You might wonder what a picture of a cafe with a bunch of people eating and a large rotating ad for a sex-toy shop have to do with finding a flat in Berlin.
Sympathetic magic, I suspect.
Here is the story:
In January of 2014 we were hoping to move to Vancouver. It was our third choice city-wise, after London (my #1) and Berlin (husband’s #1). We were looking for a country with strong social welfare and a good or at least functional healthcare system, because we both have disabling chronic illnesses of various kinds that significantly impact our retirement earning capacity.
We also needed a place to make a stand for the global warming future, where we would suffer less from our extreme discomfort with hot weather and bright sun.
We wanted a place with good public transit, where everything stayed open late, where it rained a lot and was cold and grey the rest of the time.
London was ultimately ruled out because of the cost. While we knew the hubs could get a decently paid programming job, my research indicated that we would still not be able to afford the >1000 sq. ft. flat in a hundred year old building we require for both sanity and my home studio. There was possibility on the immigration front, because my mother was born in Scotland, but it looked dicey; the matrilineal lineage rules for repatriation have changed twice in my lifetime.
Ultimately Vancouver was ruled out on the same grounds. Plus, they didn’t want us. The immigration index considered me to be too old, at 47, and D. to be undesirable because of his lack of a four-year degree. This was really disappointing, because Canada seemed like a great idea.
So we reverted to Berlin, where at least a dozen people we know have moved in the last decade. Germany, amazingly, appeared to want us.
By March we’d made a hard decision, and set a deadline of the following winter. Somewhere in there we also decided to get married, which turned out to be a really good thing for moving to Germany.
I am a compulsive researcher and planner, and I’d started my “We’re leaving the Bay Area” pinboard in January. I deleted the London and Vancouver stuff and went all in on Berlin. Immigration, taxes, medical care, pet care, pet visas, insurance, local customs and culture, language schools, shipping, postal regulations, grocery shopping, goth stores, bookstores, galleries, pharmacies, Etsy sellers for craft supplies. And most of all, housing.
Finding housing is a form of shopping, which is my superpower.
I have always been able to find a gorgeous hundred-year-old apartment or house in a desirable area, in a very difficult rental ecology, for 20% below market. My secret is insane determination and refusal to settle for anything less, and often being self-employed, which allows for those short-notice mid-day meetings with the rental agent the more responsible people of the world can’t make it to.
I knew I could do it in Berlin, despite the growing tide of warnings and negative reports about the housing market here.
But I had no idea just how hard it would be. I knew that the days of the 800€ three-bedroom were over and the window for any kind of affordable housing was rapidly closing; some people said it had already closed. Friends here warned that it would be simply impossible to get a long-term place, that the only housing available was sublets.
We arrived at our Prenzlauerberg Airbnb on March 24th, and that weekend I went to a “Moving to Berlin” workshop at Expath. They didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know, thanks to my hundreds of hours of research, but they did offer the warning: “Don’t even try to look in Neukolln.”
When wonderful Mark The Man With A Van moved us from our Airbnb to our short-term rental from which I intended to launch our search, he warned, “Don’t even try to look in Friedrichshain”. Four weeks into the hard-core search, when I’d been spending every waking moment either looking at rental sites, emailing landlords, or visiting flats, a young guy at a dinner party told me, “An unlimited lease? In Berlin? Are you crazy?” He said it with the elegant contempt that is the birthright of urban gay boys under thirty the world over, and it shook me. But I said, “Yes. In Berlin.”
I saw 28 apartments to find our Craftsmen jewelbox place in Oakland, with its original wood paneling and double parlour. When I got to an even dozen here, my husband said, “Well, sixteen to go!”.
Knowing he thought that my approach was reasonable made a huge difference.
I’d come home exhausted from days of lurching through the sweltering subway (no a/c here! It “makes people sickly”!) in the 95° heat and 88% humidity. I was constantly frustrated by the poor transference of Google Maps to reality on the ground in the city. There were endless challenges because I didn’t have a phone. SInce we were waiting for a big check most of the time, I was almost always broke; when you’re out in the hot sun and can’t afford to sit down for a cold drink it sucks.
One time I needed to pee and almost didn’t have the .50 it cost; I have rarely been so grateful to find a linty nickel in the bottom of my purse.
There’s plenty of beautiful housing in Berlin; the problem is that there’s so much competition. I found five places that were fantastic and also acceptable to my stringent value criteria of 10€ per sq. meter: one in Schoneberg, my first choice neighborhood, one in Mitte, where our short term place was, one in Friedrichshain, one in Wedding and one in Wilmersdorf. I applied to all of them, over a harrowing month, and we were turned down five times. Each time involved submitting up to fifteen documents, translating a different application for each, and in one case (Friedrichshain! Don’t even try!) finding a German friend of my husband’s who’d act as guarantor.
We also had to get a Schufa, a German credit report, even though we’d only been here a couple months. All the EasyCredit stores, where you could walk in and get a Schufa, had recently closed. There was one place in all of Berlin doing “Instant Schufa” this summer, the Postbank branch in Schonhauser Allee Arcaden.
