Germany’s castles are in danger, warns prince

As experts worry about persuading noble heirs to take care of Germany's castles, The Local finds out what is takes to run these historical buildings – and why the pressure might be too much for the next generation of aristocrats.

Germany's castles are in danger, warns prince
The Eltz Castle, outside Koblenz, has been in the family for more than 850 years. Photo: DPA

The medieval Eltz castle nestled in the hills above the Moselle River in west Germany has belonged to the Eltz family for more than 850 years.

Its iconic, towering edifice was once engraved on the former 500 Deutsche Mark note and its seasonal tourist visits allow the family to share the history of 33 generations in the castle.

But while one of the younger members of the Eltz family, Jakob Eltz, 35, assured The Local that he would “absolutely” take on responsibility for maintaining the family home, others are not so confident about the future of such historic buildings.

Last week, Alexander, Prince of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn in Germany's Rhineland region, made a plea for more public funding to support family castles, arguing that financial hurdles are making it harder for younger generations to keep up their ancestral homes.

“From generation to generation, more and more historical castles are being lost in the private sector,” he told DPA.

Prince Alexander with wife Countess Gabriela outside Schloss Sayn in 2000. Photo: DPA

The would-be heirs often live in cities across Europe and work in interesting fields, he explained, so are reluctant to return to family provinces to take on the castles.

“It would mean tightening their belts, rolling up their sleeves and working hard to preserve this historical building with all its economic complications,” he said.

The prince and former president of the German Castle Association called for special regulations on sewage charges and insulation for the buildings.

DON'T MISS: The Local's guide to Germany's greatest castles

Hohenzollern Castle in Baden-Württemberg is still in the hands of the former German imperial family. Photo: DPA

Especially given the great age and size of many castles, these homes often need constant maintenance to improve water, heating, electric and other modern systems that didn’t exist when the castles were first built.

“A home like this carries with it enormous costs,” Eltz explained. “It constantly has to be renovated and repaired, while there are also running costs such as electricity, heating and taxes.”

It's also tricky “to move with the times whilst also doing justice to a building which is over 800 years old,” Eltz said.

“You have a responsibility towards your family and ancestors, towards the building and its history,” he explained, “but also towards the public, for whom you're preserving this cultural relic and piece of German history.

“There aren't many people who are prepared to take on the high costs and efforts needed to maintain these buildings when they don't have a personal connection to them.”

Eltz Castle has been home to the Eltz family for more than 850 years ago. Photo: DPA

Family tradition, at a cost

Turning the castle into a tourist spot, like the Eltz family did, can help provide the revenue needed to foot the bills.

“The cost depends heavily on the state of the building,” Gerhard Wagner, chief executive at the German Castle Association, told The Local.

“And then there's always the question of how the castle is going to be used,” he added.

“If a building is being put to use as a tourist spot, for example a show home or restaurant, owners can generate an income which helps towards the maintenance costs,” he explained.

“But if it's just being used as a personal home, it's difficult – you've just got the costs, and no income.”

Matthias Helzel from Germany's Historical Real Estate Agency explained that many renovations and modernization efforts can be tax-deductible,  “which eases the burden a lot”, he told The Local.

Eltz said the biggest challenge is definitely a financial one.

“None of this would be possible for us to cover without our visitors,” he said.

A ‘danger for cultural heritage’

The burden of costs and inconvenience of travelling to these country castles is what has Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn and others concerned about whether younger generations will be willing to care for them.

“It's a massive danger for our cultural heritage, when heirs to properties can't be persuaded to take them on,” Hartmut Dorgerloh, general director of the Foundation of Prussian Castles and Gardens in Berlin-Brandenburg, told DPA.

And then there can be the added burden of regularly visiting the castles, which are often miles away from the nearest city.

“The best way to protect a historical building is to use it appropriately,” Eltz said, “and in most cases, that means living in it.”

It can be damaging when these buildings fall into the hands of people who can't afford to sustain them, Eltz noted.

