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Home Away from Home: Renting in Switzerland
At a Glance:
- Renting is the norm in Switzerland with fewer than 40% of residents owning their own home. With space at a premium, competition can be fierce.
- There are traditional changeover days at the end of each quarter, and early summer is one of the most popular times to look for a new place.
- Potential landlords will want to know many personal, financial, and professional details. Take the time to prepare a dossier with all important documents in advance so that you’re ready to act when the perfect place comes up.
- New lease agreements can be expensive with tenants needing up to four times the monthly rental cost for the deposit and initial month’s rent. Agents will also charge additional fees.
- Be sure to check the rules and regulations for your new building. There may be maintenance costs, allocated time slots for shared laundry facilities, or “quiet hours” when certain activities are banned.
A Rental Culture
With real estate in high demand and space at a premium, most people in Switzerland choose to rent rather than buy. On average, 60% of residents live in rental accommodation, and this can be even higher in major cities such as Geneva, Basel, and Zurich. To rent property in Switzerland, you’ll need to be a legal Swiss resident. Find out more about starting the application process in our dedicated article on Swiss visa regulations.
Properties are in high demand, and don’t stay on the market long. While typical vacancy rates elsewhere are around 3%, properties in most Swiss cities are only vacant between 0.2% and 0.8% of the year. With such hot competition, it’s not surprising that once people find a good place they like to stay put; long leases are common, even stretching to 20 or 50 years in some communities.
However, it’s not all bad news for expats looking to make their home in an idyllic canton: the recent building boom has helped ease demand, and the end of 2015 saw zero growth in rents for the first time since 2000. It’s even better news for Francophones — rents have started to gradually decline in French-speaking hotspots such as Lake Geneva and Valais.
Starting the Housing Search
The summer holidays are a popular time to move so properties generally become available between April and early July. Some areas still follow the traditional rule that tenancies can only begin on “quarter days”, at the end of March, June, September, and December — though Christmas is not a popular time to move!
To get a feel for what’s available, use sites like comparis.ch, ImmoStreet, and homegate.ch as well as checking your local newspaper. Estate agents are the gatekeepers to finding a place in Switzerland, controlling 95% of the rental market. As well as showing the apartment, agents are responsible for filtering applications, and will make the judgement call on the suitability of potential tenants.
Relocation agents can help you manage the search and application process, but can be pricey. For expats going it alone, make use of the “Hello Switzerland” help service to get advice from locals on everything from finding an apartment to which area of the city is right for you:
Tenant X-factor: What It Takes to Be Accepted
Finding something you like is just the first step. The application process is fierce, and a well-organized dossier can be the deciding factor in finding your new home. Part of your application, this set of documents gives your potential new landlord information about your financial, professional, and family status. It should include:
- personal details (e.g. age, gender, marital status, profession, children)
- citizenship and copies of official ID documents for all adult tenants
- copies of your work and residence permit, as well as how long you plan to stay in Switzerland
- work contract / confirmation of salary from your employer
- the Extrait du registre des poursuites / Auszug aus dem Betreibungsregister (a statement from your local cantonal authority showing you don’t have any debts)
- contact details, including your current address
- other relevant information, e.g. if you have pets or play musical instruments
Where possible, include references from previous landlords, or a character reference from your employer. The more you can build up a trust-worthy picture of who you are, the more likely you are to get accepted.
Once you find a place you like, you will also need to download or collect the lease request forms from the agent and add these to your dossier. Remember the golden rule — only apply to one property per agent! You can expect to hear back from the agent within about a week.
Balancing the Budget
As well as being sure you’re the right kind of person for the property, owners and agents will assess whether it’s the right price range for you; you’re just as unlikely to get a place if you earn “too much” as if you earn “too little”. As a guide, rent should be between a quarter and a third of your gross monthly income. If there are two salaries in the household, this is calculated based on your combined income.
Living in the heart of a major city such as Geneva or Zurich, you can expect to pay at least 1,800 CHF per month for a one-bed, unfurnished apartment. Expats who want more space and good international schools will pay a premium with monthly rent for condominiums in popular expat areas, such as Pfannenstiel near Zurich, starting at around 3,500 CHF.