It was mobbed with terrified expats, all desperate to secure a flat.
Over and over i told myself, I’ve always done it before. I just have push through my fears and stick it out. One day near the end, when we had only 35 days left at our temporary place, I was starting to think about just getting a six-month furnished sublet in an ugly postwar Neubau in some neighborhood we’d hate. I came home and asked my husband, “Am I crazy? Should I be investing this much energy in trying to find a perfect place?” He didn’t even let me finish. He said, ” You’re not crazy. I trust you. Do what you’re doing.”
We’re homebodies, and I know what makes us happy at home; a second-floor apartment with a double parlour separated by an archway, looking out over a quiet street that’s still just steps away from shops and restaurants that stay open late. I knew we needed a big place, so I could have my studio at home, and to be just steps from the U-Bahn. I wanted to be over a restaurant or store, so our late-night walking about and the cats’ crazy antics wouldn’t upset a persnickety downstairs neighbor.
With thirty days to go I went to see a place a little farther West than we really wanted to be, in Wilmersdorf, and because I’d been betrayed so many times by Google Maps, I allowed so much time that I was an hour early. I located the building, a majestic Art Nouveau lady on a tree-lined street, and then went back around the corner to the cafes and shops.
I dug in my purse and found exactly enough change for a bottle of Apfelschorle, and I sat down and made the drawing you see above.
It was the only time I made a drawing anywhere during the flat search. When the hour was up I went to see the flat, which was huge and beautiful. Then I went home, because since most of the agents don’t speak a word of English, there’s very little to say. A couple of days later, when we’d gotten two more turndowns, I thought of the place in WIlmersdorf, which I’d initially dismissed as just too far West. I sent the application, for the hell of it.
Two days later, I got a reply, and Google Translate said they were ready to make the contract with us. I was so stunned I ran it through three other translation apps before I told my hubby. A week later, after a terrible morning of scrambling around Lichtenburg trying to find their office, we signed a lease.
We were late and I was so afraid. It was scorching hot and humid and we somehow found it and they were completely relaxed and nice.
They acted like it was no big deal to rent a couple of weird-looking Americans a gorgeous 1300 square foot Art Nouveau flat they might conceivably spend the rest of their lives in.
We scheduled the key and deposit handoff for Friday. Friday morning D.’s monthly check from his job hadn’t shown up in our bank account despite my many calls and emails to the company accountant and the assurances I’d received it would be there. You need at least a month’s rent plus a month’s cold rent deposit to get keys in Berlin, so several thousand dollars. Two hours before the appointment, I took the U to our bank and talked to the one guy who spoke English, and he said the deposit could show at any time. That’s right: with American banks, your money is there at opening or not til the next day, but in Germany it can show up any time, all day.
I frantically emailed D. at work and asked him to call the agency and ask if we could reschedule. They said no problem. Then I checked the bank account one more time, and the money was there.
We were back on: I had D. call the agency again and the agent agreed to give me an extra hour, but no more; she was going out of town for the weekend, like every right-thinking person in Berlin.
And I would have to bring the money in cash; it was too late for a bank transfer.
I Jumped in a cab, and my valiant Berlin cabbie set out into the summer Friday rush hour traffic. Twenty minutes in, halfway through Tiergarten, I realized the flaw in my plan of stopping at one of the Westside Deutschebanks to get my huge wad of cash. I hadn’t brought my passport. The guy at our branch had said earlier this week, Oh your license and PIN are fine for me, I know you, but they wouldn’t work for an official transaction. Surely withdrawing thousands of dollars was an official transaction? What if the strange teller asked for my passport?
My cabbie pulled up at a bank and I ran in, then waited for a thousand years while the line inched along. It was like watching paint dry with a gun to your head.
FInally I made it to the teller, checking one more time that the cab was still outside, and asked for our money. She didn’t even blink, just counted it out and handed it over. “VIelen dank!” I yelled, and shot back out the door and into the cab, and minutes later we were pulling up on our tree-lined street, where the agent was pacing and looking around frantically. Her face lit up when she saw me. I gave the cabbie an American-style tip and twenty minutes later (there was a lot more paperwork) I had keys to our home.
An unlimited lease, in a rent-controlled renovated flat in Berlin.
My husband hadn’t even seen it yet; for the third time, he’d signed a lease without ever seeing the place we’d be renting. When he finally did, two weeks later, he said, “It’s like we’re rich, even though we’re not!”. He meant, it is palatial and elegant. Our huge balcony overlooks the lovely street and an outdoor cafe; nearby is the house where a famous German painter once lived and worked. Our flat is over a restaurant and around the corner is the U-Bahn, a late-night falafel place, a very good French bakery, the cafe where I made the drawing and miles of other Berlin pleasures. I am so incredibly grateful to have this beautiful home.
All it took was the belief it could be done, a husband who believed in me unhesitatingly, and over 400 emails.