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Altbau vs Neubau: What’s the difference and which should I rent in Austria?

It's more than just a question of their age and style; the type of building you live in in Austria can affect everything from your heating costs to your rental fee.

Old building in central Vienna
You may be dreaming of a grand balcony and high ceilings, but have you thought about the Austrian Tenancy Law or operating costs? Photo: Arno Senoner/AFP

The obvious difference between an Altbau and Neubau is their age. Under Austrian rental law, only buildings that pre-date 1953, specifically June 30th of that year, are considered Altbau.

You can often tell which category a building falls into just from the style.

If you’ve dreamed of living in a beautiful Viennese building with a huge front door and ornate flourishes in the staircase, the Altbau life may be for you. Altbau make up the majority of buildings in city and town centres around the country, with Neubau and particularly very new builds located more in the suburbs and on the outskirts.

Many Neubau are plainer to look at, but some of the more modern ones may come with extras like air conditioning, a roof terrace, or a gym.

READ ALSO: How to navigate the Austrian rental market

Heating and insulation

Speaking of air conditioning, the insulation and heating is one of the differences between Altbau and Neubau that’s likely to have a bigger impact on your quality of life. 

The typical high ceilings of the Altbau create a nice atmosphere but can also be difficult to heat, while the older buildings are also less energy efficient. 

This means that if you go down the Altbau route, you should check which renovations have been carried out, particularly on windows. A recently renovated and well-insulated Altbau means you could combine the ornate flourishes without having to choose between high heating bills and wearing three jumpers through the Austrian winter.

READ ALSO: The vocab you need to understand Austrian apartment ads

Neubau are more likely to be heated using central heating, which means you don’t need to carry out annual services on the gas boiler — par for the course with most Altbau and older Neubau, and usually at the tenant’s own expense (expect to pay somewhere between €75-150 for the service). 

Within Neubau, there are differences depending on exactly how ‘new’ the building is, with those built in more recent decades most likely to have a high standard of soundproofing and insulation (and to have smarter floor plans and more modern perks like car parking), and those from the period between 1953 to the 1970s running the risk of the same issues as many old buildings. If you are renting an apartment in a brand new build, the energy efficiency and insulation will meet modern standards, but here there are extra considerations: new builds tend to experience cracks in the walls and other issues in their first few years while the building ‘settles’.

Rent, rights and operating costs

However, the biggest thing to be aware of is that the age of the building actually has quite a significant impact on your rights as a tenant.

Under Austria’s Tenancy Law (Mietrechtsgesetz or MRG — your contract will state whether this applies), there is a limit on how much rent can be charged per square metre, but only on an Altbau (again, note that this advantage may be wiped out if your additional costs are higher). These set costs vary by region and can also be affected by other factors such as quality of the furnishing. You are normally fully covered by the MRG if you are renting an Altbau, or in a few other specific situations, and this law grants you better protection against termination of the contract, and gives you rights around the amount of operating costs and maintenance of the apartment provided by the landlord for example.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that renting a Neubau apartment immediately puts you at higher risk or gives you greater obligations. But it does mean that it’s extra important to pay attention to your contract, as some of your rights will be governed by the contract rather than the MRG and could be difficult to negotiate after the fact. For example, if renovations need to be carried out, you may need to go to court to enforce your rights. Depending on the type of apartment, you may be partially covered by the MRG or not at all.

READ ALSO: How much can estate agents charge in commission?

And if you go for an Altbau, you still need to check the contract. The law might set out the amount legally allowed for rent, but tenants’ rights organisations frequently warn that many tenants are still significantly overcharged even in these buildings. The difference is that with an Altbau, you can take legal steps to reclaim money from an overpriced rental. Of course, it’s always better to make sure you’re paying the correct price from the start, and with an Altbau it’s easy to find out what that should be.

Overall, the age of the building is just one factor to weigh up along with the specific details of the individual properties you’re looking at: total price including rent and operating costs; quality of renovations; how much the style suits you; whether the landlord seems reasonable and responsive; and location. 

Note that if you are buying rather than renting, the Neubau/Altbau classification brings a slightly different set of considerations. We are working on a guide looking at the differences buyers should be aware of.

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For members


What to do in Switzerland if you cannot pay your mortgage

Hopefully such a situation will never happen to you, but knowing what the laws and practices are in this regard in Switzerland could put your mind at ease.

What to do in Switzerland if you cannot pay your mortgage

Most home or apartment owners in Switzerland are relatively wealthy because property prices here are high, especially in or near urban centres like Geneva, Zurich, and Basel, or locations with a high concentration of multinational companies and residents, such as Zug and Lausanne.

READ MORE: Swiss property prices see strongest rise in years

To get a mortgage you must prove high enough income or personal assets, so anyone not seen as able to pay interest rates will not be given a loan.

Still, financial situations can change and a mortgage that was once comfortable becomes unaffordable.

One thing that may alleviate your concerns is that — unlike many other countries — Swiss banks or other lenders don’t expect you to pay off the mortgage in its entirety.

As long as you can pay the interest rates, you are fine.

In fact, not paying off your mortgage is considered to make good financial sense, and the Swiss certainly know a thing or two about astute finances.

This article explains why that is:

EXPLAINED: Why not paying off your mortgage in Switzerland can save you money

So if you find yourself strapped financially, at least you don’t have to worry about paying off your whole mortgage.

You do, however, have to continue to pay the interest rates on the mortgage.

One thing you may be wondering about is whether the bank / mortgage lender can seize your house and whether you will have to move out.

In theory, this is a possibility, according to the so-called promissory note which you signed when you took out your mortgage. In practice, this rarely happens in Switzerland and only as a last resort in extreme situations (as opposed to, say, the United States, where banks routinely foreclose and sell properties for non-payment of mortgage).

Instead, most Swiss mortgage lending institutions will try to help you, at least temporarily,  to find a viable solution, including deferring of payment.

A lot will depend on your standing and previous relationship with the bank — in other words, if you are a longtime client and have some investments or other assets, that could help you buy some time.

Ultimately, however, banks are not in a charity business and they want to make money, rather than lose it. So if your inability to pay interest rates continues, you may eventually have to sell the property and pay off the debt.

One thing to keep in mind before you ask for a mortgage is to take out an insurance policy that will take effect in case you are later unable to pay your interest rates due to a job loss or other factors beyond your control.

You may also want to consider getting debt counseling, available through charitable organisations like Caritas, 

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: How to save on your mortgage in Switzerland