There are a number of additional expenses to budget for. Rent is due at the beginning rather than the end of the month, and the deposit is usually between one and three months’ rent; this means you may need to have four times the monthly rent available when moving in. If you use an agency, there may also be charges for processing your application, setting up the contract, or general administration fees.
Once you’re in your new home, utility bills are the responsibility of the tenant, and there may be fees for the maintenance of communal areas and facilities. It varies from property to property whether these are included in the rent or paid directly to the landlord, so be sure to check when you move in.
You can read more about the cost of living in Switzerland in our article on Swiss lifestyle and its associated costs.
Nailing the Handover
Before you’re ready to call it home sweet home, there are a few essential documents needed for the property handover. As well as the signed lease, security deposit, and first month’s rent, you’ll need to show proof of third-party liability insurance. The agent or landlord will also complete an inspection report detailing the current condition of the property. If after moving in you realize something was overlooked, you have up to ten days to write to the agent and amend the report including photos where possible.
At the handover, apartments are expected to be move-in ready. While this is great news when you’re unpacking, be sure to allow enough time (and money) for a professional-standard clean when moving out. The agent will usually have an itemized move-out checklist covering everything from the cleanliness of the blinds to any calcification on the taps. Professional cleaning companies charge between 800 and 1000 CHF to meet the exacting standards of Swiss landlords.
If you’re looking to move, you’ll need to plan ahead: three months’ notice is the norm, although there are regional variations. In Zurich and the surrounding area, the official notice dates are 1 April and 1 October. In other areas, it’s usually the end of the month, not including December.
If you find yourself needing to move quickly, there’s a useful loophole: if you find another suitable, solvent tenant to replace you, you’re able to move out before the end of the agreement with c.a. 30 days’ notice.
What to Expect from Your Swiss Chateau
Once you’re finally in your new place… it’s time to go shopping! Most apartments are unfurnished — even the light fittings and kitchen appliances may not be included, so check with the agent or landlord what to expect.
In apartment buildings, laundry facilities are often shared. You may be given an allocated time at which you can use them, and usage is usually limited to once a week. Look for a clipboard with time slots next to the washing machine, and make sure you sign up early!
The Swiss value peace and quiet. Most buildings adhere to official “quiet hours” from 22:00 to 07:00, over lunchtime, and all day on Sundays. During these times, noisy activities such as vacuuming or anything else that may disturb your neighbors should be kept to a minimum. This guide from the canton of Geneva gives examples of “admissible” and “excessive” noise — better forget that relaxing late-night bath!
To avoid annoying your new neighbours, take a look at our article on the diversity of Swiss culture.
Know Your Rights as a Tennant
Though the majority of the population lives in rented accommodation, Swiss law has been slow to recognize renters’ rights. Price and tenancy termination protection wasn’t introduced until 1990, and even now the Swiss Constitution doesn’t include a “right to housing”.
However, over the past few decades improvements have been made. Renters can look to tenants’ associations, such as ASLOCA (website in French) or Mietverband (website in German), for support. For association members, local cantonal branches offer free of charge legal consulting. All renters can turn to local conciliation boards in the case of a dispute — find yours here (German only). Keep an eye on the economy; renters can even request a rent reduction if interest rates or house values decrease.
Bridging the Gap
If you’re struggling to convince Swiss landlords that you’re the right kind of tenant, one option is to look at temporary housing while you build up a credit history in Switzerland and get the Extrait du registre des poursuites / Auszug aus dem Betreibungsregister.
As well as regular rooms, some hotels offer furnished apartments with cheaper rates for longer stays. Some relocation companies also offer furnished apartments with one to six month leases, though the notice period is usually 1–3 months. There are also a handful of sites, such as Untermietservice, that offer temporary furnished apartments.
Often the best ways is to ask around. Sub-letting is both legal and common in Switzerland, and can be a great way of getting to know a place before signing up to a full lease. As well as asking friends and colleagues, look for company message boards or local organizations where you can spread the word.
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