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EXPLAINED: The hidden costs of renting in Switzerland

Renting an apartment in Switzerland can include a range of other costs. Here’s what you need to know.

A bird house seen in a backyard
There are many costs to be aware of when renting a home in Switzerland. Here are some of the most important. Photo by Harmen Jelle van Mourik on Unsplash

When paying your rent in Switzerland, you may be liable for a range of additional or associated costs in addition to your actual rent. 

If you’ve just arrived in Switzerland, many of the costs will be known to you, while some others might be surprising. 

These can include everything from heating and electricity costs, to less common fees for caretakers or doormen. 

While you will be liable for many of the costs yourself, some of them will be the responsibility of the landlord. 

For a more comprehensive breakdown of which costs are the responsibility of the tenant and which for the landlord, check out the following link. 

Tenant or landlord: Who pays which costs in Switzerland?

How do rent and other costs work in Switzerland? 

In Switzerland you will pay your landlord two types of costs associated with the flat. 

The first is the straight rent on the apartment or house. The second is a list of associated or ancillary costs. 

In German these are known as Nebenkosten, in French as frais accessoir and in Italian as costi aggiuntivi. 

These can include: heating, hot water, electricity in common areas, snow removal, garden maintenance, parking, lifts and stairwell, sweeping and cleaning common areas, laundry room costs, cable TV/TV costs, water, sewage and caretaker fees. 

Some bills will have up to 15 different line-items. 

Note that ‘associated costs’ do not include other costs associated with renting that a tenant will be liable for, such as internet, phone or electricity. Generally speaking, these will be paid separately by the tenant and will not be a part of the rental charge, although in certain instances (i.e. student accommodation) they may be included. 

How much are these costs? 

The amount you pay for utilities can vary widely depending on all sorts of factors including where you live, what kind of house you have, how many people live there and how you use the apartment. 

The costs are worked out on the basis of what the average tenant would use, i.e. on the basis of other flats in the building and perhaps on the basis of the amount the previous tenant paid in this apartment. 

If you use the heating more than the average tenant – which is a possibility if you come from a tropical country – or if it has snowed a lot more than usual, then your costs might be higher. 

Therefore, you should not bank on getting a refund at the end of the year, even if you have gotten a refund in the past. 

EXPLAINED: Can I rent my apartment on Airbnb in Zurich and what are the rules?

How are these costs charged? 

Given that there are so many of these potential costs and that they may vary unpredictably, for instance on the basis of weather or water usage, these costs are rarely charged individually. 

Instead, you will pay a flat rate from which these costs are deducted, usually as a component of your monthly rent. 

At the end of the year, you will receive a notification as to whether your actual costs have exceeded that amount. 

Generally speaking you will receive a credit, which can be paid out or kept in your rental account (Akontozahlung). 

Otherwise, tenants can pay a lump sum payment (Pauschalzahlung) of the total costs when they are apparent. 

If you live in an apartment block with several other flats, the costs must be split evenly between tenants. This will usually be a percentage of the total costs. 

Finding a flat in Switzerland: How to stand out from the crowd

What are some common ‘hidden costs’ associated with renting a flat?

Once you’ve gotten your head around the way associated costs are charged, you may want to look at what exactly you are paying when it comes to associated costs. 

Technically speaking, there should be no hidden costs associated with renting in Switzerland (although some costs are surprising or are calculated in a surprising way and these will be discussed below). 

An important aspect of Swiss tenancy law is that while tenants may be liable for a range of costs as ‘associated costs’, these must be clearly laid out – otherwise there is no obligation to pay. 

The Swiss Tenants Association notes that a line item like “other operating costs” is not permitted and therefore does not have to be paid by the tenant. 

Therefore, your landlord is not allowed to hide costs at all in the tenancy agreement. Any attempt to hide “other operating costs” in the tenancy agreement will be contrary to Swiss law. 

As you might want to keep on good terms with your landlord, the best approach will be to ask for an explanation of what these costs are. 

Your landlord must show you receipts for costs if you ask them. 

READ MORE: What damage do tenants have to pay for in Switzerland?

