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APARTMENT

Top ten tips for finding an apartment in Switzerland

The Local breaks down how to navigate the Swiss property market and find yourself a flat.

Top ten tips for finding an apartment in Switzerland
Neuchatel, Switzerland. Image: Unsplash.

Nothing in Switzerland is cheap – and that’s certainly the case when it comes to housing. But in many cases even finding a flat/apartment successfully is difficult, even if budget is less of a concern. 

From cultural quirks to simply knowing where to look, there are several hurdles internationals face finding housing in Switzerland. 

Know your rights

Finding a flat can be difficult in Switzerland in the best of times, let alone if you don’t know the ins and outs of Swiss tenancy law. 

Therefore, your first point of call is to understand where you stand legally. 

As The Local Switzerland reported, landlords often prefer international tenants as they are less likely to know their rights. 

If you’ve already found your dream home, read our eight-step guidance article which takes you through the process. 

READ MORE: Eight things you need to know before renting in Switzerland

Do I rent or do I buy, now?

Obviously the answer to that question depends a lot on your personal circumstances – and that of your bank account. But for internationals new to Switzerland, many are surprised to find that renting is incredibly common. 

Around 60 percent of Swiss rent – and that figure is higher in urban centres. 

Recent figures also indicate that renting is becoming slightly cheaper in comparison. 

The Local Switzerland produced a report on renting versus buying in Switzerland, so check it out to find out what’s best for you. 

READ: Why it might better to rent property in Switzerland rather than buy? 

Where should I start? 

Finding a flat in Switzerland – like many things – has a pretty heavy ‘who you know’ element.

People leaving their flats are more likely to want to hand it over to someone they know or trust, meaning that in many cases the flats that land on the open market have already been knocked back by the circle of friends around the previous tenant. 

A good way to start is to tell all your friends and acquaintances you’re looking for a flat. Do so on social media or (where appropriate) in work or social groups. 

Of course, by searching through unofficial platforms you need to be extra careful of scammers, but if it’s someone you know and trust then you shouldn’t have to worry. 

A wooden hut near the village of Sertig Dörfli. Photo by Damian Markutt on Unsplash

What about official search platforms? 

There are a myriad of different property platforms to use when flat hunting in Switzerland. Some are general and have apartments to rent and to buy, while others will be focused on particular sections of the market like students. 

Real estate portals like Immoscout24, Alle Immobilien, Immostreet and Homegate all have English portals which makes it easier if your German/French or Italian isn’t yet up to scratch. Comparis is also a good platform which searches other platforms to bring (most) offers into the one place. 

They also cover the entire country rather than just one town or region, meaning you can compare as well as consider the costs of living further afield. 

The Swiss Real Estate Association (SVIT) also has a site which lists their member real estate agents. While the website is only available in French or German, it does list member agents in most of the major regions across the country. 

Are there other places to find a bargain?

Ron Orp allows you to search the major Swiss cities and the platform is in English.

Craigslist, eBay and Facebook marketplace are also options, but be extra wary. 

If you’re a student, there are several student-only options or platforms which focus on shared accommodation. Try WG-Zimmer, WoKo (Zurich), Students, UZH Alumni and JuWo, or check at your university’s student organisation. 

Another potential option is Tausch Wohnung, which lets you swap a flat for a flat – although you’ll need to have one in the first place. 

Scan for scammers 

One major thing to be aware of at all steps in the process – from the first time you click ‘search’ to the moment you’re getting handed the keys – is to be aware of scams.

Scammers are unfortunately relatively common in the Swiss property market, so never be too shy to ask for clarifications or further documentation/identification. 

Scammers operate on all platforms. While official property platforms have greater resources to weed out dodgy operators, don’t assume that the deal is legit simply because it’s on a reputable searching platform. 

A good ad should have pictures from inside and outside. Oh, and never transfer money after a promise to be sent keys via the post, that’s the oldest trick in the book.

If your prospective landlord is out of town and won’t show you around, then this person is not your prospective landlord. 

Try and use your common sense and remember that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. 

Image: JOHN MACDOUGALL / AFP

Cost

There are several factors that go into determining the cost of a flat in Switzerland. Rents in Switzerland’s two largest cities of Zurich and Geneva are the highest, while other cities like Bern and Lausanne are also expensive. 

Generally, the further you get away from the centre of the city – whether in the suburbs or in surrounding towns – the cheaper your rent will be.

Vacancy rates are also higher in smaller towns, meaning you’ll have a better shot of finding something in your price range. 

The Local Switzerland broke down costs for 4.5, 3.5 and two-room apartments in this report. A 4.5-room, or family-sized apartment, is an average 3,820 Swiss francs (€3,356) a month in Geneva against an average 3,073 francs in Zurich.

For 3.5-bedroom apartments, the Geneva average is 2,680 francs a month while in Zurich that figure is 2,489 francs. And for two-room apartments, Geneva’s average is 1,734 francs compared to 1,690 francs in Zurich.

Studio apartments will run anywhere between 900 and 2000 francs per month, while shared accommodation ranks as the cheapest, with rooms starting at around CHF 500. 

Paying a deposit

With very few exceptions, all rentals in Switzerland will require you to lay down a deposit before moving in. The money will be held as insurance against any damage to the property or non payment of rent. 

