Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Archive for September 2016

Problems with buying an apartment in Germany

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I am currently considering buying an apartment, especially in the light of the inexcusable and utterly absurd behavior of my current landlord*. This has turned out to be extremely frustrating, even when discounting the predictable complication of attractive locations having high prices and low prices having unattractive locations (or some other problem). Consider:

*The one for my official residence in Düsseldorf. Not the one for my temporary apartment in Köln. I am very likely to write a long post on this at some point—but I am not certain that anyone will actually believe it! (Sometimes reality makes fiction look unimaginative…)

  1. In the flawed German system, I cannot hire* a realtor to search for me, because they only provide services towards the seller—for which the buyer has to pay.** Ask them to search for the buyer and they may or may not give a listing of the entries they currently have available***, but that is the last ever to be heard from them. If they do any work for the buyer, well, then they have additional work and no additional money…

    *In any sense that matters. As a matter of form, a “hiring” is implied at the latest when an agreement to buy is reached with the seller, but for all practical purposes this just means that the buyer acquiesces to pay for the realtor’s services towards the seller. The real hiring is done by the seller—the buyer just pays.

    **This used to be the case for rentals too. Fortunately, this idiocy has since been stopped—but only for rentals.

    ***More likely than not, they will either not respond at all or just tell the prospective buyer to have a look at their website—which is usually border-line unusable and highly uninformative.

  2. Realtors are highly problematic in other regards to, including that many of them only provide listings through meta-service providers like “Immobilienscout24” (effectively, Craig’s List for real estate), where they upload information provided by the seller, make the disclaimer that they make no guarantees whatsoever (just repeating in good faith), and wait for the prospective buyers to search. (Remember that the buyers are the ones who pay for this farce.)
  3. The lists of potential objects provided by most realtors and the large meta services often make no clear separation between apartments for buy-for-own-use and apartments for buy-and-rent-to-someone-else. These two use-cases are so different from each other*, however, that at least the buy-for-own-use-er will find half of the entries worthless— and often only finds this out somewhere towards the end of the page… The buy-and-rent-to-someone-else-er, OTOH, will be less than enthusiastic about the other half, because if he does not find a tenant, he is just leaking money.

    *In theory, the buyer can get rid of an existing tenant through invoking “Eigenbedarf” (“own need”); however, this brings a considerable risk that the tenant will be uncooperative and possibly requires a costly and time-consuming detour over the courts. To boot, I have considerable problems with the ethics of this, its legality notwithstanding. “Pacta sunt servanda” is otherwise the theoretical cornerstone of German law, as well as of ethical business practices in general.

  4. Similarly, a very considerable proportion of the objects turn out to be “Zwangsversteigerungen” (court auctions; literally, “forced auctions”) that imply a considerable additional risk and a lot of bureaucracy that many are not willing to take. (However, it can have advantages for those who are willing to take the risk.) Of course, the price listed is then not the actual price but some vague estimate or minimum that could turn out to have nothing to do with the actual price paid by the winner of the auction…
  5. The usability of most web sites in this area is extremely poor, including not working with JavaScript disabled, but being border-line unusable with it enabled (through factors like animations, marquees, requests that the user participate in surveys, and the like). Other common problems include poor search criteria, a minimal number of listings*, and “functionality” that breaks tabbed browsing—-something that would otherwise be extremely useful with this type of content (i.e. lists of entries where the user wants to review many of the individual entries at his own leisure and/or concurrently).

    *There appear to hundreds of realtors (be they individuals or companies) who each have just a dozen objects, of which just one or two are relevant to any individual buyer. It would be far better to have a dozen realtors with a few hundreds objects each. This too is likely a result of the flawed German model: The only reason that realtors do not have money effortlessly pouring in, is that the potential profits have lured too many people into this business…

  6. Due to utterly idiotic and over-killing money-laundering laws, the prospective buyer needs to give up a lot of information, typically including a copy of an ID document, even when just approaching a realtor with the wish for information on an object*. Not when he buys it, not even when he inspects the object in person, but when he makes a simple inquiry!

    *Or so a number of realtors claim. I have not checked whether they are telling the truth, but am somewhat skeptical, because not all do require this.

  7. If everything seems to pan out, the object being really interesting, then the “Hausgeld”* turns out to be 400-something Euro instead of the the 100-something typical for the size of apartment I am looking for—might as well be renting.

