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I’m building my own Swedish summer house – here’s what I’ve learned

Having a summer house is close to obligatory in Sweden. But with prices now sky-high anywhere near the big cities, it's out of many people's reach. So our reporter Richard Orange's Swedish wife Mia decided to build one herself, and he reluctantly agreed. Here's what happened.

I'm building my own Swedish summer house – here's what I've learned
The roof of Mia Orange and Richard Orange's house. Photo: Mia Orange

It took me about four years to work out what was going on. My Swedish wife kept sending me links to housing auctions featuring enormous tumble-down renovation projects in Värmland, abandoned farmhouses in Småland, or cabins in the wilds of northern Skåne.

At first, I thought she was fantasizing about abandoning our life in Malmö to grow our own vegetables and keep goats. I’d humour her, say a few encouraging things about the houses, then immediately forget about it. 

It was only when the first of our friends started to buy getaways an hour or two outside Malmö that I clicked that this was something normal, even expected, for Swedish families. 

At home in the UK, you generally don’t start thinking about a holiday house in Cornwall or Devon unless you’re very wealthy. In Sweden, it’s something less well-paid professionals, such as teachers, journalists, and academics, aim for too. It’s typically the next milestone after your children are in school. 

For my wife, it was also a passion project. While I can’t wire a plug (at least not without recourse to YouTube), she, like many Swedes, is practical. When we bought our flat, she put in the kitchen, installed new taps, basins and toilets, plastered the walls, and put in a new wooden floor, more-or-less single-handed (I did help). 

When she was studying, she worked part-time at a big out-of-town DIY store, and had long wanted to put her extensive knowledge of building materials and power tools to use.

She is also addicted to Husdrömmar (House Dreams) the SVT renovation programme where presenter Anne Lundberg and architect Gert Wingårdh visit a succession of Swedes embarking on perilous renovation or self-build projects, only to go wildly over budget, but somehow come out OK in the end. 

Anne Lundberg and Gert Wingårdh were part of the inspiration behind Mia Orange’s house project.

Initially, Mia fixated on a two-up, two-down brick house near a friend of ours’ summerhouse in Österlen, Skåne’s desirable southeastern corner, which she called the ruckel, or ‘ruin’. 

It had a hole in the roof through which water had been leaking for decades, rotting right through the ceiling of the ground floor, and then down through the floor to the cellar below. This was terrifying, so when she instead found two small adjoining plots of land for sale at a nearby area reserved for holiday cottages, it was such a relief I quickly agreed.

We are now coming up to our third summer working on the house, and it still feels like we’re barely halfway. We have a roof, walls, and windows, and Mia’s done the insulation. The aim is to be finished by the autumn, but I’m betting on one more summer.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far. 

Is it cheaper to build your own house? 

The plot we are building on cost 300,000 kronor, which is three times as much as cheaper plots in other parts of Skåne, but will hopefully pay off as we will end up with a house in an area otherwise outside our price range. 

The module house cost another 300,000 kronor, and I expect we will end up spending at least another 500,000 kronor on laying the concrete foundation, installing plumbing and electricity, and buying second-hand windows, stairs, doors, etc. 

So the cost quickly catches up with that of buying a house that’s already been built: for that amount of money, it is still just about possible to find a well-situated holiday house an hour from Malmö (although you might find you’d have to pay quite a bit for renovation and upkeep going forward). 

However, in the area where we’re building, holiday houses have in the last year been selling for two, even three, million kronor, so if the market holds up (a big if), our efforts will hopefully be worth something.  

Are there any other advantages to building your own house? 

If you’re got an interest in design and a big budget (or modest desires), you can of course build the house of your dreams.

Some of the more outlandish Husdrömmar episodes I can remember include a house with a tree growing through the middle, a house encased in a giant greenhouse, and a house constructed as a giant geodesic dome. 

You might be able to find a plot with a view over water, or down into a stunning valley which is better than any existing house you can find. 

Also, if you’re into that sort of thing, it’s the ultimate DIY project. 

Is it a good idea to buy a plot in a holiday house area? 

Our plot is in a fritidshusområde, or ‘holiday house area’, with I think around 80 other holiday houses and cabins laid out along a network of small roads. The negative side is that, even though we are in the popular Österlen area, it feels a bit suburban. You are watched over by your neighbours, many of whom are retirees from Lund and Malmö, and have to be careful to limit the noise and mess you make. 

