All posts by Katie

Flat A vs Flat B: Location vs. Cost

Between erstbezugComparis, and a few housing trade shows, at the beginning of the year I was swimming in neubau options. We had choices anywhere from 2 room to 6.5 room flats with terraces or gardens, but location and cost made it difficult to weigh the options.

It seemed like almost anything within the city limits of Zürich was priced at one million plus, no matter how far away from public transportation it was. And most of the loftier 5.5-6.5 flats were in towns 45-60 minutes to Zürich by bus and train, which was further than we were willing to move.

Erstbezug helped me find a few building sites near Zürich with flats that actually fell in an affordable range. From the project pages I was able to go through each of the flats at a building site and look for something in our size and price range.

The race came down to two flats/building sites, where I mulled over the possibilities over and over.

Flat A:

I found the Flat A project almost at the beginning of my housing search at the end of 2011. The flats were still pretty expensive for the space you get, but the location had so many good things going for it and the flats looked amazing.

Image via

The Good:

  • 10 minute train ride to Zürich main station
  • Train, tram and bus lines available
  • Direct routes to the airport
  • Large shopping center across the street
  • Remarkable 90sq m (968 sq ft) balcony in some flats
  • Finished in summer 2013
  • My commute only increases by 5-10 minutes.
  • Kay’s commute would but cut in half

The Bad:

  • Still pretty damn expensive
  • Not sure how much we actually save much by moving
  • Only 3.5 rooms, meaning we will definitely outgrow it if we start a family.

Flat B:

I found the Flat B project a couple months into my search. It was a relatively new project and most all of the flats were free. If we chose to go with a 3.5 room flat with 20sq m (215sq ft) less than flat A, we could stand to save 250,000CHF on the price of the home.

Or if we paid the same as Flat A, we could upgrade to a 5.5 room flat with 20sq m more than Flat A. Decisions, decisions.

Image via

I couldn’t stop imagining a bedroom, walk in closet room, guest room and office…

The Good:

  • So. much. space.
  • Value for money
  • Possibility to save a ton per month if we stuck with a 3.5 room
  • Parking spaces were a few thousand cheaper than Flat A
  • Kay’s commute would stay the same

The Bad:

  • 15 minute walk to local train stop
  • 25 minute total commute time to Zürich main station, not great.
  • Only the far away train and an unhelpful bus route nearby
  • Smaller terrace than Flat A
  • No groceries nearby, no large groceries at the train stop
  • Finished autumn 2013, getting a bit late
  • My commute would increase from 30 minutes to 1 hour one way.

During the whole process of looking for flats and trying to convince Kay that buying was a good idea, we missed out on a cheaper option in the building of Flat A. There was another 3.5 room flat the same size, but with a smaller (but still sizable!) 25 sq m (269sq ft) balcony and a small loggia that was selling for about 100k less than Flat A. I would have chosen it to save money, but shortly after we visited the showroom, the flat was already reserved.

The problem with building A was that we were a bit late in discovering it. Half the apartments had been purchased already and I could tell that there were larger 4.5 and 5.5 room flats that had gone for less than the price of Flat A. Hell, there were other 3.5 room flats that had gone for 250,000 less!

I felt like we were slightly too late with Flat A and that if we really wanted to capitalize on being an early bird, we could do that with Building B where all the flats were ripe for picking at good prices. I was also beginning to worry that we would overstretch our budget with Flat A and that it would be better to choose a much cheaper 3.5 flat in building B. Our mortgage would be sooo much cheaper with 250k less in debt!

Can you tell which flat which chose?

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The World of Neubau

During my months of searching, I saw many, many types of houses and flats on my search sites… but I also saw many neubau (new build) objects in the listings. I was a little wary of neubau because I’ve read some horror stories about them on forums, but at the same time I was attracted by the offers available.

Image via

The Bad:

  • Hidden costs snowballing
  • Asshole contractors with red tape
  • Delays
  • Cannot secure a mortgage until later, interest might go up

The Good:

  • First come, first serve: Minimal fighting to buy
  • Custom changes, options galore
  • More time to save for a bigger deposit
  • Everything is NEW

A few people have vented their frustrations with neubau online, so I had a pretty clear idea what we might expect if we go this route. People complained about buying a flat for one price and then paying lots of money on changes and having the flat cost a lot more than they anticipated.

