The main sources are the Swiss Civil Code and the Swiss Code of Obligations.
As real estate in Switzerland is probably coming close to the end of its current cycle, the price level is rather high, so it is primarily institutional investors with a need to invest allocated funds who are active as buyers, whereas foreign investors and ultra high net worth individuals are rather reluctant to invest at this stage. Moreover, some of the real estate actors try to increase their profit with development projects. The transaction level was rather high over the past year, but no particular transaction could be highlighted as the most significant deal.
In Switzerland, the first transactions based on disruptive technologies have already been concluded. This trend is expected to continue, but this type of transaction is not expected to gain a significant market share in the next 12 months.
There are currently no planned reforms that might have a significant impact on real estate in Switzerland.
The categories of property rights that can be acquired are freehold, leasehold, co-ownership and storey-ownership rights.
Transfer of title is primarily regulated by the Swiss Civil Code and the Federal ordinance of land registry. The transfer of residential real estate to any foreign person is generally restricted, according to the Federal Law on the Acquisition of Real Estate by Persons Abroad (the so-called Lex Koller). Moreover, tax issues have to be considered, although these differ from canton to canton.
The transfer of real estate is registered at the competent land registry. Any buyer of real estate acting in good faith is protected by the information contained in the land registry, so no title insurance is required in Switzerland.
As registration is conclusive, legal due diligence involves analysing the land register extract and its supporting documents, which shows all relevant property information. In addition, any existing leases must be examined, since these are transferred to the buyer as the new landlord upon the purchase of the property. Another aspect of due diligence relates to environmental law. Furthermore, in addition to legal due diligence, prudent buyers also perform tax, technical and financial due diligence. If a foreign person buys property that includes real estate that is not commercial property or provides for relevant land reserves, it must be verified that there is no infringement of the Lex Koller. This type of purchase can be deemed void, since Lex Koller restricts foreign persons from buying residential and other non-commercial real estate in Switzerland. Financing transactions should be examined on a case-by-case basis.
The warranties typically given by a seller within a share deal include corporate warranties relating to the correct organisation and valid existence of the company, accurate correct presentation of the financial statements and title to shares. Other important warranties relate to the accuracy of rent rolls, and the due diligence information being accurate, complete, and up to date. Moreover, specific tax representations are usually contained in the purchase agreement. In both asset and share deals, the seller does not usually provide any warranty as to the substance of the building. The seller's other representations are often qualified by the seller's knowledge.
In share deals, most of the seller's warranties are often capped at a certain amount – eg, 10% of the asset's price. However, such cap normally does not apply to the seller's title in the shares. In case of any misrepresentation, the seller is liable to compensate the buyer for any damage incurred. In share deals, part of the purchase price is often held in escrow for a limited period of time in order to protect the buyer.
Contract law, property law, building law, lease law and environmental law are the most important areas of law for an investor to consider when purchasing real estate.
Basically, the buyer of a real estate asset is responsible for soil pollution or environmental contamination of a property even if they did not cause the pollution or contamination, since the legal owner of the property is partly liable for contamination of the real estate, even if contamination took place pre-ownership. Moreover, a landlord can also be held responsible for pollution caused by its tenant.
Usually, based on the applicable building law, the buyer has some certainty regarding the permitted uses of a property. Moreover, in case of any uncertainty, the issue can be discussed with the competent authority, which can also impose specific rules for a property or area.
Governmental taking of land, condemnation, expropriation and compulsory purchase are possible. The proceedings vary, depending on whether the expropriation is based on federal or cantonal law. However, the landlord has constitutional rights under all relevant proceedings, and is usually fully compensated.
In most cantons, cantonal and/or municipal real estate transfer taxes apply to the transfer of real estate. Generally, the buyer pays the tax, but the seller is jointly and severally liable for payment. The rates range between 1% and 3.3%. It is not uncommon for the parties to contractually agree to share the transfer tax. In share deals in some cantons, there is no real estate transfer tax. Also, corporate restructurings (including of real estate companies) generally no longer trigger transfer taxes and similar charges. Further exceptions are regulated in Article 12(3) of the Federal Act on the Harmonisation of Direct Taxation at Cantonal and Communal Levels. Most cantons that impose real estate transfer tax can secure their corresponding tax receivables by a first ranking legal lien on the real estate. In addition, the transfer of real estate is subject to cantonal and/or municipal land registry and notary fees.
Foreign ownership of residential real estate and to some extent land reserves is restricted by Lex Koller. In case of an infringement, the transaction can be deemed void, which can even lead to criminal sanctions. Transactions having a similar effect to ownership should be examined on a case-by-case basis, as not only the mere ownership of residential real estate is governed by Lex Koller (such as financing, long leases, etc). Exceptions exist for holiday apartments, serviced apartments, inherited real estate, etc. In case of any doubt, rulings from the competent Lex Koller authorities are sought for confirmation and legal certainty.
While Swiss and foreign institutional investors (eg, pension funds, sovereign wealth funds and insurance companies) invest and hold significant real estate portfolios that are financed without external financing, other investors typically finance through a mix of equity and external funding sources (secured term loans, sometimes revolving loans, development financings). Traditionally, Swiss banks have had a lion's share of the domestic real estate financing market, but new refinancing methods may make it more attractive for foreign banking and non-banking lenders to re-enter the market – eg, following international investors. In particular, larger development financings and/or mezzanine type financings continue to be difficult to be placed in the Swiss domestic market only.
A typical security package would consist of a security interest in mortgage notes (Schuldbriefe), which can take the form of mortgage notes in paper form (Papierschuldbriefe) or registered mortgage notes (Registerschuldbriefe).
In addition, rent, insurance claims and other receivables are typically pledged or assigned for security purposes. Pledges over the shares of the borrower and security interest in bank accounts are customary.
