How the Swiss live. Facts about real estate that will surprise you

In this article we will not recall once again the typical associations with Switzerland – the Alps, cheese, watches and chocolate. Instead we talk about obligatory air-raid shelters, communal washing machines and the ban on flushing the toilets. For more interesting things about Swiss housing, read our feature story.

A bomb shelter for everyone in the country

Despite the peacefulness of Switzerland – no NATO membership, avoidance of military conflicts for many centuries, the policy of neutrality – the country is not as defenseless (and probably harmless) as it seems. Military conscription for all men, its own army, and the presence of weapons in almost every home…

But the most interesting thing is that according to the law (Articles 45 and 46 of the Federal Law “On Civil Defense”), everyone in the country must have “a protected place to which one can quickly get from one’s home. That is why there are spacious public bomb shelters everywhere, including in apartment buildings.

The mass construction of bunkers in Switzerland took place in the 1960s as a response to the fear of nuclear attack. The phenomenon reached its peak in the 1970s. But right up to the present day, there is an obligation to provide shelters for the population, even though building them increases the cost of housing. Authorities believe that bunkers are needed not only in case of military conflicts or natural disasters, but also in case of terrorist attacks, including those involving chemical or nuclear weapons.

They are located in basements. They look, as a rule, the same: massive metal doors, armored walls and air purification system. According to the regulations there must be water supplies, dry rations, medicines, lighters, batteries, lanterns and communication equipment.

There are more than 300,000 shelters in various government and medical institutions, as well as in apartment buildings and private homes, and more than 5,000 public shelters. All told, they protect more than 8.6 million people, or 114 percent of the population! By comparison, in countries where the issue is handled similarly – Sweden and Finland – these figures are 81% and 70%, respectively.

Because bomb shelters outnumber citizens, these rooms are often adapted for other needs. For example, they make a pantry for storing personal items or food. This is not forbidden by law, but the owner should have 24 hours to clear the room if necessary.

One washing machine for the whole house

Of course, there are apartments in Switzerland that have washing machines directly installed. But only residents of new buildings are so lucky (and not always). In most cases, the Swiss are forced to use communal washing machines.

It is good if a unit of such equipment is installed on each floor of the apartment building. But most often the laundry room on the ground floor (in our words – on the first floor). As a rule, there is only one machine for all tenants. To avoid standing in queues, the Swiss draw up a schedule in which they plan the laundry time.

In the same room there is usually a drum dryer and an overhead dryer, which just pumps air. In front of the latter are stretched clotheslines, where you can hang your clothes and wait for them to dry under the pressure of air. The method of drying depends on the person and his financial capabilities: for drum drying you have to pay separately, the use of suspension drying is included in the utility bills.

Electricity used during the washing, by the way, is not included in the rent. Therefore, the system works as follows: before starting the machine must be inserted in a special slot in the wall individual key. The latter is coded so that the electricity was charged specifically to you, rather than coming to the account of the management company.

Living by the rules of the apartment building

The Hausordnung (“Residence Order”) is a set of rules (regulating, among other things, noise issues) that apply to each individual house. They are usually issued to all tenants. But while for the Swiss themselves there is nothing surprising about this, for expats such requirements often come as a surprise.

As a rule, the manuals are similar to each other. For example, in each of them there is bound to be a point about the unacceptability of noise after 10 p.m. In the concept of “noise” the Swiss mean not only the volume of the television and listening to music, but also the noise of water – flushing the toilet and dialing the bathtub!

Such evening prohibitions have been in place in Switzerland for decades. For this reason, many drain companies have long been producing silent models whose operation does not disturb anyone.

In response to any disturbance, attentive neighbors can not only knock on the radiators conditionally, but also call the building manager/real estate company or even the police. But in practice, this measure is resorted to only in exceptional cases – for example, when it is necessary to pacify young people who were left without parental supervision for the weekend and allowed a house party.

Separate waste collection as a national idea

Switzerland is one of the world leaders in waste sorting and recycling. It all starts in the apartments: in each apartment, in addition to the standard trash cans, there are several small buckets for different types of waste.

Here they separate literally everything. Plastic, glass and metal have to be taken to special containers outside the house; cardboard and paper left at the door are collected by special services; broken electrical appliances and household appliances have to be taken back to the store.

For everything else you have to buy special bags for a fee. In others, the trash simply will not be taken out, in addition, can write a warning or even a fine (it can also be received and for violation of the schedule of garbage disposal). Moreover, the bags in each Swiss canton are their own, you can not use “other people’s”.

There are no landfills in the country at all. All non-recyclable trash is incinerated and the energy gained is used to heat hundreds of thousands of homes across the country.

With this prudent approach to sorting, it is not surprising that the Swiss also take care of electricity – about 95 percent of it comes from renewable sources!

