As a tenant, am I entitled to demand that renovation work be carried out?

Who hasn’t longed for freshly painted walls or a new fridge when doing a bit of spring cleaning? Many tenants think that after a certain period of time, they are entitled to renovation or improvement of their rental property. But legally speaking, it’s quite a different matter.

A question that comes up again and again in tenancy law relates to the renovation and improvement of apartments. Eva S, a tenant from Biel, says: ‘When I viewed the apartment, I noticed that the parquet floor was very worn and there were stains on the walls.’ The joy of moving into a new apartment faded soon after. ‘The management company didn’t renovate anything – the stains on the walls were left untouched.’

A couple from Zurich shares their story: both of them wish that their apartment could get a facelift. ‘The kitchen furniture, fridge and oven are the same ones as were here in 1985!’ But is the landlord actually required to supply a new kitchen after so many years? Is Eva entitled to expect her walls to be given a fresh lick of paint?

Property is rented ‘as is’

Even representatives of tenancy associations answer such questions in the negative. There is no right to renovation. Specialists in tenancy law put forward the following argument: the tenant viewed the apartment before signing the contract and in so doing they effectively agreed to accept it in its given condition. The property is rented ‘as is’, so to speak.

Thomas Oberle, a solicitor at HEV Schweiz, the Swiss homeowners’ association, explains: ‘If an apartment in an older building had neither a ceramic hob nor an extractor fan at the time the contract was concluded, it cannot subsequently be claimed that these were lacking.’ Legally speaking at least, landlords are not necessarily required to ensure appliances and installations are of the latest standard. If the walls were stained at the time the contract was signed, the tenant may not demand that they be freshly painted.

‘Strictly speaking, the law stipulates only that the apartment must be suitable for the intended use,’ says Oberle. However, ‘suitability for intended use’ is not the same as the question of whether the apartment is ‘nice’ or not. It simply means that it can be used as a place of residence. The apartment must be able to be heated in winter and have electricity and a water supply, etc.

Origin of the mistake

The legal situation is summarised briefly above. However, in practice, many people still believe that the tenant may demand that walls be repainted after eight years. Even after 20 or 30 years, tenants are not necessarily entitled to have walls repainted if they were in acceptable condition up to then. Where this false belief comes from can be easily explained. HEV Schweiz and MV, the tenants’ association, have jointly published a table that outlines the service life of building parts. This document illustrates points that both sides have agreed; for example, that wall paint reaches its end of life after eight years.

This service life table serves primarily to determine the current value of building parts. If, for example, when a tenant moves out, the floor covering needs to be replaced due to excessive wear or the walls repainted, the tenant must assume part of the costs. If the service life has depreciated by just 25%, the tenant must assume responsibility for the other 75%. But if the service life is exceeded, the cost of the repair is borne solely by the landlord.

Better to negotiate in advance

In conclusion, legally speaking, there is no right to renovation. However, tenants have a certain amount of room for negotiation. The ideal time for this is of course before signing the rental contract. If you want to start renting only if the painters, plasters and floor installers can come in as soon as possible, you have to make a valid agreement – preferably in writing, of course; for example, a special clause in the rental agreement, under the title ‘Other agreements’. Verbal agreements are always tricky, because they cannot be proven after the fact.

Or if you’re good at DIY, you may be even able to do some painting or other improvement works yourself. But look before you leap – works and alterations carried out on the apartment require written permission from the management company.

Complaints about defects

As a tenant, you are entitled to general maintenance and repair of the property. For example, if the oven no longer heats to 250°C, or the fridge does not cool food to a sufficient degree, or the carpet is full of holes and is obviously in very poor condition, the landlord must remedy these defects at their own cost. Other examples of defects are paint or wallpaper coming loose or peeling off the wall, or a faulty cooker hob. In order to request a repair or rectification, you must make a complaint about the defect, preferably in writing and sent by registered post.

Exceptions are minor defects that the tenant is responsible for at their own cost – replacing fuses and light bulbs, seals and glasses, for example. The tenant is responsible for carrying out these minor repairs as long as the cost does not exceed CHF 150 to CHF 200. Another criteria is of course whether it is possible for the work to be carried out relatively easily by the tenant without in-depth DIY knowledge.

After the completion of works

A different matter is whether and how the landlord’s investments and expenses can be passed on to the tenant. Let’s look again at the case of the couple renting an apartment in the old building. Replacing old kitchen appliances and repainting do not qualify for a rent increase. It is also important to remember that rental of a property includes its general maintenance. A management company may increase the rent only if the property has actually gained added value in the meantime – for example, installation of extra appliances not originally provided. The same applies to major renovation works that partially increase the value of the property; for example, a new, larger balcony.