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PROPERTY

Why do so many Swiss prefer to rent rather than buy their own home?

Despite Switzerland’s wealth, it has the lowest percentage of home owners in Europe. Why?

Why do so many Swiss prefer to rent rather than buy their own home?
Why are so many people in Switzerland 'content to rent'. Photo by Pascal GUYOT / AFP

For many of us – particularly for those from English-speaking countries – owning a home is a major goal. 

When it comes to personal wealth, owning your own home is probably the greatest signifier. 

Buying property versus renting in Switzerland: What is actually cheaper?

But despite the country’s significant wealth, Switzerland remains content to rent. 

In fact, German-speaking Europe seems to have a preference for renting rather than buying. 

Approximately 59 percent of Swiss people rent – making it the highest percentage of renters anywhere in Europe. 

In fact, Switzerland is the only country in Europe where more than half of the people rent rather than own their home. 

Do Swiss really prefer to rent than buy?

One misnomer in considering renting and buying is that in many cases people in Switzerland and other parts of Europe where rental rates are higher is that they “prefer” to rent. 

Successive studies have shown that high numbers – i.e. above 80 percent – of people would prefer to own their own home rather than rent. 

The high percentage of renters is instead probably more accurately described as people being ‘content to rent’, rather than actually preferring it.

OK then, so why are Swiss content to rent? The reasons for this are many and varied. 

Some are particularly relevant to Switzerland, while others have a cultural, economic and historical basis. 

Cost

A major reason for why people may rent rather than buy in Switzerland is a simple one: cost. 

Like in most other countries, buying a house is expensive – with renting a cheaper option at least in the short to medium term. 

A study published in 2019 found that most Swiss could not afford to own their own home, despite Switzerland’s famously high wages. 

READ MORE: Most residents in Switzerland still can’t afford to own a home, study reveals

House prices remain expensive in Switzerland and are getting more so, with prices rising faster than increases in wages. 

Furthermore, many of the most sought after properties are unavailable, with single family apartments or homes the most popular. 

While cost effective properties in this category are difficult to find in Switzerland for buyers, they are comparatively more available for renters. 

The pandemic also played a role here, with demand for houses, larger apartments and additional rooms increasing, particularly with the growing popularity of working from home. 

Switzerland has the highest percentage of renters in Europe. (Photo by Thomas SAMSON / AFP)

Land

One major reason – and one which is unlikely to change anytime soon unless famously neutral Switzerland decides to invade Baden-Württemberg – is geographical. 

EXPLAINED: Why is Switzerland always neutral?

Switzerland remains a relatively small country and has neighbours on all sides, with little land left to be developed. 

Kuhn and Grabka in a 2018 article entitled ‘Homeownership and Wealth in Switzerland and Germany’ wrote that “scarcity of land” is perhaps the major factor in high home prices in Switzerland, which translates to fewer home owners. 

Home ownership is also higher in regional and rural areas in Switzerland – where land is less scarce – where it pushes above the 50 percent mark, rather than in the country’s powerhouse urban sector. 

In a study published in 2009 entitled ‘Why do the Swiss rent?’, Bourassa and Hoesli agree. 

“Switzerland’s topography obviously limits the amount of developable land, but tight restrictions on development of agricultural land and redevelopment of urban land also contribute to the high prices of houses and apartments.”

The authors also pointed to restrictions on agricultural land use – i.e. on converting it to land to live on – are particularly strict in Switzerland. 

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Switzerland has seen a growing demand for Swiss-made and Swiss-grown food and goods. 

The centre-left Social Democrats, usually champions of free movement and international integration, put forward a ‘Switzerland first’ agriculture and manufacturing program, which won widespread support. 

Therefore, despite demand for housing, these pressures on agricultural land are unlikely to subside anytime soon – and may in fact go in the other direction. 

The wealth inequality cycle

Kuhn and Grabka write that a major reason for the low home ownership rate in Switzerland is the fact that it has always been that way. 

Switzerland has a high level of wealth inequality, with those on the higher end of the scale far more likely to own their own home than those who are not. 

“There are two main explanations why becoming a homeowner is likely to increase wealth accumulation. Firstly, the rise in the value of property may lead to a higher net worth for owners. Secondly, owners on a mortgage are forced to save on a regular basis and thus accumulate wealth faster than usual tenant households”. 

This concentrated wealth not only means that less wealthy people are less likely to buy a home, but it also indicates that they are less likely to become wealthier as a result. 

Therefore, this may explain why Switzerland continues to have a low home ownership rate despite its comparative wealth to other countries, i.e. that Switzerland might be wealthier than most, but it remains highly unequal domestically. 

