The Misery of Finding an Apartment in Stockholm

I was chatting with a close friend about apartment hunting in Stockholm and while at that moment, she was not enveloped in frustration she emailed me later on to tell me how she really felt about the Swedish rent system.

Her explanation is so spot on, I have to share it.

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Well, here is how the apartment thing happens. Almost all of the apartments in Stockholm are run by the official queue system. No open market. This means, that the rent stays pretty low compared to other major US cities and cities around the world. There are a few private apartment buildings, but you pretty much need to know someone to get in (vacancies are rare). Sounds like it could be really nice, right? Well, it would be if it actually worked. Of course, everyone wants to live in the cities.

Housing in the city is limited – over the past ten years, they have started to build more, but it is a slow process – building brand new or converting factories still takes years to construct. Alas, this does not happen. So, problem 1: lack of housing.

Swedes are very into an area having it’s own grocery store, pharmacy, bolaget, etc. So whenever apartments go up in a “new” area, a whole mini-city has to be built if those amenities aren’t in close proximity. The issue is that the government did not build these mini cities in most neighborhoods. Problem 2: you have to travel to get essentials.

The apartment queue was started sometime in the 1960s. Anyone with a personal number could get in line for an apartment and obtain a first hand contract apartment at rent controlled prices, thus distorting real market prices. The geniuses that planned this decided to let ANYONE with a swedish social security number be in the queue. This resulted in people popping out kids and putting them in the queue right away before the kid was even 10 days old.

As a result, some people have been in this queue for 19 years, even though they were probably not even ABLE to rent an apartment for 17 years (the average wait time is 7 years). When these people are legally allowed to rent, they are obviously at the front of the line and can get an apartment in the city center without problems. Meanwhile, everyone from outside of Stockholm has to wait at least a few years to get an apartment in the queue. Problem 3: stupid, stupid queue system.

If you are able to get an apartment in the queue system after only a few years, it is probably in the suburbs. Swedish suburbs are the hood. The houses are hideous, for some reason that whole “nearby amenity” idea was completely lost when these places were built in the 1970s, back to Problem 2. You are likely to be at least 20 minutes by subway from the city center. And much of suburbs (förot) aren’t even on the subway (tunnelbanan) and are on the commuter train line (pendaltåg). Problem 4: the “available” apartments are in places no one wants to live.

So, all of this culminates into a very shady, illegal setup in the city that just seems to become more of a mess each year. First, if you are lucky enough to get your own apartment( förstahand kontrakt), you can sublet for up to one year at a time (searching on sites like Bostad Direkt). People who have these leases are usually thrilled to sublet because they realize how much money they can make. Hello, black market. Note, people who own apartments are also able to sublet for up to two consecutive years. Problem 5: A tier structure of owners (who buy the rights to live in the apartment), first hand renters (the ones we all hate), and drifters (normal people who cannot afford to buy and are at the bottom of the queue).

People who sublet often charge twice to three times the real rent of what the apartment. This is of course illegal, the markup for a furnished apartment from someone with a first hand contract is 15%. In reality, first hand rental owners write 10-15% more on the contract to satisfy the rent board and then off the books, demand the extra 100-200% markup in cash. Problem 6: Black market on monthly rents.

To make the rental situation in Stockholm even more insane, you can go to the rent board after you move out and sue the people you were renting from to get back the money that you were overcharged. Most people don’t do this because everyone realizes that’s just how it’s got to be.

Also, people started realizing the value of these leases and illegally selling them. “Selling” meaning asking for bribes (minimum 20,000USD) to turn the first hand contract over to a new person permanently. Problem 7: Bribery is normal.

The government cannot disassemble queue system and the communists-extreme socialists support the system. The companies that run the first hand queues around the country would balk at refunding everyone in the queue (costs about $50 per year to be in the queue). Instead, the individual renters looking for a place to live, are screwed. Problem 8: normal renters, mainly foreigner workers, newcomers, any regular person are entirely fucked.

We are able to stay for our year of the sublease. Fortunately the primary lease holder is honest and is doing everything very above board (we only pay about $730 for rent, illegal rate would probably be more like $1,150). The apartment that I am hoping (but not hopeful) that we get is a newly constructed apartment closer to the city. New apartment rents are quite expensive — which discourages people who’ve been in the queue for longer. It would be about $1200, but it would be ours and we could always try to trade leases.

This is the misery of trying to find a place in Stockholm!
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Thank you AB for this caustic yet true summary of renting in Sweden.