No restrictions exist with respect to Swiss commercial real estate financing transactions, nor are there any regulatory restrictions on cross-border lending in general. The financing of residential real estate by foreign lenders will have to be analysed carefully under the applicable Lex Koller legislation restricting the acquisition of residential real estate in Switzerland by foreigners. However, financing structures typical in the Swiss residential mortgage market (standard security package, standard terms of the loan agreement, LTV below 80%, etc) should not usually raise concerns. In case of uncertainty, Lex Koller ruling confirmations are available from competent cantonal authorities for individual cases, whereas the Swiss Federal Office of Justice, for formal reasons, no longer seems to be willing to issue general letter confirmations on covered bond programmes or the like, for example, but without changing its general view on the permissibility of such structures. It would be desirable – de lege ferenda – for the legislator to exempt such financing transactions from the applicability of the Lex Koller legislation in the first place, to further enhance legal certainty for debt capital market transactions and novel origination structures that will rather involve alternative lenders than Swiss banks.
Small registration fees apply to the registration of holders of a mortgage note in the creditor register (Gläubigerregister) of the competent land registry. However, such registration is not a perfection requirement for the mortgage security, but rather serves administrative purposes.
There are special withholding taxes on interest payments at both federal and cantonal levels, to the extent foreign lenders are involved. A refund of the Swiss source tax (or reduction at source) will be subject to applicable double taxation treaty protection. General federal withholding tax on interest payments may also have to be looked at, depending on the exact funding structure (banks, non-banks, double taxation treaties, etc). Depending on the location of the property, transfer taxes might apply to the direct and indirect transfer of a Swiss property. Real estate capital gains are either taxed by a special real estate capital gain taxes (RCGT) or by ordinary income taxes (this varies from canton to canton). Ordinary notarial and land registry fees will apply. Finally, it is always recommended to keep an eye on Swiss VAT aspects as well (with respect to transfers of Swiss real estate but also with respect to deemed servicing fees, etc).
Under Swiss corporate and tax laws, financial assistance and corporate benefit rules will apply to any upstream or cross-stream security, guarantee or joint liability. The rules are rather detailed and complex but, in a nutshell, the value of any such “impaired” security will be limited to freely distributable reserves (that could be paid out as a dividend) of the Swiss company in question, subject to general Swiss federal withholding tax of 35%, if applicable.
The Swiss enforcement process is a court-guided process, the timing of which will very much depend on the behaviour of the borrower in question. However, in larger transactions private sale mechanisms are often agreed contractually to avoid a lengthy process and a public auction with associated higher costs.
The subordination of existing debt to newly created debt is generally possible and frequently done, even though there are some residual uncertainties around the enforceability of such arrangements in the insolvency of the borrower. However, the general view of legal scholars is that Swiss insolvency administrators will be bound by such contractual arrangements as well.
Generally, lenders who merely financed a property will not become liable under environmental laws but the borrower may become liable, which may have an indirect effect on the financing and potential enforcement scenarios.
If a borrower becomes insolvent, security granted by a Swiss borrower will not become void automatically. It should be noted, however, that Swiss law knows the concept of avoidance actions, providing for hardening periods of one to five years. Upstream and cross-stream securities may also be limited in value. Enforcement actions may become the subject of official proceedings run by the court or insolvency administrator.
The Swiss National Bank (SNB), in cooperation with SIX Swiss Exchange, has developed CHF reference rates for the financial markets that are based on CHF repo interbank market data provided by SIX Repo Ltd. The Swiss franc yield curve is to be based on the Swiss Average Rate Overnight (SARON) in future. The Swiss reference rates comprise the Swiss Average Rates (SAR) and the Swiss Current Rates (SCR), covering a term spectrum ranging from overnight (ON) to 12 months (12M). SIX Swiss Exchange is the Swiss reference rates administrator and is thus responsible for their daily calculation and publication.
In Switzerland, regulatory responsibilities are shared among various authorities at federal, cantonal and municipal level. Pursuant to art. 75 Swiss Constitution, the Confederation shall lay down principles on spatial planning, which are binding on the cantons. Except for some specific regulations at federal level, zoning and building regulations are enacted by the cantons and implemented by the municipal building authorities. Accordingly, there are 26 different cantonal zoning and building regimes. Any construction project and any change to an existing building or construction is subject to a building permit from the competent (typically local) authority.
Design, appearance and construction method requirements vary by zones. Typically, specific dimension and distance regulations apply. Buildings and land under cultural heritage protection or nature conservation areas are subject to particularly strict regulations.
Building permits must usually be obtained from the municipal authority where the project is located. The local authority co-ordinates with the cantonal authorities and further bodies involved in the granting of the building permit. Buildings located in non-construction zones require a cantonal building permit.
The following legislation applies:
Various other federal and cantonal laws also apply, such as the Environmental Protection Act (Umweltschutzgesetz), the Noise Control Act (Lärmschutzverordnung), the Clean Air Act (Luftreinhalteverordnung), the Water Protection Law (Gewässerschutzgesetz), the Energy Law (Energiegesetz), etc.
The building permit application must be filed with the competent authority (typically the municipal authority), which will publish it if all formal requirements are met. The building permit must be granted if the project complies with all applicable regulations.
Third parties that are affected by the project (eg, neighbours) and organisations entitled to appeal may object.
Applicants and third parties that have objected to the building permit have the right to appeal to the superior administrative authority against the relevant authority’s decision. The decision of the superior administrative authority may be appealed to the Administrative Court.
Formal agreements with the authorities are not permitted, with the exception of certain aspects of the project (eg, infrastructural requirements). However, informal, non-binding negotiations with the authorities often take place before the building permit application is filed.
The competent authority must monitor the realisation of the project, and the completed project is subject to formal acceptance proceedings. Violations of the permit are subject to sanctions, and the removal of illegal structures may be ordered.
Depending on the corporate structure of the buyer, including the ultimate beneficial owner or sponsor, newly established Swiss or foreign special purpose vehicles (SPVs) are used by investors to hold real estate assets. Foreign SPVs are primarily domiciled in countries that have entered into double taxation treaties with Switzerland, to avoid withholding tax and ease an exit by share deals. Foreign SPVs domiciled in offshore jurisdictions are also used. Real estate investment funds also commonly invest in Swiss real estate.