The positive aspect is that electricity and water supplies run right up to the border of the plot, there are potential playmates for our children, and a little community.

It was surprising that what was delivered from Piteå was little more than a pile of planks and beams. Photo: Mia Orange

Is it a good idea to buy a modular house? 

We bought a modular house from Lundqvist Trävaru, based in Piteå in the far north of Sweden. The advantage of this is that once you’ve ordered the house, you get architecture plans sent to you which make it relatively easy to apply for planning permission. If you designed your own house, you might have issues over whether the structure is stable.  

Lundqvist also have a very good online system to help you choose what dimensions you want, as well as instruction videos showing you how to erect the walls, put on the roof etc. 

On the other hand, when the container lorry arrived to deliver the house, I was surprised to discover that what they unloaded was more or less just a pile of planks and beams. The planks for the walls had been nailed together into 1.2m modules in Lundqvist’s factory, but that was about it. 

If I’m honest, I expected it to be a bit more like IKEA. I was expecting to receive more detailed instructions about how to put the parts together, perhaps with colour-coded packages telling you which pieces of wood are supposed to be used in which order. My wife managed to work it out, but it wasn’t easy. 

Mia Orange risking life astride the roof of her build project. Photo: Richard Orange

Should you get a professional to build it? 

For 200,000 kronor, we could have got Lundqvist to erect the house, paint it, put in the windows, and do the roof and gutters, which would have taken them a week, saved us about six months’ work, and probably meant a slightly better structure.

For us though, saving 200,000 kronor was easily worth a summer of hard labour. And for my wife, building the house herself was part of the point anyway.  

What about getting help from your friends and neighbours? 

We’ve been lucky in that the two people living in the houses across the road are local rather than people from Malmö or Lund with a holiday house, and they have been enormously helpful. One is a retired carpenter, and he has given Mia useful advice at every stage.

They’ve also helped us contact local plumbers, concrete and stone suppliers, and given other advice on materials. 

On the day we lifted up the roof beams, we had help from a small crowd of friends who helped guide the various parts into place and screw them down.

During the lull in the pandemic in early September, Mia’s mother came down from Uppsala and helped mount the front door.

One of the things I’ve learned as a foreigner is how generous Swedes can be with their time and advice when it comes to something practical like building a house. While general chit-chat and small talk is relatively rare, when the discussion gets on to subjects like guttering, they can talk for hours. 

Mia’s mother came down to help mount a door in September.

Should you get help online? 

My wife has become an obsessive member of the Byggahus (‘house-build’) website and forum, which is a sort of virtual version of the sharing of advice mentioned above. If you can read and write Swedish, it’s an invaluable place to discuss every element of a building project from how to get your permission to start building from the local municipality, to tricks for putting in windows. 

How tough is the bureaucracy? 

Before you can start building you need to apply for bygglov, or ‘building permission’ from the municipality, and if you are planning on doing any major landscaping, you also need to apply for marklov. You also need to secure a startbesked, before you start work.

It took us two or three attempts before we had supplied all the correct documentation to receive our bygglov, so it can be quite complicated, but still far from impossible. 

Once you have laid out the area where you are going to build your house you also need to get that measurement approved by the municipality.

You also need to employ an independent ‘kontrollansvarig‘, KA, who monitors your work at all the essential stages to make sure you’re not taking any dangerous shortcuts. 

The municipality also has to come out at different stages to check that you’ve done everything according to the plans and building regulations. 

Finally, when you’ve finished you need to get the municipality to inspect your work and issue a slutbesked before you are allowed to live in the structure. 

So all in all, there’s quite a lot to do. 

How hard is it? 

If you’d asked me in September, I would have said ‘surprisingly doable’, particularly if you have a practical partner. But the cruel reality is that while it looks like your house is almost finished once you’ve erected the walls and roof, you are actually not even a quarter of the way there. 

Moreover, as each of the many, many time-consuming jobs you have left make little real difference to the outward picture of the house, it is easy to feel like you’re going nowhere. 

Perhaps the hardest thing is that while our richer (or perhaps just more indebted) friends have for the last two summers been enjoying flitting between their summer houses and the beach, we’ve been spending our time heaving wood about while living in a cramped 1970s caravan. 

Member comments

  1. Wow. This is great. What becomes of the house, however, during most of the year when it is unoccupied. I’m thinking of from the US perspective. Not just security but things like burst pipes…?

