, not all bills are included in the warm price. Sometimes it might be rent + water + electricity but not gas, internet, TV license etc. Unfortunately we had to let that beautiful apartment slip through our fingers because the final (hot?) price was several hundred euros more.

Tip! Ask before you visit an apartment exactly how much you would have to pay each month, including rent and all bills

6. Kaution!

Paying a deposit (kaution) is expected for an apartment – usually one month’s rent – but some of the apartments had disproportionate deposits set against them. For example the monthly rent might be €900 but the deposit €4000. Nooooope! I’d be worried about giving so much money to a private landlord as I have had far too many deposit disputes with previous landlords (in my own country, speaking my own language!).

SO, considering all of the above, we have decided to sublet apartments until we find something permanent, furnished in a good location. We have just moved into a beautiful apartment. This is our view:

DSC_0345.JPG

As it’s only for eight weeks, we’ll need to find somewhere new for April. The search continues! I’m trying to put a positive spin on things; by subletting we get to live in and explore different areas of Hamburg more than if we were fixed in one place. Never mind how tiring the search is…how time-consuming…how strange to be living out a suitcase. Oh well, I always wanted to try backpacking!

The Curious Sparrow

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