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PROPERTY

‘A lot of the Swiss rental market is about having personal connections’

The Local spoke recently to Walter Angst of Swiss tenants' association MV about the state of renting in the country. Here's what he told us.

'A lot of the Swiss rental market is about having personal connections'
People of colour or with foreign-sounding names are discriminated against by some landlords. File photo: Daniel Mott

Massive lines at apartment viewings, landlords demanding outrageous rental deposits and the huge gap in rents for those who already have a place to live and those currently looking: these are the themes that have pushed people recently to talk about a rental crisis in Switzerland.

Read also: Here's what annoys people about their neighbours in Switzerland

To find out more about why cities like Geneva and Zurich are proving such a headache for people looking for a place to rent, and to get more of an idea of the some of the more unusual aspects of renting in Switzerland, The Local spoke recently to Walter Angst of Swiss tenants' association MV.

Why are Swiss cites currently suffering from a serious shortage of rental properties?

In areas close to city centres, the rental vacancy rate is increasingly low, despite the fact there is a huge amount of construction going on. Because of their high quality of life, short commutes and strong growth, cities like Zurich are very attractive.

Only the luxury sector is immune from the rental crisis. In all other sectors – especially when it comes to [cheaper] public housing – supply will not be able to keep up with demand.

How does the MV believe the rental crisis can be solved?

We can push for the construction of more affordable housing and ensure compliance with tenancy laws that prohibit extortionate rents – by using, for example tools to examine whether rents being demanded by property owners are too high.

Renters in Switzerland have the right within 30 days of moving into property to find out if their rents are too high. [The can complain if they believe they are paying substantially more than previous tenants, if they are suffering from personal hardship or if they were forced to move into the dwelling because of a property shortage in the area.]

Is there any evident non-Swiss citizens find it tougher to find an apartment?

A lot of the rental market is about personal connections. When someone moving out of a property recommends another individual as the new tenant, that other person has a good chance of getting their hands on the property.

Then there are well-known patterns of discrimination. People with different skin colour or foreign-sounding names are affected, but so are large families and older people, who aren’t offered apartments because they are not considered good tenants.

But the main obstacle in city centres [when it comes to renting an apartment] is having a low-income or outstanding debt.

What paperwork do landlords in Switzerland usually demand of prospective tenants?

There is the application form with the standard questions about marriage status, and then there is an official Swiss document declaring your debt status (Betreibungsregisterauszug/extrait du registre des poursuites). You will also be asked to provide your employer’s contact details and to say whether you are on a temporary contract.

But a low income and outstanding debts are the most important criteria [for landlords].

You should not provide other documents with your rental application.

A tricky area of Swiss rental agreements is that of so-called additional costs (Nebenkosten/loyer) that have to be paid alongside rent. For example, the rent on a property could be listed as 1,000 francs but you then have to pay 200 francs a month in extra charges, making the overall out-of-pocket expense per month 1,200 francs. How do these additional costs function, how are they calculated, and what should tenants look out for before signing a contract?

Heating and hot water are usually paid through additional costs, where what you pay depends on usage. [These are often paid in advance (akonto/par acompte), with tenants being invoiced once a year. Tenants are then either repaid if they have paid too much or must make up the shortfall if they have not paid enough].

Lakeside apartments in Zurich. Photo: Depositphotos

However, in the last few years, many property owners have started to exclude from the rent anything that could be considered possible additional costs [for example, gardening or cleaning]. People talk about so-called “running expenses” and these can see tenants end up paying more than 300 francs a month.

But all of these expenditure items must be specified in the rental contract. Only those items which are specified as additional costs in the contract can be included in the yearly bill. Before signing a rental contract, you need to check if the additional costs stipulated are enough to cover the actual expenses. You should ask the previous tenant how high the bills were and if they had to pay something back at the end of the year.

If the additional costs are set too low, you can end up out of pocket later.

There are some peculiarities about terminating a rental contract in Switzerland: including the amount of notice you need to give and when you can actually move out of property. Can you explain this? Are there cantonal differences?

The usual notice period in Switzerland is three months. [As to when you can terminate a contract] there are cantonal differences. In the canton of Zurich April 1st and October 1st are the usual dates for the end of contracts.

Tenants who want to move out outside the usual fixed dates [for example, in Zurich on April 1st and October 1st] can recommend a suitable new tenant. If that person is prepared to take on the contract with the same conditions, the previous tenant no longer has to keep paying the bills.

But there are rental contracts which allow for allow for termination of the contract at the end of every month – as long as they give the usual three months’ notice [although even in these cases January 1st and August 1st might be excluded because these fall during holiday periods].

What external authorities can renters complain to if they have a problem with a landlord?

Complaints must first be filed with the arbitration authorities, where, alongside lawyers, representatives of the MV and the homeowners’ association are always present. These councils always seek to find a solution that satisfies all parties. But as a tenant it is always a good idea to ask the MV about the legal issues involved.

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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