Otherwise known as a bond, the deposit is likely to be the same as one month’s rent but can be as high as three month’s rent. 

Proving you’re debt free

When moving into a flat in Switzerland, you’ll need to show that you do not have any debts – either from previous housing contracts or otherwise. 

While the German name for a certificate proving you’re rent free can be a little intimidating – Mietschuldenfreiheitsbescheinigung – the process is relatively simple. 

The Swiss Federal Office of Justice has a debt collection portal where you can lodge a form online. This can be done by following the link here (in English) and will usually cost CHF17. 

Where I lay my hat…

While some people will get lucky and find their dream home quickly, others will need to be patient. 

Be prepared to search for an extended period of time. And although it can be difficult for people who are already working, the best way to do it is to treat searching for a flat like a job – set aside several hours a day to search listings as well as of course visit open homes. 

Finally, this guidance prepared by the Swiss government (in 17 different languages) also covers some of the more basic topics about living in Switzerland. 

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Sweden’s ‘historic investment’ has failed to solve the housing crisis

Five years after Sweden's government promised to solve the country's housing crisis with a "historic investment", things are as bad as ever, David Crouch argues. Radical action is needed.

OPINION: Sweden's 'historic investment' has failed to solve the housing crisis

Forced to move house 20 times in the past eight years, Maria’s situation was desperate. She and her daughter had arrived in Stockholm from Latin America in search of a better life. She found work, no problem – but housing was impossible.

“Sometimes I was paying 12,000kr in rent and it was very hard because I only had 15,000kr in monthly salary,” says Maria (not her real name). So she took a high-interest loan of 240,000kr and tried to bribe someone in the Housing Agency to get to the front of the queue for affordable housing.

But she was caught. Her fate is unknown. And she didn’t even get an apartment.

This recent story, in the excellent newspaper of the Tenants’ Association, sums up the problems facing people who move here to work. The market for rental accommodation is tight as a drum. Finding a home means competing with Swedes, but with all the disadvantages of being an outsider. So people find themselves pushed into short-term, insecure rental contracts at inflated prices.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Five years ago this month, the government announced a “historic investment in housing”, including subsidies for construction companies, easing restrictions on building permits, and making more land available.

The housing situation at the time was grim. Spotify had threatened to leave Sweden if things didn’t improve – how could the company attract skilled young people to a city where there was nowhere for them to live? More than half Stockholm’s population – 600,000 people – were in the queue for a coveted rental apartment, because strict regulation meant these rents were low. But it took as long as 20 years to get to the front of that queue.

The result was a thriving rental property black market, with large bribes changing hands. Many tenants exploited the situation by sub-letting their homes, or parts of them. “It is almost impossible for immigrants and new arrivals to penetrate this market – it is all about who you know and how much money you have,” said Billy McCormac, head of the Fastighetsägarna property association, in 2015.

READ ALSO: 

So what has been the outcome of the grand promises the government made five years ago? House-building at the time was already rising steadily, and it has continued to do so. Look around you in the big cities and you will see that new apartment blocks have sprung up here and there.

But we shouldn’t go only on appearances. To understand the reality, we need to look at some numbers.

The gap between demand for housing and the existing housing stock has indeed started to shrink. “As housing construction has gradually increased and population growth has begun to slow down, the gap has decreased since 2017,” Stockholm’s Housing Agency noted in December.

The Agency has broken records four years in a row for the number of rental homes it has provided. The proportion of young adults living independently has also increased somewhat, the Tenants’ Association found, probably due to the pace of construction.

But this smidgen of good news is outweighed by an avalanche of bad.

The average queuing time in 2021 for a Stockholm apartment was more than 9 years; for somewhere in the city centre you have to wait 18 years. Only 936 homes came with a waiting time of less than one year. More than three-quarters of a million people are now registered in the queue for housing – a big increase on five years ago.

The rate at which the housing shortage is shrinking is nowhere near fast enough to alleviate the huge accumulated demand.

Assuming that the current pace of construction can be maintained, it will be the end of this decade before any significant dent is made in the deficit of homes, according to Boverket – the Swedish National Board of Housing, Building and Planning. The current rate of construction is “only marginally more than the long-term need”, it says.

The challenge is even greater when it comes to producing affordable housing, Boverket says, especially for the young and those entering the housing market for the first time. Almost one in four young Swedes up to the age of 27 are forced to live at home – the second-highest figure since the measurements began.

There are already signs that housing construction is actually slowing down, owing to higher building material prices, rising interest rates and an incipient labour shortage. Construction prices rose by more than 8 percent last year, and there is concern in the industry that war in Ukraine will further affect costs, in turn slowing the pace of building.

There is another fly in the ointment, a consequence of the collapse of Sweden’s governing coalition in November. The new, minority administration was forced to adopt the opposition’s budget, which halted investment subsidies for house building, throwing the construction industry into confusion.

In short, the “Swedish model” for providing people with a roof over their heads is failing. The folkhemmet, or “people’s home”, has not enough homes for its people.

Swedes themselves understand this: in a survey last month, nine out of ten voters said they thought that politicians did not take the housing shortage seriously.

We have waited too long. It is time for fresh thinking and radical action to solve the housing crisis.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University

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