Ken is originally from Florida, US and moved to Stuttgart with his family in February 2016. He used to work as an engineering recruiter and is a stay at home father at the moment. In this Expat Interview he shares his experiences with us about moving to Stuttgart and settling in.
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Ken, what brought you to Stuttgart?
My family landed in Germany at the beginning of 2016. My wife had gotten a long term contract position focusing in technology project management, and I was taking time off from my career to focus on raising our family.
What did you know about Stuttgart before you arrived here?
Although we had traveled Europe previously, my wife & I had little knowledge of Germany’s culture or language. Our research on the Stuttgart real estate market involved my wife & I watching an episode of “House Hunters International.” Having lived the previous five years in Miami, we felt we had enough experience with a strained rental market such as Stuttgart and wanted an international experience. We decided to take a chance.
What was your first impression?
Previously, we had been living in Miami Beach, and we got here in the dead of winter. It was gray and cloudy for days. It would literally be a month before I saw direct sunlight. Plus, I found myself in the same situations that every recently arrived American finds themselves in; standing in front of a closed grocery store on a Sunday, wondering why a washing load takes longer than an NBA season, trying to decipher rail timetables, etc. However, spring did come along eventually, the weather got better, and I started getting the hang of things.
I can imagine what a huge change that must have been… Did you find a place to live easily?
Stuttgart is a tough market for a renter. There are corporate employees, college students, US military service members / contractors, and local residents all competing for the same rental properties. Before arriving, we had been trying to schedule apartment viewings for over a month. My wife and I knew that we wanted a place in the middle of Stuttgart and close to the U-Bahn. Although we sent over twenty email inquiries in English and German, we only received one response. It was from a Stuttgart real estate agent who was offering short term furnished apartments. When we told him we were a family of three with two dogs, the agent told us that finding anyplace in downtown Stuttgart would be “impossible” and it would be best if we focused on looking in more rural areas. We kept looking. No matter how hard we tried, there were few return calls from landlords and almost no viewings. It would be almost to the end of our first month before we were able to find a place, but we did succeed.
Was it easy to settle in?
Settling in was not easy, and I think getting our first son into a German Kindergarten was what really helped move things along. But I do not think we have ever completely settled in. The moment we think we have fully transitioned something comes up such as when my wife was pregnant with our second child or moving our oldest to the Grundschule. Thing that we could have easily handled in the US have to be relearned within the confines of our new culture.
Was there anything that was very strange to you about the life in Stuttgart or Germany in general at the beginning?
There is a subtle yet stark difference in anything related to numbers in Europe as compared to the US. I would not say this is strange, but it was just difficult for me to overcome at the beginning. While in the US, people talk about Fahrenheit, Miles, and Gallons. Europeans are working with Celsius, Kilometers, and Liters. Yet there are other differences that are more subdued here. Time is regularly observed on a 24 hour clock. Decimal points are put where comas typically go and vice versa. Months expressed as numbers are changed. (May 6th of 2021 would be written as 06/05/2021 not 05/06/2021). Zip codes on addresses are placed before the city not after the city as in the US. It may not seem like a big deal to those who have been here for awhile. However, it was for me. And I found myself in situations such as when I was waiting for a furniture delivery on April 5 when it was actually scheduled to arrive on May 4.
Oh wow, yes I can imagine that this was – and still is – very confusing. Is there anything you like in particular about living in Stuttgart?
Although not specifically related to Stuttgart, I have an interest in the region’s history. Americans operate on a shorter timeline than in Germany. We get excited when we see a stage where Jimmy Hendrix played in ‘68 because that seems like a long time ago. In comparison, things here in Germany have been going on for many more centuries. For obvious reasons, the mid and late parts of the 1900s take up a lot of the conversation regarding Germany’s history. But there was a lot of other stuff that has been going on here and all with critical repercussions for the rest of the world; the Weimar Republic, the Bauhaus Movement, the Dadaists, the Franco-Prussian War, the Protestant Reformation, the Gutenberg printing press. All of it interests me, and it is great that I am able to visit these places.
Do you have a favorite place or area in Stuttgart?
I like Königstraße and the park in the center of the city. We have two children and want to make sure they get enough outside time. Of course, we all now live in the age of Covid. So, a place like the park downtown gives our boys a place to be outside while maintaining proper social distancing.
What would you have loved to know before or while you moved here?
I was way to cautious about the myth of the Ugly American when it was unnecessary. It is the fear that people from the US are overly boisterous and jingoistic. As a result, we tent to overcompensate, be overly polite, and easily intimidated. Swabians are very upfront and simply do not have time anyone overly polite or timid.
Ken, you are co-auther of the book „Mieter and Vermieter: A Handbook of Rental Law for Americans in Germany“[affiliate link]. Can you tell us more about it?
