Renovating apartments

Defects and renovation works are long-running topics of conversation in everyday home life. Yet from a legal perspective, landlords are required only to fix actual technical defects; there is no right to renovation and improvement of the property. Everything else is a common misconception.

When the renovation of apartments comes up, tenants often have a list of improvements as long as their arm – all of which could really brighten up the place! Apartments in old buildings often come with a particularly long wish list, including a fresh lick of paint in the hall, living areas and children’s bedrooms, new flooring, or even new kitchens and bathrooms. However, if the rental contract has already been signed, the landlord is not obliged to do any renovations

Renovating apartments: what’s the legal case?

According to tenancy law, the matter is a little more complex than many people think. Ruedi Spöndlin, a lawyer at the Mieterverband (MV), the Swiss tenants’ association, weighs in: ‘There is no right to renovation. Tenants accept the apartment as seen.’ If the apartment was not fitted with a glass ceramic hob when the rental contract was agreed, they cannot claim it as damages later. And in some older buildings, a dishwasher is still not considered a vital convenience. Thomas Oberle, a lawyer at HEV Schweiz, the Swiss homeowners’ association, also explains: ‘The apartment must first and foremost be fit for use.'

Does the landlord cover painting and decorating?

In principle, Art. 256 of the Code of Obligations requires landlords to perform maintenance and repair when tenants move out. However, according to tenancy law, the same applies to painting and decorating as kitchen and bathroom renovations: if the paintwork has seen some wear and tear through ordinary use, they do not have to get the painters in – unless actual damage is involved. This is deemed to be the case if the paintwork is in poor condition due to heavy smoking in the property, or if old wallpaper is peeling off.

When does an apartment need to be repainted?

Tenants can make demands only for what is actually deemed defective or damaged from a technical and legal perspective. In other words, even after 20 or 30 years, tenants are not necessarily entitled to have walls repainted if the previous paintwork or wallpaper are still in acceptable condition.

But when is an apartment still deemed ‘fit for use’? This must always be interpreted on a case-by-case basis. An average tenant would probably require their home to be warm and heated in winter, be equipped with cooking facilities and have electricity, water, internet/telephone connection and so on. However, other features that may come as standard in new-build apartments are not mandatory. In old buildings, a tenant cannot assume that the building will meet high standards for soundproofing. By contrast, certain standards and building norms apply to renovations and new builds, such as the SIA minimum requirements for soundproofing or the guidelines of the Noise Abatement Ordinance.

A common misconception

We have covered the law surrounding renovation of rental apartments. However, in practice, many people still believe that the tenant may demand that walls be repainted after eight years. ‘This is a common misinterpretation of the law when it comes to wall and floor coverings or painting and decorating,’ says Oberle. If the property has parquet flooring or carpeting, tenants nowadays expect these to be replaced or renewed at shorter intervals. However, although a surface treatment of parquet or certain types of veneer flooring lasts 10 years, that does not necessarily mean a tenant is entitled to have their parquet flooring renewed (i.e. sanded down and resealed) every decade.

Who should cover the costs of a renovation?

If in spite of this, the entire apartment is set to be renovated or get a new lick of paint, another question arises: which costs are covered by the landlord, and which by the tenant? To establish who should cover the costs, it’s worth determining the current value of building parts. HEV Schweiz and MV have joined forces to produce a service life table of building parts for this very purpose. The document states, for example, that wall paint reaches its end of life after eight years.

For example: If, when a tenant moves out, the floor covering needs to be replaced due to excess wear and tear or the walls repainted, the tenant must assume part of the costs. The rest is paid by the landlord. Excess wear and tear includes:

  • Walls yellowed from smoking in the apartment
  • Paint-splattered walls
  • Burn marks on walls or floor

If the service life has depreciated by just 10%, the tenant must assume responsibility for the other 90%. But if the service life is exceeded, the cost of the repair is borne solely by the landlord. The service life table also plays a role in determining the rent rise permitted for renovations.

Do I have a right to repairs?

In contrast to renovation, tenants have a right to repairs and maintenance in principle. For example, if your oven or fridge does not work properly, the landlord must ensure it is replaced or fixed (at their own expense). Other examples of defects are flaking paint or wallpaper peeling off the wall or a faulty intercom. In order to request a repair or rectification, the tenant must make a complaint about the defect, preferably in writing and sent by registered post. However, it is not always easy for people to distinguish between technical and legal defects and optional ‘cosmetic repairs’. In that case, calling on expert advice is worthwhile.

What is a defect and what is minor maintenance?

Exceptions are minor defects that the tenant is responsible for at their own cost. This ‘minor maintenance’ is a matter for the tenant. According to MV, this includes only small repairs and improvements that do not require the involvement of an expert. As a rule of thumb, individual repairs of this nature should cost no more than CHF 150. Minor maintenance includes the following:

  • Broken fuses and lightbulbs
  • Broken shower hoses, seals or toothbrush glasses
  • Replacement of plastic containers in the dishwasher
  • Cleaning of clogged drains

HEV Schweiz interprets this a little differently: the contract is the decisive factor. Most regional standard contracts define a tenant’s responsibility for ‘minor maintenance’. This means the approach to what needs to be repaired and cleaned – and how – may vary between regions.

Practical tips

Although there is no right to renovation in a legal sense, tenants have a few options. ‘The willingness of property management to do certain renovation or painting and decorating work also depends on the rental amount,’ says Oberle from HEV.

For expensive and particularly well-developed apartments, the tenant is often in a better negotiating position. ‘In principle, a tenant can take the position that they will sign the contract only if they are sure that some parts of the property will be renovated,’ says Oberle.

Our recommendations:

  • Assurances: This should be an area of consideration from the first day you view the property, when you should start sounding out your negotiating room. However, you should exercise caution if the landlord makes only vague statements or verbal assurances. In the event of a dispute, of course, these cannot be proven or enforced. That's why these assurances should always be made clear in the rental contract.
  • Home improvers: The tenant might also take on certain tasks themselves and redo their bathroom or give the property a fresh lick of paint. This is a great way to indulge a taste for DIY projects. If you’re renovating the property yourself, however, there are a few points to consider, such as securing prior written permission from the landlord.

Service life table information:

Service life table
Service life table (HEV website)