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I am a visiting scientist in Heidelberg, Germany. I was unsuccessful in my search for a private apartment in town so I made a reservation request with the University guest house. They sent me a booking offer by email for a rental starting January 19th, including terms and conditions, and asked me to formally accept it by email last week, which I did.

Now, one week later, I finally found a real apartment much better suited to my needs (e.g., it's available sooner) and asked the guest house to cancel my booking. However, they insist on applying the cancellation penalty, which is 1 month of rent. It supposedly applied to any booking cancelled less than 2 months before the start date, unless they find a new tenant.

I find this quite unfair because I only "locked" their apartment for 7 days. But my question is about the legal aspect: I didn't sign anything, and didn't transfer any money. My understanding is they plan to send me an invoice by mail and sending me to court if I don't pay it.

Hence my question: was my email confirmation legally binding? Would they win if they take me to court?

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    What they did sounds legal (and reasonable) to me. I might be inclined to try offer a settlement, failing which get the exact address if the apartment they assigned you. If you don't settle, I would follow up a month after the tenacy was set to begin and demand they confirm that the apartment was vacant. I would assume no enforcement action would ensue until then.
    – davidgo
    Dec 21 '20 at 21:12
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    A thought experiment to see if you think there was a contract formed - what if you arrived and they told you they didn't have a room for you and said an email contract didn't count? Dec 21 '20 at 22:52
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    I am always confused where the idea comes from that you have to have signed something for it to be legally binding. Have these people never bought a hot dog at a hot dog stand? Am I the only one who doesn't sign a purchase contract at McDonald's? Dec 22 '20 at 9:44
  • @JörgWMittag Try renting out an apartment in France without signing anything, see how well you are standing with respect to the law. You can ask someone to "agree to be bound" by email that contract will be void under French law. Does this help with your confusion?
    – Beovent
    Dec 22 '20 at 15:40
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    @Beovent: But you would have expected them to honor the booking in case you showed up, no? That seems inconsistent: on the one hand, you seem to think that the confirmation by email is not legally binding after you found a different apartment, but on the other hand, you seem to be perfectly content on treating it as legally binding before you found the alternative apartment. Dec 22 '20 at 15:55
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In most jurisdictions a message sent by email is now legally the same as one sent on paper by, say, postal mail, and a name typed at the end, or other indication of source is the legal equivalent of a physical signature. You are probably in the same legal position yu would have been in if you had written, signed, and sent by post a letter of acceptance.

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  • Ok but I was thinking maybe German law requires actual signature when it comes to housing contracts.
    – Beovent
    Dec 22 '20 at 15:48
  • In German law an email is not the same as a physical siganture ("schriftlich", § 126 BGB). But in most cases there is no requirement for a special form.
    – K-HB
    Dec 22 '20 at 18:10
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Acceptance of an offer forms a binding contract under German law

You can accept a contract orally, by action or, as you did, in writing.

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  • Certain contracts must be in non-digital writing. That's not the case here. Electronic messages can also be a problem if the authenticity is disputed, but again that's not the case here.
    – o.m.
    Dec 22 '20 at 5:03
  • Ok but I was thinking maybe German law requires actual signature when it comes to housing contracts.
    – Beovent
    Dec 22 '20 at 15:48
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Under the condition that a rental contract is unrestricted in time, it can be done orally. The conditions set out in the BGB (civil code) are then binding.

Otherwise it must be in writing, unless both parties agree to an eMail form and the contract does not state explicitly that it must be in writing.

Once signed (for eMail: after it has been sent and available to the recipient), it is binding (i.e. no right to withdraw within a certain period).

Giving notice must always be done in writing.


Sources:

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  • Right. Terminations, however, must be in writing (or qeS if you have a signature card).
    – erebus
    Jun 21 at 19:46

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