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Sweden scraps plan for new mortgage rules

Sweden's financial watchdog announced on Thursday that it was abandoning its controversial bid for a price hike on new mortgages – just three months before the proposed plan would have come into effect.

Sweden scraps plan for new mortgage rules
New mortgage repayment rules for Sweden have been scrapped. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

Unlike in many countries, Swedish homeowners often never repay the full amount of money they borrow from banks or building societies – a process known as amortization – with many only paying off the interest earned.

In a move designed to stabilize the country's economy and housing bubble, financial watchdog Finansinspektionen (FI) – which sets the rules and regulations followed by mortgage brokers in Sweden – put forward a new strategy last year to make it obligatory for all house buyers to repay their mortgages in part.

Under the original plans, customers would have been asked to pay two percent of the value of their mortgage every year until they had repaid 30 percent of the loan. They would then have been required to pay at least one percent a year until they hit the 50-percent mark.

But the watchdog backtracked after an administrative court of appeal in Jönköping in southern Sweden suggested that the proposed changes were not supported by Swedish law.

“We have to conclude that the appeal court has made a different assessment. It has pointed to uncertainties in the law, making it impossible for us to push on with the amortization requirements,” said FI's acting director general Martin Noréus at a press conference on Thursday.

IN PICTURES: Where to bag a Swedish bargain property

Mortgages account for 95 percent of Swedes' total debt, and borrowers currently hold a mortgage debt 3.7 times higher than their annual income. A study by Sweden's central bank in 2014 suggested that most Swedes with mortgages would die before repaying their debts

FI said that it still took the view that mandatory mortgage repayment is needed to prevent the Swedish housing bubble from bursting and added that it would be prepared to carry out the changes if directed by the government and parliament.

“If we get a mandate we would be able to resume the work again fairly quickly. We're in full swing now and had been planning to introduce it in August,” said Noréus.


Acting FI director Martin Noréus speaking to Swedish media on Thursday. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

Sweden has seen an unusually active property market this spring, with many customers attempting to buy and sell homes quickly ahead of the proposed rules coming into force.

Mortgage chief Michael Skytt of banking giant Nordea welcomed Thursday's announcement and predicted it would help stem potential panic purchases on the market.

“What we mainly have been against is that we would have had this quick introduction of the amortization demand. We'll have more time to adapt now and our customers won't rush to buy something before August 1st,” he said.

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RENTING

Five tricks Swedes use to avoid the long wait for rental apartments

The official waiting time for apartments in Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmö varies between three and eleven years. But Swedes have their own tricks for jumping the queue.

Five tricks Swedes use to avoid the long wait for rental apartments

There’s no requirement for landlords or renters to use the queuing systems run by the municipalities in the big cities, but most of the big ones do, the intention being to reduce corruption and increase fairness in the rental market. 

The Stockholm Housing Agency, or bostadsförmedlingen, has a queue between seven and eleven years long. Boplats Gothenburg has an average wait of 6.4 years, and Boplats Syd in Malmö has an average waiting time of nearly three years.

According to Kristina Wahlgren, a journalist at Hem & Hyra, Sweden’s leading rental property magazine, the system puts foreigners and recent arrivals to Sweden at a significant disadvantage. 

“It’s extremely difficult if you are from another country. You don’t have any contacts, and it’s quite difficult to understand if you haven’t grown up in this culture,” she says of the system. “There are some quite subtle aspects, and there’s vänskapskorruption [giving special advantage to friends]. ” 

Listen to a discussion about Swedish queue systems on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

Click HERE to listen to Sweden in Focus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

Obviously, the biggest advantage faced by locals in Sweden is that they normally joined the queue the moment they turned 17, so by the time they’re looking for an apartment as a young adult, they’re already near the front. 

But even for new arrivals in Sweden, it’s possible to wait a much shorter time if you know the tricks, says Wahlgren, who has been nominated for Sweden’s Guldspaden journalism prize for an investigation into how Malmö finds housing for homeless people. 

