Renting in Zurich: How to find your perfect home

TransferWise content team
28.09.17
10 minute read

Zurich is the largest city in Switzerland, and home to huge numbers of businesses across sectors like life sciences, IT and financial services. The strong infrastructure, low corporate taxes and Zurich’s position as a transport hub mean that many global businesses have offices here. Naturally, this means that there's a large expat community in Zurich, and foreigners living here will find easy access to everything they need, including great international schools, medical care and amenities.

However, it comes at a cost. It’s not cheap to find a rental place to live anywhere in Switzerland. With over 60% of people choosing to rent rather than buy their homes, the competition is fierce. And even compared to the local market, Zurich is pricey. In fact, housing in Zurich is among the most expensive in the country. It’ll cost you €1,822 a month for an average one bed place in the centre of Zurich, compared to €1,685 in Geneva, and €1,400 a month in Basel.

Of course, if you want more for your money or need more space for your family, you can look to the suburbs and outskirts. With efficient public transportation, travel is very simple as long as you’re prepared to swap a slightly longer commute for a reduction in your rental costs.

If you’re just making plans, it’s important to take into account all the costs associated with your move to Switzerland. Compare the cost of living in Zurich with that of your home town using a comparison site such as Numbeo, and check out this quick guide to renting in Zurich to find the perfect place for you.

What are my housing options in Zurich?

Zurich has a wide range of housing types, but there’s also steep demand for rental properties. Because of this, it’s a smart idea to do your research in advance and be as flexible as possible about what might suit you. If you’ve got a very strong view on the type of home that you must have, you’re best off being a little flexible on location to make sure the right place comes up. On the other hand, if you’re only willing to live in a defined area, then you’ll have to be open to different housing types, and - ideally - have some flex in your budget to make sure you find your ideal rental property in Zurich.

Furnished vs. unfurnished

Most properties in Switzerland are offered unfurnished. It’s worth checking with the property owner or agent what condition the property will be in, as unfurnished might mean that there are no carpets or even basic electrical appliances.

It’s possible to find partly furnished properties (with curtains, carpets and some appliances) or even a fully furnished place, although these generally don’t stay on the market for long.

If you’re only in Zurich for a relatively short time, there are fully furnished short term rents available, although these tend to cost a lot more.

It’s also good to know that in lots of city apartment blocks, although your flat might not have laundry facilities installed, you might find a communal laundry room for the block which is available for residents to use.

Flatshares and student housing

Private rentals tend to be fairly expensive, so for students or those looking to find a cheaper deal, a flatshare might be a better option. Flat shares might be more ‘one off’ individual arrangements best found by looking through your contacts and friends. Or you might choose to move in with people you don’t know, and make new friends as well as finding a place to lay your head.

There are specialist sites connecting people with spare rooms and those looking to live in a shared flat. You can try WGZimmer or Craigslist, for example, or check out the other options linked below.

Be wary when finding a room in this way, as these sites are completely unregulated and therefore a scammers paradise.

If you’re coming to study in Zurich then you need to know that none of the universities here administrate student housing. That said, it’s a good idea to check out the website of your chosen university, as they do recommend organisations who might help you find a student home in Zurich.

Where are the best locations to live?

Naturally, where you choose to rent in Zurich will be largely dictated by the location of your job or university. Not to mention your budget. As you might expect, the further away from the heart of town you go, the more affordable the rents. So you can get more for your money if you’re prepared to have a bit of a journey into the city.

City centre districts

The heart of Zurich offers rental apartments, rather than houses, and naturally the living space you can get here is relatively limited. Prices are also high. Each neighbourhood has its own flavour and it’s a good idea to do some research and visit the places you might be interested in living. By going along at various different times of day you’ll get a good feel for whether a rental property there will be right for you.

Right in the heart of the city you have Enge and Seefeld which are popular areas, but being full of offices and workplaces, they tend to be rather dead at the weekend. A good alternative is Kreis 5, or the area around the university in either Oberstrass and Unterstrass, which tend to have a better balance of bars, restaurants and amenities open all week.

Outside city centre

The area around Lake Zurich in unsurprisingly popular, thanks to the magnificent scenery. There are also international schools in this area, making it a good place for expat families with the budget to stretch to it. You have a choice between the ‘Gold Coast’, named because of the sun's reflection on the lake, and the ‘Silver Coast’. Right on the lakeside you’ll find villages including Kilchberg, Rüschlikon, Erlenbach and Meilen.

The strong public transport means that it’s possible to live by the lake and work in the heart of the city pretty easily. From Kilchberg, as an example, you can drive to the centre of the city in under 20 minutes in good traffic, or take a 10 minute train ride. Slightly further away, somewhere like Meilen is a half hour car ride to the city centre, or you can ride a train which takes just over 20 minutes.

Student areas

If you’re looking for student accommodation, then your best bet might be to look for a company specialising in this form of housing, rather than on the open market. Specialised companies focus on locations near university campuses, but might give more or a budget-friendly choices. Ask your university for their advice on reputable agencies.

What are the best websites to find a rental?

The best way to get a head start on finding a place to rent in Zurich is to look online. Great websites to find a house or apartment to rent include:

  • Homegate and Immostreet cover the entire country, with places to buy and rent. Either could be a good starting point for your search.
  • Immoscout offers different ways to search for your ideal place, by region or postcode for example.
  • If you want an agency with real local knowledge, then try the Swiss Real Estate Association for recommendations. The site lets you search their members by region, so you’ll find a reliable realtor in Zurich here.

