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I’m building my own Swedish summer house – here’s what I’ve learned

Having a summer house is close to obligatory in Sweden. But with prices now sky-high anywhere near the big cities, it's out of many people's reach. So our reporter Richard Orange's Swedish wife Mia decided to build one herself, and he reluctantly agreed. Here's what happened.

I'm building my own Swedish summer house – here's what I've learned
The roof of Mia Orange and Richard Orange's house. Photo: Mia Orange

It took me about four years to work out what was going on. My Swedish wife kept sending me links to housing auctions featuring enormous tumble-down renovation projects in Värmland, abandoned farmhouses in Småland, or cabins in the wilds of northern Skåne.

At first, I thought she was fantasizing about abandoning our life in Malmö to grow our own vegetables and keep goats. I’d humour her, say a few encouraging things about the houses, then immediately forget about it. 

It was only when the first of our friends started to buy getaways an hour or two outside Malmö that I clicked that this was something normal, even expected, for Swedish families. 

At home in the UK, you generally don’t start thinking about a holiday house in Cornwall or Devon unless you’re very wealthy. In Sweden, it’s something less well-paid professionals, such as teachers, journalists, and academics, aim for too. It’s typically the next milestone after your children are in school. 

For my wife, it was also a passion project. While I can’t wire a plug (at least not without recourse to YouTube), she, like many Swedes, is practical. When we bought our flat, she put in the kitchen, installed new taps, basins and toilets, plastered the walls, and put in a new wooden floor, more-or-less single-handed (I did help). 

When she was studying, she worked part-time at a big out-of-town DIY store, and had long wanted to put her extensive knowledge of building materials and power tools to use.

She is also addicted to Husdrömmar (House Dreams) the SVT renovation programme where presenter Anne Lundberg and architect Gert Wingårdh visit a succession of Swedes embarking on perilous renovation or self-build projects, only to go wildly over budget, but somehow come out OK in the end. 

Anne Lundberg and Gert Wingårdh were part of the inspiration behind Mia Orange’s house project.

Initially, Mia fixated on a two-up, two-down brick house near a friend of ours’ summerhouse in Österlen, Skåne’s desirable southeastern corner, which she called the ruckel, or ‘ruin’. 

It had a hole in the roof through which water had been leaking for decades, rotting right through the ceiling of the ground floor, and then down through the floor to the cellar below. This was terrifying, so when she instead found two small adjoining plots of land for sale at a nearby area reserved for holiday cottages, it was such a relief I quickly agreed.

We are now coming up to our third summer working on the house, and it still feels like we’re barely halfway. We have a roof, walls, and windows, and Mia’s done the insulation. The aim is to be finished by the autumn, but I’m betting on one more summer.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far. 

Is it cheaper to build your own house? 

The plot we are building on cost 300,000 kronor, which is three times as much as cheaper plots in other parts of Skåne, but will hopefully pay off as we will end up with a house in an area otherwise outside our price range. 

The module house cost another 300,000 kronor, and I expect we will end up spending at least another 500,000 kronor on laying the concrete foundation, installing plumbing and electricity, and buying second-hand windows, stairs, doors, etc. 

So the cost quickly catches up with that of buying a house that’s already been built: for that amount of money, it is still just about possible to find a well-situated holiday house an hour from Malmö (although you might find you’d have to pay quite a bit for renovation and upkeep going forward). 

However, in the area where we’re building, holiday houses have in the last year been selling for two, even three, million kronor, so if the market holds up (a big if), our efforts will hopefully be worth something.  

Are there any other advantages to building your own house? 

If you’re got an interest in design and a big budget (or modest desires), you can of course build the house of your dreams.

Some of the more outlandish Husdrömmar episodes I can remember include a house with a tree growing through the middle, a house encased in a giant greenhouse, and a house constructed as a giant geodesic dome. 

You might be able to find a plot with a view over water, or down into a stunning valley which is better than any existing house you can find. 

Also, if you’re into that sort of thing, it’s the ultimate DIY project. 

