The Surprising World of Swiss Apartment Life
In 2009, at the age of 22, I thought that I had apartment-peaked.
During my last 12+ years as a renter, I have experienced all sorts of apartment living situations. The good, the great, the bad, the weird layouts, the questionable plumbing. But, my first “adult” apartment after graduating college was a two-bedroom, two-bathroom I shared with a good friend on the westside of Los Angeles. It was 2008. We had a balcony and individual parking spots. Sure, it was tandem parking spots, so we each needed a copy of the other’s car keys lest we got stuck, but two parking spots nonetheless!
Even though it was in Palms (not the “cooler” Culver City like we told people), and the walk home included a stretch under a dodgy highway underpass, I remember thinking, “Yep. This is it. I’ve made it.” We lived there for a year, and I was so proud of that little apartment on Bagley Avenue. In fact, until Zurich and my subsequent introduction to the Swiss standard of apartments, it was the nicest I lived in throughout my adult life.
I’ve lived in a Honduran mansion with 25 other co-workers in a Tegucigalpa suburb, and a dining room in the Haight in San Francisco. My apartment in Rome, just a few blocks from the Vatican, had a bunk-bed in the kitchen and a teeny tiny balcony that all 5 roommates piled out on to drink bottles of spumante before a night out. One apartment I rented didn’t come with a refrigerator. My roommate and I lived without one for a few weeks until we finally found a cheap used model on Craigslist. I’ve had crazy roommates, and have been the crazy roommate.
Raunaq and I’s last apartment in SF was the in-law of a 1920s-era house in Noe Valley, with architecture my cousin described as looking like it was just “slapped together” as an afterthought. The doorways were crooked, the light switches were crooked, even the floor was crooked. If you dropped a marble on the living room floor, it would always roll to one corner. The garage was full of old broken furniture, curious antiquities, and bottles of wine that had long since turned to vinegar.
We only had a single window for natural light throughout the whole apartment, and I’m fairly certain there was a structure in the backyard once used for a sacrificial ritual à la True Detective. Raunaq also swears he found bones in the soil. But it was our apartment, the first we had built together.
All this is to say is that apartment living can sometimes be more than just a place to lay your head and store your things: it can be an adventure in of itself. I have such fond memories of every place I’ve lived, despite the cramped quarters or doors without knobs or rooms without doors or even the rogue cockroach or two. In some ways, each place has become a framework of that specific stage of my life. That country, this neighborhood, that landlord, this roommate. Each apartment comes with it’s own quirks, intricacies, and sometimes, a mirror to reflect the culture of the city itself. Swiss apartments, in this way, are no different.
I love our apartment in Zurich. Swiss apartments, and the standards of apartment living, are one of the five things I think this country truly got right. Finding one, as you have probably heard, is not easy, especially for expats - that process is it’s own story. But when you do finally sign that rental agreement and get your key, there are a few things you can come to expect about your new Swiss apartment. Ok, 14 things. You all know that brevity is not my strong point.
What your Swiss apartment WON’T have:
Swiss apartments are BYOL (bring your own lights). When you move in to a new apartment, it looks like it was ransacked by a lightbulb burglar. There are wires hanging from the ceilings every room, but not a bulb in sight. This, we were assured, is completely normal, and we too will be expected to take our bulbs with us when we leave. Our first few nights, we only had a single standing lamp that we needed to carry from room to room, until an electrician could come and install the rest of the lightning.
Swiss apartments are also BYOC. Yes, you need to provide your own wardrobe, too. The only silver lining to this Swiss quirk is that in theory, every room can be a bedroom! Because every room is essentially just four walls and a window(s). Truthfully, I don’t mind this as much as I do the BYOL. Maybe because in San Francisco most closets are so small anyway, that people sharing a room would also need to get a standalone wardrobe of sorts. Our apartment is a bit of a unicorn in that we do have built-in shelving in the foyer. I think that aspect was a bigger selling point than the lake-view.
3. Garbage disposal
Sigh. It’s been so long since I’ve had an apartment with a garbage disposal. Just be prepared to get really comfortable handling wet food scraps. You’re composting anyway, right?
