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Travel

Holidaying in the heart of a Berlin neighborhood

Staying in hotels is so yesterday - today people look for homes away from home and letting agencies like Airbnb are booming, especially in Berlin.

Viktoria Kevin enjoying a meal with her Finnish guests (Copyright: DW / E. Yorck Von Wartenburg)

Viktoria Kevin enjoying a meal with her Finnish guests

Everything has to be perfect: Jeanette Böhm casts a critical eye over her holiday apartment "Fichteperle" in the hugely popular Kreuzberg district of Berlin. Is the blanket neatly folded on the sofa? Are all the curtains open and are all the beds made? The trained carpenter nods. Everything is ready now for her guest's check-in. She is expecting three visitors from Switzerland.

The holiday apartment is typical for Berlin, on the third floor in a backyard building. It has a bathroom, one bedroom and a big sitting room with an open kitchen. On the table next to the sofa there are books and brochures on Berlin. "It is important to me that my guests find everything here that they might need. I want to avoid that impersonal hotel experience," the 33-year-old Jeanette tells DW. The photographs on the wall were all taken by her, and guests can buy them as a memento of their visit to Berlin.

From air-mattress to holiday apartments

Berlin appartment building from the outside (Copyright: DW / E. Yorck Von Wartenburg)

Jeanette's holiday apartment is hidden behind these curtains

She lived in this apartment herself until 2011, when she moved into a new flat a few streets on. Since then she has been renting the apartment, which she has bought. At first she advertised it with the online platforms Mowitania and housetrip - but that wasn't so successful. Then an acquaintance told her about Airbnb. "I'd never heard of them," Jeanette says.

Airbnb was a typical start-up company: young designers from San Francisco helped trade fair visitors who had not managed to find a hotel room, by giving them floor-space in their apartments, where they could sleep on an air mattress - hence the name "Airbnb," which stands for air-bed and breakfast.

This spawned a business idea that made it possible for private rooms and entire apartments, from tree houses to villas, to be listed and made available to rent to a global online community. The platform boomed and, according to Airbnb, in 2014 there were 38,000 places listed in Germany of which 14,000 were in Berlin. And that number is growing. Little today is left of the air mattress concept, and now there are commercial agents using the platform as well as private users. Never-the-less it is proving serious competition for the hotel business.

The personal touch

Jeanette Böhm in her Berlin holiday apartment (Copyright: DW / E. Yorck Von Wartenburg)

Jeanette Böhm manages her Berlin holiday apartment with a passion

As soon as Jeanette advertised her apartment on Airbnb booking requests quickly started coming in. "We had some good reviews, so then more people became interested in my flat," she recalls. Now her apartment is booked out for most of the year. "Managing my holiday rental is a job I do with a passion," she adds.

At the moment she is living from the money she makes from the holiday rental, although three percent of the rent is subtracted by Airbnb as a booking fee. Jeanette no longer works as a carpenter, because a full-time job as well as the holiday rental would be too difficult to manage - as guests tend to check-in at different times of the day, sometimes even at three in the morning. Never-the-less she still insists on being there in person to greet the guests and answer any questions they might have, as well as giving them tips on how to get around, restaurants and other good-to-know places close by. Check-in is very often the only time Jeanette spends time with her guests, because after that they are left to their own devices. And when they leave they put the keys on the dining table and pull the apartment door shut.

At dinner with the Finnish guests

Viktoria Kevin's place is very different. She rents out two rooms in her own apartment, also in Kreuzberg, to Airbnb guests. She has constructed a partition to her own private space; however the kitchen and bathroom are shared with the guests. This presents no problem to the 45-year-old. Very much the opposite: she loves getting to know new people and telling them about Berlin. Most of her guests come from far away, like Latin America or Asia. This also is no problem as "most of them speak English," Kevin explains.

Like her current guests, siblings Saana and Vuoti, 21 and 19 years of age, from Finland. They are on a five day visit to Berlin. "With Airbnb we can travel cheaply and we get to know local people too," Saana says. Viktoria's guests are usually young. She says this is fairly standard for Airbnb guests. When she cooks in the evening the Berlin woman likes to invite her guests to join her - an invitation they are usually very grateful for. "My apartment is full of gifts - like this Indian tea or these glasses from Morocco," Viktoria raves. Occasionally friendships are formed that last beyond the guests' visit. Viktoria smiles: "some people still send me postcards."

Competition in Berlin is getting tougher

Viktoria hasn't really had many bad experiences with her guests. "I don't rent to any large groups," she tells DW, "because that's when neighbors tend to complain about noise." Particularly in the popular Kreuzberg district, close to Viktoria's apartment, locals often complain of noise from partying young tourists. But noise is not the only problem. Short-term holiday apartments can charge more than long-term rentals, so the choice of holiday places is growing. The result is a declining number of flats available to rent.

The brown flags represent vacant holiday lettings in the district (Copyright: Grafik von Alice Bodnar)

The brown flags represent vacant holiday lettings in this Kreuzberg district

Berlin graphic artist Alice Bodnar has designed a map of the popular Kreuzberg district depicting the distribution of apartments to rent - a snapshot which shows that for every 100 Airbnb holiday rental offers there is only one flat to rent. The map should not be seen as passing any kind of judgment on the situation, Bodnar says, as it is merely an attempt to show vacancies in the rental market as opposed to the holiday rental availabilities. Bodnar adds: "The numbers might change again, but I can clearly see a decline in the rental market." She stresses that she supports the basic idea of Airbnb, which is to share your private apartment space: "however any commercial use of these holiday rental sites should be stopped."

The city of Berlin has already adopted a law which limits the number of holiday rentals. Current licenses for holiday lettings are limited to two years – at which stage they are to be reviewed by the city council. Those who do not adhere to the law will face hefty fines.

Jeanette Böhm has officially registered her apartment and hopes to be given permission to rent the "Fichteperle" holiday apartment beyond the two year limit. Her dream is at some point to buy several holiday apartments which she will design and decorate as well as manage. Viktoria Kevin has already reached that point. Not only does she rent out parts of her own home to Airbnb guests, but she also owns several apartments in Berlin. Her plan is: "to travel the world in five years time." She adds that: "by then I need to make sure to have collected contacts everywhere in the world with my Airbnb guests so that I will have lots of places I can visit."

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