To find a shared home, you might be best asking around your office or group of friends for recommendations. Otherwise, the best websites to find a flatshare, room rental or roommate, include:

  • Craigslist is a good start, but exercise caution.
  • Roomtake also covers Zurich, and allows you to search for a flatshare or for roommates if you already have a place.
  • WGZimmer has a search function and allows you to look for rooms or other people to share a flat with. It does come with ample warnings about scammers, so use common sense when you’re using it.
  • Facebook has a huge number of rooms advertised across different groups aimed at expats in Zurich. Search for the area you want to move to and find yourself a new roommate.

What should I be familiar with in the local market?

It can feel daunting if you’re just setting about finding the right place in another country and culture. Luckily help is at hand. All you need to know about renting a property in Switzerland is available in a simple PDF download on the Swiss government website - in not one, but 16 different languages, which should give you enough to get you started.

Here are some more of the things that can help you be prepared to jump into finding your rental property in Zurich.

What are the local terms I should know?

The official language in Zurich is Swiss German. It can help to have a few words to hand when you’re trying to find your perfect rental in Zurich. Many sites have English translations, and levels of spoken English are excellent, but here are a few terms you'll see:

  • Zimmer - room. This is usually marked up on ads, but be wary. Although a place advertised as '2 Zimmer’ sounds like there might be 2 bedrooms, this actually just means that there are two main living rooms, so usually one bedroom and one living room
  • Möblierte Wohnung - furnished flat
  • Mieten - to rent
  • Makler/Immobilien - rental agency
  • Mieterverband - tenants association

How and when are rental contracts signed?

Rental agreements in Switzerland don’t legally have to be covered by a written contract, but this is the norm, and it’s certainly advisable. Contracts must cover details of the property to be leased, the parties making the agreement, the deposit to be paid and the monthly rent. If additional charges (for utilities, for example) are to be paid, they should also be detailed in the contract.

Examples of the different types of Swiss rental contracts, for both letting and subletting a place, can be found online on the Swiss government website.

Make sure you read the contract carefully as it will include important details like the process for leaving the property when you want to end your tenancy. Usually this means that you need to give notice in writing to the landlord, in a letter which should be sent by registered mail, to formally confirm you’re leaving. The Swiss government provides template letters to terminate a tenancy agreement early, which you can use. If you’re living in the home with a partner, or other adults, you must all sign the letter. The notice period is usually three months unless your contract says different.

What are best practice tips for dealing with landlords?

Good landlords are the majority, but in Zurich, as in any other city, you’ll also find your share of unethical individuals or agents.

Give yourself as much breathing space as possible when you’re looking for a home in Zurich.You might need to find a short term home while you look, as it could take several months depending on your budget and level of flexibility. During this time, a short term let or sublet from a friend or colleague is a good bet.

Because the market is so competitive, you can expect to have to impress the landlord. Be punctual and polite, and gather all the paperwork you need in advance, so you can hand over your application for a tenancy as soon as you find a place you live. For more on the processes followed, and documents needed you can check out this handy article about renting in Switzerland.

Don’t forget that many Zurich apartments are rented out by word of mouth. If you're in Zurich for work, then make sure your colleagues and local friends know you’re looking. You might find that they can hook you up with a place with a friendly landlord without incurring agent fees.

What's the amount of a normal deposit?

Deposits can run up to a maximum of three months of rent. The money will be put by the landlord or agent in a separate account so the deposit amount isn’t incorporated into their business or personal cash flow. It’s also important to note that you should never hand over cash as a deposit - instead use a bank transfer. If you’re making an international money transfer that includes currency conversion, it’s worth finding the best possible deal with a company like TransferWise so you don’t get slapped with poor exchange rates.

Can I pay my rent or deposit from abroad?

Because housing moves so quickly in Zurich, you might find that you need to make a deposit payment before you have opened a local bank account, or even arrived in the country. If you do, it’s worth remembering that your home bank might not offer the best value when it comes to making an international money transfer. Often banks will add hidden fees by using a poor exchange rate, even with their own account holders.

Instead, try a specialist service like TransferWise to make your payment directly to your new landlord or agent, with no hidden costs and receive the same mid-market rate you’ll find on Google.

Anything else I should know?

Be wary of common scams, such as properties offered for rental without proper contracts, or landlords or agents who ask for fees for a service you don't want or need. In fact, because the market in Zurich is so competitive, you’ll find a relatively high number of fake ads and ‘agents’ who try to get you to hand over money without having seen an apartment, or signed a contract. As anywhere else in the world, you should exercise caution when looking for a place to live, and if an ad or a deal looks too good to be true - it probably is.

One area to keep an eye on, is the utilities costs for your new place. It’s fairly common for a landlord to ask for an advance estimated payment of all bills for things like water and electricity, along with the regular rent. The landlord then uses this money to pay bills as they come in. However, your landlord must provide you with a detailed invoice on an annual basis so you can see that the advance charge he has applied is correct when set against the actual bills you incur. At this stage, you can either be asked to pay more if your regular payments don’t cover the costs, or you can get cash back from your landlord if you overpaid. Check the invoice carefully!

The good news is that the rights of a tenant renting in Zurich are well protected by law. Because each canton is able to set their own processes related to tenancy, you need to make sure you’re aware of the local law in the canton of Zurich. There’s lots of information available from the local government website, and the Zurich tenants association is also a good place to turn if you encounter any issues.

Although the rental market in Zurich is more competitive than in some other countries, by casting your net wide, using your contacts well and being quick to make a decision on a place, you can have your dream Zurich rental in no time. Good luck!

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