Renting in Switzerland: Everything you need to know

28.09.17
12 minute read
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Switzerland is an incredibly diverse country. Aside from the four official languages, large expat communities mean that you could hear any dozens of languages being spoken as you move around town. Different places have their own distinct flavour, and draw in foreigners for various reasons. You might be working in the booming financial or life sciences sector, studying in one of the top class universities, or even working in the busy service and tourism industries. Either way you’re going to need a place to live in Switzerland.

Accommodation in Switzerland is generally of a very high standard - with even city apartments built to allow families to have some room to grow, and communal green space to share. Because people often stay in the same place for a long time, even when renting their homes, you can find places with a real community feel in the heart of the city.

However, finding a great place to live in Switzerland - especially in the larger cities - can be difficult. More than 60% of people rent their homes in Switzerland, but there’s a shortage of housing stock available to rent at any one time. It’s well worth doing some research before you settle on which area you would like to live in, as some neighbourhoods are particularly difficult, when it comes to finding a rental home.

The average cost of renting a one bedroom city centre apartment in Switzerland is €1,365 - although naturally, this cost varies enormously depending on where you choose to live. There are large expat communities, especially in the big cities of Geneva, Lausanne, Basel and Zurich, but housing here 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, €1,685 in Geneva, and Basel comes in at €1,400 a month. All for a one bedroom flat. If you want more for your money in Switzerland, 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.

One other quirk about the Swiss property market, is that large numbers of Swiss workers don’t actually live in Switzerland. Cross border commuting from France or Germany, where property and consumer prices are much cheaper, is very common. Be aware, though, this can make tax residency somewhat complex.

If you’re thinking of moving to Switzerland for work or study, then you definitely need to do your homework in advance. Check out this guide to renting in Switzerland.

How does the rental process work?

In many areas in Switzerland, there’s not enough rental housing stock on the market to satisfy everyone looking for a home. That means that renting a place can be competitive, and when a great property comes up you can bet it’s going to be taken immediately. In this competitive climate, it pays to be well prepared. You might need to find a short term home while you look, as it could take several months in some areas. During this time, a short term let or sublet from a friend or colleague is a good bet.

To get ahead, firstly, you need to give yourself the best chance of hearing of properties before everyone else does. Try the following common sense steps:

  • Register with estate agents (so long as you can cover any fees incurred)
  • Look for small ads online and in your local area
  • Tell friends, colleagues and family you’re looking, and ask them to help connect you to landlords they know
  • Put in some legwork in the neighbourhood you want to live in, looking for ‘to let’ signs
  • Look online, using umbrella sites, agents and direct to owner options such as craigslist

Once you have found a place you’re interested in, you’ll need to apply for the property, submitting an expression of interest and all the documents the landlord needs to assess whether or not you’ll be a good tenant. There’s more on this later - but if you have everything you need to hand when you view a place, you can hand it over straight away to the landlord, and get to the head of the queue.

Are flats generally furnished or 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. 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.

What do I need to know about renting in Switzerland?

The rental market in Switzerland might not be quite the same as in your home country. Avoid any nasty surprises by doing a little research before you make your move.

Tenant laws and rights

As a tenant in Switzerland you have rights which are legally protected. It’s a good idea to check out all the details given on the Swiss government website about the rights of tenants - especially as the Swiss approach to tenancy rights isn’t exactly the same as in other countries. With their famous Swiss efficiency, 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.

In general, Swiss law is extremely pro-tenant. You can, for example, challenge the rent you are charged on the private market, through a conciliation process, if the property isn’t in good condition, or if you discover you are paying significantly more than previous tenants. You’re protected by the law if you seek conciliation, so your landlord can’t throw you out for challenging the costs.

That said, the landlord can legally raise rents if he follows the right process. You should be given over three months notice of an increase in rent, with the proposal detailed on an official from. The reasons for raising the cost, such as a rising interest rate or improvements made to the property, need to be set out in writing.

The details of things like conciliation processes and rent indexing vary slightly across cantons, so you can find the best information for your neighbourhood using the links on the government site.

General rental property rules and regulations

Before you choose a new home in Switzerland, you should make sure you know exactly what state the property will be in when you move in (and in what condition it must be returned). It’s typical for unfurnished properties to be very unfurnished. No carpets, no electrical appliances, not even light fixtures.

If you saw the property with a tenant still living there, know they might be required to remove all soft furnishings such as carpets and curtains, and any electrical appliances they have, and return the apartment to it’s unfurnished state before handover. If you’re not expecting it, it could be a costly surprise.

Contracts and deposits

Rental agreements in Switzerland don’t legally have to be covered by a written contract, but this is 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. Because it’s typical for contracts to follow a standard model, they might not fit your needs. If necessary, you can always ask your landlord or agent for amendments to the contract if you think clauses should be added, changed or removed. For example, you may choose to request the addition of a ‘diplomatic clause’ to give you a shorter notice period if you suddenly need to move out because of a work change. There’s no compulsion for a landlord to accept addendums, but it’s not uncommon in cities with large expat communities that frequently relocate.

Deposits are up to a maximum of three months of rent and will be held by the landlord or agent in a separate account so they’re not incorporated into their business or personal cash flow. It’s also important to note you should never hand over cash as a deposit - 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. More to come about paying from abroad in a later section.

