My crazy Berlin apartment hunt
People told me it was going to be very hard to find a flat in Berlin, but I would have never thought how hard it will really be for me. Whenever somebody telly me that something is going to be very hard or that it is going to take a specific amount of time, I don’t know what to expect, because I think they mean the net-amount it will take. For example, when they say that something will take a month, I assume it will require at least 8 hours a day without taking a break. So, when a friend told me that it would take at least a month, if not more, to find an apartment I got really scared.
Indeed, the apartment situation in Berlin is really tight: not enough apartments for the amount of people needing one. There is a lot of competition, with a lot of international people in need of a place to live, often just for a couple of years.
In February 2018, I moved from Leiden, Netherlands, to Berlin, Germany, as I started a PhD at Humboldt-University, and I needed a new place to live for March onwards.
I hoped to be able to arrange an accommodation in advance during my Christmas holidays back home in Austria. When I moved to Leiden I had managed to do that, but for Berlin that was more tricky. Landlords expect one to visit the place and get to know them personally. They receive several hundreds of messages right after posting the vacancy, so one needs to survive a fierce competition.
Therefore, I decided to go to Berlin earlier than planned, and stay for 10 days at the beginning of February to look for a flat. My boyfriend Enrique, who I was supposed to visit in Nice during that time, suggested to join me and provide emotional support. I wanted to find a proper accommodation before starting to work because I knew I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on my work if I didn’t have a proper roof over my head.
Thankfully though, I figured out at the beginning of January that Humboldt-University has a guest apartment house, so I secured myself a temporary apartment for March, which I could have cancelled if I had found something before. This backup plan relieved me, but I still knew I had to find an apartment quickly.
My strategy was to view 3-6 apartments a day for the entire period I was going to spend in Berlin. The whole month of January I prepared the necessary paperwork. I scanned all the webpages that were offering apartments and set appointments for viewings a week in advance (find more information here). Earlier bookings were not an option because apartments get taken pretty much immediately, so I had arranged viewings from the 31st of January, when I arrived until the 4th of February, a Sunday. I was going to arrange more appointments with my tablet during my travels between the viewings.
This is a summary of my adventure.
10:30: Landing at the airport (AMS to SXF)
13:00: 1st viewing
Transit: 26km, 1h15min
The first person didn’t show up. I was waiting, and waiting, and waiting in front of the door, so I called the agency and I was told that the flat had already been taken and they had just forgotten to contact me. “Thanks,” I thought, “That’s really what you want to experience when you have just arrived in a city and rushed from the airport to your first viewing with your suitcase and an outside temperature in the minus Celsius degrees. Thank you Berlin, what a nice welcome!”*
15:00: Humboldt University
Transit: 8.7km, 40min
Signing the contract for my PhD! “Yey,” I thought, “At least now I can prove that I can pay for rent and have a chance to compete with other potential tenants!”
17:30: 2nd viewing
Transit: 17.7km, 1h5min
This time I visit a house by the river Dahme, super beautiful, but expensive for its small size.
19:00: 3rd viewing
Transit: 3.7km, 15min
A beautiful apartment, big, but too expensive.
Earlier than planned: Meeting Sabrina
Transit: 17km, 45min
Thankfully all the appointments had taken far less than the hour that I had planned, so I could meet my friend and future colleague, Sabrina Petersohn, earlier than planned. She hosted me for 2 days and took good care of me. Thank you, Sabrina, without you cooking vegetables I would have only eaten bread on the trains between the viewings!
10:00: 4th viewing
Transit: 8km, 45min
Cheap, but old apartment. The landlords liked me, so apparently I had a good chance.
12:00: 5th viewing
Transit: 25km, 1h20min
Very far away from the centre, but this time there was a shared garden! I also had good chances because it was so far away, so not many people were interested. Really worth to consider!
14:30: 6th viewing
Transit: 15km, 55min
Beautiful apartment with some furniture to take over, but it seemed like there was a lot of competition.
16:00: 7th viewing
Transit: 25km, 1h30min
This apartment was surprising! It was the top apartment in a house with a garden (not accessible for me, though) and it gave me a real holiday feeling. This one would include the complete kitchen furniture, something that in Berlin is rare. I immediately fell in love with it and so I quickly called the landlord telling him that I totally wanted it. He said he could not decide because he was about to go skiing for a week, and there were other potential tenants on the line. We did arrange an appointment for the next morning, though, so that we could already get to know each other. I had to cancel 2 viewings to meet him. But it was worth it!
18:00: 8th viewing
Transit: 10km, 42min
This apartment was my favourite from the beginning! I had put all my hopes into it because it was only 25 minutes from work (one single metro line), the price was okay, it was recently renovated, and it had a kitchen, a bath tub, a balcony and a cellar. It was perfect! However, when I saw how many people had come to the viewing, I thought I didn’t stand a chance.
Around 20:00: Sabrina’s home
Transit: 7.5km, 40min
Finally at home, I still had to catch up on apartment hunt and email exchanges for 2 hours.
Towards the end of the second day I had pain in my foot and my hip from walking around so much.