4. Gas stoves
This was on our initial list of housing requirements, when we were young and naive and the world was our oyster, and we thought the Zurich apartment search would be a breeze. Ah...the idealism. After the first (of many) rejections, this was the first unnecessary “necessity” to get the axe. You won’t find them anywhere. I think I love gas stoves so much because I remember while living in Central America, when the power would go out, I would still always be able cook on the gas stove. And beyond the survival aspect, you can’t really “fire up” an electric stove, you know? It’s so much more satisfying to crank up a burner than to just push a button. I will say, though, that electric stoves are infinitely easier to keep clean.
5. Window screens
I mentioned this before, but one of my favorite things to do every single morning, rain or shine, is walk through the rooms and open all the windows to let that fresh Swiss air in. My least favorite thing? Doing this is the summer, when bee and wasp season is at its all time high - because there are no window screens. Aesthetically pleasing? Absolutely. Practical? No. Zurich dwellers, is this just me? Do you just let the wasps fly in and embrace it? Am I the only one who can’t stand flies milling about my face and buzzing in my ear? Please tell me someone else is running around their apartment, trapping and chasing and shoo-ing bugs back out the window? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
Related to number 5. Most apartments won’t come with A/C, which is fine, because the above windows will provide a delightful cross-breeze during the summer months. Not fine? Said bugs. But you’ll survive. The bugs, and the “heat.” I’ve actually never lived in an apartment with air-conditioning, so truly, this wasn’t really an adjustment for me. But, I will admit that since last summer was unnaturally hot, with stretches of days creeping around 35 degrees C, there may have been a few times where I went to Migros simply to stand in the freezer section and cool off.
7. Heating (that you can control)
I’ve been told some of the newer, modern apartments now come with central heat. But traditionally, every room has a radiator, and you can toggle the amount of heat per room. What you can’t control is when the heat in the building is turned on. That is up to the landlord, and they turn it on whenever they deem it’s cold enough in the year, usually around mid-October.
What your Swiss apartment WILL have:
1. A very extensive rental agreement
With lots of obscure-seeming rules to anyone who is not Swiss. Of course, these will all vary from place to place, but I guarantee that there will at least be at least one house-rule in your rental agreement that feels excessive. For example, we are required to ventilate our apartment for 5 minutes per day, three to five times a day. It’s in the contract. Most rental agreements will also have some form of “quiet hours” between 10pm and 7am (and sometimes even 12pm-2pm), during which - I kid you not - can include regulations on when you can flush the toilet or run a bath.
Some places won’t allow you to keep shoes outside of your apartment. We are required to give at least a three month notice before we move out - in writing and mailed via post, of course. Honestly, you really get used to all of these house rules, and at the end of the day I’d rather have respectful neighbors than disrespectful ones (I’m looking at you, Haight Street kids).
2. One key (to rule them all)
Raunaq cleverly observed that the Swiss are like Sauron - there is one key to rule them all. You will be issued one key, and that same key will open your apartment building, your mailbox, your apartment unit, and turn on the power for your washing machine and dryer if there’s a shared laundry area (and probably more functions we haven’t learned about yet). Do not lose your apartment key. It will cost you over $1000 (and a little bit of your Swiss dignity) to replace, because they would then need to change everyone’s locks in the entire building. Don’t worry, there are lots of insurances you can get for your Sauron apartment key. We have them all.
3. Private cellar and/or storage space and/or nuclear fallout bunker
Fun fact. Switzerland has enough nuclear fallout shelters to accommodate its entire population (actually, about 10% more) - something no other country has done. Many buildings constructed after the 1960s incorporate some sort of bunker in case of a nuclear attack. Think reinforced doors, ventilation systems, anti-gas filters, the whole shebang. The Swiss are anything if not prepared. But, you are probably more interested in the private cellar space, and you’ll get that, too! This really does make up for the lack of closets inside the apartment itself. It will be big enough to store bikes, skis, equipment, strollers, or, if you are Raunaq and I - all the cardboard and paper that we keep forgetting to put out on their respective monthly collection days.