When it comes to time to move out, you need to give notice in writing to the landlord, in a letter which should be sent by registered mail. The Swiss government give 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 there are clauses in your contract to the contrary.

Utilities and bills the renter is responsible for

Before you finalise a rental agreement, you should make sure you’re clear on the terms. If your contract doesn’t specify any additional costs, aside from rent, then you can assume all reasonable costs are included in the figure quoted for rent. Obviously, though, it’s best to check in advance of signing, so you know exactly what your liabilities might be.

In most cases, phone, electricity and water bills will be paid by the tenant but your landlord can give you an idea of the average costs. It’s fairly common for an advance estimated payment of all bills to be paid monthly to the landlord, along with the regular rent. The landlord then uses this money to pay the individual utility bills as they come in. However, if this arrangement is made, 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!

Can I negotiate the rent with the landlord?

Whether or not you can negotiate the rent depends very much on individual circumstances. In the big cities where there are more prospective tenants than there are homes, challenging the rent before you sign a contract might just mean the landlord moves to their next choice tenant. Doing your research in advance and understanding the market prices in your area, is key.

Depending on your situation, you might be able to negotiate the costs, or else if you find yourself paying a rent that you subsequently learn to be unfair, you can challenge it with the landlord through a formal request for a rent reduction. A good place to start is by getting a rent calculation through your canton, which can give you an idea of whether or not the amount being requested is fair.

When you’re deciding whether or not to negotiate, it’s also worth asking what fees are required for maintenance if you’re in an apartment block and what the usual utilities costs are. That way, you should get a better view of the cost of the property.

Can I get an apartment without a job?

There’s no legal reason why you can’t get a flat without a job. However, landlords will be used to asking prospective tenants what their profession is, and who they’re employed by. If you don’t have a job yet you’ll need to explain your situation, and you might need to offer additional proof of your financial stability in order to rent.

What are the documents or requirements for renting?

Getting your new home in Switzerland is going to be competitive, so be prepared to hand over a whole lot of information and documentation, in your ‘application’ for a tenancy. Usually, to be considered, your prospective landlord will give you an application form where you’ll have to fill out your age, marital status, whether you have children or pets, how long you’ll stay and the residency status you have, along with your profession and employer. It's thorough, to say the least.

Often you have to hand over proof that you’re not being chased for outstanding debt by any previous landlords or creditors. You can do this with paperwork called (in various Swiss official languages) an extrait du Registre des poursuites / Auszug aus dem Betreibungsregister / estratto del registro dell'Ufficio delle Esecuzioni e Fallimenti.

Getting this paperwork is more difficult if you’ve only just arrived in the country. Some expats might therefore take a short term let or sublet for a while, during which time they can build some credit history. Otherwise, you can talk to your estate agent about what other proof landlords in your area might accept. Remember, most landlords and many agents are very familiar with dealing with new expats, so they will have faced this challenge before.

What types of rental agreements are there?

Your rental agreement will be set up with your landlord or agent directly, and might contain terms which are non-standard. Most long term lets are set up to be open-ended, with termination periods for both the landlord or tenant (three months is normal).

Monthly rentals can be arranged through specialist short term agencies but come at a premium. Another common choice, especially for short term stays, is to sublet. This is legal as long as the landlord consents, and should still be covered with an agreement or contract to protect your rights. There are examples of the type of agreement you might make in a sublet, on the Swiss government website.

Can I pay my bills from abroad?

Many expats tend to travel back home frequently, and there will be times when you need to pay your rent or bills, but might be out of the country. You might even find that you have to pay a deposit or fees to secure your rental before you’ve opened a local bank account or moved to Switzerland. If you’re making an international money transfer to cover your costs, then it’s worth remembering that your home bank might not offer you the best deal.

Banks tend to include almost carefully hidden administration fees and hide their cut in a poor exchange rate when transferring your money across borders. A specialist provider like TransferWise moves your money using the real exchange rate you find on Google. Not to mention, fees are clearly laid out and quite transparent. Leaving you with a fairer, cheaper, and likely faster option.

What are the best sites to find a place to live?

The best way to get a head start on finding a place to rent in Switzerland 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.
  • You might not find a whole load of estate agents in your chosen area (especially if it’s more rural). However, the Swiss Real Estate Association lets you search their members by region, and see results on a map so you know where to look if you want a reliable agent.

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.
  • Facebook has a huge number of rooms advertised across dozens of different groups based on location. Search for the area you want to move and find yourself a new roommate.

Finally, how can I make sure I'm not being scammed?

Like anywhere else in the world, you might encounter issues when renting a place in Switzerland. However, because the law is quite favourable to tenants in Switzerland, you should be able to get any problems sorted out fairly easily.

A common problem, the world over, is landlords holding onto the deposit paid when the tenant leaves, due to damage on the property. In Switzerland, you shouldn't be penalised for normal wear and tear on the home you rent. Because it’s your responsibility to maintain the property while you live there, you should keep a record of any work you have to do or pay for during your tenancy. If your landlord wishes to withhold some or all of your deposit when you leave, you can use this record of time and cash invested in the property to make your case for getting your deposit returned.

If you have any problems you can’t resolve directly with your landlord, then try your tenants and landlords board, or the conciliation service for your canton. You have strong rights as a tenant in Switzerland, so don’t be afraid to raise and resolve issues. All details for the area in which you live, are available by putting your address into the field on the government webpage.

Good luck and enjoy your new life in Switzerland!

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