Communal costs

If you live in an apartment building or a block of flats, a central part of the associated costs you will pay relate to the use of common areas. 

Obviously, someone needs to pay for the electricity used to make the lift go up and down, keep the lights on in the hallway or throw rocks or salt in the courtyard when the snow comes. 

It would be impractical to make each person pay for this directly, therefore this will usually be split between all tenants. 

Keep in mind that Swiss apartment blocks tend to have a communal mindset, meaning that you won’t have much of a choice as to what you pay and what you don’t. 

For instance if you hate grass and never set foot in the garden, you will still need to pay the same share of the garden maintenance fees as the old orange Swiss man who sits there every sunny day drinking cans of Quöllfrisch. 

Fortunately however these costs tend to be relatively low (and might even be an incentive to pull up a chair next to him). 

Heating

One major hidden cost that can surprise people when they get their first bill (usually in autumn each year) relates to heating. 

Heating costs are not calculated purely on how much you use your heater, but they usually include a basic tariff and a cost share with others in your apartment building. 

Steam comes from a home in Switzerland's St Gallen canton

Warm air rises from a house in St Gallen, Switzerland. In apartment buildings, the cost of heating tends to be shared. Photo by Nadine Marfurt on Unsplash

As heat rises and is shared throughout the building, the costs are partially split between renters. 

It is not unusual to have a situation where someone might have not used their heating over winter – for instance because it was broken, because they were not there or because they just don’t like being warm – but will receive a bill. 

Given that this is common practice across Switzerland, you will not be able to challenge this if you did not use the heating. 

Therefore, keep in mind that part of your cost will be related to what you have used and part will be related to what was used in the flat. 

EXPLAINED: The hidden costs of buying a home in Switzerland

Yearly changes 

Also keep in mind that as the rental contract is the foundation for the costs, the specific line items cannot be changed year to year without consent from the tenant. 

Therefore if you see a new line item – i.e. ‘caretaker charges’ – which did not appear in previous years, this has been changed without your consent and you don’t have to pay. 

In the event of any disputes, the best approach is to engage in a dialogue with your landlord first, although contacting the tenants association or going to arbitration are options you could consider further down the line. 

Costs of Christmas past 

At the end of the tenancy year period – which is most often the calendar year or from July to June – you will receive either a credit or a bill which covers all your associated costs. 

This can get a little complicated when bills are calculated over a different period, for instance at a cantonal level, but generally speaking you will pay up for what you owe at the end of the annual tenancy period. 

Under Swiss law however ancillary costs do not expire for five years, meaning that it is possible you receive a bill for costs from several years ago. 

This is relatively rare and some cantons like Bern and Luzern have taken steps to shorten the period – while some contracts also expressly provide for a shorter period – but it is something to keep in mind. 

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Five things to consider when organising childcare in Switzerland

Switzerland's childcare costs are among the world's highest, although there are some ways to save. Originally from the United States but now raising children in Zug, writer Ashley Franzen takes you through some of the most important things you need to consider when finding childcare in Switzerland.

Five things to consider when organising childcare in Switzerland

Switzerland has a peculiar dichotomy when it comes to childcare. Although many parents both work full-time, Switzerland has traditionally been hands off when it comes to childcare support for families with children under five, leading to some of the highest childcare costs in the world. 

For older kids there is before and after-school care that is offered by the canton, but for younger kids who haven’t quite started kindergarten, it can pose problems for parents who are in need of reliable care, particularly those who don’t have grandparents to rely on. 

According to the Swiss Federal Council, “Grandparents as well as daycare centres and extra-school care facilities are the most frequently used forms of childcare, with each category accounting for a third of provision for children aged 0 to 12 years. 81 percent of families in large cities turned to extra-family care for their children compared with 66 percent of families in rural areas. Parents’ satisfaction with the care facilities is high, but there is still unmet demand.” 

What alternative childcare options do I have in Switzerland?

There are various childcare and nursery options for babies and toddlers up through young children aged five or six. Each canton offers childcare, though often there are lengthy waitlists for available spots.

