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

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People of colour or with foreign-sounding names are discriminated against by some landlords. File photo: Daniel Mott
12:17 CEST+02:00
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.

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.

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