    1. Todd, in general, you turn off the water and empty the pipes when you leave the house for the winter, so burst pipes shouldn’t be a problem. The same is also true for electricity. You don’t leave things there that can’t stand the cold. If you have cold-sensitive stuff in the summer house, you can leave the electricity on and have the heating set on a few degrees above zero.

      Security-wise, neighbors are often glad to keep an eye on the house. It’s part of their own security as well to keep an eye out for burglars.

      🙂

  2. I had a summer cottage off the coast of of Sweden when I previously lived in the UK and found that a thermostat in range of a cheap security camera could monitor the property temp in the winter and keep a lookout for problems, it worked very well..it was also reassuring for security. I now live in Sweden and have a semi rural house without the need to get away to the quiet and wilds – I am a DIY fanatic & get great pleasure in creating from scratch – Swedes do tend to be very knowledgable and practical and as you say very helpful, I was building a jetty on my driveway and my neighbours took an interest and hay presto with their help we now have a floating jetty for launching the kayaks and paddle boards (replacing a dilapidated one). most houses in Sweden are wooden and so some DIY knowledge is a good thing to have. by coincidence my family and I took a little road trip last week to the Österlen area, its very nice & there’s some lovely beaches and countryside. good luck with your project Richard its certainly worthwhile.

  3. Hope it all works out for you. The last thing I ever felt was enticing was having a little home (especially without sewage or central water supply) in the middle of nowhere in Sweden. I’d probably go insane out there, but Swedes do love it.

  4. Oh this sounds so much fun!!! Lycka Till Richard och familj! I hope it fulfills all your Swedish sommar dreams.

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For members

CRIME

EXPLAINED: What happens when a foreigner gets arrested in Sweden?

It’s a situation nobody ever wants to be in, but what happens if you’re arrested in Sweden? What should you do, and what are your rights?

EXPLAINED: What happens when a foreigner gets arrested in Sweden?

Most of the people who come to Sweden to work, join a Swedish partner, or start a new life are law-abiding folk. Hardly anyone comes with the intention of breaking the law.  But from time to time, due to an accident of fortune or poor decision-making, foreigners end up on the wrong end of the law. 

Pray it never happens but if you are arrested in Sweden, what are your rights? What happens next, and who can help you? 

Whether it’s a traffic accident, misunderstanding, or murder charge, Swedish law follows certain processes upon arrest. 

The first stages 

The first stage of a police investigation is the anmälan, or report. Anyone can report you for committing a crime, regardless of whether they are the victim. The tax agency, for instance, can report you for fraud. If the police catch you doing something illegal, the officer can file a report themselves. 

After the report is registered, someone is appointed to lead the preliminary investigation — a so-called förundersökningsledare or “investigation leader”. The förundersökningsledare can be either a police officer or a prosecutor, depending on how serious the crime is. 

The förundersökningsledare then decides if there is sufficient reason to suspect that you have committed a crime.

There are two grades of suspicion. The lowest level is skäligen misstänkt or “reasonable suspicion”, which means that there are “circumstances which with a certain strength indicate that you have committed the act.  The next level up is på sannolika skäl, or “on probable cause”, that you have committed the act. 

When can you get arrested? 

If the förundersökningsledare has declared you a suspect, a police officer might be sent to arrest you. A police officer can also arrest you on their own initiative if they think that there is a reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed. 

All it takes to arrest someone in Sweden is for the officer to say “du är gripen“, meaning “you are under arrest”. If you resist,  the officer is permitted to employ as much violence as necessary to get you to the police station. 

If a member of the public observes you committing a crime serious enough to warrant a prison sentence, they are also allowed to arrest you, either while you are committing the crime or fleeing the scene. A member of the public is also allowed to arrest anyone wanted by the police for a crime. 

Not everyone suspected of committing a crime is necessarily arrested. If there is no danger to the public, no risk of you tampering with evidence, and no risk that you might flee, then police can decide to leave you free until you are asked to appear for interview or in court. 

When you are arrested, police will search you for any weapons, drugs or suspicious goods, and may take your telephone if it could contain evidence of a crime, but they will otherwise leave you with your belongings. 

What happens after your arrest? 

If you have been arrested by a police officer who had a reasonable suspicion that you have committed a crime, you need to have a formal interview or förhör at the police station as soon as possible. Police may also interview the person who reported you, your alleged victim (the målsägande, which literally means “case owner”), and any witnesses. 