26 thoughts on “The Misery of Finding an Apartment in Stockholm”

  1. Good lord! That sounds awful. Yes it’s expensive to live in the US but I’d rather pay more in rent than have to jump through those kinds of hoops just to get an apartment. Besides with the bribery, black market, queue system and tier structure it sounds as if it’s no better really. Just more complicated. Glad to be a home owner now, except when the property taxes are due and there’s home maintanence to be done. A friend of mine in Stockholm has never mentioned any of this to me- I can’t wait to ask them about their apartment now!!

  2. I know, it is a nightmare. And then you end up moving from second hand apartment to secondhand apartment. Trying to find a good trade. Trying not to destroy furniture that isn’t yours. Trying to evade other tenants who might report you and throw you out.

    We still haven’t gotten the holy grail, but will keep trying!

  3. You can no longer get in line before you are 18 years old though, at least in Stockholms Stads Bostadsförmedling. I don’t know though if this was changed in the law or not.

  4. @Mattias- That’s good news! I guess this was a recent change since the friends I have have been in the queue since they were 0-8 years old. The unfortunate part is that there are still thousands on the queue who got in as babies (but you cannot kick them out either).

    @Ana – It is very frustrating here. Renting here reminds me a lot of renting in NYC even though Stockholm is 1/12th the size of NYC.

  5. I had a lot of trouble finding a place to stay when I came to Sweden to study at Lunds University, Really I was used to being able to find a place fairly fast in Johannesburg. Not as nice a place that I had in Sweden but still. It’s not even just foreign born who has trouble finding a place, This year lots of Swedish students had to camp in tents because they could not find a place to stay.

    I’m happy I don’t have to deal with this stuff anymore. My Swedish hubby and I bought a house a year ago :)

  6. Plus i just like to say that i do enjoy your blog and i been reading it for quite some time now :)

  7. For once I agree with you, the apartment situation is horrible in Stockholm, I’ve been standing in the SKB-queue for 20 years and the Bostadsförmedling queue for like 4 years, and I can get like a shitty apartment out in Husby. No thanks. They should really re-do the entire system cus this is apparently not working. And I think it’s mainly because they stopped building any apartments here in Stockholm for like 10 years in the mid 90’s for some reason, so now they are far behind.

    Unfortunately the only solution for me is probably to buy an apartment, and as a student, I really don’t have that kind of money. You almost have to pay 1,5-2mill kr per room, and that’s a lot of money :<

  8. I wonder if it’s a deliberate strategy to not build so that Stockholm will not grow as much. Manhattan nowadays is a breeze compared to Stockholm thanks to the economic crisis. Rents in several parts of Manhattan went down by around 30% between 2007 and 2010.

    I think the system in Sweden will start to change gradually. If pure market rents were introduced, prices would increase probably by up to tenfold in certain areas.I don’t think any politician would be able to suggest that.

  9. The population of “Stockholm City” – The Stockholm where most “Stockholmers” want to live was 808 000 in 1960. By 1980 a 20% of the population had gotten evicted – their homes torn down – and been given apartments in the much more suitable “förorts” instead. (people shouldn’t live in dirty inner cities) They’ve been queuing to get back into the actual city ever since.

    Actually…I don’t know how large a chunk of the population of Stockholm got evicted in total. Most of ’em I’d say. In 1965, the government of Sweden launched a building program in Sweden called the “Million Program”. 350 000 homes were torn down and a little over a million new homes were built to replace them. Not necessarily in the same place. Or where people actually wanted to live. At the end of it, I believe there was something like 100 000 vacant apartments in Sweden…and a long long queue. The transformation started before that, but it reached it’s greatest speed during those ten years. If you could see pictures of how the town or city in Sweden where you live (if you do) looked circa 1950, you’d be amazed. If you could see pictures how how those towns and cities looked DURING the “tearing down rage” (rivningsraseriet), you’d be saddened. I know I am, at least.

    This is how my hometowns “old town” looks like:

    http://www.platen.se/img/gamlastan1112.jpg

    Close-up:

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/44/Motala_gamla_stan.JPG

    This is how it looked like before the Tearing down Rage had started:

    http://www.jfg.se/Vykort_Motala_2009/slides/flygfoto_02.html

    and..

    http://www.jfg.se/Vykort_Motala_2009/slides/Flygfoto-07.html

    Over a period of about 10 years, 90-95% of the buildings in the two pictures above were torn down. Those and many many many more buildings in my home town. The grander the building, the more reason to tear it down.It was the same all over Sweden. I was not yet born in those days, but it still angers me. “Folkhem” is not a positive word in my vocabulary.