Is it a good idea to buy a plot in a holiday house area? 

Our plot is in a fritidshusområde, or ‘holiday house area’, with I think around 80 other holiday houses and cabins laid out along a network of small roads. The negative side is that, even though we are in the popular Österlen area, it feels a bit suburban. You are watched over by your neighbours, many of whom are retirees from Lund and Malmö, and have to be careful to limit the noise and mess you make. 

The positive aspect is that electricity and water supplies run right up to the border of the plot, there are potential playmates for our children, and a little community.

It was surprising that what was delivered from Piteå was little more than a pile of planks and beams. Photo: Mia Orange

Is it a good idea to buy a modular house? 

We bought a modular house from Lundqvist Trävaru, based in Piteå in the far north of Sweden. The advantage of this is that once you’ve ordered the house, you get architecture plans sent to you which make it relatively easy to apply for planning permission. If you designed your own house, you might have issues over whether the structure is stable.  

Lundqvist also have a very good online system to help you choose what dimensions you want, as well as instruction videos showing you how to erect the walls, put on the roof etc. 

On the other hand, when the container lorry arrived to deliver the house, I was surprised to discover that what they unloaded was more or less just a pile of planks and beams. The planks for the walls had been nailed together into 1.2m modules in Lundqvist’s factory, but that was about it. 

If I’m honest, I expected it to be a bit more like IKEA. I was expecting to receive more detailed instructions about how to put the parts together, perhaps with colour-coded packages telling you which pieces of wood are supposed to be used in which order. My wife managed to work it out, but it wasn’t easy. 

Mia Orange risking life astride the roof of her build project. Photo: Richard Orange

Should you get a professional to build it? 

For 200,000 kronor, we could have got Lundqvist to erect the house, paint it, put in the windows, and do the roof and gutters, which would have taken them a week, saved us about six months’ work, and probably meant a slightly better structure.

For us though, saving 200,000 kronor was easily worth a summer of hard labour. And for my wife, building the house herself was part of the point anyway.  

What about getting help from your friends and neighbours? 

We’ve been lucky in that the two people living in the houses across the road are local rather than people from Malmö or Lund with a holiday house, and they have been enormously helpful. One is a retired carpenter, and he has given Mia useful advice at every stage.

They’ve also helped us contact local plumbers, concrete and stone suppliers, and given other advice on materials. 

On the day we lifted up the roof beams, we had help from a small crowd of friends who helped guide the various parts into place and screw them down.

During the lull in the pandemic in early September, Mia’s mother came down from Uppsala and helped mount the front door.

One of the things I’ve learned as a foreigner is how generous Swedes can be with their time and advice when it comes to something practical like building a house. While general chit-chat and small talk is relatively rare, when the discussion gets on to subjects like guttering, they can talk for hours. 

Mia’s mother came down to help mount a door in September.

Should you get help online? 

My wife has become an obsessive member of the Byggahus (‘house-build’) website and forum, which is a sort of virtual version of the sharing of advice mentioned above. If you can read and write Swedish, it’s an invaluable place to discuss every element of a building project from how to get your permission to start building from the local municipality, to tricks for putting in windows. 

How tough is the bureaucracy? 

Before you can start building you need to apply for bygglov, or ‘building permission’ from the municipality, and if you are planning on doing any major landscaping, you also need to apply for marklov. You also need to secure a startbesked, before you start work.

It took us two or three attempts before we had supplied all the correct documentation to receive our bygglov, so it can be quite complicated, but still far from impossible. 

Once you have laid out the area where you are going to build your house you also need to get that measurement approved by the municipality.

You also need to employ an independent ‘kontrollansvarig‘, KA, who monitors your work at all the essential stages to make sure you’re not taking any dangerous shortcuts. 

The municipality also has to come out at different stages to check that you’ve done everything according to the plans and building regulations. 

Finally, when you’ve finished you need to get the municipality to inspect your work and issue a slutbesked before you are allowed to live in the structure. 

So all in all, there’s quite a lot to do. 

How hard is it? 