A company with limited liability may be established by natural persons or legal entities. This requires a declaration in front of a public notary that the founder(s) is (are) forming such company, laying down the articles of association therein and appointing the governing bodies. The company is entered in the commercial register of the place in which it has its seat, and acquires legal personality once it has been registered in the Commercial Registry.
The most commonly used investment vehicle, the company limited by shares, must have a minimum share capital of CHF100,000, of which at least CHF50,000 must be paid in. Its little sister, the so-called partnership limited by shares, must have a minimum share capital of CHF20,000. For investment funds vehicles, the capital requirements are generally higher.
The governance requirements differ between investment vehicles that require approval from Switzerland’s Financial Market Supervisory Authority F(INMA) and investment vehicles that do not require any public approval. For the latter, general corporate governance rules apply. Authorisation for investment vehicles requiring FINMA approval are granted if the following requirements are met, amongst others:
This varies strongly depending on whether it is a regulated or non-regulated investment vehicle, and depending on the real estate assets and structure of the vehicle.
Basically, Swiss (private) law provides for two types of purely contractual arrangements (as opposed to rights in rem such as ownership and ground lease): the lease and the usufructuary lease. Public bodies may also grant public works constructions for certain infrastructure projects.
There are no different types of commercial leases.
Swiss tenancy law contains various mandatory provisions (typically in favour of the tenants).
Excessive rents are prohibited, and tenants have the right to challenge them in court as being abusive.
Typically, the lease term is not below five years (due to the requirement of a minimum term of five years for the rent to be subject to indexation). Frequently, the parties agree on the tenant's options to extend the lease. Lease terms may also be concluded for an indefinite period.
With the exception of minor repair works, all maintenance and repair costs must be borne by the landlord. Double-net and triple-net structures are valid, subject to certain conditions (eg, the tenant must confirm that the transfer of maintenance and repair obligations to them has been sufficiently reflected in the calculation of the rent).
Typically, rent is paid in advance, either monthly or quarterly.
The parties may agree on certain adaptations, subject to changes of the interest rate level and, alternatively for leases with a minimum term of five years, of the Swiss Consumer Price Index (so-called "indexed rent").
The parties may also agree on staggered rents (although not in combination with indexed rents for the same period) and special types, such as turnover rents.
If the landlord makes value-adding investments in the leased premises, it has the right to unilaterally increase the rent, subject to certain statutory regulations.
Typically, Swiss tenancy law provides the framework for the calculation of any rent increases.
Basically, pursuant to Art. 21 para. 2 no. 21 of the Swiss VAT Law, real estate rent is not subject to VAT (with certain exceptions). However, for commercial leases, the landlord may opt for the VAT taxation of the rent.
Typically, the lease agreement includes the obligation of the tenant to provide security for the payment of the rent before the handover of the leased premises (rent deposit, bank guarantee). If the tenant carries out the fit-out, it must obviously bear such costs.
Maintenance and repair costs for a building and its surroundings (landscaping) are included in the ancillary costs to be paid by the tenant. The costs related to the common areas are allocated to each tenant separately (typically based on the share of its leased premises).
Costs and charges arising solely from the business operations of the tenant are typically borne by the tenant, even if invoiced to the landlord. The costs related to the common services and infrastructure are allocated to each tenant separately (typically based on the share of its leased premises).
The owner must insure a building and pay such costs. Insurance costs must not be included in the ancillary costs.
Basically, the parties are free to agree on limitations in relation to the use of leased premises; they can even agree on an obligation to use – eg, for tenants in shopping facilities.
In addition, a sublease by the tenant is subject to the landlord's approval, but such approval may only be withheld if the tenant refuses to disclose the terms of the sublease, if the terms of the sublease are abusive, or if the sublease has major disadvantages for the landlord.
If a tenant wants to alter or improve the rented property, the landlord’s written permission is required. The landlord’s consent may be subject to the obligation of the tenant to remove its alterations at the end of the lease and to waive any rights to be compensated for the added value of such works.
Basically, Swiss tenancy law differentiates between commercial and residential leases only. Certain mandatory provisions apply only to residential leases.
In the case of a tenant’s insolvency, all rent receivables due become assets in bankruptcy. However, the lease does not end automatically: the landlord can request security for future rents. If security is not provided within a grace period, the landlord is entitled to give extraordinary notice and immediately terminate the lease contract.
The forms of security that can be provided to a landlord to protect against a failure by the tenant to meet its obligations are rent deposits, bank guarantee/surety, and the additional liability of a third party/affiliate.
Once a lease is terminated, the tenant has no right to further occupy the leased premises. However, tenants may request the extension of the lease – within 30 days of the termination by the landlord or two months before the end of the fixed lease term, where termination of the lease would cause a degree of hardship for it or its family that cannot be justified by the interests of the landlord.
Due to a tenant’s mandatory right to claim an extension of the lease, a landlord’s rights in relation to legal measures are rather limited, unless it becomes obvious that the tenant will not leave on the agreed (and ordered by Court, respectively) date. Under these circumstances, it might be possible to evict the tenant on the date of termination.
Pursuant to mandatory tenancy law, the tenant may transfer the lease or sublease all or a portion of the leased premises, subject to certain conditions. The landlord may withhold consent only for good cause (transfer of lease) and if (i) the tenant refuses to inform him of the terms of the sublease, (ii) the terms and conditions of the sublease are unfair in comparison to those of the principal lease, or (iii) the sublease gives rise to major disadvantages for the landlord.
Unless otherwise agreed, the notice period with regard to indefinite business leases is six months. Tenants are entitled to submit a request for an extension of the lease term to a judge if the termination would cause undue hardship that cannot be justified by the landlord's interests. The maximum extension for commercial leases is six years.
Default in the payment of rent entitles a landlord to terminate a lease. However, the landlord must first grant a deadline of a minimum of 30 days for payment, combined with the announcement of termination in case of further default, and may then terminate the lease with a notice period of another 30 days. The landlord may also terminate the lease if the tenant becomes insolvent (see 6.15 Effect of Tenant's Insolvency).
