I moved back to Germany around 3 years ago now, having previously lived in Berlin for a spell and having studied in Heidelberg and Lueneburg over two glorious undergraduate summers. In Berlin, I lived in a massive Kreuzberg loft with 5 meter tall ceilings and a common room big enough to stage operas, which my roommates actually did once. During my time in Heidelberg, I ended up living outside of the city in a Ferienwohnung, sleeping on one of the most comfortable beds I’ve ever been fortunate to lay down upon. Since I’ve moved back, my good luck with accommodation has mostly repeated itself, and I had yet to see the dark side of the German apartment world until my friend Phil moved here from Chicago and went off in search of a new apartment that he could share with his girlfriend.
Phil’s troubles began when he decided to move to Cologne instead of staying in Siegen, which is where he’d met his girlfriend. He moved here in spring of 2013, and after more than a year in the Siegerland, he’d had enough and wanted to experience the big city. Unfortunately for him, apartments aren’t the easiest thing to come by, especially a two room apartment like the ones he and his girlfriend were searching for. Every time he visited an apartment, which was a weekly adventure, he had the same experience: They would show up and there would inevitably be other couples already looking at the flat, after which they would find out from the owner that they were one of fifty interested parties.
Phil isn’t a gambler, so he decided after a few months that it was better to search for something outside of Cologne. He stumbled upon a place in Siegburg on an Immobilien website, and after they looked at the place they decided to take it. There were a few problems with the new apartment, though. For one, the previous owners had been both smokers and prolific cat-owners, which meant that the apartment was practically a superfund site when they arrived. The bedroom had also been painted bright red, with a massive jet-black jaguar crouching above the bed.
In the States, the responsibility for the upkeep of the apartment ultimately lies with the owner. Of course, if you leave your flat completely wrecked, they can take the cost out of your deposit, but that is where your responsibilities as a tenant end. One thing that has surprised me about living in Germany is the requirement that many landlords have for their tenants to paint the walls of their flat either when they leave or when they arrive. I think this comes down to a difference in American and German values. For many American renters, their home is more temporary, and they’re willing to deal with the fact that the walls aren’t exactly the color they want, or the floors are hardwood when they’d rather have carpet. Germans, on the other hand, aren’t generally as mobile as Americans, and when they move, they tend to have higher expectations. They want the apartment to be as they want it, because there’s a decent chance that they’ll be staying for a long time.
And this is where the biggest frustration came for Phil in his new flat. Sure, the former tenants painted over the Jaguar and stripped the paint, so that when they moved in, the apartment was at least livable. The carpet in the office wasn’t great, but it was acceptable. The big problem was in the kitchen, which was like those in many apartments, completely empty.
When Phil told me this, I was confused at first. Why exactly would they take their kitchen with them? I’d never heard of anything like this. I moved back to Germany to study, so I’ve spent my time here in WGs. Fortunately, WG means “shared,” and everything is already in the flat when you move in. Unfortunately for Phil, they had not only taken the appliances, but also the sink and cabinets, leaving the entire space completely bare.
I’m an ESL teacher, so I’ve been able to mine the very valuable database of my students for insight into why this convention exists in Germany. Some have said that it’s better to have your own things, which fits with the permanence of many German moves that I’ve noted. When you’re younger, you live at home or in a WG, but when you’re older, you want to live in a way that fits you best. Another student, who has been living in the same flat for 15 years, told me that he had to buy the kitchen when he moved in, but he threw it away almost immediately afterwards and bought his own. For as individualistic as Americans are thought to be, it seems that at least when it comes to kitchens, German’s taste are very specific, and they’re not willing to put up with something they don’t like.
Unfortunately for Phil, this meant that he needed to put down the money for rent and deposit, but also for a new set of cabinets and a refrigerator, stove and sink, as well as a new set of kitchen furniture. When he looked at IKEA for a complete kitchen, the cabinets alone were well over 1000 euros, far beyond his price range as a fellow ESL teacher. And that didn’t include the cost of a refrigerator, stove, and sink.
Instead of sucking it up and buying the IKEA set, he decided to try out the massive secondary market in Germany. From Troedelmarkt to Kleinanzeigen, Germans re-sell at a tremendous rate, and you can almost always find what you’re looking for used. After a few weeks of searching, Phil was able to find a woman in Siegburg who was selling a complete kitchen for less than 500 euros. Significantly less in fact; all they needed to do was find a truck to haul it away. When they got everything back to the apartment though, a lot of it didn’t quite fit, and they ended up spending several hundred more on a new countertop. Phil also spent around a month of his life first trying to figure out how to install a kitchen and then testing out different methods until he finally got it down.
They’ve now been in their apartment for a little over three months, and the kitchen is completely installed (more or less). Still, looking back on everything they’ve been through, all the headaches and the heartaches, I have to ask myself how much sense it really makes to do things this way. I’ve heard that there’s a movement towards leaving apartments partially furnished. Hopefully that means that when I finally decide to give up on the WG life, I’ll be able to avoid the nightmare that Phil and Anna went through.