For sale signs are something you seldom see in Switzerland – unlike Britain where they appear almost everywhere. There is hardly a street or village in the UK that doesn’t have a For Sale or To Let sign outside one of the properties. Often there is a veritable forest of them, as this picture shows. Rival estate agents competing for business. The Swiss like things to be a lot more discreet.
For one thing, there are fewer properties on the market, because most people rent not buy. Only 35% of Swiss own their own home, compared to 68% in Britain. And if you look at Swiss cities, the figure is even lower, eg 11% in Bern, although out in the countryside it’s more like the British scenario, eg in Valais has the highest ownership rate at 61%. So a smaller property market means fewer estate agents, no ugly signs, and no page after page of house adverts in the newspapers.
It’s partly a cultural thing, owning property is not the be all and end all of life, but also practical, as you need a 20% deposit. Some Swiss people rent the same flat all their lives, but that’s seen as a risk-free sensible option not a waste of money. The majority of people renting has its advantages. No property ladders mean no snakes, so while you might not make a fortune in houses, you’re unlikely to lose one either.
And it’s also a privacy thing. Why tell the world that you a) own your flat and b) want to to sell it by sticking a giant notice outside? Far better to let an estate agent handle it without any fanfares. Perhaps that’s why you see so few estate agents on Swiss high streets. In Britain they fill the gaps left by bankrupt shops so that some roads seem to have nothing but windows full of house particulars. I walked down one street in London last summer with nine agents, all practically next door to each other. That you could never see in Switzerland.
Instead you get what look like four anorexic Martian spaceships sitting in vacant plots of land. These giant wooden or metal tripods show the dimensions of any new building, with their height and position corresponding exactly to that of the proposed building. This rule applies to every construction project in Switzerland, including high-rises, which need special Meccano-style pylons tethered with wires to show how tall they will be. The same for extensions, so some buildings have odd little wooden structures sticking up from the roof or off the side. It might look weird but it gives everyone a good idea of what’s planned, and a chance to complain if they object. Planning permission not just by committee but by common consent.