A tenant may terminate a lease if the landlord does not hand over the leased premises at the time agreed upon, or if, at the handover, the premises have defects that significantly impair their suitability for the intended use. During the lease, the tenant may give notice with immediate effect if the landlord is notified about such a defect and fails to remedy it within an adequate period of time.
In addition, both a landlord and a tenant may terminate a lease for valid reasons that make it impossible to continue the lease.
There are no registration requirements and/or execution formalities. However, the parties to a lease may agree to have it entered under priority notice in the land register with the effect that every future owner must allow the property to be used in accordance with the lease. Typically, the fees relating to such registration do not exceed CHF1,000.
Tenants can be forced to leave. The duration of the process to enforce this depends on court instances, but can take several months or years.
The Government or other authorities may not terminate private leases.
As consideration for the services performed by the contractor, prices are usually agreed as unit prices (Einheitspreise) or lump sums (Globalpreise), or at a flat rate (Pauschalpreise). These prices are normally considered as fixed prices.
Unit prices determine the consideration for individual services that are listed as separate items in the schedule of services. They are defined for the individual units of quantity, so that the consideration owed for a service is computed after its completion. The quantities of services performed at unit prices are determined according to the terms of the contractor agreement, in accordance with their actual measure (by measurement, weighing or counting) or with their theoretical measure based on the underlying designs.
A lump sum may be agreed for individual services, for part of the project or for the whole of the project carried out by the contractor. It shall consist of a fixed amount of money. Agreements on lump-sum payments should be made only onthe basis of complete and clear documentation (ie, detailed project specifications, designs and the like).
Flat rate prices differ from lump sum payments solely in that they are not subject to price adjustment clauses.
General and total contractor models are often used.
In the general contractor model, the owner uses an architect and engineering team for the planning. The owner either enters into a single planning contract with a consortium of planners/designers (often in the form of a simple partnership) or concludes individual contracts with each architect or engineer involved. For the execution of the construction work, the owner enters into a contract with a contractor who, in turn, uses subcontractors.
In the total contractor model, the owner contracts with a single company that assumes full responsibility for the planning and realisation of a project.
The contractor is liable for ensuring that the project is carried out free of defects, and bears such liability irrespective of the cause of the defect (eg, negligent workmanship, use of unfit materials, unauthorised deviation from designs and instructions of the construction manager), and independently of fault.
If defects occur, the owner is entitled to defect warranty rights, such as the right of remediation, deduction and/or rescission. Unless otherwise agreed, the owner is to notify defects immediately (ie, within seven days). However, the owner and contractors often agree on an extended notification period of two years.
The owner’s defect warranty rights are subject to a limitation period of five years following acceptance of the project or a certain part of a project, respectively.
Parties are allowed to agree that an owner is entitled to monetary compensation if certain milestone and completion dates are not achieved. Moreover, the parties often agree on a penalty to ensure that milestones and completion dates are complied with.
It is common for owners to seek additional forms of security, particularly guarantees or sureties of a Swiss bank or insurance company.
Contractors that have supplied labour and/or materials are permitted to a statutory lien, while designers/planners for the intellectual work (ie, plans, designs and the like) are excluded from such lien. The lien is entered into the land register only if, inter alia, the claim has been acknowledged by the owner or confirmed in a court judgment, and may not be requested if the owner provides the contractor with adequate security.
There is an official inspection of the project by the competent authority of the local community before the project can be inhabited or used for its intended purpose.
Generally, the sale of real estate properties is exempt from VAT without credit of input VAT. However, with respect to commercial real estate properties, the landlord can opt to submit the rent to VAT and the seller can opt to submit the property sold to VAT. Accordingly, VAT applies to the sale, provided the buyer is (or will become) a taxable person and is registered for Swiss VAT purposes, and that the real estate property sold is not used exclusively for private purposes. In this case, the standard rate of 7.7% applies. Please note that all tasks relating to the construction of a new building for a landlord are subject to VAT. Accordingly, input VAT charges incurred on the construction can only be recovered if the landlord is exercising its option to submit the rent and the sale of the property to VAT.
Beside VAT, local transfer taxes and notary and/or land registry fees apply. Each of the 26 cantons has specific laws and rules on these transfer taxes and fees. Depending on the location of the property transferred, these additional charges may be substantial, particularly as in some cantons notary and land registry fees are calculated based on the value of the property transferred. While a few cantons (such as the cantons of Zürich and Schwyz) have abolished the real estate transfer tax, all cantons are levying land registry fees. In cantons where the real estate transfer tax is not known or has been abolished, notary and land registry fees may be substantial and can include a tax component as well, if computed based on the value of the property transferred. While a change of control in a so-called real estate property company by the sale of a majority stake in the shares triggers the transfer tax in the cantons that have a separate real estate transfer tax, notary and land registry fees are only triggered in the event of a change of title of the underlying property (and not by a sale of a majority stake in a real estate property company). Hence, with due regard to these local taxes, it may be worthwhile to conduct a comparison between the tax consequences of an asset vs a share transaction. In a few instances, the overall charge of transfer taxes, notary and land registry fees may be lower in a share deal than in an asset deal.
The buyer is liable for the payment of real estate transfer tax in most of the cantons that have it. However, in a few cantons the seller is liable, or there is a 50:50 split between the seller and the buyer. Inf a corporate restructuring, an exemption from the transfer tax may be available and in some cantons the notary and/or land registry fees are reduced and the tax should not hinder corporate restructurings. This also applies to real estate companies or a group of real estate companies contemplating a group internal restructuring. Real estate transfer taxes and notary and land registry fees are charged without regard to whether the seller is realising a gain or a loss. In most of the cantons, payment of the tax (or even payment of notary and/or land registry fees) is secured by a first-ranking legal lien on the property sold, and often the seller and the buyer are jointly liable for payment of the tax (or even payment of notary and/or land registry fees). Therefore, well-advised parties to a property sale and banks providing mortgage-secured funding to the buyer will take care that all taxes triggered – and all notary and land registry fees incurred – are paid in advance or put on escrow by the relevant party.