I also heard a lot of complaining about the entire process of working with contracting firms. Some horror stories had contractors pressuring clients for a lot more money before they would finish and others had extreme delays that put the buyer out of home after their move-in date was postponed.

To be honest, it did seem like neubau is a headache from what I heard. Lots of people warned others to just not try and deal with it. So why did we keep looking?

Choice. By choosing neubau, we could totally avoid the vicious bidding wars on houses and flats in Switzerland. There would be no first, second and third round of bidding. If you want a neubau flat it is relatively simple: pay a fee to reserve, sign a contract and start paying your deposit.

In essence, all we had to do was decide on a flat before someone else did. Then the flat would be ours, no questions asked.

In addition to avoiding the war on ownership, we could customize a flat to meet our own preferences and needs before it was built and when we move in, everything will be brand new. Buying something totally new was a major selling point for Kay, who didn’t want to feel like he was downgrading if we moved out of our comfortable flat in Zürich.

We also calculated that if we would have until the flat was done to save for our mortgage, we would be able to pay a significantly larger deposit and therefore we could buy a bit more expensive flat than we would have been able to at the beginning of 2012. The risk was that when our mortgage would start in 2013, the interest rates may go up.

Neubau still sounded right for us, so while I kept searching for potential existing houses, I started focussing more and more on neubau projects.

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Shopping for houses

Despite all the scary figures I mentioned earlier, I was confident that with our savings we would be able to buy some kind of modest flat and profit on this extremely low interest.

I spent hours on Comparis looking at houses and flats. We couldn’t afford anything besides a shoebox in downtown Zürich, but there were many flats outside the city and even entire houses that were possibly in our budget.

Having been raised in Switzerland, Kay had the notion that you don’t buy property unless you are 40 or have kids. (That’s not us.) It took some time to convince him that we don’t have to fit into the stereotype for buying to be an advantageous financial choice.

The big question was size and location. Sure, we could sort of afford a 6.5 room apartment (= 5 bedroom flat) or even a 7 room house complete with garage, basement, backyard and everything, but that would mean sacrificing on location.

We do like living in Zürich and realistically, in the next 20 years we will probably change our jobs a few times. With that in mind, we are not quite in a position to commit to a small town an hour and a half away from Zürich city by train/bus.

Who in their twenties wants to worry about catching the last bus back to the middle of nowhere at the end of the night? Not us.

We have to be close enough to Zürich that if one of us would have to get a job outside, we would not have an impossible commute. Buying a car to save on commute time would also kind of negate the “saving” aspect of buying a house.

So we started limiting the search to flats in the vicinity of Zürich city, under 20 minutes to the main station by train. I mean, we just don’t need a house right now. As much as I think it would be cool to have 5 bedrooms and build a photography studio, we just don’t need that much space right now.

I saw a few older flats that could possibly be contenders, but when Kay and I visited a 3 bedroom 80 sq m flat (861 sq ft) it felt cramped and although it was technically IN Zürich, it was kind of a crap neighborhood with nothing going on around it. It was depressing.

Kay was really unimpressed with the old interior and the smell of smoke and other places we saw had 30 year old windows or unfinished interiors that would all require possibly hundreds of thousands in repairs. Some had winter gardens (like an enclosed glass balcony) but no real balcony, aka no grilling. It was always something. And none of the locations were really spot on.

Some older flats also come with “Baurecht“, which basically means somebody owns the land your flat or house is on. They have a 20-100 year contract with people to rent this land from them to build on, and you might end up paying like 400-1000CHF a month just for renting your land. It’s a pretty unattractive detail and makes it hard to sell your house if you do get suckered into a deal like that. You’ll never pay 300CHF a month in mortgage costs if you’ve always got those bloody building rights to deal with.

With all this information, we just weren’t sure buying a fixer-upper or an older flat sounded like a good idea right now.

