Category Archives: flat

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French fire safety

It is no secret that the French culture embraces regulations. Illusory or not, they love the feeling of controlling the world around them with policies, procedures, and assignment of responsibility. These regulations slow down all activities in France and, in many ways, hurt France’s standing in the world. Of course tradeoffs exist, so we should be careful not to conclude that they are a bad thing in all cases.

What astounds me is that, even with all of this government intervention, common-sense safety regulations really don’t exist. In some cases, this seems like a good thing. It is liberating to not be protected from myself at every turn. But here they don’t even have basic safety features in flats and workplaces.

Take my workplace, for example, where there is a single usable fire exit (UPDATE: See below). The building is not particularly small. It is quite modern, and fire exits do exist all over the place, but they are all locked or barricaded in various ways. The only way out is the front door, and many parts of the building will likely be quite cut off from this exit in case of a fire. I don’t know what French law actually says about this situation, but such an American lab would be inspected and shut down promptly. It is true that some codes in the US are ridiculous, but I’d go so far as to say that the effective lack of fire codes here is stupid. One would think that a responsible employer would solve the problem, but I guess this lack of action illustrates the need for workplace safety regulations and enforcement.

The situation at home and around town is more complex. There are a lot of old buildings in France, including much of the housing. For this reason, it is undoubtedly difficult to implement safety rules across the board. That said, there are some things that are just silly. Last month, though we already had one, a law went into effect that finally mandated smoke detectors in rental housing. This is shocking to me, given that this has been regulated in pretty much every American town for decades. I don’t know the laws in the rest of Europe, but there was also no smoke detector in my flat in Germany. The silliness also extends to the construction domain, with almost every door in France swinging inward. Even worse, many doors require a key to exit. In our flat, for example, we must manually unlock the door to the actual flat and then also the one downstairs to exit to the street. If we don’t have our key on us, we’ll be trapped. I’m not just arguing for the value of regulations. I also believe that responsible landlords and architects should solve these things voluntarily, and it astounds me that they largely haven’t.

Imagine living in a place where right turns on red are universally outlawed but the fire exits are chained shut. It’s mind boggling.

UPDATE: I’ve been told (for unrelated reasons) that there is a second exit that does work in our lab. As far as I know, there is still no alternate exit from the large room with the VR equipment, which has 3 out of 4 exits locked, but is the most likely place for a fire.

flat Germany

The Incompetence of Göttinger Hausverwaltung (GöHV)

Today I’ve had what I can only hope is my last communication with Göttinger Hausverwaltung. If it is the last interaction I ever have to have with them, thank goodness; if it is not, hopefully any further communications are only about the return of my deposit — I’m doubtful about the odds of that happening though. For now, let me share a cautionary tale about doing business with Göttinger Hausverwaltung, the biggest property management company in Göttingen, Germany. The gist of this story? Do NOT do business with GöHV, no matter how desperate you are to find an apartment in Göttingen — and I know if you are looking for an apartment in Göttingen, the odds are that you are very desperate.

When I first arrived in Göttingen, I needed to find an apartment quick. Everything depended on it — it was mid-April, I had signed a contract to start a job in Göttingen in May, I had just “moved” from the US — if you can call lugging two suitcases of stuff on a trans-Atlantic flight “moving”, I had no pre-established network of people, and all my research told me I had to get a place to live before I could get my visa, work permit, bank account, health insurance, tax number, etc. So I, too, was desperate to find a place and get the ball rolling on these other important aspects of starting life in a new country, as I had less than three weeks before I was supposed to start working.

Thus, I visited as many apartments as possible over several days while I stayed in the local hostel. I eventually got lucky and found an einzelzimmer in the city center. It seemed ideal due to location, size, and price –it was by no means perfect, but better than anything else I had come across in the few days I had been searching. The grad student living there helped arrange the whole exchange since I barely spoke any German.

When the day came to officially turn over the keys, the previous tenant, the representative from GöHV (Frau Alexandra Deeke), and I met in the apartment. The conversation primarily proceeded in German between the previous tenant and Frau Deeke. He pointed out things that belonged with the apartment, such as cabinets and shelving, and also pointed out damage to the apartment that either needed fixed or were things that the apartment agency already had records of. The previous tenant translated for me. He told me some things would be fixed in the coming weeks by GöHV, and other things — such as a hole in the plaster caused by a door handle — would not be fixed, but GöHV knew about them and I would not be liable for them when I moved out. Seemed reasonable enough, and the rest of the exchange went how one would expect. In the end I signed a couple papers accepting the apartment and confirming I got the keys.