If you’d asked me in September, I would have said ‘surprisingly doable’, particularly if you have a practical partner. But the cruel reality is that while it looks like your house is almost finished once you’ve erected the walls and roof, you are actually not even a quarter of the way there. 

Moreover, as each of the many, many time-consuming jobs you have left make little real difference to the outward picture of the house, it is easy to feel like you’re going nowhere. 

Perhaps the hardest thing is that while our richer (or perhaps just more indebted) friends have for the last two summers been enjoying flitting between their summer houses and the beach, we’ve been spending our time heaving wood about while living in a cramped 1970s caravan. 

Member comments

  1. Wow. This is great. What becomes of the house, however, during most of the year when it is unoccupied. I’m thinking of from the US perspective. Not just security but things like burst pipes…?

    1. Todd, in general, you turn off the water and empty the pipes when you leave the house for the winter, so burst pipes shouldn’t be a problem. The same is also true for electricity. You don’t leave things there that can’t stand the cold. If you have cold-sensitive stuff in the summer house, you can leave the electricity on and have the heating set on a few degrees above zero.

      Security-wise, neighbors are often glad to keep an eye on the house. It’s part of their own security as well to keep an eye out for burglars.

      🙂

  2. I had a summer cottage off the coast of of Sweden when I previously lived in the UK and found that a thermostat in range of a cheap security camera could monitor the property temp in the winter and keep a lookout for problems, it worked very well..it was also reassuring for security. I now live in Sweden and have a semi rural house without the need to get away to the quiet and wilds – I am a DIY fanatic & get great pleasure in creating from scratch – Swedes do tend to be very knowledgable and practical and as you say very helpful, I was building a jetty on my driveway and my neighbours took an interest and hay presto with their help we now have a floating jetty for launching the kayaks and paddle boards (replacing a dilapidated one). most houses in Sweden are wooden and so some DIY knowledge is a good thing to have. by coincidence my family and I took a little road trip last week to the Österlen area, its very nice & there’s some lovely beaches and countryside. good luck with your project Richard its certainly worthwhile.

  3. Hope it all works out for you. The last thing I ever felt was enticing was having a little home (especially without sewage or central water supply) in the middle of nowhere in Sweden. I’d probably go insane out there, but Swedes do love it.

  4. Oh this sounds so much fun!!! Lycka Till Richard och familj! I hope it fulfills all your Swedish sommar dreams.

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RENTING

Five tricks Swedes use to avoid the long wait for rental apartments

The official waiting time for apartments in Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Malmö varies between three and eleven years. But Swedes have their own tricks for jumping the queue.

Five tricks Swedes use to avoid the long wait for rental apartments

There’s no requirement for landlords or renters to use the queuing systems run by the municipalities in the big cities, but most of the big ones do, the intention being to reduce corruption and increase fairness in the rental market. 

The Stockholm Housing Agency, or bostadsförmedlingen, has a queue between seven and eleven years long. Boplats Gothenburg has an average wait of 6.4 years, and Boplats Syd in Malmö has an average waiting time of nearly three years.

According to Kristina Wahlgren, a journalist at Hem & Hyra, Sweden’s leading rental property magazine, the system puts foreigners and recent arrivals to Sweden at a significant disadvantage. 

“It’s extremely difficult if you are from another country. You don’t have any contacts, and it’s quite difficult to understand if you haven’t grown up in this culture,” she says of the system. “There are some quite subtle aspects, and there’s vänskapskorruption [giving special advantage to friends]. ” 

Listen to a discussion about Swedish queue systems on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

Click HERE to listen to Sweden in Focus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

Obviously, the biggest advantage faced by locals in Sweden is that they normally joined the queue the moment they turned 17, so by the time they’re looking for an apartment as a young adult, they’re already near the front. 

But even for new arrivals in Sweden, it’s possible to wait a much shorter time if you know the tricks, says Wahlgren, who has been nominated for Sweden’s Guldspaden journalism prize for an investigation into how Malmö finds housing for homeless people. 