Up next, we discover Neubau!

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How to buy a house in Switzerland

When I found out how low people’s mortgages were with 1-2% interest rates, I was determined to figure out how buying works. When you break it down, it’s not that hard…

1. Find a place you want to buy.

2. Deposit = 20% of the sale price

20% is the magic number here. The Swiss are rather reserved, hence the large number. I have heard cases of people negotiating the bank down to 15% or even 10%, but with the economic situation turning a little in the last year, many banks are sticking to the 20% rule and the fact is, if you cannot afford to give them the 20% (even if you negotiate down to 10%) then they will not loan to you.

3. Calculate the affordability

The same way that Swiss calculate if you can afford your rent by making sure it is 1/3 or less of your monthly salary, they make sure that you can afford buying a home too.

Interest rates might be historically low right now, but every bank uses a simple method to figure out if you earn enough money to live comfortably with a mortgage. Affordability rates are based on 5% interest regardless of the current prices. If you cannot afford to pay a 20% deposit and 5% interest mortgage, the bank will not back you.

Obviously if interest is at 8-10% you would also need to be able to afford that for the bank to lend you money, but since rates are close to zero right now, every bank is calculating based on the average 5%.

To figure out your monthly costs you can plug everything into a simple Excel sheet and run the numbers to see if buying makes sense for you. Along with monthly interest payments, you need to amortize your mortgage by 1% monthly. The typical Nebenkosten (utilities) you normally pay along with your rent are estimated around 0.7% of your property’s value along with a renewal fund of 0.3%. Flat owners pay into a communal renewal fund to fix things like roofs and home owners save to pay everything themselves.

So, that’s another 1% on top of your mortgage and 1% from the sale price. The total monthly payment still needs to be under 1/3 of your monthly income in the 5% model for a bank to consider this a safe purchase.

Here is a quick affordability model on a 1 million CHF house:

Swiss Affordability Model

If one has the 200k capital for the downpayment, buying 1 million CHF houses is not actually the most crazy thing in the world right now. It would, however, require an annual household income of approximately 180,000 CHF. (4583.33 CHF X 13 months salary = 178,749 CHF)

But when I was researching house buying, I learned another important lesson: Not every house or flat in Switzerland costs millions! There are actually a handful of flats available for 300-500k CHF as well as many more in the 500-800k range. What does the affordability look like for a 500,000 CHF flat?

Swiss Affordability Model 2

Once you have the 100k downpayment, buyers would only have to an annual household income of 90,000CHF to afford a home with this price. And 1250CHF a month on the current model is less than half of what we currently pay for rent. Numbers like these are what turned me on to looking!

The affordability model can also be used in reverse. To find out how expensive of a home you can afford, just multiply your savings by 5 to see which houses you can afford. With 80k you can probably afford a 400k house. With 150k you could afford a 750k house.

4. Make an offer

The fun part of making an offer, countering, and most likely raising how much money you wanted to spend. The real estate market is pretty tight here and most sellers enjoy a couple rounds of offers from bidders fighting to buy a house.

You can be sure that if you buy a preexisting house in a nice location, there will be many people looking to buy it. Some people spend years looking for a house to buy and it’s very likely that your house buying experience will be filled with a lot of heartbreak, unless you are able to shell out a lot of money.

5. Finding a mortgage

Often people will visit some banks before they start looking to buy homes to know that there are already financial institutions who will support a purchase.

After you find a place and agree on a price (Hah! Easier said than done!) it is time to find the best mortgage. This is where you can shop around for the best deal, with lenders bending over backwards to make you their client.

6. Closing and handover

When you get through all the complicated shit of agreeing on a sales contract, having a lawyer or insurance agency proof the contract and recommend changes, house inspections, and a bunch of paperwork about the house and land dating back hundreds of years, you will need to get everything notarized to make the sales contract official and agree on a payment schedule and handover process.

Notary costs usually range around 1.5-2% of the sale price, but depending on what kind of house you buy you might also have to pay for land register and permit applications, which could take the number up to 2-5% of the sale price.