You can only be held at the police station for a maximum of 12 hours before a prosecutor decides whether there is sufficient reason for you to be anhållan, or “held”.  If they decide there is not, then you need to be released. 

If you are held, then you are taken to a cell, where you can be held for a maximum of three days, before which the prosecutor needs to either release you or request that you be häktad, or placed in pre-trial custody. 

When the decision is made to “hold” you, your personal belongings — phone, wallet, keys, etc — are taken from you and stored.

To be placed in pre-trial custody, you have to have committed a crime that can potentially lead to at least one year in prison. The prosecutor must also demonstrate that there is a risk you will tamper with the evidence or flee.

The decision to hold someone in pre-trial custody needs to be made by a judge at a so-called häktningsförhandling, or “detention hearing”. Unlike a full trial, this hearing is decided by a single judge. 

When can you get a defence lawyer? 

You can ask for a defence lawyer as soon as you are arrested. You can request one by name, or request a specific law firm, or, if you don’t know of any specific defence lawyers, just ask the court to appoint one for you. The court can normally contact the lawyer within a few hours, meaning you should ideally have a defence lawyer with you in your first police interview. 

When can you contact your embassy or family? 

The Swedish authorities are legally obliged to inform national embassies of the arrest of one of their citizens, and will normally do so themselves automatically, according to the British Embassy’s guideIf they do not do so, you can request that they do. 

You can ask the police at any time if you want to make a telephone call, but unlike in the UK or US, you have no right to make a phone call. It is up to the discretion of the prosecutor whether to allow you one, and very often they deny it. 

Most embassies have an urgent number people who are arrested can call. The UK’s line is +46 (0) 8 671 30 00 / +44 1908 51 6666, France’s is 0851992349, Germany’s is +46708529420. 

In practice, it is much better to ask your defence lawyer to contact your embassy, or to request that you can make a phone call. 

Friends and relatives of people who have been arrested can also contact their embassy for them, so that the embassy can find out where they are being held and any details of the suspicions against them. 

What can your embassy do? 

Most European embassies will work with defence lawyers to ensure that their citizens are treated well. 

“The Embassy provides impartial, non-judgemental assistance to British citizens who have been arrested or are in jail in Sweden,” a UK embassy spokesperson told The Local. We aim to make sure they are treated properly in line with Swedish regulations, and no less favourably than other prisoners.”

The first stage of this is a consular visit, which most European embassies generally aim to make within about 24 hours of being notified of your arrest. 

If you request it, your embassy will normally be able to inform your next-of-kin in your home country of your arrest. 

Unless you request otherwise, most embassies will also keep the fact that you have been detained and what the charges are confidential. 

How long can I be held before my trial? 

Perhaps the most criticised aspect of the Swedish justice system is the length that suspects can be held in pretrial detention, while the police and prosecutor carry out their investigations. The system has been criticised by the  United Nations Committee Against Torture, the Council of Europe.

The only limit is that Sweden’s Supreme Court has held that the detention must be reasonably proportional in relation to what may be gained from it (NJA 2015 s. 261) and the injury to the defendant.

In theory, there is no limit to the length of time a suspect can be held in pre-trial detention, so long as the custody is extended by a judge every 14 days. So far the record is a little over four years or being held without trial, and suspects are frequently held for over a year before a court rules on their case. 

There is no bail system in Sweden. 

What restrictions can I be under while in pre-trial detention? 

Prosecutors in Sweden often impose restrictions on those in pre-trial detention on the grounds that otherwise the defendant might change their story or tamper with the evidence. Critics often accuse police of imposing excessive restrictions to break suspects, pushing them to give details of the crime to reduce the time until their trial. 

Restrictions might include stopping suspects from being able to: 

  • receive or send letters without them first being inspected by the prosecutor
  • receive visits without special permission from the prosecutor
  • receive or make phone calls without special permission from the prosecutor
  • watch TV, listen to the radio and read newspapers
  • interact with other inmates

You always have the right to contact your lawyer, a member of consular staff (in special circumstances you may be allowed contact with family). You can also see a priest or other representative of a religious order.  

When will I go to trial? 

When the prosecutor has amassed enough evidence that they feel that there is sufficient evidence to prosecute, they will issue an åtal, or prosecution document, after which the court will set a date for the trial. 

Prosecutors will only do this if they judge that there is tillräckliga skäl för att väcka åtal, “sufficient cause for laying charges”. If they do not, the will end the investigation without laying charges, at which point you must be released. 

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