Translators get to see a lot of rental aparment contracts. Big ones, small ones, fat ones, skinny ones, vague ones, long ones and horribly restrictive ones. From preposterous airing regulations to antiquated quiet time stipulations, from cold rent to hot water, here’s what to expect when you’re presented with a tenancy contract for a flat in Germany. We’re also happy to help in more detail if you really want to know what you’re getting into before you sign on the dotted line.
Almost half of the population in German rents, and until recently, it’s been easy to see why. Rental prices have been relatively cheap and conditions very favourable for lessees. Yet as rent prices soar in the big cities and as clever property developers get wind of the changing conditions, Red Tape Translation has noticed rental contracts getting longer, stricter and scarier (not unlike the rental prices themselves!).
The components of a rental contract
The Mietvertrag (contract / rental agreement / lease) itself contains some crucial information such as
- the cost of your rent per month
- whether increases are allowed, and if so, how they are regulated
- the duration of the contract
- the deposit amount
- description of the space and any extra fittings or pieces of furniture that might be included
- who is responsible for repairs and damages
- how to cancel or extend it
- renovation work
- how to leave the apartment when you vacate
- the house rules
- the handover report
Typical clauses in German leases
The cost of your rent
There will be a Kaltmiete (cold rent – the simple cost of having the roof over your head) and then there will be Nebenkosten (extra charges) such as Betriebskosten (operating costs for the building like waste disposal, stairwell cleaning) and Strom- und Heizkosten (heating and electricity costs). Both the rent and the extra charges are usually calculated or estimated according to the size of your apartment – the bigger it is, the more you pay. Gas, electricity and telephone contracts are usually the tenant’s business, and it might be possible to choose your own providers.
Something to remember: the landlord will often estimate the charges in advance and deduct them monthly. At the end of the year, you get an annual statement for operating costs which works out how much everything actually DID cost. If you’ve paid too much, you’ll get the difference back. Utility contracts often work similarly: they estimate what you’ll pay, deduct it monthly, and then refund or charge the difference at the end of a certain period.
There was a law introduced in 2015 called the Mietpreisbremse to stop rent increases from getting out of control. It was adopted in more than 300 German cities. One of the rules is that a new rental contract can’t demand rent of more than 10% of the average price for a rented apartment in the area. But newly built apartments are not covered under this rule, and modernisation measures also give landlords wiggle room to increase the price. Tip: Find out how much the previous tenant paid, even if you’ve already signed the rental contract. A landlord can’t increase the price by more than 10% of what the previous tenant was paying (unless they do some modernisation that increases the value of the flat). If necessary, you could sign the contract to secure the flat and THEN chase up the landlord to get your rent reduced (possibly with some legal assistance).
Staffelmiete (stepped rent) means that the rent increases every year in line with inflation and the increases are locked in for the next few years. There is no particular limit here – the increases might be locked in for the next 3 or 5 or 10 years. If you’re signing one of these, watch out for how long your commitment is before you can cancel – up to 4 years is legally permissible. They can’t increase your rent for at least one year from signing.
The duration of the lease
It might be a fixed-term contract or it will be concluded for an unlimited period. You might get a fixed-term contract if the landlord is planning to use the apartment themselves later down the track, or if it is furnished. Fixed-term contracts can be hard to break early, so you’ll be liable to occupy the place for the entire term, even if you want to leave early, unless you can find a suitable replacement tenant and your landlord agrees to this.
The Kaution (Deposit)
Landlords can ask you for 3 months cold rent as a security deposit. The landlord has to store this money safely in an escrow account separated from his/her personal finances. If the money accrues interest, the interest belongs to the tenant and must be paid out when they vacate. It’s not uncommon to hear expats wondering how to get their deposit back once they’ve left the apartment, and being shocked that it takes months. The landlord has six months to return the deposit to you after you vacate, plus any interest the sum accrued, minus any outstanding debts for which you might be liable, say for damages to the property or due to rent arrears. As tempting as it might be, you can get into trouble if you just withhold your last 2 warm rental payments and tell your landlord to “keep the deposit”.
The statutory notice period for terminating rental contracts as a tenant is three months. The longer you’ve lived in the apartment, the more notice your landlord has to give you if they need you to vacate: three months if you’ve been there for fewer than five years, six months if you’ve been there for fewer than 8 years, up to a maximum of nine months notice.
You don’t have to pay the broker, real estate agent or person offering you a rental flat a commission anymore – since 2015, this has been illegal. Since the demand for rental properties is so high in big cities, plenty of people are willing to turn a blind eye and pay a commission anyway to be favoured as a tenant.
These govern the behaviour within the building and treatment of the property. You’ll usually find them stuck up on the wall inside the building somewhere. Typical instructions to be found in the house rules: whether you are allowed to have a clothes dryer in the apartment, when you are not permitted to make noise, whether you can keep pets, how to air and heat your apartment properly, how to use the bins correctly etc. They are notorious for being strict and pedantic to the point of ridiculous, but you’re expected to follow them. Whether you get away with vacuuming on a Sunday despite the statutory “quiet time” might depend on how relaxed your neighbours are and whether they complain to the Hausverwaltung (housing administration).
Operational costs ordinance
You might get some excerpts from the Operational Costs Ordinance attached to your rental contract – these govern how landlords can charge tenants for all the things needed to make the building function.
Übergabeprotokoll (Handover report)
You and the agent / landlord will inspect the apartment, and they will make notes of preexisting damages, repairs and the condition of the property. If you see a small hole in the wall, point it out, and they’ll make a note of it. This is also a good time to check that the heating works, even in summer. If the landlord has promised you repairs, make sure they were done or there’s an appointment booked to have them done and get them listed in the handover report.
How can I get help with the small print?
I’d be happy to send you a quote to translate your entire rental contract. A 5-page rental contract might cost 200 Euros, a 20-page lease is likely to set you back around 800-1000 Euros, depending on how complex it is. If this is not realistic and you’re under time pressure, send me the contract and I’ll send you a quote for an appointment to go through the main points in person or over Skype, for around half the price of a written translation.