Why does the property business attract charlatans? From America’s Wild West to London’s West End, from bargain basement apartments in New Orleans (with sea view) to Shanghai’s inflated penthouses, realtors are universally abhorred.
Germans – especially those living in urban areas -- tend not to buy their homes. Only 11% of Berliners are owner-occupiers. In part this is a legacy of the last war, when Allied bombing reduced all large cities to rubble. Housing was rebuilt – often by the state -- with rents subsidised and kept-below market value. As tenants’ rights are protected by law, and German property prices have performed none of aerobatics experienced by Brits, Americans and Canadians, the rental market is extremely attractive to the majority of Germans. But as Europe’s most populous country (after Russia), finding a home here can be an expensive and nerve-wracking challenge.
Makler are real estate agents. They work for property owners, find appropriate tenants, check credit ratings and collect the Kaution or security deposit. Their finder’s fee usually amounts to three months’ rent, paid by the tenant. Less scrupulous agents often charge an additional ‘service’ fee, payable in cash, or demand more than three months’ rent. The practice is illegal but, say no to the Makler, and the tenant risks losing the property.
Two years ago when we moved to Germany, Mrs. Cat found our rental apartment through Immobilien Scout 24, an excellent website used by Makler and private landlords alike. Luckily for us, our Makler and the owner were lovers, sharing more than an office, so negotiations between us were conducted in the rosy-tinted light of new love.
‘You take the agent’s 3.5% fee, my love,’ said he.
‘No, Liebling. It’s yours,’ she replied with a beatific smile. ‘I am so happy to have found you these lovely tenants.’
But no love has been lost between us and the Hausverwaltung, or property manager. On the day we took possession of the apartment, I was driving a van full of our possessions across Europe. Mrs. Cat, with then-six-year-old Maus in tow, had flown ahead to Berlin to collect the keys. The property manager met them at the apartment and asked Mrs. Cat to sign the Wohnungsübergabe-Protokoll, which loosely translates as An Agreement to Surrender Your Deposit without Recourse to Legal Defence. In essence the three page document confirmed that on a certain date at a certain time everything in the apartment was in Ordnung.
Unfortunately on that day the apartment wasn’t in Ordnung. The cooker was missing, the new woodwork had not been painted, the windows and doors were filthy, the shower cabinet was broken and there was no cellar storage area. Also the backdoor bolt was jammed, there were oil stains on one wall and the keys to the bicycle shed didn’t work.
‘Sign here,’ demanded the Hausverwaltung.
‘But how can I sign with all these problems?’ asked Mrs. Cat.
‘In five minutes I begin my weekend,’ replied the Hausverwaltung. ‘If you don’t sign you cannot have the keys until next week.’
Cue my phone call from the A100 autobahn. ‘I’ll arrive in 30 minutes.’ Cue crying Maus who had tripped over an unfinished threshold. Cue Katrin’s signature.
‘I want you to remember the true condition of the apartment,’ Mrs. Cat said to the Hausverwaltung as she picked up her pen.
But Hausverwaltung have short memories. In the two years since then I have written about 25 letters to them. We had to pay for a new cooker, replace the shower cabinet and paint the woodwork ourselves. We bought the missing keys from former tenants. We still haven’t found the cellar. Yet my barrage of correspondence has evoked only a solitary response. It states that on a certain date at a certain time everything in the apartment was in Ordnung and that, on the day which we vacate the apartment, it must be restored to its original ‘pristine’ condition.
The need for a home is emotional as well as practical, hence our tendency to pay over the odds for stability. This phenomena is heightened in Germany, again because of history. The traumas and radical reversals of fortune during the first half of the twentieth century increased many Germans' need for security. For me, this helps to explain why property people can get away with such bad behaviour here. So what’s the excuse for the property business Princes of Darkness in Britain and the US and China and...?