During those days I felt horrible. I felt I couldn’t enjoy anything until I would find an apartment. My body and my brain switched to survival mode: whenever I felt something, whether it was hunger or my heart screaming “I want a fucking break and don’t want to walk anymore, I am in pain, I just don’t want to do more viewings,” I just shut up this voice, because I knew there was no alternative. I felt I had no other option than pushing through until I found a place to live if I didn’t want to end up under a bridge. These emotions made the whole apartment hunt a horrible experience. I just could not manage to live in the moment and enjoy the process, because I put my feelings on hold and turned into a robot, so I could endure the pain of traveling all those kilometres and showing enthusiasm to all those people despite my heart screaming that I just needed to sleep.
9:00: Appointment with landlord of 7th viewing
Transit: 17km, 1h15min
The appointment with the landlord of the holiday-like flat went super well, but he told me I needed to meet his ex-wife, who lives on the ground floor of the house. I asked whether we could have a talk by Skype instead; he agreed, but said he couldn’t make a decision before meeting the other candidates. I was optimistic about it, but also knew that this situation could lead me to say no to other opportunities and risk I would end up with nothing. I was quite scared of that.
From the landlord to Sabrina, buying sim card on the way and depositing a parcel at the DPD post office:
I packed up my luggage and went to an apartment I rented for the rest of the time because Enrique was going to join me on the next day.
17:00: Sabrina’s home to rented room
Transit: 14.5km, 1h
18:00: 9th viewing
Transit: 17km, 1h15min
This apartment was in the same street as my office and part of a brand new building. Unfortunately it was a bit above my budget, like most apartments located in the centre. While I was not sure I had a chance to get it, I filled in the application anyway as the vicinity to work was such a big plus.
19:00: 10th viewing
Transit: 10km, 45min
The tenants would sublet this cosy apartment to me, leaving all the furniture. That’d great because to me the idea of buying stuff for just a couple of years seems like a massive waste. My chances for this apartment seemed good.
20:30: 11th viewing
Transit: 7km, 1h
This one was a surprise too! The current tenants, a young couple, were super nice and the apartment really cute. It was on the ground floor, which unfortunately means a cold floor, but it felt like a cute cave (in a positive sense!). They said my chance was pretty good, so I filled in the documents immediately when I came home that day to increase that chance.
Around 22:00: arrived home
Transit: 19km, 1h20min
Filing the documents took me long, so I was able to go to sleep only at 1:00. I decided to cancel the first appointment of next day, which I only allowed myself because the situation didn’t look that bad anymore with all those possible options.
In the morning I got an email asking to call the landlord from the 8th viewing (the perfect flat) because they still had 2 questions. I felt the phone call went really well. My hopes flourished.
13:45: 12th viewing
Transit: 15.5km, 1h
Not really a pretty flat, but okay if nothing else works.
15:00: 13th viewing
Transit: 13.5km, 1h5min
Cosy apartment with a nice couch to take over and next to a forest.
Early evening: home
Transit: 21km, 1h30min
Enrique joined me on the way home and I told him that I already had two good options crystallizing. The 7th, 8th and 11th viewing were amazing apartments, and now I seemed to have a chance! For the first time in those days I saw the light at the end of the tunnel, and I allowed myself to enjoy the moment a little bit!
At the end of that day I got confirmation for the perfect apartment (8th viewing). OMG, I jumped around, and to date I still can’t believe how lucky I have been to get my favourite choice. However, after a while of being super happy about it, I questioned why they chose me. I was sure that there were other applicants who earned much more, an important criterion for landlords in Berlin. So why did they choose me? I started getting worried that there was something wrong with the flat, or that maybe it was a scam. I realized I was being a little paranoid though and just tried to enjoy!
I cancelled all the viewings for the next day, and as soon as I got the contract on Monday I cancelled the other appointments too. Suddenly I had a whole week available, unexpectedly, for other things I actually wanted to do before this whole apartment hunt turned up on my radar. I felt so liberated!
BALANCE of the 4 days between 31st January and 3rd February:
I spent 322.6km and 21.6hrs on trains, metros and walking.
I visited 13 flats, and I would have been chosen for at least half of them. That was a really good success rate, so I ended up asking myself whether the reason it was so hard was just because I thought it would be, and the resulting fear.
My new PhD supervisor told me that sometimes people find their apartment immediately and sometimes it takes them months, and that he still hadn’t figured out the reason for that. Enrique told me before I went to Berlin that I would find a flat during the first few days and that my worries were not justified. I am happy he was right, but I could not rely on that when the stakes were so high. Not knowing where to sleep when starting a new job and where to put all my stuff is a pretty scary thought for me.
I am also still wondering: Was I so successful precisely because I was so organised and so efficient due to my existential worries? In either case, this experience was a step towards learning not to be so hard on myself (see also this article about discipline) and towards listening to my feelings even in tough periods (see also this article about emotions)* In hindsight I find this an amusing memory, because the apartment I ended up living in for nearly four years was 10 minutes walking distance from this one, where I showed up for nothing. Kurt Schumacher Platz turned out to be a metro station I passed by often to do my groceries. When Tegel Airport still existed, I always got reminded of my very first experience, on that 31st January, of seeing the air planes flying so low that I felt I could touch them.
Written by Julia Heuritsch | Last edited: 9th June 2022