The transfer tax rates in major cantons are as follows (in general, a percentage of the purchase price of the property):
Reduced tariffs apply in certain cases.
The land registry fees in major cantons are as follows (in general, a percentage of the market value of a property):
In certain cantons the fee is calculated based on an official market value estimation. Please also note that the transfer of real estate property is usually subject to a notary fee, which is added on top of the land registry fee.
For real estate capital gains taxes, see 8.4 Income Tax Withholding for Foreign Investors.
The pros and cons of an asset vs a share deal for the acquisition of a property portfolio need to be considered carefully. Beside the implications on the corporate income and/or real estate capital gains tax, transfer taxes and notary and land registry fees also need to be taken into account. The outcome of such analysis may vary depending on the location of the properties sold. Furthermore, the set-off of gains and losses, the extraction of future profits, security deposits for Swiss taxes (in particular VAT) to be made by foreign companies and approval requirements for a future exit by the competent Swiss tax authorities need to be carefully considered. As in a share deal, a debt pushdown into the target is hardly possible and, as limitations on upstream securities apply, the structure chosen needs to be discussed with the bank, and savings made with respect to notary and land registry fees may be lost due to less advantageous funding conditions by the banks or the loss of tax-efficient interest deductions and/or acquisition costs. Case-by-case analysis should be performed, and the location of the underlying properties has a crucial impact on the outcome of such analysis.
While a share deal does not trigger VAT, an asset deal might. However, if a portfolio of assets is sold, in general the notification procedure should be open and therefore there should be no cash leakage due to a time-consuming payment and refund procedure.
Some cantons and/or municipalities (eg, Geneva, but not Zürich or Zug) levy special taxes on the value of the real estate located in their territory. These have to be paid by the property owner.
Moreover, rental income is subject to federal, cantonal and municipal income tax in the canton/municipality where the property is located. While the federal corporate income tax rate is uniform in the whole country, the cantonal and municipal income tax rates may vary widely.
Generally, rental income from investments in Swiss properties earned by corporate investors is subject to Swiss federal, cantonal and municipal corporate income tax in the canton and the municipality where the property is located. The aggregate corporate income tax rate varies depending on the location of the property and may be anything between approximately 12% in the Canton of Schwyz and 24% in the Canton of Geneva. The same applies for individual investors buying Swiss properties. The personal income tax may be anything between 23% in the Canton of Schwyz and 48% in the Canton of Geneva. If the property held by an individual investor qualifies as a business asset (and not as a private asset), social security contributions may be triggered on top of this. The tax is assessed based on a tax return to be filed by the Swiss or foreign investor. No withholdings apply.
Interest accrued on debt funding is deductible, which is also true with respect to shareholder or other related party advances. However, thin capitalisation rules apply and the amount of the debt funding and the interest rate applied should remain within the periodically published safe harbour limits. Otherwise, a constructive distribution may be assumed that would not allow for an income tax-effective deduction and trigger the (dividend) withholding tax of 35%. Buildings may be depreciated over their useful lifetime, and the depreciation deductions may be deducted from taxable income. The straight line or the reducing balance depreciation method may be chosen freely.
Land cannot be depreciated, but a blended rate may be applied if land and building values are not split and do not have separate book entries. Safe harbour depreciation rates are available for the depreciation methods and the blended rate. In the event of a sale of the property, recaptured depreciation deductions are subject to corporate income tax. Accordingly, depreciation deductions taken that do not reflect real losses of value lead to a mere income tax deferral. In general and with due regard to the current negative interest rate environment, in a share deal scenario deferred income taxes are fully deducted from the purchase price as a deferred liability.
Interest paid on mortgage-secured funding advanced by a bank (or other lender) outside Switzerland to a Swiss borrower is subject to a local interest withholding, with the applicable rate depending on the location of the property securing the loan. Again, depending on the location of the property, the withholding tax may be anything between 13% and 33%. The interest withholding is not levied if the investor is a resident of a benign treaty jurisdiction where the interest clause in the treaty excludes taxation in the source country.
The holding of a property in Switzerland is also subject to Swiss wealth tax (for individual investors) or capital tax (for corporate investors), the maximum tax rates for which vary significantly between the different cantons and municipalities – from around 0.11% in the Canton of Nidwalden to 1.03% in the Canton of Geneva.
Appreciation gains realised on the disposal of properties are subject to taxation. Depending on the cantonal regime, two systems apply:
While corporate income tax is a flat tax that applies without regard as to whether the property disposed of was held for a short or long period, progressive tax rates apply under real estate capital gains tax. If the holding period was less than one year, some cantons and municipalities levy a real estate capital gains tax of 60% (on top of the federal income tax). If a long holding period applies, the real estate capital gains tax may be 20% or in some cantons even less than that. Accordingly, whether the gain realised by a corporate investor will be subject to corporate income tax or real estate capital gains tax may have quite some impact on the aftertax performance of an investment. Again, in the case of a corporate or group internal reorganisation, the tax may be deferred as it should not hinder such restructurings.
Dividends (and other distributions) paid by Swiss companies are subject to withholding tax of 35%. The withholding has to be deducted from the dividend in advance and has to be paid by the debtor of the dividend – ie, the company paying the dividend (a reporting procedure is only available in the case of a Swiss parent company or a parent company in a benign double tax treaty state). For withholding tax purposes, it is therefore advantageous if the investor (a shareholder of the SPV) is domiciled in a country that has entered into a double taxation treaty with Switzerland. Unless this is the case, it is advantageous to use a foreign SPV to avoid withholding tax.
As shown above, a corporate investor may apply income tax-effective interest and depreciation deductions. Furthermore, the costs for maintaining the property in good shape and fit for its purpose, as well as income and capital taxes accrued and provisioned, may be deducted from the income tax base. The same is true with respect to all expenses relating to the property management and letting.