Kristina Wahlgren, a reporter for the Hem & Hyra newspaper. Photo: Hem & Hyra

1.  Apply for more expensive new-build apartments to start off with 

If you’ve got a good enough salary, and are willing to pay high rent for your first few years in Sweden, this can make it easier to get an apartment, as there is less competition for more expensive, new-build apartments, Wahlgren says.

“If you’re willing to pay high rent, then you can get an apartment within a couple of months [in Malmö]. If you want a cheaper apartment, it can take years. So it’s quite a big difference.”

2. Rather than wait for your perfect apartment, take what’s available and then swap 

The rules recently got a little stricter, but it’s still relatively easy to swap between apartments once you have a first-hand contract. There’s even a website, Lägenhetsbyte, which acts as an interface. 

This means, if you use the method above, and decide to rent a more expensive new-build apartment with a shorter queue, you can then downgrade to a cheaper apartment with someone who is after somewhere newer and swankier.

Rental queues are also shorter in less desirable areas of Sweden’s cities. For example, the waiting list in Norra Hissingen in Gothenburg is only five years, half what it is in Majorna. It can be quicker to make do with living in a relatively dreary area, and then swap with somewhere better, than to insist from the start on an apartment in your dream location. 

“If you can’t wait for the right department, just take the one that you get, then you can keep on looking and when you do have a lease, you can change the lease with someone else,” Wahlgren says. 

To change apartment, you need to have a so-called “acceptable reason”, such as needing a bigger or smaller apartment. With any luck, your landlord should accept the swap. If they refuse you can challenge their decision at your local hyresnämnden or “rental tribunal”.  

3. Use the tricks for contacting landlords directly  

Landlords in Sweden are not required to use the municipal rental queues to find their tenants, and if a suitable tenant presents themselves just as an apartment becomes free, they may prefer to take someone they know.

This is particularly the case with the smaller, private landlords. It’s possible to find lists of private landlords online, such as here. But Wahlgren recommends putting in a bit of legwork.

“One way to find who owns an apartment block, is to just go around and check on the buildings for the names of the landlords, and look in the stairwells for the number of the landlord’s agent.” 

Once you have the number, you have to ring both regularly, at least once a month, and also strategically. 

“It’s important to call at the right time,” Wahlgren says. “Because normally apartment rentals end at the turn of the month, so that’s when you’re going to call. You don’t call on the 15th, you call on the 31st or the 1st of the month.”

4. Exploit all the friends and contacts that you have 

When someone hands in their notice on a rental agreement, they may try to shorten their notice by finding a replacement for the landlord, or they might find a replacement simply as a favour. This is why it’s important to ask your friends and work colleagues if they know of any apartments becoming free. 

“If they use the municipal queue, they have to follow the rules. This way, they can choose their own tenants,” Wahlgren says of the appeal of this to landlords. “If you’re a nice person, you might be able to just talk your way into an apartment.” 

5. Be a student 

“If you’re a student, there are special housing companies in the university cities, different foundations that rent out apartments,” Wahlgren says. But then you have to study.” 

Illegal ways of getting an apartment

All of these ways of getting a rental apartment are legal, but there are some ways of getting a rental apartment more quickly which are not.

1. Paying a fee

You may also find landlords or intermediaries on websites such as Blocket, who ask for a one-off payment to jump a rental queue, or get a rental apartment. This is illegal. “You can lose your money, you can lose the apartment, and in the worst case, you can go to prison,” warns Wahlgren.

2. Getting an illegal subtenancy 

It’s perfectly legal to rent out your rental apartment to someone else for a period, if you have a valid reason for doing so and your landlord agrees. But such is the pressure to get housing that a market has sprung up in illegal subletting. Before signing a contract for a sublet, make sure that the landlord who owns the property has agreed to it. 

3. Bribing someone running the queue 

There have been cases of people working for municipalities logging into the housing queue and altering it, either as a favour to their friends, or for money. This is fairly rare, and in the unlikely event that someone offers to do this for you, it’s best to decline. 

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