Renting a Swiss property
Competition to rent Swiss houses is fierce, and it can be hard to find a decent property in Switzerland. Read about the quirks of renting a Swiss house.
The saturated Swiss rental markets in major cities means competition for Swiss rental properties is fierce, and that you need to act fast if you find a decent house to rent in Switzerland.
Renting a Swiss house
Renting is common in Switzerland with less than 40 percent of people owning their own home. Rental rates are even higher in popular cities like Zurich, Basel and Geneva and somewhat lower in rural areas. As so many people of all ages and family situations rent, there are a broad range of property types available, from chic city-centre apartments to former farmhouses and even the odd château or stately home.
Property prices have been rising steadily, and a flood of newcomers to the larger cities means that it can be very hard to find a desirable property to buy or rent. The hardest hit areas are probably Zurich, Geneva and Basel, where only a tiny fraction (0.10, 0.33 and 0.45 percent respectively) of rental properties are available at any one time. As a result, competition for affordable housing is fierce, and tenants will typically have to apply for a property, providing almost as much information as if they were applying for a job.
On the plus side, Swiss apartments typically have communal parking and many have a green space, often with a playground, making them a very reasonable choice for families with children. Long-term tenancies are common, with some lasting 20 or even 50 years, which means that apartment buildings often have a similar sense of community to a suburban neighbourhood – although you will still have to deal with the Swiss reserve so don't expect to be invited in for coffee immediately.
Move to France or Germany: live as a frontalier
Strong transport connections with neighbouring countries mean that many Swiss cities, including Geneva and Basel, are within commuting distance of another country. If your work permit permits (if you're an EU citizen, for example, or working for an UN agency) you may wish to consider living across the border where property prices are cheaper.
Life as a frontalier, with a residence in France or Germany and a job in Switzerland, can be more complicated, particularly for American citizens who may find themselves paying tax in three countries. However, many people find it worthwhile for the financial benefits, particularly if they are only staying for a limited period or have come from another Eurozone country.
Should you rent or buy in Switzerland?
Renting is usually the best way to start out in a new country, and Switzerland is no exception. While finding a property to rent may be a struggle, purchasing a property is usually even more complex.
Switzerland restricts the rights of some non-nationals to buy property. Property is expensive and a family home near Geneva or Zurich can easily top CHF 1 million (EUR 800,000) (although you can arrange a Swiss mortgages).
The tax situation is favourable for people who own their own home but as properties can be slow to sell, taking a year or more even in popular areas, it is probably only worth the investment if you plan to stay for five years or more. The Swiss Government provides a leaaflet on renting in 15 languages (PDFs, right hand column) and you can find out more about the alternative with Expatica's Guide to buying property in Switzerland.
Finding a Swiss house
As in other countries, most Swiss properties are now advertised online. However, as the rental markets in some areas are hyper-competitive, it's worth taking multiple approaches to find your new home.
- Search online.
- Check the paper.
- Get to know estate agents.
- Tell everyone you know.
- Consider a sub-let.
Finding a rental property can be a time consuming process In some areas of Switzerland, particularly those which tend to be most popular with expats, such as Geneva, Lausanne, Basel and Zurich.
Real estate agencies in Switzerland are mostly small, with a limited number of properties. The ones which offer rental properties will often not want to go to the trouble of advertising, and instead will first contact people who have made speculative applications – or who happen to be standing in their office when they receive the call from the landlord.
Rental applications seem to be considered on a first-come, first-served basis, where you will have a better chance of securing your dream flat if you're the first to apply. This means that you want to be ahead of the queue, so wherever possible you want inside information from colleagues, estate agents or anyone else who might have or know of a decent place to rent.
This is not to say you can't find a place to live using online adverts and newspapers, but if you find you're constantly arriving at a viewing to discover the property has already been let, it's time to network.
Most daily papers will include property listings, often on a specific day of the week. There are also free property supplements available, typically in supermarkets and at estate agents.
Finding temporary housing and furnished apartments
Sub-letting is both legal and normal in Switzerland and is a good way to find temporary accommodation. The best places to find sub-lets are usually among your network of friends and acquaintances and on the internal message boards of large organisations.
Furnished houses are often holiday homes, which may be a good choice for a short stay but can be expensive. As well as holiday rental companies, try UMS Ltd Temporary Housing Switzerland who specialise in short-term and furnished lodgings.
Finding house shares and lodgings
Again, the message boards of large organisations are often the best place to go. You can also try wgzimmer, although most pages are partly in German.
You can also try local English language or expat sites like:
Find a real estate agency
The easiest way is to wander around the towns and villages where you want to live, as estate agents tend to be small shops tucked down side streets, many of which will not have an English-language web presence. You can also try:
- Swiss Real Estate Association (SVIT)
- SVIT Member directory
- Swiss Union of Real Estate Professionals (USPI) (in French only): Active only in the Swiss Romand area. Visit regional sites for list of local members.
Swiss property descriptions
In Switzerland, apartments are usually described by a total number of rooms, not counting bathrooms. In some cantons, the kitchen is not counted either, so a four-room apartment may have two or three bedrooms and a living or dining room. Open plan rooms which include the kitchen are often counted as 0.5 or 1.5 rooms. However, almost all adverts will list the total living space and also the total plot size for a house, giving you a clear idea of the size of the property and the garden.
Properties in Switzerland are typically rented unfurnished, often without even light fittings. As such, when you view the property, it is important to check whether kitchen appliances will be included or not. Laundry facilities will usually be communal in apartment buildings and you may be given a time slot when you're allowed to use them.
