For anyone who has traveled around the US, you have seen many styles and sizes of homes, primarily built from wood or brick materials. And, unless it was a custom-built home, most homes in American subdivisions tend to be very “cookie cutter” homes with only slight differences in appearance. Visiting and living in Germany, sprawling subdivisions do not exist, homes are not built from wood or brick, and homes do not appear to be the same. Germany has some very unique differences in their homes vs. homes in the States, which the following helps explain…
NOTE: the below excludes the very old, half-timber German homes, which are a totally different type of home to themselves
Renting vs. Owning:
Ask any American what does the ‘American Dream” consist of, and one of the answers will be owning your own home. After WWII, US cities began to grow with the baby-boomer generation. Sub-divisions grew as the government and banks made it easier and cheaper for Americans to buy a home because over time less money was needed as a down payment. Excluding the 2008 financial crisis, owning a home was one of the best investments for families due to the appreciation values.
However, in Germany, renting a home is the norm. Homeownership in Germany does exist, but typically one has to put 30-50% down up front on top of high property and building costs. That’s not to say that this doesn’t happen, but the investment is usually made to build a home and then rent it out. And, renting is different too in Germany. In the US, it is common to sign a 1-year lease, but Germans will rent the same place for many years. Our landlord thought us wanting to rent for only 3-years was too short and he almost did not allow us to move in.
Construction Materials: (obviously, any materials can be used, but these are most common)
The US is a very large country, comparable to the size of all of Europe. As such, wood is a very cheap and abundant resource, and the primary building material used in home construction. Typically, in the US, homes are built with wood framing sitting on top of a concrete foundation. The walls are insulated with fiberglass insulation and the interior walls use drywall (sheetrock), which is gypsum plaster pressed between sheets of thick paper. From there, the drywalls are painted, etc. The roof shingles are made of fiberglass asphalt in various shades of colors (typically shades of grey to black).
In Germany, wood is generally not used as a building material, but rather homes are built using Kalksandsteinmauerwerk (sand/limestone brick masonry) — a type of concrete mixture. Metal rebar frames are created and the Kalksandsteinmauerwerk blocks fill in the sections to form the foundation, walls, and ceilings. The outside of the blocks then have a layer of stucco applied and then painted (normally white, but other colors are sometimes used). Inside the blocks, a product like Styropur (styrofoam) will be used as insulation. The roofs are typically covered using slate shingles.
Advantages v. Disadvantages of the Construction Materials:
Advantage for wood is cost and construction time. Advantage for Kalksandsteinmauerwerk is it makes for an extremely well-insulated home. Disadvantage for wood is long-term durablity (how many original-material homes do you see made of wood that is over 100 years old?). Disadvantage of Kalksandsteinmauerwerk is you need a jack-hammer to hang a picture! Also, in the age of internet wifi, typically a single wireless router will give a wifi signal throughout an American home, but in Germany that wireless signal is crap!! So, what ends up happening is setting up wifi extenders throughout the house in Germany (and with each repeater, there will be signal loss).
No Air Conditioning or Central Heating in German Homes:
In the US, even in the northern States, most homes will either have central, forced air conditioning for the whole house or a window A/C unit. With the long hot & humid summers, A/Cs are necessary to maintain comfort in the American home (or at least Americans have gotten so use to them that they are required). However, in Germany, most homes do not have air conditioning, and if they do they are small portable units on wheels. The summer weather in Germany is typically not very humid, but warm. Typically, there may be a stretch of 90+ (30+) degree heat on multiple days, but it usually does not last. I say “usually” because our first summer here in 2013, it was freakin hot! The whole month of July saw 90 degree temps (near a 100 a couple of times). By the time we finally decided to buy an A/C unit, they had all sold out (we bought two used ones that following winter).
In the winter in the US, the central air system is switched over to force hot air through the house either via electric or gas heat. Some homes will have fireplaces, but these are mostly decorative or used to heat the main living room. Some homes will have a natural gas fireplace, which sounds warm & cozy, but is usually nothing more than an expensive decoration. In Germany, most homes are heated via hot water, radiated heat, whether from wall units or in-floor piping. With the insulated walls of the Kalksandsteinmauerwerk it does not take much to heat the house. One problem though in Germany with this type of heating is that inside humidity levels can increase, but this is handled by “airing out” the house, by opening windows for about 15 minutes to allow fresh air in (even during the winter).
A window is a window right? Sure, we have all seen that there are various types of window sizes and styles. But, the differences I am talking about here are due to how German windows open and the lack of window screens!
In the US, some windows are made to open into the home to allow for cleaning, etc. But, in Germany most (if not all) windows will open either completely vertical into the room or can be opened at the top to tilt inside the room. It takes a few times of turning the handle the right way to learn how to work the window, and this feature is very handy when needing to open the windows for fresh air or to clean.
Opening windows is not a problem, the problem (for us Americans) is that the windows do not have window screens. This means that anything flying or crawling can come inside. You can buy screens to cover the openings, but 90% of the homes will not have them. In the warm months when insects are out this can be a problem. But, compared to the US states we have lived (NC & NJ), the number of insects in Germany are not nearly as bad. For the most part, during the day, very few insects will fly inside, because they are more attracted to outside scents. This changes at night, as the lights from inside will attract insects, forcing you to shut the windows. It’s just that in the middle of summer, it is a battle between keeping insects out and letting any fresh air inside to help cool the rooms.
Quick funny story: I did wake up one time from an afternoon nap with a grasshopper sitting on my chest looking at me….not the best way to wake up!!
The below is a video showing how to operate the window to open it vertically as well as tilting it open at the top….
