From the Pond to the Marshlands

img_6589It’s been a little over a week since I arrived in Berlin and am nowhere near settling in or down. Oh sure, my suitcases are unpacked, and my container is about to be shipped from Manila to Bremerhaven, but where on earth am I going to plant my froggy self? Once again I am learning the hard way what a difference it is to visit a city from time to time versus actually living in it, and Berlin ranks very high on my list of cities that are a pleasure to visit but an absolute nightmare to settle down in. It drives me up the wall when people smile enviously the moment they hear I live in Berlin. Trust me, if you are non-German, unemployed and have no credit history or rental track record, this is the last city you want to live in. The gross mismanagement of this city for over the last 15 years shows in all corners and little is done to hide it, starting with the “new” and six years overdue Berlin airport.

When I lived here 11 years ago, the cost/benefit ratio was somewhat decent, far from ideal, but at least you could find an apartment with some ease, of an acceptable size, and a price that would not rob you of sleep at night. Those where the days when the major government and non-government agencies were migrating from Bonn, Cologne and Frankfurt to Berlin, so the construction boom was on, relocation was encouraged, and there were not too many questions asked when looking for a roof over your head. Two Football World Cups later, the Berliner bus drivers are just as rude, the shopkeepers still uninterested in attending to the customer, unemployment has skyrocketed, and the real estate market is an absolute nightmare.

In most other cities I have lived in, being a foreigner was a distinct advantage. You have access to the best areas, top apartments, and both landlord and real estate agent will bend over backwards twice to accommodate you. In both Delhi and Bangkok I had superb real estate agents who picked out choice locations and objects to show me, devoting up to three entire day’s exclusively to my search. Here in Berlin, the agent will not consider you human until you meet the criteria. Before that, you are a mere “interested party” and move up to being a “candidate” once you can prove you are not a criminal, can actually afford the place, and have at least one German national with a German income signing the contract. Foreigners who are new to the city with no credit history and are in search of work and housing don’t stand a chance in the current conditions, nor do German nationals who have been overseas for many years and also not established any credit record. FOr example, one of the items on the requisites is an affidavit from the current landlord that you are debt-free (Mietschuldenfreiheitsbescheinigung). The fact that I have permanent residency status does not help me one bit here and it feels worse than filling out the visa application for the the UK where you have three pages to prove that you are not a terrorist.

No such thing here as a real estate agent devoting his or her time to you as a client. If you find an apartment though one of several online real estate sites (my preferred on is, you request a viewing appointment and hope you get that coveted appointment. Only twice have I been alone in the viewing, all the other times I was part of a herd that was ushered through the small flat and given five minutes to make my observations. Then you are handed a form to fill up and send back to the broker, half of which is impossible to fill in if you are new to Germany or, in my case, returning after a long absence abroad. I even tried offering a higher deposit on the spot to see if that would give me an edge, but nothing doing. The agent doesn’t care what your name is because he or she will simply collect all the applications, submit them to the owner, and only then will the candidate be informed whether they stand a chance or not. Other objects? The agent will only show you what their agency has listed., which is often a short list… And many of them are glorified broom closets that come with diamond-studded prices.

I reached out and asked a dear friend for help, since he is involved in the real estate market to some extent. His contact dutifully wrote me an email with the listings of all the properties on offer, and I almost fell off my chair. There was nothing cheaper than EUR 3000 (a month!) on that list, and when I wrote to clarify what my requirements were and my budget, I received a cold and almost bitchy email bordering on impertinent, basically saying that their agency does not deal with such low and cheap objects, for that price category I should stick to the online sites. I have seldom felt so small and humiliated.

For some properties I am too young – they are only for senior citizens, for many others I can’t even set a foot in the door because I have a cat, and in still others I don’t possess the certificate for socialized housing. Geez. I had two viewings yesterday, and fell completely in love with one place. It would be absolutely perfect on all fronts but when I asked the owner how many others had applied for it he looked at me sadly and said, “30 others and I just posted it online yesterday”.

So yes, I feel pretty rotten, discouraged, and frustrated with the Berlin housing situation. The fact that I am restricting my search to south and West Berlin does not really help my cause, but it will be a cold day in Hell before I venture out to the North and East of Berlin where I still fear to tread, even with my blue belt in Tae Kwondo!

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