Swiss landlords love having international tenants because they don’t know the tricks of the trade when it comes to Swiss tenancy law.
Here are a few tips from Geneva-based lawyer Renuka Cavadini which deal with residential, non-furnished leases and which could save you a lot of sleepless nights.
Although there is only one Swiss tenancy law – with various related ordinances, which apply to residential rentals all over Switzerland – the official paperwork for increasing rent or terminating a lease varies from one canton to another.
Swiss law on tenancy is very formal, so even a technicality can render the lease agreement invalid.
If there’s a problem with your landlord or your tenancy agreement, don’t wait to react. Be polite and cordial but also be firm about your rights.
Make sure to always correspond with your landlord by email or registered mail, and keep a copy of not only the correspondence but also the evidence that it was mailed or received.
The lease agreement
Lease agreements are standard, but ensure you check the following:
- Does the lease agreement mention the rent of the previous tenant (unless you are the first tenant of a new building)? If not, the agreement could be considered invalid.
- Do you want to contest the initial rent? If you have the feeling that the rent is excessive, then you can contest it. The time limit for this is 30 days from after you have received the initial lease agreement.
- Is the rent excessive? You can ask your landlord for a rent reduction if you believe that the rent provides an excessive return to the landlord. Request a written explanation from the landlord and give him/her 30 days to reply. If he or she does not give you an explanation or does not reply, you have another 30 days from the expiry of his/her deadline to file a request in court for the reduction of your rent.
- Beware of the notice period required to terminate your lease agreement if you have a long-term lease. Mark the date on your calendar to avoid missing it.
- If your lease is for a minimum of three years or more, there may be an increase in rent once a year and the increase must be mentioned in Swiss francs.
- If your lease is for a minimum of five years, there can be an annual indexation of the rent.
- The deposit required by the landlord cannot exceed three months’ rent.
Property condition reports
Before accepting the keys of the apartment and signing the property condition document provided by the landlord remember to check the following:
- Is the rental property clean?
- Is the heating working? Are the electrical appliances in the kitchen working?
- Can you open and close the shutters and/or window blinds? Are they stained or broken?
- Are there any holes, marks, or dents on the wooden flooring, tiles, or walls?
- Are there any defective window or shutter handles?
Ensure that all defects are photographed and listed in writing in the condition report which you will be asked to sign. The photographs must be sent by email to the landlord – preferably on the same day.
If the defects are not marked as existing at the beginning of your lease, they could be considered damage caused by your use of the property and the cost of repairs (except for normal wear and tear) could be deducted from the security deposit at the end of your lease.
The condition report (see a sample here, in German) is considered a part of the lease agreement so the contents are very important.
When you leave the apartment, the landlord will come and check the empty or almost empty rented home to prepare a document which he or she will compare with the original condition report to see what damage to the apartment may have been caused by you.
Before the landlord comes to inspect the rented home, make sure it has been cleaned inside out, and that any thumb tack or nail holes have been filled with plaster.
You should have the original condition report with you when the landlord comes to inspect the property, as well as the pictures of the defects taken at the beginning of the lease.
If the landlord makes any claims, contact your home contents insurance provider to intervene in any discussions.
Most importantly, don’t sign the property condition report at the end of your lease unless you understand what is written there and what you are being held liable for.
Having a lawyer present during a landlord’s visit to the apartment at the beginning and end of the lease can be reassuring when it coming to preventing the landlord from attempting to take advantage of your position as an expat and charging you for damages you may not be liable for.
Renovations and improvement works
If your landlord decides to make improvements to the building which are obviously going to cause a certain level of disturbance to tenants, you need to check whether you have been informed of the following:
- The start date of the construction or renovation work,;
- The duration of the work; and
- The type of work and what inconvenience will be caused (for example, no electricity).
Under Swiss case law, tenants are obliged to tolerate certain renovation work, especially if it will improve the use of the building of those tenants.
However, you can still request a reduction of rent under specific circumstances.
Exercising your right to request a rent reduction
As a tenant you are obliged to look after simple maintenance work in your rental property (such as changing light bulbs or fixing a door knob which came loose after you moved into the property).
However, all more serious work needs to be organized and paid for by the landlord and at is at his/her cost. This includes, for example, problems with heating, or with electrical appliances included in the property.