    *Frankly, I have no idea what this is in the English speaking world, but it amounts to a monthly fee to the apartment owners’ association to cover various costs, including for parts of the house not belonging to the individual apartments.

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Written by michaeleriksson

September 13, 2016 at 12:00 am

How to win an election in a lost democracy

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Looking at the U.S. Presidential election system, there is an interesting flaw in the two phases* involved: A candidate can win the first phase by having an ever so small majority, possibly even plurality, of his own party support him—and be without chance in the second phase through this support being too small.

*Preliminaries and main election. A case for more phases including preparations, declarations, nominations, and (of course) the election by the electoral college could be made, but I stick to the popular vote here.

In this setup, what is the best way to win an election? Make sure that a. you have a strong internal support, b. your opponent antagonizes almost half of his own party (or otherwise has a weak internal support and a strong risk of defectors). By planting, covertly supporting, whatnot, a poor candidate within the opposing party, the election result can be manipulated in a massive manner. The poor candidate does not even have to be “in on it”. In fact, I would be unsurprised if most variations of such (at least approximately) “divide and conquer” tactics work better when only the outside manipulators know the truth.

Notably, in the U.S. political landscape, with the two main parties both covering a very wide range of opinions and interests (the Republicans likely more so), this is not as far-fetched as it sounds. Take a candidate like Donald Trump*, who by playing the populist element and fringes of one party can gather a majority of his own party, while being highly unpopular in other parts of the party. Chances are that he will be able to mobilize a smaller share of the party members in the main election than a more main-stream/moderate/whatnot candidate—and he will see far more “defectors” from his own party than the opponent’s come election day**. In fact, a number of Republicans have actually publicly declared Hillary the lesser evil (something I very strongly disagree with, however problematic Trump may be). Similarly, with some reservations for how well the populism works, he is likely to miss out on most of the party-less vote.

*This post is very definitely inspired by the current situation. However, and I stress this strongly, I am not saying that this has actually already happened—just that it is a very real risk that it eventually will happen, the more likely after the parties have reviewed the events of the current election. However, similar stratagems have definitely been tried in other contexts in the past, notably during military conquests.

**Normally, almost every Republican voter will see virtually any Republican candidate as better than his Democrat counter-part (and vice versa), because even if flawed in character and sub-optimal in opinion, he will still be the lesser evil through belonging to the right party and having at least roughly the right opinions. The idea is to find a candidate who will disturb this principle with as many voters as possibly (while still managing to gain the party majority).

Say that election day comes, that the Republicans and Democrats are equally strong in general support, but that 80 % of the Democrats vote loyally while 20 % remain at home—and that only 70 % of the Republicans are loyal, 20 % remain at home, and 10 % actually defect. Well, that splits the vote 90–70, giving the Democrats an easy victory*, where we “should” have had a hard fight to the last hour of the election.

*Of course, with the all-or-nothing voting on the state level, such overall numbers are not necessarily important. However, in the given constellation, this would have kept every blue state in its traditional color, likely turned every swing-state blue, and quite possibly given some red states a do-over. The result is the same—an easy victory.

Now, consider the special case that you are put in charge of getting someone herself* almost unelectable elected. Suddenly, this strategy is not merely advantageous—it might be an outright necessity! For a disaster** to be elected, the opponent must at least appear to be similarly poor.

Bottom line: If you are Scylla and want ships heading your way, make sure the alternative is Charybdis.

*And, yes, I am most definitely talking about Hillary Clinton. However, I am still not saying that this is what actually has happened.

**In the case of Hillary Clinton, the disaster falls into two parts. Firstly, she is objectively a poor candidate, with a history of corruption, dubious qualifications, weird opinions, … She has even already more-or-less promised a cabinet with a male–female division of 50–50 based on the overall population distribution and ignoring actual suitability and availability of candidates—an idea fully on par with a wall to Mexico. Secondly, she is a candidate with handicaps when it comes to being elected, including being less than universally liked and more controversial among the Democrats than is safe for a candidate to be, being unusually disliked among the Republicans, being less telegenic and charismatic than many others have been (including Bill and Obama), and just (at least to me) appearing less natural.

Written by michaeleriksson

September 9, 2016 at 12:11 am

Living it UP with the HIGH society

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Preamble: Through my work, I have spent a lot of time in hotels and apartments rented on a monthly basis, in addition to a number of more permanent residences. I intend to write down some of my experiences in a blog series (of which this is the first post), especially with an eye on several recent negative experiences, but also some more general, some (as below) dealing with unusual situations, and one dealing with how to live in hotels in the best manner.