Within a week or two, GöHV tried to contact me about setting up an appointment for the repairs. I ended up visiting their office in person to arrange this because I was not confident about speaking German on the phone. The receptionist sent me to Frau Deeke, who spoke with me in English, and told me I could contact her in English anytime in the future if something needed fixed or I had other issues.

Over the next year and a half or so, I had several problems that did require repairs. The hausmeister was slow to get things done, and the prices they billed were high when they determined it was my duty to pay for certain things. These weren’t really major concerns for me, but were just what I came to expect after hearing things around town about GöHV. However, it was pretty ridiculous one time when I received a bill for work done in my neighbors’ apartment. I talked to my neighbors about it, and it turns out GöHV was trying to charge 70-some Euros for the repairman to spend about three minutes plunging their toilet. The mistake in regards to who should be charged was chalked up to a clerical error of some sort — I’m going to go ahead and say it was actually incompetence, based off more recent experiences.

Fast forward to my exit from Göttingen. The problems started soon after I handed in my written notice to GöHV. In my notice I said I would be looking for someone to take over my apartment before the end of the three months, a nachmieter. I started showing my apartment within days of giving notice. I immediately found a student who said she definitely wanted the apartment and all my furniture in it. She seemed to have some problems getting ahold of GöHV and filling out the application form at first, but eventually got it. I interacted with her for about a week and a half. She was offered the lease, but since apparently Germans are assholes when it comes to apartment hunting and will straight up lie about their intentions, she ultimately turned down the contract about a week into the week and half I spent interacting with her. No one at GöHV bothered to tell me this (let alone that they offered her the contract in the first place). Apparently that was not relevant information for me to know. So, I lost valuable time searching for other possible tenants.

Also, a couple of days after giving notice, GöHV started giving out my phone number to people who might be interested in the apartment. I guess I would have agreed to this, except they never asked if this was ok with me. Random people just started calling my phone all times of day. Further, it soon became clear that GöHV was giving out incorrect information about my apartment — specifically the address and the date it would be available. Later on they started giving people specifically interested in my apartment wrong information altogether by giving out information on an entirely different apartment.

For the next round of possible nachmeiters, I told them it was a race to the finish and whoever applied and signed the lease first would get the apartment. Several applied, and several others attempted to apply but were turned away. Yes, GöHV was turning people away when no one had actually signed a lease yet — why bother having back-ups, right?  After I heard back from some that they were turned away from applying, I personally went into the office with yet another prospective tenant. He too was turned away from applying, and I was told they sent the lease to someone several days ago. News to me! I contacted that person and he promised he was going to sign the lease. Then several days later he contacted me to say he was not signing the lease after all. I immediately called up the prospective tenant I had personally visited GöHV’s office with, and arranged to go there again with him on the next day, a Saturday. He was finally allowed to apply for the apartment, and we were told he would be the only one considered at that time, and he would find out on Monday, at latest Tuesday, if he would be given the lease.

My appointment to turn over the apartment to GöHV was scheduled for that Monday, because I had to move to my new home in France, and the time investment and cost of returning to Göttingen after I moved were too great. There was a possibility I could stay longer in Göttingen to take care of the key exchange with the nachmieter, but the GöHV employee I spoke to on Saturday said I should go ahead with the appointment on Monday before the nachmieter had signed a lease.

Monday morning comes, and Frau Deeke shows up to our appointment to hand over the keys. First of all, she refused to speak English with me and my husband, even though I know from previous interactions that she speaks English. Second, she was very rude to my husband by basically ignoring him after discovering his connection to me and that he did not speak German well enough for her. Then the real problems started. The areas that we had painted were “uneven,” and it had to be fixed because a nachmieter was not secured yet. When we started to ask whether I should stay and see if the prospective nachmieter was approved and/or to re-do the painting, she really started to get flustered with us. She said she would deduct money from my security deposit for wasting her time with this meeting if I decided to stay. She would not clearly explain the options and outcomes if I stayed and fixed things, or if I just left then. Then she started to note all sorts of other problems with the apartment. The kitchen cabinets should have been removed, as well as the laminate flooring in the kitchen, the shelving in the entrance should have been ripped out of the walls, the window shades removed, and apparently the hole in the wall caused by a door handle was now my responsibility. Most irritating of all, apparently it was my responsibility to make the kitchen perfect — a kitchen that was impossible to make perfect because GöHV had allowed some previous tenant to paint over the tile backsplash with white paint, thereby allowing it to absorb grease and food stains. All of these things the prospective nachmieters had been willing to accept as is.