READ ALSO: ‘A developing country’: Why do so few Swiss children attend childcare?

An alternative might be a private or bilingual daycare, but the costs for these are even higher than the locally-run childcares, and sometimes have longer waitlists.

Get on a list early as it’s important to get the ball rolling on paperwork, especially as a foreigner in Switzerland. 

An alternate option is to find the equivalent of a Tagesmütter, or a carer who opens up their home to taking care of up to four children at a time, when there is space available.

The costs remain about the same, but it can be easier to get placement for childcare with an in-their-own-home carer.

Some families opt to hire a nanny, but it may not be possible financially for all families. As for bringing an Au Pair to join the family, there are specific rules and regulations in Switzerland surrounding pay, number of hours they can work (about half of which you would need to be present for), and language rules– the main one being they cannot speak the same language as the family. Additionally, language classes are stipulated for the duration of their stay. 

Suffice it to say, that there are quite a few hurdles to overcome and in order to make sure your family is supported with reliable childcare to meet your needs.

Below are five things to consider as you plan out and organise childcare in Switzerland.

Children play with educational tools. (Photo by Thomas SAMSON / AFP)

1. Compare the options

Childcare in Switzerland is top notch, albeit expensive, so make sure you take the time to figure out where you want to enrol your child.

Some of the best programs are actually run as not-for-profit organisations, such as KiBiz in Zug.

READ ALSO: What alternative childcare options do I have in Zurich?

Most daycares offer a pedagogically strong curriculum and having them at a local daycare gives your child the opportunity to learn the local language. 

2. Decide on someone to name as your emergency contact

This can be a bit harder if you don’t have family or friends nearby, but double check with a colleague or someone that you trust in the case of an emergency or illness.

Finding a colleague that is willing to help by picking up the kids when they were sick when both parents find themselves out of town can be incredibly helpful. 

READ MORE: How much does it cost to raise a child in Switzerland?

3. See if you qualify for subsidies

According to the OECD, Switzerland has the highest cost for childcare among wealthy countries. Cantons are in the process of trying to increase the amount of money they’re able to allocate for assisting families with the costs.

If your household income is under a certain amount (it varies by canton), then it might be possible to have some of the costs of your family’s childcare covered. 

4. Consider having a babysitter or two on hand that you can call

As a foreign parent in Switzerland, sometimes it makes sense to have someone extra to call on for help with childcare coverage– even if you don’t think you’ll need anyone.

Meetings get moved, appointments need to be rescheduled, and sometimes there’s the odd school workday, where kids do not attend classes.

READ MORE: How to save money on childcare in Switzerland

In situations like these, having someone to reach out to, who can help provide coverage (and perhaps even the occasionally date night) helps provide a safety net for parents that might not have any backup to call at the spur of the moment. 

5. Be open for and prepared to have a hurdle or two, be it language or logistics

Many of the institutions around the country, particularly for younger kids are really good at filling in the parents on what the kids have done during the day, what they’ve eaten, how they’ve acted. The seemingly hardest part is actually filing the paperwork and piecing together care, particularly if you don’t speak the local language.

Wendy Noller is originally from Australia, and now lives in Luzern with her husband, and their two children, aged five and seven.

When they were getting signed up for Kita, she expresses that there were quite a few hurdles to consider.

READ ALSO: How different is raising kids in Switzerland compared to the United States?

Initially they received a letter from Canton Luzern stating that there weren’t enough places for their daughter. “We had heard negative reviews from other expats, but learned that there really are a lot of myths around childcare– that it’s not good quality, or there aren’t enough places. My husband and I work 100 percent and [when registering the kids], found the local authority to be both very helpful and responsive.”

She adds that she would call or email every couple days after receiving the letter to express that they both worked full-time and were really interested in their daughter integrating.

In the end, just a couple days before school started, they were told there was a place available for her. 

While their situation had a happy ending, sometimes other backup plans need to be put in place. Organising childcare in Switzerland is doable and having a fellow foreigner who has gone through it before to help share their experience or how to go about it can make a difference in how easy or how difficult it feels. 

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