A few days ago, I moved into an (at least by German and Swedish standards) very unusual apartment, roughly a hundred meters above the ground and with one of the most amazing views I have ever seen—better than many dedicated observation decks. This includes a fair bit of the Rhine, most of central (and not so central) Cologne, and a straight line of sight to the world-famous Cologne Cathedral (once the highest building in the world).

It is not quite the proverbial highest room in the tallest tower—but it is the third-highest (24th) floor in the 55th tallest building in Germany (according to Wikipedia; and, yes, the building does have its own Wikipedia page), with a clear majority of the taller buildings being used for offices and the like. By co-incidence, the second highest I have lived was also in Cologne, somewhere in the range 12th–14th floor, in a building clearly visible through my window, despite being several kilometers away.

After living here for just a few days, I cannot give a full evaluation of the house or positive and negative aspects of living so high above the ground; however, a few observations are possible:

  1. The exposure to the sun is not interrupted by other buildings, trees, and the like. The temperature within the apartment has been considerably higher than would have been expected from the outside temperature (by the standards of an ordinary apartment). While sub-optimal in the summer, this could be an advantage in the winter.
  2. This is compensated for by air movements being similarly uninterrupted: Open a window* and fresh and cooling air will pour in.

    *The windows can all be opened, unlike in many newer buildings. In a building where they cannot, we had better hope for good air conditioning…

  3. A very unfortunate disadvantage, although I am not certain whether through the building’s tallness or its placement within Cologne, is disturbances through idiotic noise-makers—and that could get old very fast.

    For instance, this weekend there was a demonstration of some sort that featured several hours of loud drums and several (or one multi-day) near-by events with third-rate music and hysterically shouting MCs. If such things happen often, they could poison the situation entirely.

    Generally, I am of the opinion that such demonstrations and events simply should not be allowed in populated areas. If you want to have an event, an outdoors rock-concert, or similar, find an area outside of town, let those interested come to you, and leave those not interested (likely, a clear majority) in peace. If you have a political message to spread, start a blog or a party, talk to politicians, whatnot. Political demonstrations are only a legitimate tool for people artificially cut-off from otherwise expressing their opinions, e.g. through state censorship, or in situations involving a direct escalation against an unlistening and undemocratic* regime. Even in these cases, it is rarely sensible to demonstrate in general public areas and far better to do so in front of the appropriate government buildings.

    *To which I count regimes that were democratically elected, but then ignore the will of the people or the peoples interests, go back on election promises in a large-scale manner, and similar.

  4. The apartment is a little run-down, but by-and-large well organized and thought through, including the provided furniture.
  5. An exception is the bath room which is small and has a shower bordering on too small*, a bathroom cabinet that partially blocks the sink, and a “platform toilet”**.

    *According to the above Wikipedia page, the building was originally an office building, and it is conceivable that showers were added as an after-thought to existing toilets when converting to apartments, rather than setting up new bathrooms from scratch.

    **A regrettable idiocy of the German plumbing are occasional toilets with an artificial platform that collects excrement above the water until the user flushes. Apart from the distasteful optics and increased risk of smell, this virtually guarantees that the user needs to apply the toilet brush after every “number two”, whereas a “normal” toilet is cleaned by the flushing alone possibly two thirds of the time.

  6. The water pressure is quite OK, contrary to my expectations, but it is hard to get cold water from the taps, probably because the long way from the ground or use of an internal water-tank (to ensure water pressure) gives the water time to grow tepid.
  7. The house-door uses a weird electronic key that requires a battery while still needing the key to be inserted into the lock and turned. Conceivably, this too is a left-over from the office-building days; likely the technology is a failed pre-cursor to later key readers, where a battery-less object, often a card, is simple held to the reader.
  8. The elevators have so far come in a timely manner and traveled with very few interruptions on the way. This is a positive surprise, seeing that elevators are often an issue even in buildings with less than a dozen floors. The explanation is possibly that the number of apartments per floor is low (three at “my” floor), while e.g. a hotel often has ten, twenty, or more rooms per floor.
  9. Did I mention the amazing view? If not: The view is amazing.

Written by michaeleriksson

September 4, 2016 at 7:28 pm