One of the most valuable lessons I have learned while being a black expat in Germany is that the most unsuspecting things are totally different. Things you take for granted as common practice are just different for no good reason :) If you decide to take the plunge overseas, your house hunting trip usually serves as your first introduction to the whacky customs of your new land.
Renting a flat in Berlin is filled with many surprises, so many that I think this post will have to be split into two so I don't either bore you to death or scare someone off from moving abroad :) Take it from a person who has moved within the United States four different times before living abroad, moving within Germany is more complicated and more expensive. As with anything, if you know the rules of the game you have a better shot at succeeding. So here's the memo about moving to Berlin. You can't claim later that you never got it.
The Search: Most landlords in Berlin do not want to deal directly with tenants. Rental agents or Maklers in Germans, are similar to real estate agents and they manage showing the property to prospective renters. There are often dozen of applicants interested in one flat due to the influx of people coming from outside of Berlin. The rental agent's fees are paid by you, the tenant. That's right, you pay the agent a provision (commission) that is equal to 2.38 times your monthly rent. In my opinion this is backwards and unfair but it's just ingrained in the culture here. It's not that I don't think they should get paid, I just don’t think they should get paid by ME. There are provision-free spaces for rent but they are much harder to come by. Provision-free spaces make up less than 20% of the rentals in Berlin and the competition for them is insane.
The Building: If you have been abroad you know that the floor numbering is different in Europe. Their ground floor is equivalent to an American first floor. So remember when considering locations that the second floor is actually the third floor. Elevators are a luxury that very few have, so one must prepare their gluteus to be maximized from the all the up and down. If you do choose to live above the second floor (::cough:: third) be sure to communicate this to a potential moving company, stairs come at a surcharge. Some moving companies use interesting contraptions called furniture lifts which are like escalators that carry the furniture up through your balcony or large window if possible. Whether by foot or by lift, moving to a deluxe apartment in the sky will be costly.
The Flat: Berliners have a strange standard for rentals. Many flats, especially in the East come with no kitchen installed. This is something unique to Berlin and I am sure of the history or logic behind this phenomena. You literally come upon a gutted room where a kitchen is supposed to be. Four walls. Fridge, gone. Stove, gone. Sink, gone. Surfaces, gone. Cabinets, gone! If you are lucky, the previous tenant will sell you their kitchen because they don't want to uninstall it. There is also the option to have one custom built but you have to wait WEEKS for this service. No fear, flats do come with kitchens installed but their prices are higher than flats offered without. You really just get a apartment with four bare walls, covers for light switches, outlets and light bulbs, don't come by default. The four walls you do get look amazing: great high ceilings, original hardware as well as beautiful hardwood flooring evening in the bedrooms.
Typical Berlin "Kitchen"
The Layout: Walk in closets are unheard of. Most people use a spare room for their closet or have a large wardrobe. Central air, never, aside from the buildings being older, Germans have issues with air conditioning, one would even call it a phobia. All the physical ailments one can experience can be blamed on exposure to air conditioning. Artificial heating on the other hand is cool. Most flats have efficient heating systems but I have been in two flats in Berlin that are heated by this giant coal oven in the middle of the living room. Household appliances are typically small. You might be able to fit half of a traditional American load in your standard European washing machine.
The Lease: Leases aren't too different aside from them being in German. The security deposit is typically 3 times the cost of your rent. A welcomed difference is that your security deposit goes into an interest earning account that you can collect once you move out. This is great if you plan on staying in your flat for years and years. Like most German contracts, work, mobile,gym membership etc, leases require a three month notice of cancellation. The post is already getting too long or I would describe the differences between warm and cold rent.
To give you a better idea of a Berlin flat and fixtures take a look at my facebook fanpage.