Tax

Despite its reputation, Switzerland’s income tax rates are not as high as some might expect. Other taxes are however quite high in comparison – and contribute to the Swiss being content to rent. 

Bourassa and Hoesli note that tax subsidies for renters exist in several Swiss cantons, writing that “income tax rules in Switzerland seem less favourable to home ownership” than those in the United States. 

This sometimes amounts to a high percentage of the overall cost (i.e. as high as 3.4 percent in Geneva). 

Swiss home owners on the other hand are often hit with taxes, including income tax, property tax and capital gains tax. 

Several Swiss cantons also levy a wealth tax, which disproportionately hits home owners. 

Tenants rights

One explaining factor is the relatively strong tenants rights framework in place in Switzerland. 

Unlike in other countries where renters are subject to regular inspections and are often not allowed to make modifications to the property – or even in some cases to hang a picture – without asking, tenants have far more freedom in Switzerland.

In addition, tenants in Switzerland benefit from restrictions on rent increases and protections for evictions – both of which make renting more attractive than in jurisdictions where this is not the case. 

Some cantons allow rent to be deducted from tax, while cantons also provide subsidies for renters in some situations. 

A consequence of the stronger tenancy laws is that property becomes a less attractive option for investors, which in turn means fewer properties are built, write Bourassa and Hoesli. 

This itself becomes cyclical – in a democratic system where more people rent than buy, they are likely to put additional pressure on policymakers to pass laws which are favourable for renters. 

In countries with a high home ownership rate, the opposite is true, where policy makers will cater to the majority, i.e. those who own homes. 

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LIVING IN SWITZERLAND

Switzerland ranked ‘best country’ in the world

Switzerland has been placed in top spot in yet another international ranking. But does it deserve such a high score?

Switzerland ranked 'best country' in the world

In its annual ranking of 85 nations, US News & World Report has placed Switzerland in top position, based on 73 different criteria.

While it did not come up tops in all of the categories, Switzerland did sufficiently well in others to get an overall high score, as well as high scores in several individual categories.

There are some of them:

Open for Business (100 points out of 100)

This title may be somewhat misleading, as it could be taken to mean that shops and other businesses are open until late hours.

If this were the case, Switzerland wouldn’t get the maximum score; in fact, it would probably place toward the bottom of the ranking.

Instead, this category means ‘business friendly’— and that Switzerland certainly is.

As the report puts it, “The countries considered the most business-friendly are those that are perceived to best balance stability and expense. These market-oriented countries are a haven for capitalists and corporations”.

In other words, the government has created a good environment for businesses to thrive, by offering, for instance, tax incentives and a skilled labour force.

This is actually a good thing because when businesses do well, so does the entire economy.

The proof that Switzerland excels in this category is that it has “low unemployment, and one of the highest gross domestic products per capita in the world”, the report states.

“This helps explain why the country placed first on the list of nations perceived as a good place to headquarter a corporation, as well as scoring in the top five among best countries for a comfortable retirement, green living and to start a career”.

READ MORE: Switzerland ‘an island of bliss’ compared to US, chief economist says

Quality of Life (96.7)

This term could mean different things to different people. But as defined in the report, “beyond the essential ideas of broad access to food, housing, quality education, health care and employment, quality of life may also include intangibles such as job security, political stability, individual freedom and environmental quality”.

Switzerland certainly offers all four. Unemployment is low, which means there are plenty of job opportunities.

The country is politically stable from within, with well established democratic processes — such as referendums — providing security against abuses of power.

Freedom, including the right to ‘self-determination’, is a constitutional right.

And while ecological concerns related to global warming do exist, the Swiss are good at protecting the nature that surrounds them.

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Other quality-of-life categories that weight in Switzerland’s favour include safety, well-developed public education, and a top-notch public health system.

Switzerland has done well across all these categories, but this is no news to anyone who has been following such rankings: the country, or its individual cities, regularly figure among those boasting a high quality of life.

READ MORE: REVEALED: Which Swiss cities offer the best quality of life?

Social purpose (86.6)

This means the country cares about human and animal rights, the environment, gender equality, religious freedom, property rights, well-distributed political power, racial equity, climate goals, and social justice.

Switzerland does particularly well in some of these categories, and less so in others.

In terms of animal rights, for instance, the country’s legislation is among the toughest in the world: as an example, small domestic animals must be kept in pairs to ensure social interaction, and it is illegal to boil a live lobster.

Another category in which Switzerland succeeds possibly better than other nations is the distribution of political power — under Switzerland’s unique system of direct democracy, people, rather than politicians, hold and wield all the power.

READ MORE: How Switzerland’s direct democracy system works

You will find the overall rankings in this link.
 

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