Depot Domiciles: Train Stations Become Hip German Homes
Converting old train stations into living spaces is all the rage in Germany. They're charming and, often, affordable -- but making these buildings livable can be more difficult than people anticipate.
The former train station on Kardinal-von-Galen Street has seen better days. Its platform-facing façade is covered in graffiti and its facilities are in desperate need of renovation. Three decades ago, the building -- which is several centuries old -- suffered a renovation in the then-contemporary 1970s style. Its old-fashioned mouldings were replaced with austere-looking plaster. Reviving the building's original 19th-century feel presents a challenge for any architect.
Despite its shortcomings, the building was the star of the show at this year's autumn auction at Berlin-based auction house Karhausen. Twelve bidders had already placed offers on the house before the auction had officially begun. The minimum bidding price of 5,000 ($6,800) was soon exceeded by significantly higher bids: 12,000, 16,000, 35,000. In comparison to other properties on offer, bids were coming in at a breathtaking pace.
At the auction, two bidders in particular were going head to head in their attempts to acquire the house. One of them, a friendly man in his early forties, had traveled all the way from the western city of Mainz to attend the auction. Once the bidding price reached 50,000, he bowed out. Ultimately, the hammer fell at 75,000. "That is an aficionado's price," says the man. "If you factor in the renovation costs, the numbers just don't add up."
Aficionados indeed. Who, if not a real estate enthusiast, would agree to pay 75,000 for a house right next to a platform hosting four trains every hour? Apparently, a lot of people. Chief auctioneer Matthias Knake oversaw the sale of some 30 train station buildings on that day alone. Among the sales was a locomotive shed with a water tower and what was once a signal tower. While the bidding prices for these old buildings usually start at around 3,000, the final price is often in the tens of thousands.
The buyers include people like Heidrun Brandt from the town of Kyritz in Brandenburg. The accountant had been on the lookout for an appropriate location for her office, preferably close to her home town. A conveniently located train station seemed like just the right fit, if it would need little more than aesthetic repairs.
The fact that local authorities are considering closing the adjacent platform altogether in just a few years' time means the value of the property is likely to go up. The track closure is not something that Brandt wants, though. "My son regularly comes from Berlin to visit," she explained. "It is easier if he can disembark directly in front of the door."
Nonetheless, Brandt was forced to pay a premium for the mere prospect of peace and quiet. Only after a lengthy negotiation process was she able to outbid her competitors, finally agreeing on a price of 57,000.
Nonetheless, there are some serious bargains to be had. The neglected train station in the town of Passow, for example, situated in a remote part of the Uckermark region sells for 1,900. At 320 square meters (3,450 square feet) of living space, one can barely live cheaper.
The cheap prices are not what it comes down to for real train station aficionados, though. "We had simply fallen in love with the house and had dreamt of living there for a long time," says Birgit Hörner, who has been living in the former Gross-Umstadt train station -- situated between Darmstadt and Aschaffenburg -- for nearly seven years with her family.
Hörner acquired the property -- together with her husband, Robert Laack -- directly from Germany's national rail operator Deutsche Bahn (DB). Another, higher bid that could have scuppered the deal was withdrawn, allowing the couple to make the purchase on Hörner's birthday. But the couple was not able to move into the new family home as soon as it had hoped: The local council unexpectedly made a fuss about the height of the wall dividing the family's living quarters from the platform.
The couple had received ample warning that working with DB's supervisory office would be extremely complicated. In many cases, the rail operator only sells its properties with special restrictions. Often, new owners have to agree that train passengers will be able to pass through their property to reach the platform.
In some cases, new owners have to allow DB employees into their homes to access signal box technology still situated there. Those who are uncomfortable with DB's terms are better off buying other properties. In Hörner and Laack's case, however, the handover was completed without any major squabbles.
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