The catalyst for the book was related to issues we were having with our overly aggressive landlord. He was demanding thousands of Euros for minor damages that we felt were not our responsibility, and our insurance company agreed with us. So, the landlord began to do everything to make us uncomfortable. He made outrageous demands threatening to evict us and have us turned over to the police for insurance fraud. Although we had been working with the local Mieterverein, we felt we needed a more direct approach in working with this issue. We needed an attorney who would work exclusively on our issue.
This is how I came to meet my co-author, Josef Gläser. Josef’s focus is criminal law. His foray into landlord / tenant law was accidental. While in college, many of his fellow students were having issues with their rentals. Josef would help them and make a little extra money. The result was that he had become an expert in the subject, and it was a significant part of his practice along with criminal law. When Josef took our case and began talking with the landlord on our behalf, the issues did not completely end. However, the threatening dialogue subsided immediately.
While all of this was going on, I was talking with American expats on social media sites. Numerous American renters in Germany were having similar stories of being taken advantage of by landlords. It appeared that foreign tenants, particularly US tenants, were being singled out for abuse be exploitative landlords. Not wanting to seem biased, I asked Josef if my suspicions were accurate. Not only did he confirm this, but he was also bewildered by the response of US tenants. He said they were more likely to do repairs that were not their responsibility and forfeit deposit money that was due back to them. He did not understand why the US renter typically just gives up. As well, I was constantly showering Josef with questions due to my own inquisitive nature; damages, deposits, repairs, evictions, etc. Part of it was due to my own case, but part of it was because of my curiosity about the German culture.
Finally, Josef asked me if I would like to work with him on what he described as a brochure for Americans renting in Germany. So over a period of eight months, Josef & I would meet regularly to discuss the inner workings and hidden mechanisms of German rental law and make it more understandable for an American audience. The result was “Mieter & Vermieter – A Handbook of Rental Law for Americans Living in Germany” which was published on Amazon Kindle earlier this year. Primarily in the book, I play Robin to Josef’s Batman. He is the one with all the heavy legal descriptive super powers and I provide the narrative equivalent of a “Holy cow, Batman!”
What are you personal tips for everybody who is looking to rent a flat in Stuttgart?
A person may spend their time in the Germany with an easy and understanding relationship with their landlord. If so, they should consider themselves fortunate and be thankful. However, the alternative is equally possible. They may have a landlord who is looking to take advantage of your naiveté as an Ausländer or foreigner. The landlord may not have a proper understanding of German landlord / tenant law themselves. It is for these reasons that there are three things a renter should consider when renting in Germany in order to indemnify themselves.
- The first is insuring they have the proper resources available if needed. This includes becoming a member of the local Mieterverein (www.mieterbund.de). Or it can also include getting attorney insurance and finding an attorney specializing in German landlord / tenant law ( Fachanwalt für Mietrecht und Wohnunseigentumsrecht) when necessary. German Personal Liability Insurance is also helpful to have during the occurrence of any damages to a rented property that are above the normal wear & tear. Most of the major insurance providers in Germany offer this kind of coverage.
- The second thing is that a renter needs to understand that a German rental contract is a fixed document. It is not an easy task for a landlord to alter it. For example if a renter tries to do something that the landlord dislikes such as dispute the ancillary costs (Betriebskosten), an irritable landlord may instead demand immediate payment and threaten to terminate the lease. The truth is that there are very few reasons that a landlord can end the lease, and German law appears to be very tenant friendly with these issues. The same goes for rental increases. A landlord may send a letter to the tenant saying, “This past year has been very expensive unfortunately and as a result, we must sadly increase the rent cost an additional 15% per month starting with the following month.” Without question, the tenant will dutifully respond by paying the increase the following month. In actuality, the increase may not be justified. There is a thinly defined set of circumstances where an eviction or rent increase is warranted. The tenant should always contact a German attorney or their Mieterverein immediately when these issues come up.
- The third item is in regards to return of rental deposit. A rental deposit is expected to be returned to the tenant within six months from their returning the apartment / house to the landlord. However, this is not a fixed timetable. The German Federal Supreme Court is remarkably unclear about an exact timetable. A nefarious landlord who is seeking to keep the deposit for themselves has a prominent legal gray area to work with.
A landlord acting in bad faith will come up with elaborate excuses on the reason why the deposit cannot be returned; bookkeeper is out of town, final invoice on repairs has not been received, a damage that was not recorded previously has just now been noted, etc. What the landlord is trying to do is to have the tenant give up on trying to recover their deposit. If the landlord can get the renter to give up on recovering the deposit, the renter’s deposit claim expires after three years.
Even if the former tenant is back in the US or their other home country, they can easily give the German attorney or Mieterverein power of attorney to resolve these issues. Any potential cost on these items tend to be relatively small in comparison to the money lost from forfeiting the deposit.
Wow, it looks like you have learned A LOT about German rental law! Very interesting, even for me as a German 🙂
Ken, thank you very much for this Expat Interview and the insights into your book.