Monday, November 13, 2006

A Place to Call "Hem"

My article on how to go about renting an apartment in Sweden has been published in the new South of Sweden magazine. Read the full article below or visit to download the digital version of issue 3 of the magazine.

A place to call ‘hem’

Much is made of the housing shortage in Swedish cities, and rightly so. The waiting lists for rentals are long and empty apartments scarce. Armed with some choice information, however, finding and settling in to your new home in Sweden should go as smoothly as slicing cheese with your brilliant new cheese-slicer.

Apartment housing in Sweden falls into three categories – vintage buildings with high ceilings and old tile stoves, sterile high rises from the Million Program or slick, fashionable new structures. Start your search for a room of your own by checking with the municipal housing exchanges or go directly to the companies who own rental buildings in your area. You will be placed on the waiting list but should also register your interest in each set of rooms that appeals to you. It is often revealed how many others have registered their interest and how long the person who gets first crack at it has been on the waiting list.

Out of curiosity, I recently looked at a modest 4-room apartment in central Helsingborg to see what an average waiting period might currently amount to. Ninety-two other people were also interested in that particular item and the number of days that the pole position apartment seeker had been on the waiting list was an alarming 12,845. Yes, that makes for just over 35 years! So, to earn eternal gratitude from your offspring, place children on every available waiting list as soon as they have got a personal number. If this seems tedious, you can always consider private housing agencies. They will charge a fee, but only if they successfully find you a new home.

The best strategy is word-of-mouth, so make everyone you meet aware of the fact that you are looking for an apartment. Place a wanted ad but if you include the word ‘hittelön’ i.e. reward, be prepared for people who expect to be bribed with a large illegal sum in exchange for the contract. The demand for housing far exceeds supply in most Swedish cities, which has given rise to an elaborate system involving (illegal) payment of rewards or ‘key money’ to bribe landlords and tenants.

Ideally, you are looking for a first-hand contract. Renting from another tenant compromises some of your rights. First-hand contracts are difficult to get and once you have one you can use it as a bargaining chip in a subsequent trade.

When you have secured an apartment, make sure you get a contract that documents your monthly rent and what is included in it. Get a checklist from the landlord that inventories existing damage to the apartment. This protects you from having to pay for the water stain on the oak floor from the previous tenant’s turtle tank.

The standard of quality in your average Swedish apartment is rather high and the building owners are required to freshen things up regularly. If you are made to suffer peeling paint, moldy bathrooms or the malfunction of essential equipment such as the refrigerator or toilet, your landlord is required to fix it.

You are allowed to paint and put up new wallpaper in your apartment but structural changes are grounds for eviction. And it is wise to talk to your landlord before you pry open that can of ‘solar flare orange’ paint. If you choose colors that do not sit well with your landlord, or if your work is less than professional, you may be required to pay for restoring normality when you move out.

Above all, pay your rent on time, follow the laws of the laundry room, avoid tap dancing after 10 p.m. and put up a friendly note to warn your neighbors of imminent partying. If you are a nuisance, your landlord is permitted to evict you by giving three months notice.

A good place to get advice if problems arise is the Swedish Union of Tenants called ‘Hyresgästföreningen’. They help you assert your rights as a tenant and assist you in the ‘Hyresnämden’ rent tribunal that exists solely to settle disputes among renters and landlords.

One last word of advice – if you do manage to snag an apartment with those beautiful tile stoves, resist the temptation to light up a crackling blaze until you get the landlord’s blessing. Most specimens are merely for show these days, but colonize them with a motley collection of candles and you can still enjoy a warm glow.

American ex-pat Laurel Williams lives in Helsingborg and has spent the past 11 years living, studying and working in Sweden. She is currently an English Copywriter at a B2B marketing agency and a Journalist. Having bought, sold and rented several flats in Sweden she offers some tips to first-timers.

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