For any persistent problem which is not repaired or dealt with, you are entitled to ask for either a reduction in the rent (retroactively from the beginning of the problem) or, in the case of a serious problem, an early termination of your lease agreement (rarely granted by the courts).
The first thing you need to do is to inform your landlord in writing (via email or registered mail) and give him or her a reasonable deadline to resolve the problem. If it is not resolved, you have the right to repair the damage through a professional, registered company at the landlord’s cost or to request a reduction of the rent.
When things reach this point, it is advisable to go and see the Swiss Tenants Association (‘MV’ in German, ‘Asloca’ in French and ‘ASI’ in Italian) or a lawyer to determine whether you can begin paying your rent into an escrow account, as well as your rights and obligations in dealing with the situation.
The Swiss Tenants’ Association has the advantage of being a subsidized service which provides advice at a low cost, but political relations between this association and landlords are very tense.
If you are hoping to reach an amicable settlement, you may be better off informing yourself of your rights using the tenants association and then either negotiating with the your landlord directly, or through your lawyer.
Ask yourself the following questions to ensure you are using your rental property correctly:
- Are there more people living with you long-term than those mentioned in your lease (for example, your spouse, you and the kids)?
- If you are subletting your rental property, have you obtained the written consent of your landlord?
- If you are using one of your rooms as an office for your company and intend to put the name of the company on your letterbox, have you explained the situation to your landlord?
- Are you hoovering your house or doing other noisy work on Sundays or after 8pm on weekdays? (There are noise control rules in Switzerland.)
- Are you having loud parties in your apartment till late at night or disturbing your neighbours in any other way?
- Are you planning to renovate the rental property? Remember, you need to return the apartment in the same condition it was in when you moved in. So you should make sure you seek your landlord’s approval for any renovation work – and an assurance that he or she will not ask you to convert the apartment back into its original condition – before spending any money.
Your lease can be terminated by the landlord before the term of the lease agreement is up if you breach your duties as a tenant.
If you are late in paying your rent or additional expenses, the landlord is entitled to grant you a grace period of 30 days. If payment is not made by the deadline, the landlord can terminate your lease with a “notice period” of 30 days from the end of any month (if you receive the termination notice on December 15th, for example, the lease will end on January 30th).
Termination of the lease agreement by the tenant
If you want to terminate the lease agreement before the end of your lease, you need to find a suitable tenant who is willing to take over your lease or cover the rent yourself until the end of your tenancy.
The landlord can only refuse a new tenant you have suggested if he or she has good reasons to do so.
Either the landlord will “transfer” your lease agreement to the new tenant or sign a new lease agreement with the new tenant. In the first situation, you will remain jointly liable for payment of the rent with the new tenant until the end of your lease (as defined in your lease agreement) even though you have transferred the lease.
In the second situation, the new tenant will most likely have to pay more rent than you were paying, but you will no longer be liable for the payment of any rent after the agreed date of the termination of the lease.
In such situations, using a lawyer to negotiate the acceptance of the new tenant and a new lease versus a transfer of the current lease agreement can be very useful.
Termination of the lease agreement by the landlord
A termination of the lease by the landlord can be considered ‘abusive’ under the following circumstances:
- The tenant has raised good faith claims and the landlord is ‘taking revenge’.
- The landlord tries to force the tenant to buy the rental property.
- The termination takes place within three years from the end of a tenancy court procedure in which the landlord lost his or her claim or a settlement was reached between the parties.
Legal deadlines are key
Legal deadlines are very important so remember the following:
Make sure your mail is collected even when you are on vacation and any registered mail is scanned and sent to you immediately by email.
If your lease agreement is terminated, you have 30 days to contest the validity of the termination. This deadline begins the day after you received the yellow slip for the item of registered mail in your letterbox.
The landlord may notify you of an increase in rent while you are away on holiday. The 30 days' notice period begins on the date at which you receive this notice. However, if you do not collect the registered letter, after the wait period of seven days, the letter is considered as received and the deadline clock begins to tick.
Once you have the termination letter or the letter about an increase to your rent, seek advice on your rights from a tenants’ association or a lawyer.
Finally, don’t hesitate to consult a tenants’ association or a lawyer to help resolve a conflict — after all it is better to be safe than sorry!
This article was written by Renuka Cavadini, an attorney with Page & Partners in Geneva.