We’ve been very busy looking for an apartment pretty much since we moved to Zürich. The search has not been easy since we had this long list of “must have” which doesn’t work when you also have a budget. With 2 dogs the search is more challenging, but not impossible. I thought that we were going to rejected 100 times before finding a place but luckily for us that wasn’t the case. Originally we wanted to stay as close to the center as possible. We both have always lived in the suburbs and experiencing the city was the plan since the beginning. Alexis and I were really lucky because the temporary apartment we got for three months is very centrally located. We have tons of restaurants and bars in the area and on Fridays we can hear the people who had one too many drinks singing and partying on the street until 2am. We also experienced living in an old building with lots of character.
After I finished my German A1 class, I made finding an apartment my full time job. I used websites like http://www.homegate.ch/ and https://www.comparis.ch/ to search for a place. Also, Alexis has at work an intranet group where other employees advertise apartments and houses available. I saw over 20 apartments, some were open houses, while others I had to schedule a time to visit. Sometimes Alexis was able to make it, but other times I had to go by myself and take videos of the apartment to show to him later. I became an expert after a visiting a few apartments. I was able to quickly identify the areas we wouldn’t like or the features in the apartment we wouldn’t be able to “live with or without”. Although I concentrated mostly around the center (zip codes 8001-8004), I adventured to further places, like Adliswil.
1. Act fast
I learned that when you like an apartment you need to act fast and submit the application as soon as you can, within the first 3 hours if possible. Our motto was apply now and sleep on it later, besides we can always say no if we actually end up getting it since submitting the application does not costs money. The problem comes after accepting an apartment and then saying you don’t want it, because the landlord incurred in time/expenses drafting the contract and holding the apartment for you. Also, competition is rough. During open houses you may find other 30 people looking at the apartment, especially if it is in a nice area at a great price. I went to an open house at 12:30 and there were almost 25 people looking at it. Some were actually applying for the apartment right there. I loved the place. It was in an old building, not too far from the center and with 4 rooms (huge for Swiss standards). I literally ran and came home to submit the application within the first hour. The reason it is important to apply right away is because typically the landlord or agency in charge of renting the place will close the application process after they receive 20-25 applications. 25 applications is a nice pool of candidates, so hey, why accept more when for sure one of those 25 applicants will take it?
2. Personalize your application
I mastered the application process and I’m so proud of me! A new friend helped me draft a nice letter in German where we talked about ourselves, our background and about our dogs. We included a picture of us and a picture of Diego and Valentina. We also included a letter of recommendation from Alexis’ work and our identifications. We wanted to provide as much information upfront as possible because we didn’t want to get excited about one place and then not getting it later because of something they didn’t know. If they were going to discriminate against us because we are foreigners or because we have dogs, I rather they do it on the spot than wasting my time and do it later. We had the package ready to go with any application and at the end we sent a total of 7 applications. We got 3 apartments at the end and it felt good choosing the one we liked and not taking the first one because we had no other option.
3. Learn when people move out and how the rental process work
To give you an idea about how the system works in Switzerland, there are two windows in a year (one in March and another in September) where anyone can move from their apartments without having to pay a penalty, is basically when you are free to break your contract. This means that finding apartment during those months may be easier than looking for a place any other time of the year. Another thing that really impressed me is the fact that the tenant is relatively well protected here. For example, if you find an apartment because the current tenant is leaving, the owner can’t increase the rent just because of the opportunity. If the previous tenant was paying 2,000CHF most likely you will pay also 2,000CHF or a slightly higher rent, even if the previous tenant lived there for the past 5 years. If for any reason the owner wants to increase the rent, they need to provide a reason for it. For example, if they made some renovations to the apartment, like installing new kitchen or remodeling the bathrooms, then that is considered a justified reason to increase the rent.
Another thing of the process I like is the fact that when you give a deposit (which is usually 3 months of rent in advance), the landlord is obligated to put that money in a neutral account. The account owners are the landlord, the tenant(s) and the bank. All 3 signatures are required to withdraw any money. This is really great because it protects the tenants from evil landlords who take the money and disappear or that refuse to return the money.
4. Invest on a membership with the Mieterverband
The Mieterverband is an association to protect tenants rights. This is a third party that would mediate in case of any issues with the landlord. There are specific things for which the landlord should not charge the tenant for normal use or wear and tear. If a landlord refuses to return the tenant the deposit or charges anything extra for normal wear and tear, the tenant can seek the advice and help of the Mieterverband. However this is not a free service. In order to take advantage of this services, one must pay an annual fee, about 175CHF. This is a good investment, particularly if A. we don't speak the language and B. we are not expert in the Swiss rental market. I’ve heard quite few interesting stories, from landlords who wanted to charge a tenant for a dishwasher that broke (not allowed to do that) to charging a tenant thousands of CHF to paint an apartment they lived in for almost 7 years (also not allowed since that is considered normal wear and tear).
5. Ask the right questions
Does the apartment comes with washer and dryer in unit? (very rare) If no, ask how the laundry schedule goes. Some places give tenants a fixed time slot. If you work and your slot is always on Thursdays in the morning, you might not be able to do laundry unless you negotiate with your neighbors. I knew someone who got a time slot every 2 weeks, that for me would have been a deal breaker.
Ask the tenant about the neighbors. It is important to know whether the neighbors are nice or "problematic".
Do you have kids (or dogs)? If so, ask the neighbors from downstairs if they can hear people from upstairs walking. Noise sensitive neighbors will constantly complain, even if you take a pee after 10pm might be too noisy for them.
Is there an elevator? If not, are you OK bringing your groceries up and down?
Is there a garage or parking spot available? If so, how much is the monthly fee?
How does the commute looks like? You might have found a cheaper apartment in an area further from the city, but if you need a different zone ticket to commute to work the price will add up. Do the math and make sure that the money you will save on rent you are not spending it on transportation.
(Update from 2018)
6. Once you find the apartment, host an Apero for your neighbors
OK, this was probably the best advice we received and I'm glad we followed it. Once we moved in, we invited our neighbors for an open house. Unlike the US where neighbors welcome the new ones, here the people moving in are expected to introduce themselves to the neighbors. How to?
-Write an invitation (in German) and leave it in the neighbors' mailbox
-Invite them one week in advance. Don't send the invitation overnight. The Swiss like everything to be organized and they need time to prepare.
-Be mindful of the day and time. They are your neighbors, not your friends so they will not want to spend their weekends with you. Host the apero in the middle of the week (a Wednesday or Thursday) and pick a reasonable time (eg. from 6pm-9pm).
-Have some finger food and drinks to offer
-Give them a tour of the apartment
-Learn some words in German-you will get extra points if they see an effort to communicate and fit in
-Share your phone number with them
Not all my neighbors came, but those who didn't make it left us a note thanking us for the invitation and saying they wouldn't be able to join for x or y reason. They said it was so nice of us doing that and I feel they are somehow friendlier with us because of that.
In summary, the process was a little bit stressful, but I had fun with it. It helped us get acquainted with the different districts (Kreis) and discover new places. Now that we finally found the apartment, we can focus in our upcoming vacation to Greece!