4. A balcony
Out of ten apartments we looked at, only one did not have a balcony or some sort of outdoor space. So statistically speaking, 9/10 apartments in Switzerland have balconies!
5. Low-volume flush toilets
Great for the environment! Takes a bit to get used to in reality. Basically, most Swiss (and European) toilets use “washdown” toilet flush systems. North American toilets have siphonic flush systems, which are more powerful and generally use much *much* more water. Trust me, you’ll notice the difference. The Swiss washdown systems clog less and are environmentally friendly, but they are simply not great at bowl cleaning and can look...unsightly, if you catch my drift. Again, this just takes some getting used to for us non-European folk. Apologies if this is TMI.
6. An odd way to count rooms
We have a two-bedroom apartment - by US standards. In Switzerland, this is called a 4-room apartment. Are you ready for the breakdown? Bedrooms and living rooms each count as rooms,, but the bathroom/toilet do not count for anything at all (sorry, WC!). But, if the kitchen and living room are “open-layout” style, without doors separating them, then the kitchen will only count as a half-room. No idea where a dining room comes into play here. So, a 2.5 room apartment will have one bedroom and one living room with an open/attached kitchen, and a 4 room will have three rooms and a separate kitchen with a door. Got it?
7. Unobtrusive appliances
Remember my early 20s apartment that didn’t come with a fridge? I had a moment of panic that our Zurich one didn’t, either. Then, I slowly realized that all of the kitchen appliances were designed to seamlessly blend in with the rest of the cabinetry. It’s sleek and minimalist, logical and practical, understated yet classic. The essence of Swissness.
This Swiss apartment, like all the apartments before them, have become a snapshot of my life here.
The rules and regulations don’t bother me nearly as much as it would a 23-year old Alex, which has come as a surprise to my friends, family, and honestly, myself. I’m leaning away from my bohemian proclivities for knicknacks and patterns and colorful clutter, and gravitating toward minimalism. Windows and natural sunlight have turned me into a morning person, and even more unexpectedly, a plant person. The apartment embraces the seasonal shifts as much as I do: radiators crank to life in the fall, bees sneak in through the screenless windows in the summer, a couple days a year the balcony fills with snow. For the first time in our lives, Raunaq and I have the space to host - and I’m learning how to be good at that, too. And in a small sunny corner, I’ve created a place for myself to write.
So what story about my life does this Swiss apartment tell? I’m still figuring that one out. I guess I’m still living it.
Tips for finding an apartment in Zurich:
Include a letter and photo (Bonus: be doing overtly Swiss things in the photo, like flourishing your hiking poles or skiing in Zermatt or eating fondue. Extra bonus: take a selfie inside or in front of the apartment, with a cheesy caption like “Us in front of our new home!” We saw another couple doing this, and that is when I realized we were playing checkers when everyone else was playing chess.)
Be Caucasian and female. Ok, this one is a little tongue-in-cheek. But look, we viewed about 10 apartments together in person and applied for all of them. Didn’t get one. We had a showing at a final 11th apartment during the workday and Raunaq couldn’t attend with me, so I went alone. I got a call from the landlord within an hour, offering us the place. Obviously, our application and “credentials” were exactly the same. So - hmmm. I’m not saying anything but I am JUST SAYING. Mr. Lipschitz was very surprised when Raunaq walked in to sign the lease and pay the deposit.
Have 8000 francs in cash. Checks aren’t common; in fact, I’m not sure they even exist here. So, paying the security deposit and first month rent in cash is not easy for folks who just moved here and don’t have their Swiss bank accounts set up yet. We actually had to have a friend withdraw a stack of money for us. Plan for this.
Have your application ready to be submitted, if possible, even before you get to the apartment. If you have a relocation agent or something similar, have them on speed-dial.
Schmooze like your life depends on it- but make sure it’s with the right person who is making the decision. Many times, I started schmoozing the former tenant before realizing he or she had nothing to do with the application process. Waste of a schmooze!
And after all of the above, just remember: A lot of it seems like luck of the draw, and being in the right place at the right time. May the odds be ever if your favor.