As many of you will agree, one of the most challenging aspects of living in a foreign country can be to adequately understand the national language and culture.
This is especially true when facing legal issues like rental contracts and the related rights and responsibilities of tenants and landlords (both agents and owners).
My own story begins in early January when the man renting the hobby room under my flat discovered that water from my water heater had been dripping down through my kitchen floor. From the extent of the dampness that resulted, this might well have been going on for weeks, with neither of us aware of the nasty occurrence.
When a broken water heater leads to a culture clash
Consequently, the sanitation process in my flat alone took over three weeks to complete, starting with the water heater being replaced (a task that took the plumber 9 hours), followed by two weeks during which three very noisy and smelly machines (ventilators) blasted out through my flat 24/7.
I was hardly able to use my kitchen in that time. And the terrible noise could be heard in all the rooms, making it impossible for me to work from my home office. Even an upstairs neighbor complained that he could not sleep at night due to the blaring noise.
I have to admit: It was a hugely stressful time, compounded by the fact that when I asked the Verwaltung (agent for the flat) to be compensated by way of a rent reduction, they got very shirty. At one point, they even telephoned me and suggested I was trying to make money out of the situation, calling me a profiteer.
The agent’s attitude made me wonder if I had unwittingly walked straight into a culture clash. Perhaps, tenants in Switzerland do not tend to exercise their legal rights? This notion seemed to be confirmed by my neighbor who suggested: "No, we don’t do that in Switzerland," and proposed I should have patience, since "there is nothing you can do about it."
So, I was on the verge of letting sleeping dogs lie, although given my background in peace studies, I tend to stand up for everybody’s rights – women’s rights, gay rights, animal rights, minority rights – so it seemed like I should also be willing to stand up for my rights as a tenant.
The National Arbitration Board for Rental Disputes
As it happens, when I discussed the issue with some Swiss friends, they adopted quite the opposite stance to my neighbor and pointed me in the direction of the "Staatliche Schlichtungsstelle für Mietstreitigkeiten", which can be translated as the "National Arbitration Board for Rental Disputes".
I was given free information over the phone and in person that enabled me to better understand my rights and responsibilities as a tenant. The only “pitfall” was that the information - verbal and written - was in German, which was rather challenging given my intermediate level in the language and the complex nature of the legal matter in question.
In addition to providing information, this body is available to mediate between tenants and landlords. The services of the National Arbitration Board are available throughout Switzerland.
Another avenue of support, if you are facing legal matters related to your rental agreement, is the Schweizerischer Mieterinnen- und Mieterverband (SMV). You can join this association for a small annual fee and, thereafter, benefit from free information. I hear from a friend of mine who has used their services that they are very comprehensive and even provide case-specific, written documentation when necessary.
And if, by chance, you are starting to feel sorry for the landlords, rest assured that the National Arbitration Board for Rental Disputes is a neutral body and offers them the same services as they do to tenants. In addition, landlords have access to associations like the Hauseigentümerverband that can inform them on their legal status if they find themselves in a tussle with a tricky renter.
As for my situation...
For those readers wondering how my story ended: It is mid-February and I am still waiting to hear from the agent if they will accept my claim for a rent reduction. I am hoping for a positive outcome.
Otherwise, I will need to find the courage to take the next step, which is to call a meeting with the agent mediated by the National Arbitration Board for Rental Disputes. Also, the drying of the hobby room downstairs is in full swing...