CONTRIBUTED BY SARAH FORTE
Tick, tock, tick, tock… Do you have a house yet? That seems to be the first question asked of newcomers. As if you need a reminder! It seems to be all-consuming. Where will we live?
Upon arrival in Germany most military members will have 30 days of Temporary Living Allowance (TLA). For us, that meant a month of living in on-base lodging. It wasn’t bad digs – a three bedroom apartment set up. In fact, the building used to be on-base housing. We had a full kitchen, with cooking and dishware. We still only had three suitcases worth of our belongings, but hey, housekeeping still came and made our bed! But, the clock was ticking. We couldn’t stay forever.
At my active duty husband’s in-processing, the housing office gave the brief: In these first 30 days you are expected to find a home. On-base housing is full. If you’d like, you can put your name on a waiting list. The housing office will approve your TLA every ten days. After each 10 days, you need to bring back a list of houses you looked at. If you didn’t choose a house, you need to tell why not. School district preference and your pet situation don’t count as good reasons. Tick, tock!
If you would like a housing agent to show you around, they are called “immobilien.” They will usually charge one to two months rent as a finders fee, but they will line up appointments to see houses and contact landlords for you. They might even drive you to the house. The cost is not reimbursable, so this is an important choice to use or not use one.
In order to be approved by the base housing agency, the house needs to be inspected and approved. This insures the house is safe, the landlord is reputable and the amount of rent is appropriate. You will not be able to rent a house without this approval. So it’s important to have it.
AHRN.com (Automated Housing Referral Network) serves as a search engine for homes that have been pre-approved. You will need to register with a .mil email address. You will need to have access to that .mil account only to get your account set up. Once you have successfully logged in for the first time, you will no longer need to have access to that .mil account. So if it is your spouse’s .mil email, you can still do the searching. Or if you are away from your work email, you can still use AHRN.
On AHRN you can search according to which base you’d like to be near, how near, the price range, school district and more. Landlords can post pictures and list amenities. You can look up your housing allowance, save searches, and contact landlords through their messaging system. The site is also linked to google maps so that you can see exactly where the house is.
There are other ways to look for a house too. Sometimes word of mouth works well. If someone is moving out, you can bet the landlord wants someone else to move in! Check your base for local newspapers and local websites for classified ads. Some of these houses may be pre-approved and some may need to gain approval before you can sign a contract.
My husband and I used AHRN to find our house. First we narrowed our search according to what would fit in our Overseas Housing Allowance (OHA). This is determined by rank and dependents. If you go over your OHA, the difference comes out of your pocket. If you are under your OHA, you will not get to keep the difference.
We also looked carefully at how long the commute to base would be. A few kilometers can make a difference. Take a look at the route: Is the house near a base gate that is always open? Does it have close access to the autobahn?
Other location items to keep in mind: How is the cell phone coverage? How fast is the internet? In America, we take these for granted in most places, but there are places in Germany where these commodities are still coming. We were told by a few people to wait to get a long-term cell phone contract until we knew what town we would be living in, to make sure the two meshed.
We also narrowed our search by types of dwellings. We decided that living in a single-family dwelling was worth a little more of a drive for us. It’s often said that a longer drive will give you more house. I’m not sure that’s always the case.
Also listed on AHRN are the types of utilities. Electric, gas and solar heat all come with different price-points. If you live off-base you will be given a utilities allowance. Different from OHA, this flat rate is yours to keep if you go under the amount. If you are over, it still comes out of your pocket.
Many people gave us the same advice: the utility system is different – be careful. Your monthly electricity fee is a flat rate, based on the usage in that building last year. If a larger family who liked to leave the lights on lived in your house last year, that’s the price you’ll pay for your first year. Conversely, if a single person who was away often lived there, you will pay that price. After a year, the utility company looks at what your actual usage was for the year. If you over-paid, you will receive the difference. If you underpaid, you will have a bill!
Many houses have oil heating. Somewhere is a big tank. When it’s empty, it needs to be filled before you get heat in your house. The oil will need to be ordered and delivered.
After looking at all of these criteria, the information and pictures online, we contacted a few landlords to see if we could take a look at their houses. Only a few got back in touch with us, but that’s all it took!
The first landlord that returned our message on AHRN offered to meet with us. We drove together out to the house only to find that he had not contacted the current tenants and they were not home! That day all we could do was look around the outside of the house and look at more pictures the landlord had on his computer.
He did give us contact information for the current tenants, who were also an American military family. We contacted them and lined up a time that worked to have them show us around the house. This ended up being wonderful, since they could tell us the ins and outs of the house from the viewpoint of someone who had lived there for the last years.
After we looked at the house – the inside this time – we decided that we would like to live there! Now to make it official and that meant dealing with the housing office. Please take note of your local housing office’s hours. There are limited walk-in hours and appointments may be a few days out.
We had been to visit the housing office once already. Every ten days that we were using our TLA, we needed to bring the receipt to housing. With their approval, they forwarded the receipt to finance and we were told we would see the amount credited to us in my husband’s LES.
Our first visit to the housing office had been a little shocking. During our first ten days we had managed to see three houses. We thought we were doing pretty good since those ten days had been filled with in-processing and a three day, holiday weekend. The housing office told us we better step it up a notch!
There is a contract that needs to be signed by the landlord, tenant and the housing office before we could continue the process. We had a copy of the contract from housing. The top information was ours. We were told to bring it when we went to visit houses.
Sometimes, the competition for a certain house can be fierce. We heard about times when a family went to look at a house and found that there were many families also being shown the house that day. The first to get a signed contract wins! As soon as a landlord has a contract in hand, he or she is supposed to take the house off the market and stop showing it to others.
We took our contract to our landlord and he filled in his information about the house and returned it to us. While he was doing this, we made an appointment to bring the contract to the housing office. When we brought the contract to housing, they would not accept it because the amount of the utilities was filled in but the letters “est” for estimated were not written.
We needed to take the contract back to the landlord for those three letters and then made another appointment at the housing office. Since the house was pre-approved, the biggest hurdle was passed. After housing approved the contract, we could sign it and proceed.
The next stop, in the same office, was the Furniture Management Office (FMO). Here we could arrange for temporary and long-term furniture delivery. The temporary furniture was what we needed to live until our House Hold Goods (HHG) shipment arrived. It consisted of beds, table, chairs, couch, and end tables. The long-term furniture items were a microwave, refrigerator, washer, dryer, wardrobes (German houses rarely have closets) and transformers. All the electric items were 220 volts for German electricity (link to European Electricity article).
In our case, the FMO shipment was scheduled for 10 days after we were starting our rental contract. This was the first available date. In that case, housing would arrange that our OHA and TLA would both be paid until we could move into the house.
After signing the contract, we took a copy of it back to the landlord and made our first payment. Be aware that you will be paying the rent as well as the utilities that are due to the landlord as outlined in the contract. We took the first payment in cash, but the rest will be paid automatically through our bank. To set this up, our landlord gave us his banking information and we took it to our bank that has a German routing number.
Accompanying the contract paper is a list of all fixtures and surfaces of the house. We could mark the state of those and list any preexisting damage so that when we move out we will not be responsible. We took pictures of these items and sent them to the landlord.
Finally, we were able to take the keys and took a few items over to the house until we could move in. In the meantime, TMO (Travel Management Office) contacted us to say that our HHG shipment had arrived and we arranged delivery. We paid our final payment for our TLA and turned it in to the housing office for reimbursement.
And we had a home! Almost exactly two months after loading all but three suitcases of our belongings into shipping crates and moving out of our last home, we had our things back and were ready to make our German house into our German home!