Apartment hunting in Switzerland

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You may have noticed over the past two months how many times I’ve mentioned that we are looking for a new apartment in Geneva…and yet, those few mentions are just the tip of the iceberg. It has been an all-consuming, ongoing, exhaustive process that has challenged me on so many levels. Linguistically, physically and emotionally. Yesterday, I hit rock bottom.

We’ve been looking for an apartment since July to move into November 1. (Yes, in 15 days.)

While putting in an application for yet another apartment yesterday (application number 17? 18?), a receptionist at the real estate agency became completely frustrated with me. When I could not speak French fast enough, she made a “I’m falling asleep I’m so bored” face. When I showed her that we included resumes and letters pleading our case in our file, she threw up her hands in a “why?” signal. Finally, when she found that I had forgotten to fill out one part of the application, she shoved all of my paperwork back at me and said “Fermé!” We’re closed.

The tears started rolling down my hot, embarrassed cheeks before I even reached the door.

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Still, seeing a just-landed American couple at a recent open house (baby in tow!) helped me put everything in perspective. I speak enough French to get by and we know how the system works. So, I’ve listed some Swiss apartment hunting advice that may help others in our situation:

  1. You will hand over enough paperwork for your identity to be stolen. Copies of passports, visas, bank statements and salary checks are standard to apply for any apartment. From there, you must also obtain an attestation de non pursuite for each tenant to prove that no one has outstanding debt. We’ve also included resumes and a recommendation letter from our current landlord. All in French, mais oui! We bring these packets of information to every open house and hand them directly to the landlord on the spot.
  2. The régies control everything. I knew I should be worried about the dreaded régies when I heard a second person describe them as “big mafia.” Basically, régies are property management companies…except that they have total control over who gets an apartment. Everyone–even the owner of the apartment–are at the mercy of the régie. They decide if the previous tenant can move out. They decide if a future tenant can move in. And they do it on their own timeline. I’ve been told several times that a decision about a November 1st apartment will not be made until October 29th or 30th. La stress!
  3. The régies are allowed to be biased. Families get priority over expecting couples and expecting couples get priority over married couples. We childless, married couples only get priority over single people. A small victory, but I’ll take it. I’m positive our status as American-born, Swiss residents do not play positively in our favor, but I’ll likely never know how much we’re at a disadvantage.
  4. Régies do not speak English (not in Geneva). I was under the impression that nearly every Swiss citizen studied English in school, since many a waiter has used English when my broken French belied me as American. Apparently, all that English knowledge evaporates when it comes to helping someone find an apartment. I’ve learned tenant (locataire), rent (loyer) and application (demande). If you do not speak French, use an online dictionary to write a letter in French expressing your interest in an apartment so you can at least get the sentiment across.

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I hope to be posting more regularly next week when we finally (hopefully…probably?) sign a lease. For now, a few links to remind myself why it is all worth it:

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