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 housing market in major cities means competition is fierce. You’ll need to act fast if you find a decent house to rent in Switzerland.
Renting a house in Switzerland
Renting is common in Switzerland. Around 40% of people own their home, while 60% of housing being rental homes. 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 is a broad range of property types available. You’ll find anything from chic city-center flats to former farmhouses and even the odd château.
Property prices have been rising steadily. A flood of newcomers to the larger cities means it can be hard to find a desirable property. The hardest-hit areas are probably Zurich, Geneva, and Basel, where only a tiny fraction (0.10%, 0.33%, and 0.45% respectively) of rental properties are available at any one time. As a result, competition for affordable housing is fierce. Tenants typically apply for a property by providing almost as much information as if they were applying for a job.
A survey published in December 2016, however, revealed residents are finding accommodation easier than three years ago. Almost 30% of house-hunters are finding a property within one month, particularly in German-speaking parts; the majority in French-speaking areas take longer than four months. The survey also revealed that residents visited six places on average and submitted three to four housing applications before settling.
On the plus side, Swiss apartments typically have communal parking, green space, and even a playground, making them a reasonable choice for families. Long-term tenancies are common, with some lasting decades. This means that apartment buildings often have a strong sense of community, like a neighborhood. There’s still the hurdle of the reserved nature of Swiss people, though; don’t expect invitations for coffee with your neighbors on your first day.
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 (although you can arrange a Swiss mortgage).
The tax situation is favorable for people who own their own home. As properties are slow to sell, it’s generally only worth the investment if you stay longer than five years. The Swiss Government has a leaflet on renting in various languages. Alternatively, you can find out more 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, particularly in the cities popular with other expats.
Online property portals
- UMS Ltd Temporary Housing Switzerland: furnished apartments for short- and mid-term (one month to two years).
Find a real estate agency
The easiest way is to wander around the areas where you want to live. Estate agents tend to have smaller offices, many of which have no 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 a list of local members.
Real estate agencies in Switzerland are mostly small, with a limited number of properties. The ones that offer rental properties often don’t advertise. Rather, they 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 organizations.
Furnished houses are often holiday homes, which may be a good choice for a short stay but can be more expensive. There are several online portals, such as UMS Ltd Temporary Housing Switzerland, that focus on furnished apartments.
Finding houseshares and lodgings
Again, the message boards of large organizations 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:
Swiss property descriptions
In Switzerland, listings describe apartments by the total number of rooms, not counting bathrooms. In some cantons, the kitchen isn’t counted either, so a four-room apartment may have two or three bedrooms and a living or dining room. Open-plan rooms that 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 without furnishings, 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 are generally communal in apartment buildings. Tenants may have a time slot for using them.
Outdoor space is important for Swiss tenants. Many modern apartments have a balcony and often access to a communal garden or playground. Near bodies of water such as 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 subsidized by the government. There’s relatively little of this in Switzerland, but the properties have an income cap that excludes most people in full-time employment. Such properties are rarely listed due to oversubscription. If they are advertised, this income cap is often, but not always, mentioned in the advert. If a rent sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Rent social housing in Switzerland
Watch out for social housing, which is subsidized 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.
Move to France or Germany: live as a frontalier
Strong transport connections with neighboring 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 a 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.
Costs to rent in Switzerland
According to data from 2017, the average cost of renting a home in Switzerland is CHF 1,284 per month. 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.
Indeed, figures from Transferwise show the average monthly cost of renting a one-bedroom apartment in the city center in Geneva is CHF 3,003 – while a family home comes in at CHF 5,832. In Bern, prices are considerably lower, at CHF 1,214 and CHF 2,363 respectively.
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 centers, houses are often a similar price per square meter – 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
- Duration of stay
You often must provide a document proving that you have no outstanding debts or legal judgments. 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;
- 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 are often 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.
Renting a property in Switzerland: Swiss rental market
Perhaps a uniquely Swiss institution, quiet hours are usually between 10.00pm and 6.00am, noon to 1.00pm, and all day Sundays. During these times, tenants must not make undue noise which may disturb their neighbors. 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 that 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. In general, landlords often allow smaller animals (e.g., birds, fish).
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 organization, contact your human resources department for assistance first. Many HR teams often assist 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 has 30 days to appeal. Appeals must be in writing and sent 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 (French/German/Italian only, but just look for the percentage in the center of the page) or you can contact the Swiss government housing arbitration agency (French/German/Italian only).