Sipping our coffees, we suspiciously eye the couple across the Prenzlauer Berg café. They're in their late thirties, well-dressed, perhaps a better bet that we may at first appear. They keep glancing out the window towards the door across the road: the same door we'd be looking at if it weren't for the fact that we didn't want to seem too eager. We know someone has the noonday appointment — we're due at quarter past.
At 12 o'clock they pay up and walk out… across the road… to the opticians next to that door. He collects his spectacles and off they go. It wasn't them. We feel safer. When our turn comes, though, the trendy, well-heeled gent who did have the noonday slot hangs around like the stink of smoke in a curtain. Even when our turn is over, he's still hovering, glowering at us, trying to coax the agent.
This is not flat-hunting as I'd known it before. In London, you can pretty much pick and choose — you're unlikely to get anything approaching good value for your money (one reason we’ve moved to Berlin), but there's a lot out there. There, it's the many estate agents who are in competition with one another, sometimes even picking up potential clients and ferrying them around several properties in one session. Not so in Berlin. Here it's you, the prospective tenant, against the masses.
Every viewing has at least one punter sticking to the agent like the class suck-up sticks to teacher. Some have many. The coffee-shop stakeout was a couple of days ago, and a day after we'd experienced our first mass viewing. At least, that's what we thought it was at the time. There'd been around 10 people there. That was nothing…
Today, we arrived at a viewing in Schöneberg around a quarter of an hour ahead of time. There were already five or six others there, waiting outside the Altbau's entrance. By the time the viewing actually began, that number had gone up to 40. By the time the viewing ended 15 minutes later, around 60 people must have jostled across the flat's floorboards. I almost felt sorry for the agent — she'd clearly been dumped into the situation at the last minute by her boss, and had no idea that many people would be turning up (it's Saturday, which probably didn't help matters).
You can tell a lot about people from how they react to such a situation. Some of the punters chuckled while scanning the crowd, while others glared at their competitors in fury. It's a sunny day, so we fell into the first category. Angry people are inherently funny.
It was a nice flat, obviously, and I don't think we stand much of a chance against the others, but at least we were the first to fill in the agent's form and hand over our details. All our details. I find it deeply ironic that, in a country so obsessed with data protection (see the copious blurring-out of residences on Google Maps), people are so desperate to get a good flat that they throw their most intimate financial information around like so much confetti. That includes us — we carry around envelopes filled with everything an identity thief could dream of, all neatly printed out and folded up. It's what you have to do here.
So why's it like this? The main reason, I guess, is that tenancy rights are about a billion times stronger in Germany than they are in the UK. Throwing out a tenant is nigh on impossible, especially if they've been in there for a while, and even if they're not exactly punctual with the rent. So landlords want to make sure their tenants are a sure bet, and prospective tenants are competing to prove that they're the most upstanding people in town.
Add to that the fact that Berlin is totally where it's at right now, and you can see why people keep saying that finding the right flat here is a full-time job, requiring months of dedication. I'm not sure who’s actually got the time to treat it that way, but whoever they are, it’s them we’re up against. Wish us luck.
PS - Like I said, it's all about the right flat for the person. For us, that means a decent two-to-four-room Altbau flat with a balcony in Prenzlauer Berg, Schöneberg, Kreuzberg or maybe even Friedrichshain, with a floorspace of at least 70 square meters and rent with bills maxing out around €1,000 a month. If you know of such a place, let me know...