Rolladens (aka BLAST SHIELDS):
German homes and buildings use the best thing I have ever seen in keeping the sun out of the rooms in the home: Rolladens (roller shutters). In America, homes sometimes will have shutters on them, used primarily as decorations. But, Germans have taken the use of shutters to an entirely whole different level!!! Rolladens are installed on all outside windows that are either manually or automatically pulled up/down. Some newer installations have automatic Rolladens that will even self-adjust based on sunlight levels.
So, what’s the big deal you ask about Rolladens? In the Summer, it is a constant battle to keep the house as cool as possible, and being able to block the sunlight shining into a room will dramatically help reduce the temperatures. Also, the Rolladens can be closed to make the room totally black, which comes in handy if you are needing extra sleep or rest during the daytime.
I call them “blast shields” because they look like something that would be used to protect the home from some sort of bomb explosion!
The video below shows how dark it is in our bedroom, and then with the push of a button and 20 seconds later….let there be light….
In the US, homes use 120V electrical outlets with the outlet fitting two vertical prongs (some also use a third bottom round prong for grounding). In Germany, homes use 220-240V and the outlets use two round prongs. Most people think that just using an electrical adaptor to have American cords work into German outlets (and vice versa) is all that is needed. And, you could not be more wrong!!
To use an adaptor, you have to check if the appliance or device is “dual voltage” meaning that it is designed to operate either at 120V or 220-240V (usually this info is found written somewhere on the device or owner’s manual). If yes, then an adaptor is all that is needed. If no, then a step-up/down transformer will be required. The transformer plugs into the wall normally, and then you plug your appliance or device into the transformer. Example, our American paper shredder is not dual voltage. If we used an adaptor and plugged it into the wall, the shredder would work for about 10 seconds at a very high speed and then start to smoke, if not catch on fire!! So, it is very important to check before just plugging a device with different outlet prongs into the wall.
C’mon…there can’t be differences here can there? While no one wants to talk about their business, we all have to go! And, yes, there are differences.
In the US, most toilets have a handle that is pressed down to flush. In Germany, above the toilet are usually two buttons to press (we’ll make this simple…press the small button for ‘Number 1’ and the larger button for ‘Number 2’ to regulate the amount of water used in flushing).
In the US, older toilets will use about 3.6 gallons (13.6 liters) of water per flush with newer ultra-low-flow toilets using about 1.6 gallons (6 liters) per flush. In Germany, pressing the large button uses about 2 gallons (7.5 liters) and the small button about 1 gallon (3.8 liters).
I have to mention this next difference because the first time I saw this in a hotel room, I was like….WHAT!? The toilet design can also be a little different too (but designs vary). Instead of just a bowl of water, there is a porcelain “shelf” that will sit just above the water line to (let me use a general term)….the shelf catches the “stuff” instead of just going straight into the water. When, the button is pressed, the shelf will be washed and the stuff goes down the drain. I do not know the history of the “why” behind this, but it is supposedly to help your “personal inspection” of the stuff and to prevent water splashing. As a result, all toilets will have a toilet brush in a stand beside them for use after. And, the expected courtesy is to use it, as needed, to make sure all the stuff is out of the bowl. But, this is NOT as bad as this sounds, as the flush takes care of it most of the time.
Like most things in the US, kitchens can be very large with large appliances. Double-door refrigerators that are at least 1.8 meters (6 feet) tall, ovens that are large enough to easily cook a 30 pound turkey, and lots of storage and counter space. Of course, apartments in very large cities will tend to have smaller kitchens and appliances, but for the most part still bigger than what would be found in a typical German home or apartment. Fridges in Germany are much, much smaller than what an American would be used to, although more and more larger size refrigerators are starting to appear in German appliance stores. Also, ovens in Germany are much smaller (i.e, we had American friends who had to cut the legs off their turkey that they cooked to celebrate “American Thanksgiving” just to get it to fit inside the pan and oven).
Also, when moving into a new apartment or home, in the US, we would expect the new place to come equipped with kitchen appliances and counter tops (at least an oven and sink). However, in Germany, a kitchen comes with nothing but water and electric hook-ups (unless the previous tenant left them or the landlord includes). And, if a German moves out of the apartment or home, they will usually take with them their appliances and countertops with sink. However, like mentioned earlier, Germans typically do not move as frequently as Americans.
American homes typically will have large front lawns, and sometimes an equally large backyard with smaller side yards. In the US, it is all about “curb appeal” and how nicely the house looks from the side (curb) of the street.
German homes typically will have a very small (if any) front yard, and a larger backyard or garden. Even apartment buildings that do not look that fancy from the front will usually have a very nice courtyard or garden hidden in the back. Personally, I think this comes from the privacy that most Germans crave and they are generally not the type of people to “show off”, while Americans usually are not shy about wanting to display their homes framed with a large front yard.
After seeing both, I must say that I do like the intimancy of the German backyards, especially when hosting BBQs.
Simply put, in the US, homes come with separate smaller rooms used for closets to store clothing. Even the smallest apartment in NYC will have a small closet. In Germany, most (and, I am talking like 90% of the homes) do not have separate rooms as a closet. Instead, Germans will buy furniture to hang and store their clothing. The furniture or Kleiderschrank (clothing closet) is usually the height of the room, and deep enough to hang clothes. IKEA does great business here in Germany!!
There are plenty more differences between American & German homes, some large, some small. And, it is not that either is good or bad, just different. The main thing is to prepare yourself before moving to or visiting the other country. Double-check your electric devices (buy adaptors, transformers, or just brand new electric stuff in the other country). And, don’t just assume your “American” sized furniture will fit into the German home/apartment. American furniture is usually “over-sized” and may not fit down hallways inside of homes.
The best advice would be that for any questions about your new home to ask a local for help….well, except maybe those toilet questions. And, just remember that no matter the differences, that the home is where the heart is.