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EXPAT GUIDE | HOUSING

HOUSING

Top tips for finding an apartment in Switzerland

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.

Top tips for finding an apartment in Switzerland
Waterfront apartments in Zurich. Photo: John Eckman

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.

 

For members

PROPERTY

Checklist: What documents do I need for an apartment in Switzerland?

Looking for a flat? You need to have your documents in order. Here’s what you need to know.

Checklist: What documents do I need for an apartment in Switzerland?

Finding a flat in Switzerland is incredibly competitive, even if you are not looking in the larger metropolises of Zurich and Geneva. 

Landlords will often get hundreds of applications for each flat offer. 

One way to get ahead is to make sure you have your documents in order early – in many cases even before you see the apartment in question. 

While this will sometimes lead to some unnecessary printing, you will ensure your completed documentation is on top of the landlord’s pile when the big decision has to be made. 

If you aren’t handing the documents in in person, put them all together in one PDF file when you send it over to make it easier for the landlord to read. 

Here are some of the important documents you will need to find a flat in Switzerland. 

Overview

There are two broad categories of documents you need to move into a flat in Switzerland: the need to haves and the nice to haves, although things are so competitive these days that many of the nice to haves are getting a little more essential. 

The need to haves include identification, application form and residence permit (if you don’t have a Swiss passport). 

The nice to haves are a cover letter, freedom from debt statement, employment information, references from employers and from previous landlords and additional information about the nature of your employment, i.e. a contract showing the duration of your employment. 

All of the documents should be provided in the language of the canton in which you apply. Often it will be no problem to apply in English, particularly in larger cities, however an application in the local language will always be looked upon positively. 

Finally, while the following is a guide as to the commonly requested and required documents in Switzerland, it does vary from place to place. 

Sometimes you will need to register with a particular property company, for instance, or provide other specifics related to the accommodation, i.e. student accommodation. 

Landlords are however restricted from asking certain questions, including those related to health. More info on this is available below. 

Renting in Switzerland: The questions your landlord can and cannot ask you

Identification

This one is relatively self-explanatory, as not even the most trusting landlord is likely to allow you to move in without proof of who you are. 

For foreigners, a passport is likely to be required, although your Swiss identity card will also suffice. 

Application form

The application form is the centrepiece of your request, so be sure to include it. 

It will guide you through the process, showing you which information you need to provide and generally what the landlord considers necessary. 

Generally speaking application forms will be available online, or at the very least will be available at the apartment viewing. 

If you can, fill it out online and hand it in at the viewing – it will put you ahead of the competition. 

Employment status 

Generally, your application will ask for your profession and for your employer. 

They will also ask for a salary estimate and sometimes proof of salary, or at least a ballpark figure of what you earn. 

Real estate agencies tend to run by the loose rule that your rent should not be more than a third of your wage, so keep that in mind when applying. 

Residence permit

As we outlined here, landlords cannot as you about your nationality or other potentially associated characteristics such as religion or race, but they are permitted to ask for proof of your residency status. 

Specifically, a landlord is allowed to ask whether you are Swiss or not and to provide details of your citizenship or residency details, i.e. which type of permit you have to live in Switzerland. 

Again, while this may appear to be a personal question and may result in discrimination, landlords will want to know you have a right to live in Switzerland and are therefore likely to stick around for the long(ish) term. 

Freedom from debt statement 

There are two statements here – a general certificate saying you are not in debt (from organisations like CRIF, ZEK, IKO or Bisnode) and one which highlights you are not in debt to your previous landlord. 

Generally speaking, neither of these are required in Switzerland, although you will be making your life more difficult if you don’t provide them. 

In Germany and Austria, landlords will often ask for a Mietschuldenfreiheitsbescheinigung (pronounced meat-shool-den-fry-height-bee-shine-ee-goong). 

Switzerland loves paperwork. Photo: Christa Dodoo on Unsplash.

Switzerland loves paperwork. Photo: Christa Dodoo on Unsplash.

Literally translating as rent-debt-freedom-certificate, the Mietschuldenfreiheitsbescheinigung is a document which confirms you are not in rental debt for your previous properties. 

Keep in mind that in Switzerland the previous landlord is under no obligation to provide this certificate – and a tenant is also under no obligation to show it. 

Tenant or landlord: Who pays which costs in Switzerland?

However, as with everything in this list, such a certificate is likely to help convince a landlord that a tenant is trustworthy. 

A landlord looking at two identical applications is likely to decide in favour of the tenant who has provided a Mietschuldenfreiheitsbescheinigung rather than the tenant who hasn’t. 

If your landlord will not provide you with one – or asks for a large sum of money to get it – you can provide this information to your prospective landlord. 

Generally speaking you should not be charged more than 20 francs for such a statement. 

Cover letter

A cover letter will usually not be a requirement, however it is perhaps the best chance you have to explain a little about yourself, why you want to live in the region (and in the specific flat) and what your long-term goals are. 

Generally speaking you will not get to meet the landlord personally (unless its a private rental), so the cover letter is your best chance to give an indication as to who you really are. 

When writing a cover letter, be sure not to simply repeat the information on your application form – use it to tell a story about yourself and why you are captivated by the flat (remember that landlords will be able to smell a generic cover letter a mile away). 

Like resumes, cover letters in Switzerland generally include photos. 

Recommendation letters

Recommend letter of recommendation from your former landlord or from your employer are definitely in the nice to have category and may not be looked at at all, however a landlord may be swayed by the positive opinion of a previous landlord. 

Renting in Switzerland: Can a landlord ask if I am vaccinated? 

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