The search for a rental apartment is like a job interview

Owning your own home in Switzerland is not cheap. Even most locals (over 60%) rent rather than buy an apartment.

Visitors to Switzerland often have to rent, too. Therefore, the demand for rental housing is very high. So much so that it can take months to find a suitable apartment in a major city (Zurich or Geneva, for example)!

Moreover, the object must not only find, but also like the owners. In Switzerland it is customary to sign up for viewings in advance and compete with other applicants: if you like the option, leave a kind of resume, of which there may be dozens, and wait for the response from the owner.

In this form you should not only indicate the personal data, profession, and marital status, but also the level of income, as well as recommendations from previous landlords, if any. Based on all of these characteristics, the landlord chooses the right tenant.

The application does not necessarily follow a template, so do not hesitate to attract the landlord with something unusual. Memorable, standing out from the range of the same type can be a motivational letter, in which you not only talk about what you liked about the apartment, but also tell about your merits as a tenant. You don’t smoke, you don’t have children or pets? Feel free to mention that in your letter.

Experienced expat tenants advise newcomers to initially consider the markets in the suburbs or small neighboring towns with good transport links: it is easier to find a suitable apartment there. But remember that if you are in Switzerland with an L or B residence permit, you have to live in the canton in which you intend to work.

Apartments for rent are always rented without furniture

In Switzerland, apartments are traditionally rented without furniture (just like in Greece). The tenant moves into an empty but renovated apartment – the walls are painted, the parquet is galvanized and varnished, the plumbing is in working order. What is important is that the former tenant is responsible for this condition. He is obliged to return the apartment in the condition in which he took it.

For this purpose, before you move in the apartment you open a deposit account in the bank, which should be enough money for about two or three months of rent, and these funds are inviolable. Although, the landlord is obliged to repair the apartment himself/herself after eight years. If you are going to move out after that period, the deposit will be fully returned. And if after four years, you will probably get 50% of the deposit.

So there is no furniture in the living area of the apartment, but the kitchen is fully equipped. That is installed not only the worktop, but also appliances – stove with oven, cooker hood, refrigerator and dishwasher.

Also the tenant does not have to worry about the plumbing: it is high quality and there is everywhere.

All of the above applies to long-term apartment rentals. In the daily rental segment the rules are different – the apartment for rent is furnished, but it is also more expensive. Demand for such apartments is not very high and comes mainly from those who come to the country for a short time as a tourist or on a business trip for several months. Queues for such options for placement, as a rule, there.

Features of Swiss housing – balconies, the cult of bathing and low ceilings

The size of balconies in Swiss apartments is important. It is usually a large area necessarily with a grill that is used on weekends.

The square footage of housing is also very important to locals. Over the past few decades, the Swiss have moved into larger apartments and houses (a trend towards larger spaces can also be seen in Germany). Thus, properties in new buildings are about 10 percent more spacious than those commissioned in the 1980s. In 2019, there was an average of 47 square meters per inhabitant in Switzerland. At the same time, the average living space for a property owner was 53 square meters, for a tenant – 41 square meters.


More than a third of all households in Switzerland today are occupied by one person, and an average of 2.23 people live in one household. But there is a downward trend in this figure. According to Oldypak LP real estate report, in 2045, 2.16 people are projected to live in a single dwelling.

But the ceilings in houses are usually low (as, incidentally, in the UK). Depending on the canton the minimum height of the room should be 2.3-2.4 m. While in older buildings the ceilings are traditionally high – not less than 3.3 m (in some cases even 4.5 m!) Modern architects often focus on the minimum height.

Over time, by the way, not only the average area of housing has changed, but also the layout of apartments. Whereas previously kitchens were small, isolated rooms, now they are increasingly combined with dining rooms and living rooms to form a single spacious room.

The same is true of bathrooms. Today it is a large space, rather like a spa room. Moreover, more and more often in new apartments there is not one, but two bathrooms (or at least a master bath and a guest shower room).

Each apartment building has a parking lot, of course, paid for by locals. However, there are several free spaces for guests, which are marked with the sign Besucher. The owner/tenant also has the right to use a car wash, which is usually installed in the underground parking lot.

Common spaces in apartment buildings are also utility rooms (usually two or three rooms). Residents use them to store large items such as strollers and bicycles.

The houses hang signs with the name of the newborn baby on them

In Switzerland, there is a tradition of putting up baby nameplates on houses or balconies (or installing them in the garden). As a rule, they are accompanied by an animal figurine – bunny, lion cub, bear cub or something else).

With such plaques the locals as if replacing the custom of planting a tree. This is especially true for residents of apartment buildings who are unable to do so.

It’s not uncommon for such cards to hang on the door or above a child’s window for months! This helps neighbors remember the name of the new tenant. It is also believed that children are better integrated into society later on because of this tradition.

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