The decision about renting or buying housing in Germany depends greatly on planed length of your stay, as does the question of furnished versus unfurnished house or apartment.
Before moving to Germany you have to think about it very carefully; finding a house or an apartment takes time and, if you use an agent, it takes money too (quite a bit of it!).
You might be in for a little shock if you have never been here before, because unfurnished housing in Germany means exactly that: there are NO furniture or NO fixtures, period. No appliances, no closets, built-in cabinets in the kitchen, no lighting fixtures, sometimes not even a sink or a toilet! Nothing, nada!
Which means that you will have to buy or bring everything with you; Appliances, kitchen cabinets, closets, table and chairs, curtains and curtain rod, etc.
So, unless you are here for more than a year, unfurnished housing in Germany might become somewhat of a nightmare, especially if you don't have a big mini-van.
You are also expected to remove everything from the rented house or apartment when you leave, which can mean serious renovation to the place, to re-make it the way it was before you added the "built-in cabinets", etc.
Of course, furnished housing in Germany is a bit more expensive than unfurnished, but, unless you decide to stay in Germany for more than a year or two, or you have a lot of money to throw away, I recommend that you find housing in Germany that is furnished.
I mentioned earlier the use of a real estate agent or home-finding company. They can be somewhat expensive but they know their city well and will be able to help you find housing in Germany quite fast.
The way these firms usually work is that they will charge you a fee of between one to three months rent, once you find a place. This fee is NOT included in the rent and it must be paid directly to the firm.
So, let's say you have a rent of 1000 Euro per month, then the fees for the agent would be between 1000 to 3000 Euros. You will also have to pay a deposit of one to three months to your landlord and pay the first month's rent. All together, you will end out paying: 1 to 3 thousands to the firm, plus 1 to 3 thousand for the deposit and one thousand for the first month to your landlord, for a total of three to seven thousand Euros the first month, and this for a 1000 Euros per month rental. That is quite a bit of money when you have just arrived and have not even unpacked yet! Chances are, you will not yet have your German Bank account open either. So, you need to go straight to a bank to open one. Or you need to bring that cash with you!
A little note about banking and paying for expenses in Germany: most people and companies (such as gas and phone) do NOT accept cheques. They want bank transfers directly from your account to theirs.
Of course there are other methods to find housing in Germany: word of mouth is always a good one (a colleague might have heard of somebody moving and wanting to sublet or exchange the rental agreement) and the good old newspapers (Zeitung).
You can also search on the web; there are a few real estate agencies who deal specifically with rentals, some are in English as well as in German, but most, like the Newspapers, are in German only. So the help of a German speaking friend might be necessary.
Here are a few German words concerning Housing:
QM or M2 is square meters for the size of the residence.
A number followed by Zi, means the number of rooms (Zimmer).
The number of rooms (#Zimmer) also refer to the number of rooms "in total", except bathrooms and kitchen. So a 5Zi, will mean a "5 rooms" whonung (house or appartment): 3 bedrooms, a living room and a dining room.
BJ means Baujahr, the year the place was built.
WC, means toilet, and only a toilet, i.e. NO bathtub or shower, Bad means there is a bathtub, and only a bathtub (NO shower) and Du means a shower and only a shower (NO bathtub).
Sometimes you'll see:
EG, OG or DG, meaning respectively: ground floor, upper floor and attic.
Other important words:
Ka, Kt or Kaut, (Kaution) meaning caution, the deposit you have to pay on top of the rent. This deposit will be returned to you at the end of your rental.
Gepl (gepflegt) means well kept (in good condition).
Ruh (ruhig) in a quiet neighbourhood.
NK (Nebenkosten) is "incidental cost" such as garbage, entrance cleaning, water etc.
A little word here about these Nebenkosten (also referred to as Umlagen by some). There are two parts to your renting contract: one is the rental fee (fix amount per month), the other part concerns these extra costs. And these costs can vary during the year according to the price that your landlord has to pay. So, it is quite possible that your rent will vary throughout the year because of these extras. There is nothing you can do about it. It is completely legal.
For those of you looking for furnished housing in Germany, the letters Möbl (möbliert) are very important, they mean furnished.
You can also look for ZH (Zentralheizung; central heating), Balk (Balkon; balcony), Gge (garage) and Gart (Garten; garden, backyard most likely).
You might also want to consult a lawyer before signing a rental agreement (even if your German is good). If you deal with a real estate agency, they will do some of the paperwork for you and help you deal with the landlord.
Here are a few additional pieces of advices that you might want to consider:
1. Making an inventory of what is included in the housing (and of any deficiencies) is a good idea. It help to protect yourself and your landlord.
2. Follow the rules given by your landlord concerning:
laundry washing, BBQ, bicycles and children's prams, satellite dish and radio and television antennas, pets (Germans in general adore animals, but make sure you have written permission to have a pet first).
3. You should also ask who is responsible for cleaning the entrance way, the stairways, the front door etc. You could be surprised by the answer: It might be you!
4. There are municipal by-laws with respect to loud music, recycling and trash, etc. Germans in general obey the law to the letter, so don't be too shocked if someone "reprimands" you because you put some trash in the recycling bin or vice-versa!
Buying a House or an Appartment in Germany can be your best option, especially if you are here for quite some time. And you can always resell it after, if you move back.
In this case, the use of a real estate agent is almost necessary (unless you speak perfect German and know all there is to know about the law regarding such a matter). There are many real estate agents in each town and city, and finding one should not be difficult. Shop around and ask colleagues if they know of a good one.
Your bank(where you just opened a brand new account!) can also help you find housing in Germany, as many of them offer mortgage and real estate services and have photos of houses for sale in their front windows.
Have fun shopping around for the house of your dreams or for a cute little home!