Outdoor space is considered important, and many modern apartments have a balcony and often access to a communal garden or playground. Near lakes like Lake Geneva and Lake Zurich, a right of access to the water will increase the cost of a property, as will the right to moor a boat.
Watch out for social housing, which is subsidised by the government. There's relatively little of this in Switzerland, but the properties will have an income cap that excludes most people in full-time employment. Such properties are over-subscribed and thus rarely listed, but if they are advertised, this income cap will often, but not always, be mentioned in the advert. If a rent sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Rental costs in Switzerland
The average cost of renting a home in Switzerland is CHF 1,284 per month (around EUR 1000). The average home size is 99sqm and the average living area per person is 44sqm. However, these figures can be deceptive as most expats will find themselves in the larger cities or the more popular areas of the country where rents may be double or triple the national average for a desirable property.
A detached house in a similar area will be more expensive than an apartment, but as Switzerland tends to have multifamily housing in towns and even village centres, houses are often a similar price per square metre – you will pay with a longer commute instead.
Applying to rent a Swiss house
Landlords seem to broadly work on a first-come, first-served system so in a competitive area you'll want to hand in your application as soon as possible, perhaps even before you see the property. There's usually a small charge for applications and you can withdraw your application if you don't like the property.
Swiss rental applications are comprehensive documents. Expect to provide your:
- Marital status and number of children;
- Profession and employer;
- A letter of reference or indication of employment from your employer;
- Residency or visa status;
- Often including copies of passports and visas;
- Number and type of pets;
- Planned duration of stay.
You will also often have to provide a document proving that you are not being pursued for debts or other legal judgements. This is called an extrait du Registre des poursuites / Auszug aus dem Betreibungsregister / estratto del registro dell'Ufficio delle Esecuzioni e Fallimenti.
If you've lived in the country for a while, make a formal request (for which you will be charged) at the nearest Office des poursuites / Betreibungsamt / Ufficio delle Esecuzioni e Fallimenti. If you've recently arrived, you may be able to request one from your previous place of residence, but in the first instance you should discuss your situation with the estate agent.
All tenants should have a written contract which is the tenancy agreement between landlord and tenant. This should cover:
- Tenancy start and end date;
- How and when to give notice (see next section);
- Detailed property inventory;
- Tenant rights to shared services;
- Quiet hours;
- Any other house rules.
Starting and ending a tenancy
Tenancy agreements in Switzerland tend to be for an initial period of 12 months. Traditionally, tenancies could only start or end on a quarter day which is around 25 of March, June, September and December. This tradition continues in many areas, although its implementation is patchy. As an extra twist, the December quarter day, being Christmas, is often not acceptable for a tenancy change over. The tenant must give notice by the previous quarter day of their intention to vacate, i.e. at least three months in advance.
While this system is dying out in many areas, particularly the cities, it's still the norm in others. This is why Switzerland has a strong sub-letting culture and tenancy transfer is common: if you can find a candidate willing and able to take over your let, you can leave at any time with little notice, even if the landlord rejects their tenancy application.
Cost of renting a home in Switzerland
When first moving in, you can also expect to pay a deposit. This should not be more than three months of rent and should be lodged in a special bank account in the tenant's name. There will often be other fees charged by the agent and the landlord as they attempt to recuperate the costs of finding a tenant. These go by various names but are typically:
- Agent search fees;
- Application processing fees'
- Administration fees.
These vary widely and may be as much as a month's rent. Typically, a property rented directly from the landlord will have fewer or lower fees than one found through an agency.
In addition to the rent, which typically includes water rates, the tenant will have to pay utility bills and often a service fee for the care and maintenance of communal areas. This may or may not be included in the rent, and may or may not be paid directly through the landlord, so it's important to double check when you view the property and ensure that the tenancy agreement is clear. Landlords should not charge for this service, and must provide a detailed invoice at least once per year.
Perhaps a uniquely Swiss institution, quiet hours are usually between 10.00pm and 7.00am, noon to 1.00pm, and all day Sundays. During these times, tenants must not make undue noise which may disturb their neighbours. In a detached property, this includes mowing the lawn and using power tools, while in an apartment it could include playing music or talking loudly. Stories which say men are legally required to pee sitting down and no one is allowed to shower during quiet hours are myths.
It's worth noting that Swiss landlords do not have to allow pets and many don't. So if you're thinking of acquiring a pet, wait until you've found a home and then request permission. Small caged animals such as birds or fish are generally permitted.
Hopefully you'll have a charming landlord and no problems. If you do have any troubles, however, Switzerland has strong tenant's rights and you should immediately discuss your issues with the local branch of the Swiss government housing arbitration agency (French/German/Italian only). This may seem daunting if you're new to the country – if you're working for a large organisation, contact your human resources department for assistance first. Many HR teams are accustomed to dealing with expat troubles and can point you in the right direction.
In Switzerland, the landlord must make an official application to raise the rent of an existing tenant. Typically the justification will be that the base mortgage interest rate has increased. The tenant will have 30 days to appeal, which must be done in writing to the government arbitration agency.
Conversely, the tenant can apply to the same agency for a reduction in rent, for example if the official base mortgage interest rate decreases. Keep an eye on the base mortgage interest rate here (French/German/Italian only, but just look for the percentage in the centre of the page) or you can contact the Swiss government housing arbitration agency (French/German/Italian only).
Find a property in Switzerland using Expatica's housing search.
Need advice? Post your question on Expatica's free Ask the Expert service to see if we can help.
Photo credit: Alan Cleaver (photo 2).