My husband and I became very frustrated, because it became clear that she had every intent of finding problems so that GöHV could take as much of my deposit as possible. Even the hole in the wall, which I was told I would not be liable for when I moved in, was something she was adamant I would be responsible for paying. Ultimately we decided to just hand over the keys and leave that day, and attempt to move forward with our lives knowing GöHV would probably try to keep all of my nearly thousand-Euro deposit. That afternoon I got a message from the most recent prospective nachmieter saying his application had been rejected by GöHV — he nor I never found out why; he was employed though, so the only things I can think of as the probable “cause” are that they just rejected him to screw with me, or they rejected him because he wasn’t German and might be more difficult to interact with like me. They told him they sent the contract to someone else. How that is even possible, I have no idea, since on Saturday they told us he was to be the only one considered at that time. I emailed back and forth several times with a GöHV employee, and they refused to tell me who the lease was sent to, citing “privacy concerns.” All they would say was that they would contact me in writing when the apartment was rented out.

The following week I had a German friend call them up. The GöHV representative he spoke to said the apartment was still not rented, and she could not find any other information about what was happening with it.

Weeks have since gone by with no communication from them. Today I finally received a letter from them saying the apartment has been rented. The brilliant minds over at GöHV apparently thought it was a good idea to send this letter addressed to my old apartment — an apartment they know I no longer live at. I gave them my new address when I left town; good thing I’m having my mail forwarded, I guess. Not only that, but they couldn’t even be bothered to delete the obviously non-applicable information on their form letter advising me to make an appointment for the inspection and to hand over the keys.

In conclusion, I advise you not to do business with GöHV. During my interactions with them, they have demonstrated a degree of incompetence (as well as indifference and at times spite) that I have never before experienced with a property management company. Even the most basic duties of property management seem to be a special challenge for them, so if you are searching for an apartment in Göttingen and ever expect to have repairs or one day move to another place, do whatever you need to do to avoid renting from GöHV.

flat Germany

I generally trust Germans, but German shoppers…

Generally speaking, German culture is very respectful to one another. Even the language is very formal and polite. Just sitting down to eat warrants a “guten Appetit.” Even the kids in Germany tend to be respectful. One time a group of teenagers offered me candy on the tram. Americans are notorious for saying they will call you later with no intention of actually doing it, for example. In Germany, if a friend tells you he will call you on Saturday, you can expect it to happen. This is one thing I really like about Germany. This is also why I find the unreliability of German buyers, sellers, and apartment seekers to be surprising.

When it comes to buying and selling things on the internet, people often get very shady. If an item is sold, instead of taking it down, they just ignore emails. If buying an item, German shoppers will reschedule repeatedly and make the whole process as inconvenient as you’ll let them, often for a purchase worth only a few Euro. A couple months ago in Bremen, a girl did exactly this to me for a couple pots. I ended up donating them, because they weren’t worth the trouble. When buying second-hand stuff on the internet, all of their courtesy is forgotten and the world revolves around them. The same thing goes for when they sell things on the internet. I one time had a girl go off on me in an email after a very brief exchange in which I misspoke about when I’d like to meet and it conflicted with her schedule (I assume she was headed to finishing school that day). Now obviously I’ve bought and sold things successfully but self-centered is the best way to describe many of the people I’ve interacted with.

The worst time to deal with this attitude is when seeking an apartment or attempting to get rid of yours. It is very common for Germans to apply for multiple apartments. They also often tell you that they are very interested and going to apply right away. You only get an application from a small percentage of these people. It seems that this is a vicious cycle, where prospective renters have to oversell their interest and hedge their bets by making promises they don’t expect to keep. I was even been advised in my own apartment search that I should apply to an apartment even if I wasn’t sure that I wanted it. The problem is this jams up the whole system for everybody because once a landlord approves somebody, they stop taking applications. I’ve heard some people take months to find a decent place in Bremen. This also hurts the person trying to get out of an apartment. It’s impossible for them to make plans when people tell them they are definitely going to apply and then just decide not to.

In the US, I wouldn’t say we are overly courteous to one another. But, in my experience, we do tend to keep our word when it comes to things like this. If somebody emails me about my place and it’s already taken, I’ll politely reply. If somebody promises me that they will go down and sign the lease in the morning, I have a reasonable expectation that they will do it. It’s weird because this phenomenon is really a polar opposite of how these cultures behave on a daily basis.