Payment schedules vary depending whether you are buying a new or old house. Older houses might require a small downpayment and then the remaining amount paid when your permit is approved. For people building, there is usually a large downpayment, halfway progress payment and then the final 1/3 or so is due when the keys are handed over.

Once you understand how much you can afford, the whole process is relatively straight forward. Be prepared to spend a lot of time visiting homes and building sites and even more prepared for all the paperwork that will come your way if you decide to purchase.

How does the buying process vary where you are from?

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Women’s Daypacks for Hiking and Air Travel

Kay and I have been hiking more in the past few years and the more we hike, the more I learn about myself and what I can handle. We learned pretty quickly that I cannot handle carrying a lot, especially when we climb steep uphill. As soon as the incline hits, my speed drops to a snail’s pace.

Kalalau trail
Here I am, trailing behind Kay on the Kalalau trail in Hawaii.

On our first few major hikes together, I was always carrying too much and would inevitably give my camera or even my whole pack to Kay when it got tough, which made the hike more difficult for him. With this in mind, we stripped down what I’m allowed to carry (if anything) to the essentials.

Camelbak backpacks

For day trips, we often head out with with 1-2 packs. Kay takes his small Camelbak (on the left above) that carries water, our jackets, snacks, sunglasses cases and wallets. If it’s a long hike, I take the even smaller Camelbak hydration pack (on the right above) that carries a bladder, but not much else. I can fit my debit card and a pack of tissues in and that’s about it, but it’s great because I don’t have to chase after Kay to give me a sip of water when I’m dying. I only have to chase him if I want some dextrose.

mystery ranch backpack

On more intense day trips, Kay upgrades to his Mystery Ranch backpack to carry cooking gear and I borrow his Camelbak to carry my jacket and things.

The problem is that when we go on city trips we often both would like a small pack to carry our cameras and jackets. So I’m looking for a pack that I can use for hiking as well as city trips and as a carryon when flying.

So what am I interested in? I headed to Transa with my camera in it’s Kata Access-18 PL bag to check out all the bags they have.

1. Meru Active 24 (79CHF)

( Image via Sportler)

This Meru pack was pretty light weight and comfortable, which would definitely be a plus for carryon weight restrictions. It fit my camera, even in it’s Kata Access-18 PL bag, and it had a handy mesh pocket on the outside that would be good for storing a jacket quickly. The main compartment had zipper entry divided in two for organization and space for a hydration system. The pack was a bright blue and there were no other options for colors at the store.

It did not have compression straps that I could use to attach my hiking poles to the bag, nor did it have a rain cover (what about my camera!?) and it did not have a spacer mesh to separate the pack from your back and keep your back from heating up your water… (Bleagh!) But for 79CHF, the pack is relatively affordable.

2. Crea Element from Mammut (120CHF)

(Image via Mammut)

The version I saw at the store was such a lovely colour. Light grey with teal blue accents for the logo. Very girly in my opinion. There was also another raspberry option that I thought was a bit ugly.

The Crea Element has a very sturdy hip belt and I really liked the mesh suspension system. Normally when we walk, the Camelback is in the backpack against your back and it heats up. Usually your first sip of water is cold because it’s the water left in the hose, but then you get a mouthful of warm water thereafter. It’s kinda gross in the summer.

This pack also had a wonderful built-in detachable rain cover. I love the rain cover built into my Lowepro camera bag because it is really handy, but on this pack I also loved that it is detachable so that if you needed to take it out to store some extra things when you are flying for example, you can detach the rain cover and store it separately, or remove it to dry if needed. Genius!

In addition to the rain cover, the Crea Element comes with a waste bag and a “women’s necessity bag”. With the top lid pockets, this gives you a fair amount of options for organizing things.

Unfortunately though, this pack is only about 20L and it did not fit my Kata bag with the camera. I could try to use Kay’s small crumpler bag which really only houses the camera and one lens, but I worried that maybe 20L is really too small to fit much, especially when flying.

