Monday, November 13, 2006

Buying Time

My second article offering practical advice about living in Sweden has been published in the South of Sweden magazine. Read the full article below or visit to download the pdf version of issue 4 of the magazine. Ironically, almost immediately after penning this article we decided that it was time to move. So the search is on for our new home in Helsingborg and I have found my own advice very helpful, even printing out copies of the article to take to showings so I remember which questions to ask.

Buying Time

So you dream of owning your own apartment in Sweden. Visions dance in your head of snug holiday gatherings where you can feel confident about knocking in a nail wherever you please to hang the mistletoe. But before you start sending out the invitations know that buying an apartment here is a complicated affair.

The first thing to get to grips with when you set out to buy an apartment in Sweden, is that you do not actually get to buy the apartment. What you actually buy is the right to use the apartment for all eternity, as opposed to renting where your landlord is permitted to evict you with three months notice. In fact you become your own landlord, in a sense, because you also become a part owner of the whole building without actually owning any specific piece of it.

When you buy the right to use your apartment, you are also required to join the cooperative housing society of the building, to whom you will pay a joining fee and a monthly rent, on top of your loan payments on the purchase. This may seem perplexing, even outrageous, to a newcomer but any Swede will till you that it is all very straightforward; the monthly fee pays for property taxes, the upkeep of the building itself, the grounds, shared areas such as the laundry room, stairwell, garage and often covers services including water utility and garbage collection.

These housing societies function much like small countries. Each dwelling is given one vote at a yearly meeting to decide who will be on the board of directors and handle the finances and day-to-day decisions of the cooperative. The board must also approve your membership before you are allowed to join but it is uncommon that anyone is denied that right. Many organizations even hold informative courses for prospective apartment buyers to help them understand the logic of this system.

The best places to start looking for new apartments up for sale are on the websites of some the nationwide housing cooperative organizations such as HSB, Riksbyggen or SBC. You can also contact a real estate agent to help you in your search or check the paper or Internet for older apartments sold on the private market.

Go to as many showings as you can to get an idea of what the market is like and find out what similar apartments in the area or in the same building have sold for. Be aware that when an agent invites you to view an apartment, another 15 prospective buyers may be there at the same time. If you decide to buy the apartment, these are the people you will be bidding against. Many apartments sell for a good sight more than the original asking price in places where demand is high, that is to say, in almost every Swedish city. So prepare yourself for a nail-biter when the bidding starts.

Take your time in the apartment, checking the kitchen and bathroom carefully, and be on the alert for any signs of water damage or thin, poorly soundproofed walls. Ask about the condition of the roof, the heating system, the elevator, the plumbing, the electrical wiring and the windows of the building. Do not forget to ask about parking options and be sure to confirm with the agent or owner that the appliances you see in the apartment will still be there when you move in. Inspect the apartment and all of the shared areas including the attic, basement, laundry room, garage and stairwell. As the buyer you are responsible for making sure your observations get recorded on the official inspection document before you move in.

Get a copy of the annual report that each housing society is required to publish and read it to be certain that the cooperative is financially stable and well-managed. Check with the agent or the board to make sure that the previous owner does not have outstanding debts with the apartment as collateral. Ask for the building plans of the apartment so you can check the location of wiring, plumbing and bearing walls. You want to know before you buy if your bold plans for dropping walls, to make room for that competition-size billiards table, are feasible.

Finally, take out a home insurance policy that has a specific clause just for the special housing cooperative situation. Unlike renters, members of housing cooperatives have extensive maintenance responsibility for their dwellings.

As is often the case in Sweden, there are innumerable regulations specifically governing the sale and ownership of apartments. Refer to your municipal housing authorities and municipal consumer guidance office for all the details. And when you have run the gauntlet and emerged unscathed shock your new neighbors by throwing a grand old housewarming party, and inviting them all to come.

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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