Why the smart money is on Germany's cheap buy-to-lets

The former East Berlin now has a thriving buy-to-let market
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For the past decade, British property-investors have ranged over Europe, searching out the latest property hotspots. Many have poured money into countries they could not locate on the map if a gun was held to their wallet.

But nobody even looked at Germany. Poor economic performance combined with the staggering cost of bringing the former communist East in from the cold held back the property market and kept yields down.

But, just as growth in the current favourites such as the Baltic states and Bulgaria may be levelling off, there are signs that Germany might be on the up at long last.

Liam Bailey, the head of research at Knight Frank, says: "Too many people look to invest in the top growth location like Latvia, assuming that high growth will continue. It might be a more interesting and perhaps rewarding strategy to look at the bottom of the table and think which of these countries will see the next upturn.

"We think investors could do well to look behind the headline figure and look more closely at some of the German sub-markets."

Most of these sub-markets are in the old East, in cities such as Leipzig or Dresden and, especially, Berlin, which is re-establishing its position as a major European capital.

Other factors are also at work, however. Stewart Law, at the buy-to-let mortgage specialists Assetz, has detected a new desire by Germans to buy their homes rather than rent them, a decision that could cause seismic changes.

"The burgeoning change in the psyche of the German population from lifelong rental into property-ownership presents considerable opportunity for investors," he says. "Growth is starting in cities such as Berlin, where, incredibly, just 13 per cent of the population own their own homes compared to 43 per cent in Germany as a whole, and 66 per cent in the UK."

As a result, prices are beginning to rise, Law says: "Interest in residential property is starting to increase, pushing up prices which are now typically still just €2,000 [£1,000] a square metre compared to five times that or more in Paris or London."

The latest trend to hit Berlin is for loft apartments, says Bruno Nonaca of IPP Investment. "A lot of the old fabric is available for refurbishment and we are doing a lot of loft apartments," he reveals. "A former commercial building can yield 7 per cent after refurbishment as lofts." Nonaca is currently selling Steinlein Lofts, a conversion of a 19th-century leather factory in the Prenzlauer Berg area of East Berlin (except that nobody calls it East any more). The large industrial-chic apartments cost between €86,000 [£43,000] and €379,000 [£190,000], a fraction of the price of similar lofts in Hoxton or Clerkenwell. Nonaca expects rental yields to be between 5.5 and 6.7 per cent.

British investors are also getting interested in the bottom end of the market in the former East Germany, according to the auctioneer Mark Ronaldson of Wilmotts, who will put six assorted properties under the hammer in London tomorrow. "The market is like the UK in the late 1990s, with institutional landowners selling on a market without enough buyers to take up the slack," he says.

Two of the lots appear to be bargains, for sale without reserve at a guide price of just £1,000.

"The owner just wants to get rid of them, so we are selling at a price that will just about pay his sales costs," Ronaldson says. "That gets a lot of attention, and a previous lot where we did this sold at £75,000."

The properties seem large and attractive, even if the bidding rises well above the £1,000 guide. One is a stone-faced block of four flats in the ancient town of Gotha, the other a bungalow and house in Naumberg.