3. Creon Element from Mammut (120CHF)

(Image via

The Creon Element is a bigger 25L version of the Crea Element (oddly for the same price…), but unfortunately it does not come in the pretty grey/blue that the smaller pack does. It’s pretty obvious that the smaller pack is for women and the larger pack is for men. This pack comes in a putrid green, blue that wasn’t at the store or black with a horrid red Mammut logo. In my opinion, the red is really screaming, “Hey, I’m an expensive brand, look at me!” It looks worse in real life than it does in the photo.

When it comes down to it, I will choose my pack based mainly on functionality, but obviously I don’t want to walk around with a really ugly pack. This pack also had the suspension system, removable rain cover and it also had just enough room for my Kata bag. Both Mammut bags also have dedicated trekking pole straps that look pretty sturdy. (They are also for ice picks apparently…)

It is questionable if I could fit the Kata camera pack and the Camelbak hydration system in at the same time. Another flaw about the Mammut bags is that they are both drawstring, which is not quite as easy to get in and out of as zippered packs. The Creon Element does not come with the women’s necessity bag and it had less pockets in the top compartment, so overall it seemed a bit more primitive than the Crea Element.

4. Sirrus 24 from Osprey ($99)

(Image via Osprey)

While I was trying to find the Mammut backpacks for sale in the States, I came across Osprey packs for women. I went back to Transa and it turns out they only have the Stratos series for men in supply, but the men’s packs have many of the same features as the women’s. I spent about 45 minutes trying them out, so I think it gave me a pretty good idea about what the Sirrus series would be like.

The Sirrus series all have mesh suspension systems, although it looks like the pack is held a little closer to the back than the Mammut bags, especially at the top and bottom of the pack where they attach. I’m not sure how that would affect airflow, considering that Mammut boasts some “chimney effect” with theirs. This is a 24L zippered pack with easy access, but only one small pocket on the front that houses the detachable rain cover. Small point – the rain covers on the Sirrus/Stratos packs attach with velcro and the Mammut ones have a clip. I feel like the clips are sturdier and the velcro seems a bit cheaper, even though the Osprey packs cost more money in Swiss francs.

The Osprey bags also have compression straps on the side, but Osprey also has a system for storing your trekking poles on the go that looks really cool. I almost always hike with poles (Grandma!) so I’m really interested in this part, but I’ve read some reviews that in the summer the poles rub against your arm when you store them this way, so I’m not sure how effective the system actually is.

Sirrus packs come in turquoise and purple, but again, I’m not a big fan of this shade of purple.

5. Sirrus 36 from Osprey ($139)

(Image via Osprey)

Kay had me convinced that the 20L Mammut pack was way too small, especially for air travel, so I started looking at some of Osprey’s larger 36L packs.

Osprey also designed the Sirrus packs with hip belts made for women so they fit better around a woman’s curves. They also have special shoulder straps so that the backpack doesn’t dig into your breasts when you are walking. I noticed when I tried on the Mammut Creon Element, I had to put the chest strap all the way at the top and the bag still felt a bit like it wasn’t designed for me.

Both the 24L and the 36L Osprey packs have hipbelt pockets that are absent on the Mammut packs. I’ve been jealous that Kay has hipbelt pockets his Mystery Ranch backpack that are not on my Mystery Ranch pack. They would be so helpful for storing tissues, lip balm and lens cleaning clothes on hikes. I blow my nose ALL the time! There is even a little pocket on one of the shoulder straps. I’m sure if Kay had one, he would love to store his GPS in it.

In addition, this pack has a drawstring opening with a pack lid that has two zippered compartments. It also has a second front pocket in addition to a much roomier rain cover pocket than the 24L.

It seems like it’s always a big question of how the camera fits in the pack and whether I have the camera in a camera bag (for protection) and whether that fits as well. If I go for a smaller 24L size, I may run into issues with getting things to fit when I fly, but at the same time, most 34-36L packs exceed carryon requirements so I’m sort of stuck.

I’m also still not the biggest fan of drawstring bags because you really have to take them completely off to dig around in them, but can I really survive flying with only 24L? Maybe I should just follow Kay’s example and buy two day packs. Hah!

Do you have a laundry list of requirements for your backpack?