Sunday, 5 June 2011

Serviced Accommodation in Zurich

Accommodation in Zurich is:

  1. very difficult to find
  2. incredibly expensive

It was 'interesting' how in my case initial informal talk with the Swiss 'umbrella' agency was all about how accommodation costing about 1000CHF/month (UKP750/month) would be 'easy to find'.

When I arrived in Zurich in person on a 'reccie' tour this story subtly changed to a suggestion that I probably needed to spend around 2500CHF/month (UKP1900/month) for somewhere outside Zurich if I wanted something reasonable that would encourage me to actually stay for the duration of my contract!

Lesson learnt: Beware false claims of cheap, easy to find accommodation in Zurich!

On my two day 'reccie' trip to Zurich the Swiss 'umbrella' agency suggested two possibilities for accommodation. One was CHF1800/month, the other CHF2500/month (with an additional 100CHF/month surcharge if I wanted internet access)! Suddenly I was looking at rent of just slightly under UKP 2000/month for a studio apartment outside Zurich with internet access and additional travel costs likely on top. Ouch!

Oddly </sarcasm>, nobody had bothered to mention that sort of figure for renting a basic studio flat when trying to hook me with talk of a UKP100/day increase in my daily rate!

I was also warned that the cheaper accommodation at CHF1800/month was in the city's 'Red Light' district, so was probably best avoided as it might be rather noisy!

This all turned out to be rather academic anyway, since both of these appartments had 'already gone' by the time I responded the day after being told about them!

Lesson learnt: Accommodation is snapped up very quickly. You need a lot of time and dedication to find good accommodation.

All of this was a pretty terrifying experience to someone who'd not realised the real cost of living and working in Switzerland! London is famous for being expensive but at these prices it looks positively bargain basement! And that's assuming you can actually convince a landlord to take you on!

Lesson learnt: The UK-based salary figures the agencies use to hook you, based on artificially high exchange rates, is meaningless in terms of helping you understand the costs of actually living in Switzerland.

Most ex-pats advise starting out with "serviced accommodation". This is a single, furnished room, rather like a hotel room or student dorm, where the bedding and towels are cleaned fortnightly (or weekly if you pay extra) and you have shared access to a kitchen, laundry facilities (through use of a laundry card that has to be topped up with cash by staff you have to find!) and perhaps shower and wash basin facilities. Some 'serviced accommodation' will offer a private sink and shower in the room, but I wasn't able to find any of this type that were available.

Communal lounge area in very nice serviced accommodation
'Community' lounge area in one of the more up-market 'Serviced Accommodation' offerings

There are several reasons why serviced accommodation is a good idea for your first couple of months in Switzerland:

  • Most accommodation requires a deposit of two to three months rent as well as a 'cleaning' deposit that mean in total you're looking at an outlay of several thousand pounds before you get your first pay cheque! A lot of serviced accommodation will let you get away with just one month's advance rent deposit (on top of your first month's rent and a 'cleaning deposit' of about UKP200) meaning less money to find upfront.
  • Most 'serviced accommodation' will accept credit card payment, where private accommodation won't, so that if your cash flow is bad you can always 'max out' your credit cards instead (although I wouldn't advise this!)
  • Your first four weeks in a new job and a new country are likely to be pretty manic in just getting up to speed with the basics. The last thing you need is the added stress of trying to find accommodation, which typically requires a LOT of time, all sorts of references, Swiss paperwork and competing with other interested parties in a market where demand seriously exceeds supply and it all boils down to who the landlord takes a particular shine to.
  • 'Serviced accommodation' is furnished. Most other accommodation is unfurnished which can mean significant additionaly outlay just for the basics before you even get your first pay cheque.

On a two-day 'reccie' trip I was lucky enough to be the first to contact someone offering 'serviced accommodation' to become available in June at a basic rate of CHF850 (about UKP 650) a month which seemed like a real bargain compared with other accommodation offers I was seeing.

Amazingly it was not only 'cheap' but also in a very central area of Zurich. It seemed that maybe if you're quick and have the time to follow up quickly cheap accommodation can be found. I responded within 2 seconds of the ad being placed on an English language Swiss forum on a weekday afternoon. 20 minutes later seven others had applied asking to take the room!