Kristina Wahlgren, a reporter for the Hem & Hyra newspaper. Photo: Hem & Hyra

1.  Apply for more expensive new-build apartments to start off with 

If you’ve got a good enough salary, and are willing to pay high rent for your first few years in Sweden, this can make it easier to get an apartment, as there is less competition for more expensive, new-build apartments, Wahlgren says.

“If you’re willing to pay high rent, then you can get an apartment within a couple of months [in Malmö]. If you want a cheaper apartment, it can take years. So it’s quite a big difference.”

2. Rather than wait for your perfect apartment, take what’s available and then swap 

The rules recently got a little stricter, but it’s still relatively easy to swap between apartments once you have a first-hand contract. There’s even a website, Lägenhetsbyte, which acts as an interface. 

This means, if you use the method above, and decide to rent a more expensive new-build apartment with a shorter queue, you can then downgrade to a cheaper apartment with someone who is after somewhere newer and swankier.

Rental queues are also shorter in less desirable areas of Sweden’s cities. For example, the waiting list in Norra Hissingen in Gothenburg is only five years, half what it is in Majorna. It can be quicker to make do with living in a relatively dreary area, and then swap with somewhere better, than to insist from the start on an apartment in your dream location. 

“If you can’t wait for the right department, just take the one that you get, then you can keep on looking and when you do have a lease, you can change the lease with someone else,” Wahlgren says. 

To change apartment, you need to have a so-called “acceptable reason”, such as needing a bigger or smaller apartment. With any luck, your landlord should accept the swap. If they refuse you can challenge their decision at your local hyresnämnden or “rental tribunal”.  

3. Use the tricks for contacting landlords directly  

Landlords in Sweden are not required to use the municipal rental queues to find their tenants, and if a suitable tenant presents themselves just as an apartment becomes free, they may prefer to take someone they know.

This is particularly the case with the smaller, private landlords. It’s possible to find lists of private landlords online, such as here. But Wahlgren recommends putting in a bit of legwork.

“One way to find who owns an apartment block, is to just go around and check on the buildings for the names of the landlords, and look in the stairwells for the number of the landlord’s agent.” 

Once you have the number, you have to ring both regularly, at least once a month, and also strategically. 

“It’s important to call at the right time,” Wahlgren says. “Because normally apartment rentals end at the turn of the month, so that’s when you’re going to call. You don’t call on the 15th, you call on the 31st or the 1st of the month.”

4. Exploit all the friends and contacts that you have 

When someone hands in their notice on a rental agreement, they may try to shorten their notice by finding a replacement for the landlord, or they might find a replacement simply as a favour. This is why it’s important to ask your friends and work colleagues if they know of any apartments becoming free. 

“If they use the municipal queue, they have to follow the rules. This way, they can choose their own tenants,” Wahlgren says of the appeal of this to landlords. “If you’re a nice person, you might be able to just talk your way into an apartment.” 

5. Be a student 

“If you’re a student, there are special housing companies in the university cities, different foundations that rent out apartments,” Wahlgren says. But then you have to study.” 

Illegal ways of getting an apartment

All of these ways of getting a rental apartment are legal, but there are some ways of getting a rental apartment more quickly which are not.

1. Paying a fee

You may also find landlords or intermediaries on websites such as Blocket, who ask for a one-off payment to jump a rental queue, or get a rental apartment. This is illegal. “You can lose your money, you can lose the apartment, and in the worst case, you can go to prison,” warns Wahlgren.

2. Getting an illegal subtenancy 

It’s perfectly legal to rent out your rental apartment to someone else for a period, if you have a valid reason for doing so and your landlord agrees. But such is the pressure to get housing that a market has sprung up in illegal subletting. Before signing a contract for a sublet, make sure that the landlord who owns the property has agreed to it. 

3. Bribing someone running the queue 

There have been cases of people working for municipalities logging into the housing queue and altering it, either as a favour to their friends, or for money. This is fairly rare, and in the unlikely event that someone offers to do this for you, it’s best to decline. 

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