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Why you should never lose your German apartment keys

When people ask me for advice before moving to Berlin, I always say the same thing: No matter how homesick you get, no matter how depressed the long winters make you, regardless of whether or not the long-distance relationship works out, never, ever lose your German apartment keys.

Losing the keys to your apartment opens up a vat of suffering that requires years of counseling and, sometimes, a team of lawyers to overcome. First, you are subjected to looks of incredulity from your landlord or property management company when you tell them that you lost the keys — and you have to tell them because you need their permission to get a new key. The looks will make you think you are the first person to have ever lost a key in Europe’s most populous country.

Then will come a lecture that starts off by reassuring you that you are, in fact, the first person to have ever lost a key in Europe’s most populous country followed by a tirade about the dangers of losing the keys – not only can criminals, philanderers and ne’er-do-wells now make it into your apartment, they may also gain entry to the entire building, putting all of your neighbors at risk! Theft! Murder! Cholera! Plague! And it will all be your fault.

Never, under any circumstances, should you lose your keys in Germany.

The misery isn’t yet over. After being made to feel smaller than the fruit flies that infest every German apartment in the summer, you will then face the second shock of losing your keys in this country – it will cost about 10 times what you’re expecting to pay to get a simple copy made. Forget about $5 down at the corner hardware store. More like north of €30, if not more. And, if your landlord or property management company decides you losing the keys does in fact put the whole building at risk, then they’ll make you pay to replace or rekey all the locks in the building and now you’re out at least a grand, if not more (if you have renter’s insurance, they’ll likely cover it but also give you a stern talking-to).

To legal scholars, this one-two punch of condescension and price gouging is known as double-jeopardy. It’s forbidden by the US constitution but Germany has its own constitution and it apparently says double jeopardy is fine, especially when it comes to apartment keys and a foreigner being the first-ever person to lose them in Europe’s most populous country. Really, there’s an entire section in the German constitution devoted to apartment keys.

Ok not the constitution but many German apartment keys are actually protected by laws. And, as anyone who has spent any time in Germany knows, laws trump everything in Germany including maternal advice, the needs of a dying sibling or the word of whoever your god (or gods) is (or isn’t). The law is the law and German law is even more law-er than any other.

German apartment keys are tiny metal unicorns

Every time I complained about the cost of keys, Germans told me this law thing and I never believed them until I saw this report from NDR the other day – warning, it’s in German. Keys are protected by patents. Basically, most German apartment keys are unique and beautiful snowflakes that belong to their creator. To copy them, you need the creator’s permission (often in the form of a little card called a Sicherheitskarte (security card) that your landlord keeps and may give to you to get a key copied).

And getting the creator’s permission is going to cost you. For some reason, I’m picturing Gepetto here using a quill to grant you his OK and then pocketing a Daffy Duck-level stack of bills.

If a locksmith copies a key without the creator’s permission, they are then exposing themselves to a lawsuit for violating the patent. So they’re protected by civil law – the Polizei isn’t going to stop by and arrest some guy for illegally copying a key. They would have to be sued by the creator but, using the investigative skills sharpened by my two decades as a professional journalist, I couldn’t find any evidence that such a lawsuit has ever occurred (and by “investigative skills” I mean “googling”).

Alas, there are some workarounds. First, if you lose your keys and have a spare, you can sometimes find an unscrupulous locksmith who will make you a copy (though still charge you tons) without Gepetto’s permission. I’m not saying I know any but I would ask in an ex-pat forum were I ever to lose a key. Secondly, you can just wait until you fly back to wherever you’re from and get a stack made for 1/10 the price.

Or, finally, there is a company that claims there’s a way to circumvent the patent – you simply grind a unique and beautiful snowflake that is a lot like the other unique and beautiful snowflake but also different. Voila, new key!

The pitfalls of these workarounds: If you move out, you will have to return your keys including the counterfeit key and hope the landlord doesn’t notice (they’ll notice). There is also the danger that, like in the NDR video, the copied keys won’t work, though this could be easily remedied.

But the easiest way to avoid all of this is to do what Germans do: Never lose your apartment keys.

[Pic is thanks Marco Verch via Creative Commons. ]

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