By Capt. Robert W. Duffie Jr.
Legal Assistance, Claims Officer
Stuttgart Law Center
21st Theater Sustainment Command
Living on the German economy is a great way to learn more about your new home. But be aware that when you rent a German apartment, your relationship with your landlord is bound by German law. This article is meant to be a very general introduction into German landlord-tenant law.
Termination of a lease
Check your lease to determine the required notice period.
The Housing Office uses a standard form contract that allows a tenant to terminate a lease in one month if terminating for military reasons (PCSing, deployments, etc.). This is known as the Military Clause. A service member should always use the Housing Office’s standard contract and never sign a contract that does not have a Military Clause.
As soon as you know your date of departure, you should give your landlord written notice of lease termination, by registered letter. You should ask the Housing Office for the necessary paperwork for a termination notice to your landlord. After signing the termination notice, you must send it to your landlord, return receipt requested, by German Mail or hand carry it and deliver it in the presence of an unbiased witness. This allows you to prove when the landlord received the termination.
If you want to terminate an indefinite lease, the landlord’s consent is not required. If you want to terminate a fixed term lease and the landlord refuses to release you, contact the Legal Assistance Office for help.
The landlord does not have to cover past-due rent with the security deposit. Therefore, you should not withhold the last one or two months’ rent unless you inform the landlord about your intentions and the landlord agrees.
For failure to pay rent, the landlord is entitled to attach property of the tenant. This right of the landlord can be enforced without a court order as long as the property is located in the rented apartment. However, there are some restrictions as to the type of property that may be attached.
In Germany, utility charges are based on estimates. Tenants pay a set amount each month and will either pay more or get money back based on the actual usage at the end of the accounting period – this is called the annual reconciliation. The accounting period can start /end any time during the calendar year. At this time, the meter for water and heating will be read. German courts grant the landlord periods of up to 12 months after the meters are read to provide the tenant with the reconciliation statement. A problem could occur if the tenant has paid advanced monthly payments for utilities and yet has not received the annual reconciliation.
If the tenant moves out within the accounting period, the meters have to be read at the time of move-out. However, the bill is not due at this time.
The landlord is allowed to withhold an appropriate part of the security deposit if an additional payment for the utilities can be expected based on the last year’s reconciliation. In these cases, it is recommended to work out an agreement based on the amount of the last year’s reconciliation or to provide the landlord with the tenant’s address in the states to settle any future claim.
Damages to the property
Tenants should conduct a pre-checkout with a representative from Housing Office and/or the landlord a few weeks prior to the move-out date. This provides an opportunity to settle disputes about the property’s condition. If actual damages are present, there is sufficient time to get an estimate of the repair costs.
The tenant has the burden of proof to establish that any damages were present in the apartment before he moved in. A check-in list or inventory sheet and digital photos are the best proof. If an inventory sheet is not available, the statement of a credible witness can also be considered sufficient.
If there are no disputes, reimbursement of the security deposit is due at the time of move-out. If the landlord requests reimbursement for damages or renovation, he is granted an appropriate period of time to specify his claims. The German courts grant a maximum extension of six months to specify the claims and to reimburse the tenant.
A tenant can hire a German attorney on the economy to file a reimbursement claim against the landlord. It is recommended that the soldier inform a trustworthy person about his case and provide that person with a power of attorney so this person can be a point of contact for the German attorney after the soldier’s departure from Germany.
As a general rule in civilian court actions, the unsuccessful party must pay the costs of the court action, which includes attorney fees for both sides and the court costs. The successful litigant does not have to pay anything. If a litigant is partially successful, all procedure costs are divided proportionally. The cost of attorney fees and court costs depend on the value of the matter in dispute.
If the litigant has severe financial problems, his attorney can apply for legal aid. If the judge grants legal aid, the client has to pay only the other party’s attorney fees if he is unsuccessful.