Top tips for finding an apartment in Switzerland

Top tips for finding an apartment in Switzerland
Waterfront apartments in Zurich. Photo: John Eckman
Housing in Switzerland is among the most expensive in the world and competition is fierce for affordable properties. It’s all very well if money isn’t an issue, but what if it is? The Local's Emily Rose Mawson investigates.

Pick up a Swiss newspaper and you’re likely to find a story on the housing crisis. ‘Tages Woche’ spoke recently of hunting down a monster called “Wohnungsnot” (housing emergency), while the ‘Berner Zeitung’ reported that the 50,000 apartments built in Switzerland each year are insufficient for the growing population.

With 60 percent of residents in Switzerland living in rental accommodation (and higher percentages in the biggest cities), competition to find the best apartments is fierce — especially if you are not local and don’t understand the system.

The market is even tougher if you are on a modest salary.

Rents in Geneva rates top those in New York or Paris, while apartments in Zurich command around 269 francs per square metre, according to recent research by Credit Suisse.

Affordable housing crisis

“Competition for affordable housing, especially for one to two bedroom apartments, is fierce, and competition in the 2,000-franc to 3,000-franc range remains daunting,” warns Sabine Baerlocher of Geneva-based relocation agency Active Relocation.

The situation in Zurich isn’t much better. Austrian PhD student Stefan Weissenbock, claims to have viewed 20 apartments in the city before finding a landlord prepared to accept him as a tenant, given his modest income.

“I was trying to find a slightly larger apartment than for a single person, because my girlfriend was later coming to join me,” Weissenbock says. “It would probably have been easier to find a room in a shared flat.”

Income could be the deciding factor when attending an apartment viewing with 30 other people. Yvonne Tanner, a private landlady in Zurich, reveals that landlords often check that rent is no higher than a third of a tenant’s salary, and could demand a deposit of up to three months rent – which is unaffordable for some low earners.

And it doesn’t seem to be a uniquely expat problem. Tanner believes the difficulty in finding an affordable apartment affects both the Swiss and the international community – especially because the cheapest opportunities often go backhandedly.

She says: “You need to find ways to stand out from other potential tenants. For example, get good references from previous landlords that prove you have always paid your rent on time, or a reference from your employer about your character.” She admits that personality is important for her, saying, “I often think about how well suited a person is to living in my building.”

She adds that a little bit of luck is required – something ETH Zurich student Jessica Litman agrees with. “When looking for a place in Zurich, I got very lucky,” says Litman. “I looked online for flats, went to three viewings and got offers for two of them.”

The Expat Project: How to move to Switzerland

Knowing the market

Taking luck out of the equation, getting clued up with the Swiss rental system can help at competitive viewings. Expatriate information service Expatica warns that you will need to submit a dossier including details on your age, marital status, number of children, profession, salary, letter of reference and a document proving you are not being pursued for debts – the so-called ‘extrait du registre des poursuites’/ ‘Auszug aus dem Betreibungsregister’.

Baerlocher claims that working with a relocation agency can help save time and money in this regard. “Expert knowledge of the local customs helps our clients understand which types of housing will best match their needs,” she says. “We also make sure that everything is taken into account.”

Ivan Tan, a Singapore national, considered using a relocation agency to help him navigate the complicated and competitive market in Zurich.

He says: “I had heard nightmare stories of people who took up to eight months to find an apartment in Zurich. At the same time I have friends who moved to Zurich and had positive experiences in using an agency.

“I had also heard that being non-Swiss was going to be a challenge in looking for apartments — another reason why I felt the agency would help.”

There are also real estate agencies, who are usually working for the property owners and can help match you with an apartment. Baerlocher warns that because of this, they may not be fully objective.

They can also be costly. An expat known to The Local says that she decided against using an agency to find an apartment after learning they charged fees of two months’ rent.

With Switzerland’s population continuing to grow at one of the highest rates in Europe – it registered a rate of 1.3 per cent in 2013 according to the Federal Statistical Office – competition for affordable apartments is not likely to ease. So be prepared for a lot of effort — and look for some luck — to find the digs you want.