One thing to be extra careful about is that the tax you pay, deducted automatically from your salary, is determined by the area you live in! So you need to look into what the local 'canton' tax is and how it will impact your take home pay before choosing somewhere based solely on the 'upfront' advertised rental rate.

And also bear in mind there are a whole load of additional costs that suddenly come into play on top of this 'basic' rate!

I would also argue that cheap accommodation such as I viewed is not conducive to a long stay in Zurich, just as the 'umbrella' Swiss agency had warned me.

When I viewed the 'cheap' accommodation (which is impossible to do if you aren't actually in Zurich, burning up money in a hotel or B&B) it proved to be in a very busy and noisy (but popular and central) area called Staffucher. Imagine the embarrassment of having to tell people something that sounds suspiciously like 'Star fucker' every time they ask you where you live!

The room itself was directly next to a tiny kitchen area that serviced quite a lot of rooms, and had no airflow so that it was like walking into a hot, humid sauna. The furniture was extremely basic and rather battered, with a very basic single bed that also looked well past its 'Sell by' date - you get what you pay for (in Swiss terms, if not expected UKP exchange rate terms)!

Much higher quality accommodation is available if you're prepared to pay more, and my Swiss 'umbrella company' agency (UK companies aren't allowed to trade here so you typically become a salaried employee of a Swiss 'umbrella' company that the UK agent sorts out for you) suggested this company which shows photo's of very modern, clean rooms for a monthly rent that the Swiss 'umbrella company' agency told me were about CHF1200/month (UKP 905/month).

Of course that wasn't the whole story. "Compulsory" extra's like tax, electricity and cleaning soon add up and my final rental came to CHF1505.05/month (UKP 1150/month). That's a lot of money for a single room and shared washroom facilities, but is actually fairly reasonably priced for Zurich.

Lesson learnt: Basic rent rates advertised are not what you'll end up paying. Additional charges for taxes, electricity, cleaning etc will invariably be added onto the 'headline' rate used to attract potential customers.

One thing to watch out for is the English descriptions of optional additional charges that can be confusing. I wasn't prepared to pay what appeared to be an extra CHF40 (UKP 30) a month 'optional extra' charge just to be able to receive mail, but it turned out that this was for a specific mail box in the entry hall and that even without this option I can receive mail using the accommodation's main address.

I DID pay an extra sum for a 'mini-fridge' in my room given the heat and humidity here when I visited. However it only became clear when I moved in that the central kitchen (on a different floor to my room) actually has half a shelf in one of four fridges allocated for my personal use. And 'mini-fridges' near your bed are noisy when you're trying to get to sleep at night, so that was a bad investment!

Lesson learnt: Make sure you understand each 'optional extra' available for your serviced accommodation, as contract and web site descriptions can be short, incomplete and confusing.

If you follow the web site link and look at the photo's you'll see some very nice 'communal' areas to this particular serviced accommodation (I'll post my own photo's in a separate blog post from this one), and I was relieved to find they are extremely respresentative of what you'll actually find (which isn't always the case!)

However, what the web site doesn't tell you is how much sharing of those 'communal' facilities goes on. You can see three showers and wash basins, but nothing that tells you there are FORTY rooms across two floors in the complex.

Three sinks on each floor, shared across 20 rooms
Three sinks - but how many rooms have to share them?

Competition for those 'communal' resources may be problematic if you don't research specifically how many people have access to them, and at what time!

Lesson learnt: Ask how many rooms in total are available in the complex offering serviced accommodation, and ask about the specifics of the room being offered in terms of location within the complex (eg next to noisy communal area? facing noisy road? facing the sun with no ventilation? etc)

I should add that I feel I got very lucky in my own 'Serviced Accommodation' choice (which was suggested by the Swiss 'umbrella' company). More on that, with photo's, in my next blog post!


  1. You have to accept that as a new alien in CH with no track record, you will be treated lower than an amoeba. Think of it as a test of your character. Even I managed better than being stuck in Rautistrasse! You need a to have strong word with your pimps.

  2. I lasted three months. And it seemed more like 3 years. Don't think 8've ever met so many wankers in one place in all my life (the joys of Swiss banking!). I enjoyed Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, California, Cologne, Limerick. But Zurich? So glad to be out of there!