    A poem from 1945 by Gunnar Ekelöf discribes it pretty well I think. Though you’d need to know Swedish to understand it.

    “Till de folkhemske
    Av hänsyn till de estetiska kraven
    (som också är ändamålsenlighetens)
    har arkitekterna gjort molnen fyrkantiga.
    Över de öde skogarna sträcker sig alltså förstaden.
    Högt över åsarna radar sig molnkuberna
    speglande djupt i den intet ont anande skogssjön
    mäktiga filer av tomhetsfönster
    understrukna av solnedgångens vackert röda neon.

    Där leker i pietetsfullt skonade cumulushögar hygieniska
    barn (aldrig berörda av människohänder)
    medan i rotationsparasoller omkring dem
    strängt avlönade kommunalbarnjungfrur svävar.
    Varje dag blir det kväll och könlösa vitaminarbetare
    kommer i årsklasser avtalsvis svärmande hem
    till sitt privatliv, Svea, hormonernas drottning
    noga vaktad av förtroendeingivande utkastare.

    Och det blir natt och tyst. Bara sophelikoptern
    surrar i sakta mak från port till port
    förd av en framtida utstött, en anarkist och poet
    livsdömd att bortkasta allt fantasisnusk.
    Den liknar på avstånd en jättelik svärmarfjäril
    brummande framför morgonens klase av skär kaprifol
    högt, o högt över härliga frisksportarskogar
    där aldrig mer någon luffare någonsin luffar.

  10. Wow. What a mess. It’s really too bad as I’m sure there are lots of people who would like to stay in Stockholm but cannot due to this rental issue. For a long time, rental vacancies were at less then 1% here in Vancouver. It was also a nightmare as up to 40 people might show up to look at one apartment. It’s much better now – on the other hand prices are still very high.

    Just curious, is this only in Stockholm a problem or other smaller towns and cities as well?

  11. Well I don’t think it’s the same in the smaller cities. However, I know that in student towns the rents can be insane as well. My sister wanted to study in Uppsala (a town just north of Stockholm with a big uni) and people were willing to pay up to 7000kr just to be a roomer there. I mean, then you gotta have parents to pay for that.

    However, the situation is quite different in smaller towns I think since people are in general moving from smaller towns to bigger cities. The countryside is being depopulated and the cities overcrowded.

  12. You’re forgetting the solution (and the reason):

    Get in the queue as soon as you start thinking about moving somewhere! And then you will get a perfectly fine apartment without much trouble.

    And if it’s so disturbing finding somewhere to live in Sotckholm, just move to a smaller city. Or, move back to where you came from and stop bitching about a perfectly fine system.

    (And no, I do not mean that the Black Market system is fine but having a queue for apartments is the best idea ever.)

  13. @Nkosazana – I heard a similar thing with students at Stockholm University a few years. Congrats on buying a house and leaving this system!

    @Jacob – Thanks for sharing those photos. It’s amazing and shocking to see how industrial and impersonal these new buildings are. I have read about the million house program in the 1960s, and overall I understood it as a failure since houses/apartments were built far out in the förut with no amenities and social life there. Is that true for the most part?

    @Erik – Thanks, glad we see eye to eye for once. :) I agree that now with the mortgage down payment of 15%, it will be increasingly difficult to put down to buy. I wonder if it will spur another price increase or just massive irritation.

    @Lisa – So people who move to Sweden shouldn’t have a right to get an apartment? Or should they have planned for years? Or someone who gets a job in another city? Or a student going to school for several years somewhere else? Should they have planned for months, years, decades?

    I guess if I can’t find an apartment in Stockholm then I should to move a city where I can an apartment but probably not a job?

    Please explain why the queue system is the “best idea ever.” The black market is a result of the queue system, and you admitted that the black market is not fine so these statements don’t match up.

  14. Scary… I am moving to Stockholm in March, and staying in my company’s guest house until May, and have to find an apartment by June. Could you please tell me how to get into the queue? Can I do it before I get my swedish personal number? I am interested in buying, but I want to live there at least a year to access the market and also decide if I really want to settle here.

  15. @beat What you should do if possible is get your company to back you and then go to one of the relocation agencies that work for companies in Stockholm. If you want to cut through all this, the company takes the lease for you and then pays basically a market rate for the apartment.

