The trick is the same in the two cases in question.
Tenants in Switzerland are legally entitled to challenge their initial rent within 30 days from the beginning of the lease. The challenge can be based on the increment made on the previous rent by the owner.
Therefore, in two different cases, the building owners prepared fake lease agreements with real or fictitious tenants to make the new tenants believe that there was no increase in the rent.
However, the new tenant was effectively being cheated by paying a substantial increase in his rent which he was unaware of.
Some practical tips to avoid falling in such a trap:
1.Know the owner of your apartment
On the land register site, by entering the address of your apartment, you can find out the name of the owner of the building free of charge.
This will allow to ensure that you are dealing with the real owner (a private person, an insurance company, etc.). You may want to google the owner to see if he has been subject to complaints for fraud published in the media.
2.Make contact with the former tenant by asking for their identity and asking them specific questions about the apartment
Prefer an apartment for which you may have had contact with the former tenant.
Indeed, when you visit the apartment, you will have the possibility to ask what the current rent is.
By doing so, you will know which rent must appear in the official form that you must be given (see point 4a) below).
3.Find out about the rent of other apartments in the building
If you have just arrived in Switzerland, find out about the rental prices in the city you have just moved to.
Indeed, the price of a three-room apartment in Geneva is not the same in the Jura nor in St. Gallen.
Also, depending on the districts of the same city, rents can vary.
4. Know your rights
a) Official approved form: When you sign the lease contract, you must be given a form that mentions the rent paid by the former tenant.
This form is mandatory and your rights are listed on this form.
b) Challenging the initial rent: you have 30 days from the handing over of the keys (art. 270 CO) to contest the initial rent with the Lease and Rental Commission.
The rent can be contested for an abusive increase in rent compared to what the former tenant paid, but it is also possible to contest an unchanged rent.
Find out about your rights during the first 30 days after the keys are handed over, before it is too late.
Some landlords insist on providing you with the lease agreement in original only after 30 days to prevent you from using this right.
Insist on getting the agreement, if they refuse, seize the lease and rental Commission.
We realise that in many cases because of the shortage of apartments or the difficulty in finding your “dream” apartment, you may not have the time to take steps 1-4 because they may not be realistic options because of the shortage of time.
However, remember, between the time you apply for the apartment and the time taken by the agency to make a choice between the potential tenants (which often needs to be approved by the owners), you may be able to at least check some of these points.
There is also no obligation to take the apartment even if you have applied for it, until and unless you have signed the lease agreement.
Finally beware of the conditions of some real estate agencies that charge you a fine if you apply for the apartment but don’t take it when your tenancy has been approved.
This advice was prepared by Renuka Cavadini and Angela Carvalho of Page & Partners