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Finding my new home sweet home

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11:54 CEST+02:00
Apartments in Sweden's major cities might not be as expensive as those in London or New York, but they can be pretty hard to find. Charlotte West has been navigating the complicated world of renting in Sweden.

A recent study by the Association of Swedish Real Estate Agents reported that the average Swede moves ten times over the course of his or her life. I've got them beat.

Two weeks ago, I moved into a new flat – apartment number eight in the last four and a half years. At this rate, I will have moved 142 times before my eightieth birthday.

Many foreigners in Sweden – especially in bigger cities – find themselves in a similar predicament. Finding a decent place to live is arguably at the top of the list when it comes to the challenges of immigration (along with finding a job that pays enough to cover rent should you ever actually find a flat).

If you're lucky enough to arrive in Sweden with a job already lined up and have the necessary financial means, buying an apartment might be the way to go, although this comes with its own set of challenges. But the overwhelming majority of foreigners find themselves cast directly into the sea of the Swedish rental market.

A rental contract is known as a “hyresrätt” in Swedish. There are two types of these contracts: first-hand (förstahand) and second-hand (andrahand). A first hand contract means that the apartment is in your name and you deal directly with the landlord. This is wishful thinking for most new arrivals since a first-hand rental contract is harder to come by than December sunshine in Lappland.

In the last few years the average waiting time for an apartment in inner city Stockholm from the municipal housing queue run by Stockholms Stads Bostadsförmedling AB has been up to 11.1 years. If you're willing to live in the suburbs, you have to wait a mere 5.6 years.

Want an apartment? Wait in line

Hans Lind, professor of real estate economics at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), says that rent regulation keeps rent below market value, which in turn creates queues, especially in the older, more attractive districts of larger cities.

“The argument for the system of rent control is that it protects the sitting tenant against rent increases and also that it could reduce segregation as the rental apartments in attractive areas are more affordable. But a number of studies have shown that the segregation argument does not hold, and there is growing criticism of the system,” Lind said.

Lind said there has been some talk of real estate reform that would allow the landlord to set the rent closer to the market level when an apartment is vacated. He explained that the rent for current tenants would gradually increase over a period of time. “It is, however, unclear what the new middle-right government will do,” he said.

That leaves the second-hand market. A second-hand rental is essentially a sublet, which may or may not occur with the knowledge and consent of the landlord.

Avoiding the neighbours

There are several totally legitimate reasons for a lease holder to sublet his or her apartment: study or work aboard or in another part of Sweden, moving in with a significant other (samboprov), or illness. In these cases, lease holders can sublet their apartments for a specified period of time with approval from the landlord.

But there are just as many situations where you have to duck if you see the neighbors since you aren't technically living there. Since a first-hand rental contract is worth its weight in gold, very few people are willing to let them go, even if they have no intention of ever living there again.

Many of these people simply sublet these apartments out to friends at the cost of rent, but the less scrupulous will jack up the price by several thousand kronor since they know that potential subletters are often desperate and willing to pay the price.

There is a system of “apartment swapping” (bostadsbyte) that allows you to trade your rental apartment for another apartment in a different part of the city or even in another part of the country. This encourages people to hang onto their leases as it could prove to be an essential bargaining chip in any subsequent moves they make.

The second-hand market can be likened to a game of musical apartments. After three years of standing in the queue for student accommodation, I cashed in on a 19 sq meter student room.

After I had lived in my shoebox for almost 8 months, my friend Lisa announced she was transplanting to Gävle to move in with her new boyfriend and asked me if I wanted to take over her 35 sq meter apartment (and incidentally, it's her father's name that is actually on the lease). In turn, I rented out my student room. In short, Lisa's decision to move created a ripple effect.

On the streets again

When Lisa told me last month she and her now-fiancée had decided to move back, I once again joined the hordes of apartment hunters roaming the streets of Stockholm. Fortunately, I proved that it is possible to find an apartment in Stockholm in less than a month with a lot of legwork and a good sense of humour.

After checking out ten different leads in the course of a week and a half, I had three viable options. One apartment was perfect – a two-bedroom loft in the middle of the Old Town. The only problem was the flatmate that came with it – a 20-year-old Swedish rocker wannabe who told me his main leisure activity was “drinking”.

The second apartment was in Södermalm and was shown by a Swedish girl acting on behalf of her ex-boyfriend, an Icelander who had moved to Thailand and had subsequently gotten married. He seemed to have no plans of ever coming back to Stockholm. He was, however, quite willing to tack on an additional few thousand kronor for the “privilege” of using the ratty old mattress he left behind.

The final apartment was a 50 sq meter flat in the suburbs. The apartment was completely furnished with a fantastic floor plan. The woman offering the apartment had just moved in with her boyfriend and had gotten permission from the landlord. That was the selling point for me.

After several years of housing uncertainty, I'm willing to give up living in the middle of the city for the security of knowing I can make myself at home. The landlord knows I'm here, so I don't have to pretend I'm her American cousin just stopping by to water the plants. No more moving around for me – at least for the next twelve months.

See also:Stefan's story:ten apartments in four years

Check out Charlotte West's top tips for finding an apartment

Housing in Sweden: useful links

Charlotte West

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