“But the same goes for anyone who owns such a landmark, not just descendants of noble families.”

If no investors are found to take on the land, properties often fall into decay, Dorgerloh explained.

“Public funding already provides a lot of support, and we're very grateful for that,” he said. But incentives are needed to ensure these properties have a future.

Still, Eltz said he was “somewhat surprised” that younger generations of noble families would decline to take on their family homes.

“This is something I've not witnessed at all in my circle of family and friends,” he told The Local. “In contrary, everyone I know fights through adversities and financial hurdles to keep hold of their family homes.”

And he said he is prepared to play his part.

“Whether this will also be the case for future generations, I wouldn't like to second guess,” he admitted. “But I hope so, and I'll do everything I can to ensure our ancestral castle remains in the family.”

By Hannah Butler

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


EXPLAINED: What fees do you have to pay when buying a home in Germany?

Few experiences in Germany will take you through the full German bureaucratic, tax, and legal experience the way buying property here will - and there are plenty of fees. Here's what you need to know about extra charges so you don't face a nasty surprise.

EXPLAINED: What fees do you have to pay when buying a home in Germany?

One of the big reasons as to why property ownership is so low in Germany? The fees.

Depending on where you buy your own piece of paradise – you could be on the hook for taxes and fees that add up to over 10 percent of the purchase price! It’s a figure that’s high enough to make some wonder if the investment is worth it – and often used to explain why figures on German home ownership, at around 50 percent – are some of the lowest in Europe.

READ ALSO: Why is home ownership in Germany so low?

Land transfer tax

When you sign a contract to buy property in Germany, you’ll get a letter soon after from your local tax office – telling you how much land transfer tax you have to pay. Such a tax triggers whenever property ownership changes hands in Germany and needs to be paid by the new owner.

It’s calculated based on property value – most often the agreed purchase price – and varies depending on the federal state where the property is located.

The lowest transfer taxes are found in Bavaria – whose 3.5 percent rate is significantly lower than any other Bundesland. Five percent rates apply in Saxony-Anhalt, Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, Rhineland-Palatinate, Bremen, Lower Saxony, and Baden-Württemberg. 

Hamburg and Saxony follow with 5.5 percent rates, whereas Berlin and Hesse start going to the high end of tax rates at six percent.

At the highest end with 6.5 percent rates – lie North Rhine-Westphalia, Brandenburg, Saarland, Schleswig-Holstein, and Thuringia.

You won’t be able to add your name to the land registry – or Grundbuch – until you pay your tax.

READ ALSO: Why property prices in Germany are likely to rise this year

Real estate agent fee

In most German states, you’ll also have to pay your estate agent a commission amounting to about 3.57 percent of the property purchase price.

There are four federal states where this fee is lower though – and even a slightly lower percentage could make a big difference given the amounts involved. Hamburg and Mecklenburg-West Pomerania have commission fees of 3.18 and 3.08 percent, respectively.

At 2.98 percent, the lowest real estate commission fees are found in Bremen and Hesse.

These commission fees are also a reason why it may be an attractive option to buy a newer build property directly from a real estate developer – as you won’t pay any commission if you purchase from the developer directly. Private selling or buying foreclosed properties at a court auction also allows you to avoid this fee entirely.

If buying from a developer though, you may have to wait months or years to be able to actually move in though, as the places are often sold while still under construction.

EXPLAINED: What you need to know about buying property in Germany

Notary fee

No matter where you buy property in Germany, a notary must read out the contract in front of both parties.

This can be tedious and take hours – but the idea is to allow both parties the chance to ask questions on the terms of a neutral party.

Unfortunately, you’ll pay for the privilege and there’s no avoiding it. Notary fees are about 1.5-2 percent of the purchase price around Germany in most cases. Some shopping around might help you find a notary who charges the lower end at 1.5 percent.

If you’re not comfortable with legal German, you’re allowed to bring an accredited translator with you to the reading. This is, of course, at your own cost as well.

READ ALSO: Is it a good time to buy a home in Germany?