For a country roughly the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined, housing can be something of a problem for newcomers to Switzerland. The housing market in Lausanne–where I am currently hunting for a place to move into when my husband joins me in Switzerland this summer–is comparable to that of New York City. This means that rents and demand are high, supply is low, and anyone in search of a new place automatically finds themselves taking part in an intense, fast-paced and ruthless blood sport.
But unlike New York City, the vast majority of apartments in Lausanne are rent-controlled, which might sound like a benefit (and in many cases it can be). But controlling rent prices can have the unintended effect of hobbling the natural equilibrium of economic supply and demand. Basically, when rents are not allowed to skyrocket, the market can become numbed to the fact that demand is skyrocketing, and more and more people have trouble finding a place to live. Some Swiss are speculating that housing scarcity was one motivation behind the tremendously controversial and largely nonsensical results of the recent Swiss vote in favor of imposing immigration quotas–a decision that could have significant long-term consequences for Swiss interactions with the entire European Union. But that’s a topic for another post.
At any rate, I happily plunged headfirst into the business of assembling dossiers full of the necessary personal, financial, and legal information to send in response to several promising rental ads I found online. I even went so far as to visit two nice apartments in the area before I the realization of how naive I was being hit me. Most of my co-workers report submitting an average of 50-60 applications before landing an apartment, many of which they share with roommates. Still others advised that it is unrealistic to think that just handing in a complete, timely dossier is enough. The process is fixed, they say, and your application will never see the light of day unless an agency puts it on top of the pile for you (or unless you know someone who knows someone who knows someone who will tell a secretary to put it there for you).
So now, rather than dreamily poring over photos of old city buildings online, I am poring over real estate agency websites. Not quite as romantic or fun, but perhaps a more practical step in the right direction!
On the plus side, being in the market for a new apartment has almost limitless social perks. If you mention at a party, happy hour or any other kind of get-together that you are looking, everyone around you will want to share an experience, recommendation or horror story. It practically eliminates the possibility of an awkward silence or an embarrassing French faux pas. In fact, I think my French may actually be benefiting from this experience, since housing is one area where my vocabulary is relatively robust. This is due entirely to the fact that practically every French text ever made has a chapter on “La Maison.” Où est la salle de bain? L’appartement a trois chambres. Le chien dort dans la salle de séjour.
At any rate, I am still optimistic about my chances, especially with the helpful advice and insights of others who have already been through the process. With any luck, by this time next year, I’ll be living here!