Switzerland has been regarded as a stable investment environment with a steady regulatory landscape for a long time. However, in recent years, regulatory insecurities have increased due to a range of political initiatives that touch upon several areas relevant to the real estate sector. As an example, political efforts to limit the free movement of people have led to a significant decrease in immigration into Switzerland. Additionally, a tax reform intended to abolish federal tax on the imputed rental income of properties is currently under discussion.
Real estate investments
Nevertheless, in 2019, there was still high demand for property investments, not least due to prevailing low and even negative interest rates. In this environment, real estate investments in Switzerland continue to be attractive, particularly because prevailing negative interest rates put pressure on institutional investors. According to a report published by JLL Switzerland, a total transaction volume of CHF3.1 billion was registered for Swiss investment properties in 2019, 7% more than in the previous year (JLL, Report: Büromarkt Schweiz – 2020). Last year was also a good year for real estate investment funds. The investment crisis and increasing uncertainty about the local and global economy drove investors into Swiss real estate investment structures. The prices of real estate funds increased by more than 17% and the total return was 21% — the highest level in the last 20 years. As a result of these high prices, average yields last year were below 3%, one percentage point below their ten-year average, according to the Union Bank of Switzerland (UBS, Real Estate Focus 2020). In 2019, the net returns for residential properties and retail spaces remained constant compared to the previous year.
The total return on office space also remained stable compared to the previous year. According to UBS's analyses, the surge in employment in recent years is expected to stagnate in the near future. In 2019, compared to the previous year, only half as many new jobs were created in the areas of finance, information and communication, and business services. This reduced momentum is likely to continue in the current year and vacancies should rise again. Since the number of building permits stagnated last year, the available office space is expected to increase at the same pace as in previous years. As a consequence, higher rents can only be achieved in exceptional cases. In Switzerland as a whole, rental prices are even likely to fall slightly.
Commercial properties are easy to let in city centres, while properties outside the centres have higher vacancy rates. The solid growth in employment had a positive impact on the vacancy situation, which is why the vacancy rate fell in 2019 compared to the previous year. According to an analysis published by PwC, demand should decline slightly as the economy weakens. Since less construction activity is expected at the same time, the vacancy situation should remain roughly the same (PwC, Immospektive Q1/2020). As a consequence, the oversupply will start to decline, which will allow property owners to increase rents for commercial spaces. In the Zürich region, for example, according to JLL, the supply of commercial properties fell by 11.2% in 2019. Demand in these sought-after locations is now more heterogeneous. On the one hand, the formerly dominant financial sector has lost some of its strength, while on the other hand, legal and tax advisers, healthcare providers and, last but not least, IT companies have grown strongly (JLL, Report: Büromarkt Schweiz – 2020). This does not, however, change the fact that current rents for commercial properties are still rather low in Switzerland.
Since 2008 the prices of owner-occupied homes have risen disproportionately to the national consumer price index. In 2019, the prices paid for condominium properties increased by 7.9% on average across Switzerland compared to the previous year, while the increase for single-family homes was a little lower at 1.5%. Since construction activity continues to focus on rental housing and demand for owner-occupied housing has grown again due to the attractive financing environment, owner-occupied housing prices will continue to rise in the future, according to an analysis published by PwC (PwC, Immospektive Q1/2020). The UBS Swiss Real Estate Bubble Index increased slightly from last year but is still outside the risk zone (0.95 index points). In the residential rental sector, vacancies continue at a record high (1.8%), mostly due to an excess in construction of rental apartments. Compared to the previous year, rents fell by 0.5% overall in 2019 and, according to PwC, rents are expected to fall further. It is expected that only rental prices for residential properties near the city centre will increase because the quality of the micro-location in which real estate investors have no investment alternatives will lead to an overall increase in the purchase price of residential properties, despite the current negative development in rents (PwC, Immospektive Q1/2020).
Legal Implications: Transactions
General trends and developments in transaction structures
A clear trend in larger Swiss real estate transactions is increased legal and structural complexity. Several elements contribute towards this trend.
The first is the fact that in the current sellers' market, share deals are playing a more important role, as this transaction form is typically more tax-efficient for sellers than asset deals. Share deals require both parties to look at a transaction not just from a purely real estate perspective but also to bring tax and accounting expertise to the table. If structured correctly, for example, as a tax fee quasi-merger, share deals have the potential for high cost and tax savings. A recent example of a share deal that was eventually structured as a quasi-merger was the acquisition of Immobiliengesellschaft Fadmatt AG by Mobimo Holding AG in June 2018 for CHF183 million.
Another reason for the increased complexity is that sophisticated M&A market practice is increasingly penetrating real estate transactions, both for share deals and for regular asset deals. For example, detailed warranty limitation concepts with de minimis amounts, thresholds and liability caps are becoming more widely used. At the same time, buyers are pushing for extended warranty catalogues.
Complexity is further added when entire portfolios are being sold. When the seller is a Swiss legal entity, portfolio transactions are typically done by way of a so-called "asset transfer" under the Swiss Merger Act (Vermögensübertragung). This differs from a regular asset deal in that an asset transfer allows for the transfer of an entire real estate portfolio, even if located in different cantons, in a single public deed. The transfer of title is then perfected by registering the public deed in the commercial registry at the domicile of the seller. Registration in the land registry is made subsequently, with declaratory effect only. Depending on where the properties are located and where the seller is registered, substantial cost savings can be obtained compared to a regular asset deal. Examples of recent large asset transfers are the sale of a portfolio consisting of 38 Swiss real estate properties by Swiss Life AG for approximately CHF500 million in December 2018 and the sale of a portfolio of 35 Swiss real estate properties by Bâloise for approximately CHF275 million in October 2018.