  16. I’ve also tried to find a decent apartment for ages. (I just moved here from Holland.) Ofcourse I’d like to live with my boyfriend, but he also only has a 20 m2 apartment in Bjorknas. Not that appealing. He’s been in de queue for a few years now, with no luck. A friend has a beautiful apartment in Soder, but has been in the queue since she was 0. (she’s 24 now) For the past year I’ve been browsing websites and googling my behind off, but still no luck. I guess we also have to consider buying, if we want to find a nice two-roomer. Because even if you’re willing to pay 1000kr a month, you don’t get anywhere anymore nowadays.

  17. …and it’s super hard even to get a 2nd hand lease because whenever someone puts out an ad, hundreds of people call. So why should the owner pick you out of those 100+ people? Of course, the odds are super low. So yeah, the housing market is insane. No question about it.

  18. Interesting article. Where can I look, if I’m interested in moving to Sweden, about where are the ‘good’ places to live? I live in Alberta where you can’t rent a decent two bedroom for less than $2000 CND (or $2080 USD per month). So even the black market rates you are mentioning don’t really seem that bad to me. I’m skeptical if Sweden really is as ‘expensive’ as I keep hearing – at least compared to home – Alberta Canada. It is darn expensive here.
    I would like to live somewhere nice in Sweden where I could absorb the Swedish culture. I wouldn’t be bringing my car over – I would need to live somewhere that has access to the amenities you speak of.
    Do you know of a website that would tell a person the more desirable areas – or are they totally out of the question for non-Swedes not in que since birth?
    What about other cities other than Stockholm? Do they offer more hope?

  19. What a great blog/website! Why have I only just found this after 2 years here? I am now in the position of having to find a flat in 2 weeks. I have signed up to Bostad Direkt (read your post on that, they were not happy about the share idea hey?!) I will let you know how it goes, I’m looking for an apartment within range of the city (I’ve always lived central with my partner, but now that’s changing). And any advice I can offer I will let you know. The first thing being the lack of options once you pay your 695sek. Disappointing selection. Having lived in London for a decade, and moving several times, I’m amazed at the system here, and how certain things are so monopolized. I wonder if I could start a rental agency…. mmmm….

    Day 1: Found an ideal place, sent email to owner, awaiting reply…

  20. Hi!

    Just found your blog and it´s really great! I will recommend it to our guests!
    Finding an apartment in the center of Stockholm for longer term is extremely difficult. We usually recommend blocket.se or bostad direkt but like someone above wrote the ads receive hundreds of emails from tenants.
    Either way it´s always easier and safer to be on location in order to find something. So if any of you need a temporary apartment for a few weeks until finding a more suitable apartment you are welcome to contact us! We have short term apartments for rent in central Stockholm and we sometimes have monthly rentals for a good deal.

    Have a nice day!
    /Karolina, City Living Apt

  21. @Denise-Kim: Good luck finding ANYWHERE to live if you only want to pay 1000 SEK/month. You make it sound like it’s a lot of money to pay for rent.

    Anyway, I kind of agree and disagree with the post. I grew up in a suburb to Stockholm, and unfortunately, my parents were not one of those who placed their children in the queue early enough. The housing situation was ridiculous and the only time I ever lived in central Stockholm, was when my ex and I rented his Mum’s apartment.
    Now that I’m older, I realize that I don’t HAVE to live in central Stockholm. Seriously, people commute to work and school every day, and I don’t see why you have to be stuck up about commuting. Many of the municipals have their own queues, and I know for a fact that you can get a good and fair priced apartment in Sollentuna kommun after about 6 months in their apartment queue.

    Besides, at least you can get your OWN apartment in Sweden without going broke in the process. Unlike countries like the UK….

  22. Finding a place in the city is a tiresome task. You either have to be very luck, have good connections or be prepared to pay for an ridiculously overpriced apartment. Sure, you can rent a room or rent secondhand but living out of a suitcase and having to move around gets annoying in the end.

    My suggestion would be to look just outside the city, along the subway lines. Although they’re not giving the apartments away, it’s still a bit easier to find a place. The area around Johanneshov-Kärrtorp is nice and only a 10-15 minute ride into the city.

  23. I would gladly pay your black market rates or your normal rates plus that 10-15 thousand euros lump sum for a contract than having to pay 640 Australian dollars per week for a not so big 50 years old, 2 bedroom apartment in Sydney. And is not even in the center of the town. I have to drive 20 min to get there. Well is everywhere the same in this God forsaken country called Australia.

  24. But that´s not true – that you can place you children in the official Stockholm apt. queue as toddlers. You have to be 18 years old, and it’s been like that at least from the 1980’s when I used to queue and it’s the rule also today.

    But in other queues you can, like HSB, SKB and cooperations like that.

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