Token-financed real estate transactions
A novelty in the world of real estate transactions has taken place in Zürich's real estate market: BrickMark Ltd signed an agreement to purchase a high-profile prime commercial property in Zürich's Bahnhofstrasse using BrickMark tokens. The transaction volume amounts to CHF130 million and is purportedly the largest token-based real estate transaction so far in the world. Initially, BrickMark will acquire 80% of the shares of an SPV holding the property with the option to acquire the remaining 20% of the shares within nine months. With this transaction, BrickMark is breaking new ground for the real estate industry. The ultimate aim is the development of an international real estate portfolio combining real estate assets with the benefits of blockchain. With the technological possibilities of smart contracts in blockchain and tokenisation, a more efficient and more functional form of capital is intended to be designed for the needs of today's global investors. Tokenisation could enhance the liquidity of real estate assets by enabling fractional ownership and by simplifying, decentralising and automating real estate transactions. Real estate tokenisation is set to become a significant trend of this decade and announcements about large token-based real estate transactions will likely become a normality.
Climate change. This often-discussed concept also has an impact on real estate business. Sustainability of real estate will be a key factor for the valuation of investments in the future. The demand for "green" houses will increase rapidly. The concept of sustainability must be understood in a broader sense, which includes creating places where people enjoy living and working. Therefore, new designs will be developed with "green" spaces, good air quality and spaces for social gatherings. At the same time, the cost of ecological technologies such as solar panels and efficient heating systems continues to fall. The trend also encompasses waste reduction concepts and the extended use of natural light. The market is willing to pay a premium for such ecological expansions. On the other hand, prime offices and residential buildings with poor sustainability performance in advanced economies will suffer a so-called "brown discount", because the day will come when no one will want to own these "brown" buildings, stocks and infrastructure.
These ever-increasing sustainability requirements present opportunities and challenges. While people are willing to pay a premium price for sustainable assets, the renovation of existing buildings can be expensive. However, the costs, if climate change is not considered at all, will be higher. Therefore, sustainability should always be taken into account in future real estate projects.
Space for agility: new trend towards co-working
Co-working spaces are being leveraged by every level of the workforce to keep up with the volatile and ever-changing business landscape. From gig workers and freelancers to project teams, modern workforce needs are being met through the short-term nature, reduced costs, and diverse and agile environments that innovative workplaces offer. But before employers dive headfirst into co-working arrangements, there are several risk factors which need to be considered.
Shared working spaces encourage interaction and informality, but when different businesses find themselves working shoulder to shoulder, the confidentiality of all matters must be respected. Businesses using co-working spaces need to be aware of the reputational, financial and legal risks posed by such communal environments and ensure their workers are aware of these risks. Therefore, confidentiality obligations have to be explicit in employee and contractor/consultant contracts. Furthermore, company policies should address the use of personal devices, personal email accounts and other file share programs/folders, with processes put in place to ensure compliance with protocols and policies. Monitoring of employees could also be a solution, but privacy laws need to be respected.
Businesses also need to be mindful of the risk of contingent workers or freelancers being misclassified as employees. Combining the internal and external workforce on projects that use agile working methods such as Scrum, or allowing them to work under the same arrangements within a co-working space, can make it difficult to distinguish between the different categories of staff engaged by the business. This leads to the risk of misclassification challenges. These can be addressed by being conscious of the work being done by freelancers and contingent workers. A clear separation of tasks can help to mitigate the risk of misclassification and also enhance cohesion and culture among internal, employed staff. Business operators should also organise workspaces that make a clear distinction between different categories of staff within the workforce and only a selective collaboration where necessary.
As shared workspaces are occupied by a variety of different businesses, bound by different workplace policies, this presents a challenge for both employers trying to manage expectations and for employees who need to understand their employer's requirements. Monitoring and addressing issues relating to, and liability arising from, performance, attendance, workplace aggression, bullying or harassment can become complex with a remote workforce. To address these challenges, businesses need to implement additional policies relating to behaviour and conduct within the shared workspace, which will be necessary due to the greater security risks in a shared workspace.
Co-working spaces are likely to continue to gain in popularity as the future generation of talent seeks increased flexibility and innovation from employers. To make the best out of co-working, businesses must address the employment and HR risk to their talent, brand and values before jumping into these arrangements, taking steps to balance the legal risks, while enjoying the benefits of these workplaces.
Legal Implications: Tax
On 19 May 2019, Swiss voters approved a tax reform, the so-called Steuerreform und AHV-Finanzierung (STAF). The planned measures are intended to strengthen Switzerland as a business location, particularly in the areas of innovation and value creation, and also in securing employment. The reason for the reform was to align Swiss tax practices and laws with internationally required taxation standards. The following measures particularly affect the real estate sector and should be taken into account by real estate investors and managers.
The tax reform abolishes the cantonal tax privilege for holding companies. This means that from 1 January 2020, the profits of holding companies will also be taxed at cantonal and communal level. The participation exemption, which may already be made at federal level, may now also be applied at cantonal and communal level. The abolition of the privileges for holding companies will also eliminate the reduced capital tax rates. For this reason, the Swiss confederation has left it to the cantons to introduce a reduction in capital tax. Such a tax reduction is to apply to equity capital attributable to participations, patents and comparable rights as well as intercompany loans. In addition, a tax deduction may be granted for research and development expenses and for depreciation in connection with revealing hidden reserves under tax law. To compensate for the abolition of tax privileges for holding companies, the cantons were also given the opportunity to reduce the ordinary profit tax rates. Some cantons have already adopted or at least announced the reduction of the applicable ordinary tax rate planned with the implementation of the STAF, including the Canton of Zürich.
For real estate investors and managers, the tax reform results in the following new situations:
Under international accounting standards, the planned cantonal profit tax reductions may lead to extraordinary profits due to the release of deferred tax liabilities. In addition, the reductions in profit tax rates will in the future lead to lower taxation of profits from rental income and, in part, also from the sale of real estate (if properties are sold by legal entities). Many companies are currently evaluating the tax burden after the implementation of the STAF, including a possible relocation of their registered office to a low-tax canton such as Zug or Lucerne. This could then lead to indirect effects on real estate investments, as the demand for office space in the affected cantons may increase or decrease. Overall, the various measures of the STAF will have a limited effect on real estate investors. The most important positive effect should certainly be the general reduction of taxes on profits. The indirect effects should also obviously be taken into account. By implementing the STAF, the legal uncertainty which had a negative impact on the general investment climate has now been removed. However, international developments, especially the plans of the OECD, should be kept under constant review, as they have an influence on the choice of location of internationally operating companies and lead to relocations away from Switzerland, with a consequent increase in office vacancies.
Elimination of imputed rental income
Imputed rental income has been controversial for a long time. The federal council, parliament and popular initiatives have already called for imputed rental income to be abolished. However, no proposal has been able to gain a majority.
Imputed rental income is theoretical income in kind derived from the use of one's own home and is therefore taxed. In most cantons, imputed rental income is based on the rent that could be earned if the property were rented. Mortgage interest and maintenance costs can be deducted from imputed rental income. Maintenance costs also include all value-preserving investments in the property and the cost of energy-saving measures.
In August 2018, the legislator made a new attempt to abolish imputed rental income. Various proposals were discussed, including how to compensate for the loss of tax revenue. It was suggested that imputed rental income should be abolished for a main residence, but not for second homes. On the other hand, it is argued that the deduction of maintenance costs for owner-occupied homes that can currently be subtracted from imputed rental income should be abolished with the abolition of imputed rental income. However, debt interest could continue to be deductible, but to a lesser extent than it is presently.
However, parliament has now recognised that these proposals will also meet with considerable resistance. It is therefore still unclear whether maintenance costs and debt interest will still be deductible when imputed rental income ceases to exist. Another uncertainty is that parliament wants to exclude holiday homes and other secondary properties from the change of system. This opens up new delimitation problems as well as optimisation potential for owners who have several properties for their own use.
Legal Implications: Regulatory
On 1 January 2020, the new financial services act (FIDLEG) and the financial institutions act (FINIG) came into force. The general objective of the new laws is to create uniform competitive conditions for financial intermediaries and to improve customer protection. The FIDLEG contains rules of conduct that financial service providers must comply with regarding their customers, and requires that there is an easily understandable basic information sheet for financial instruments. The FINIG standardises the licensing rules for financial service providers. There was a need for action in this sector because customers often had no information about financial service providers. In addition, there was no obligation for service providers to enquire about the knowledge and experience of an investor.
The new law is applicable to financial service providers and client advisers who provide financial services. Financial services include, but are not limited to, the purchase or sale of financial instruments, the management of financial instruments (asset management), and the provision of personal recommendations relating to transactions in financial instruments (investment advice).
These requirements may also apply to real estate managers and brokers. For example, a real estate investor may be advising in a share deal of a real estate corporation. Such transaction would qualify as a financial service and, therefore, the real estate manager would have to meet the new requirements of the FIDLEG and comply with the obligations of conduct and organisation. Furthermore, FIDLEG requires the real estate manager to be entered in the register of advisers and to register with an ombudsman's office. However, the requirements of the FIDLEG do not apply to a simple asset deal, as in the purchase or sale of real estate, because this does not qualify as a financial instrument. Therefore, real estate managers should check their portfolio thoroughly and clarify whether they provide services that fall under the application of the FIDLEG/FINIG and then take the necessary measures.
Other regulatory trends and developments
Switzerland has long been politically very stable with respect to real estate-related laws. In recent times, however, a number of legislative proposals and initiatives have been lodged that have an effect on real estate investments.
For example, in zoning law there is currently a process underway to introduce an extra tax on the value increase resulting from "up-zonings". Swiss federal law only requires the introduction of a tax on the value increase created by up-zoning a real estate property from an agricultural zone into a building zone. Many cantons, however, are contemplating also applying this tax for up-zoning within the building zone (eg, from a zone allowing one-storey buildings to a zone allowing three-storey buildings). This development is of particular importance to real estate development companies, since they traditionally buy underdeveloped land with a view to up-zoning and developing it.
Another important regulatory development is the limitation of second homes (eg, holiday homes). In essence, this new body of law prohibits building permits for the creation of second homes in communities with a second home ratio of more than 20%, which basically covers the entire mountain area of Switzerland. An exception to this prohibition is available if the new second home is operated for tourism purposes. To fall under this category, the second home would have to be permanently offered on the market at current conditions for short-term usage. Second homes may also be constructed in connection with hotel projects provided that, among other things, the usable floor space of the second home does not exceed 20% of the overall usable floor space of the hotel project. Loss-making hotels that have been running for at least 25 years may also be converted into second homes. Other exceptions include second homes in protected buildings. Homes that were rightfully constructed or bindingly approved before 12 March 2012 are exempt from the limitations regarding second homes and may, therefore, be discretionarily converted from first homes into second homes and vice versa.
Despite certain regulatory uncertainties, real estate investments in Switzerland continue to be attractive. In particular, in larger transactions, the buyers' market is currently dominated by Swiss pension funds, life insurers and foreign institutional investors; Swiss pension funds and life insurers are therefore forced to invest in Swiss real estate to secure stable returns to satisfy the claims of their beneficiaries. Although real estate prices in Switzerland are high and consequently returns are rather low for a Swiss pension fund and a life insurer, a Swiss real estate investment is still more attractive than depositing cash in the Swiss National Bank at negative interest rates. For many foreign investors, Switzerland's stable political and economic environment, as well as the strong Swiss franc, provide a hedge against many uncertainties in their home countries.
The increased presence of foreign investors in the Swiss real estate arena has fostered more sophisticated and more complex transaction and real estate holding structures; while foreign investors appreciate the stability of Switzerland, they are typically looking for higher returns than the rather conservative Swiss investors. As it is now hardly possible to buy Swiss real estate at modest prices, higher returns can primarily be achieved by more sophisticated legal and tax structuring of transactions. As foreign investors are often used to more complex transactions in their home countries, they are applying the same strategy in Switzerland as well. This helps to explain the increased complexity and sophistication of real estate transactions in Switzerland in recent years. There is little doubt that this development will continue.