How the Swiss Land Registry Works: a basic guide.

The Land Registry in Switzerland is a system as complex and detailed as an antique Swiss clock.


Chur, Switzerland

However, despite its many moving parts — when everything goes right it works like clockwork. The key is to understand how everything all fits together, so that you can keep your property purchase ticking along and not get jammed up along the way.

One of the main aspects of the Swiss Land Registry system that you must understand is the concept of the Cadastral System. It’s a historic system of land surveying that has been in place in Switzerland for many years. It might seem confusing at first, but once you understand how it works it will make much more sense.

In fact, it’s a beautifully precise system that allows landowners to easily access information about any plot of land, including who owns it, what the exact boundaries are and what official laws and regulations apply to it.

In this article, we will delve into the basics of how the Swiss Land Registry works, untangling this multi-layered system and presenting it in a straightforward way. We will aim to answer any questions you might have, so that you have a full understanding of the process.

What is the Swiss Land Registry?

Kandersteg, Bernese Oberland

The Swiss Land Register is a public record of every plot of land in Switzerland.

It was created so that the real estate market could be completely transparent and it contains the plans of land plots and the official rights of all landowners.

Essentially, there isn’t a square inch of land in Switzerland that isn’t surveyed and recorded in the Swiss Land Registry. Every plot is associated with an owner and is identified with very clear boundaries.

Switzerland is special in that it is one of the first countries in the world to develop a system like this. The first records came online in 2014 and it is estimated that the complete records of the entire country will be online by 2020.

What is the Cadastral System?

The Cadastral System parcels up all of the land in Switzerland and ensures that it is measured and recorded with an assigned owner. For example, roads and public areas are recorded as being in the ownership of federal organizations, cantons or municipalities. Parcels of land are owned by cooperatives, private companies or individuals.

Each parcel of land is related to one specific land ownership title, which is registered in the official land registry. Every parcel of land has a unique number and all information relevant to that parcel is linked to that number.

The data collected by cadastral surveyors is very precise and it based on heights and coordinates recorded in the Swiss national survey. There are concise control points that provide reference for all land surveying throughout Switzerland, which ensures all records are consistent.

When it comes to mapping and surveying, everything is done with that legendary Swiss precision.

This is important, because when you own a property in Switzerland you can’t just do with it as you wish. You need to make sure that you are complying with certain conditions and restrictions — such as building zones which specify how the plot of land can be used.

You’ll also need to be aware of protection orders for historic sites, groundwater protection issues, layout plans that place restrictions on building design and much more. Landowners love the precision of this system, as it strives to eliminate confusion and ambiguity.

What is the Purpose of the Cadastral System?

The Land Register in Switzerland has two main functions:

  • The registration of ownership of a property.
  • The public listing of properties and their owners.

So, essentially the main purpose of the system is to safeguard land ownership. The geometric data that is collected leaves no room for error when it comes to determining the scope of the survey. This public record means that everyone has access to easy to understand and legally binding information about every plot of land in Switzerland.

However, the Swiss cadastral survey system is not only used for determining the boundaries of plots of land and verifying who owns them. It is also used for many other applications, for private and professional use. It offers benefits to the entire country as a whole.

A Brief History of the Cadastral System

A map of Zurich, 1576–21st Century technology has since transformed the capabilities of surveying & mapping.

The cadastres of Switzerland had already been established in the pre-Christian era for the purpose of collecting land ownership taxes. There were also many large-scale plans produced in the mid-17th century, which were used to calculate tithes and payments.

The cadastral system in Switzerland began in the early 19th century. It was established under the influence of Napoleon. The official Swiss Federal Land Registry has been operational since 1912 and since then all land ownership throughout the country has been secured by official entry into the land register.

Prior to this some surveys were carried out in the cantons, but these were mostly uncoordinated and isolated. In 1919, important instructions were introduced to improve the method of surveying, so that surveying could become legally official.

Ever since then, surveying methods have been improved to become more and more accurate. As new technology develops, the system evolves to reflect the changes. In 1993, a new legislation was put in force defining the digital format of the cadastral surveying system.

Now that the land surveying is done in digital form, it can also serve as a basis for land information systems. The more technology develops, the more the quality of the data collected improves and the more different purposes it can be used for. Today, records can be accessed online in minutes with just a few clicks.

How Is the Cadastral System Organised?

Switzerland is divided into 26 different cantons.

Basically, the federal government is in charge of the Swiss cadastral system, the cantons themselves are responsible for operational management and the bulk of the actual surveying work is done by private companies.

Here is a glance at how the system is organised on the three different levels:

Federal Level — Approx 15 Employees

What does the Federal Directorate for Cadastral Surveying do? At the federal level, approximately 15 employees are responsible for strategic management and supervision. They are responsible for supervising the cantonal surveying agencies and specifying the minimum requirements for administration, organisation, data quality and processes.

Cantonal Level — Approx 210 Employees

There are 26 different cantonal governments in Switzerland. The surveying agencies at the Cantonal level have the responsibility to implement cadastral surveying in their own canton.

While some cantons have administrative units of their own carry out surveying, most of them contract the field work out to private land surveying offices. These private land surveying offices act as public agents on behalf of the cantons.

The cantons receive the information from the private land surveying offices and are responsible for placing it at the disposal of the public, via the geo-portal.

Community Level — Approx 2'820 Employees

At the municipal or community level, the work of land surveying is being done by private surveying offices. These offices carry out approximately 90% of the total work of cadastral surveying in Switzerland. Only surveyors who are listed in the official Register of Surveyors are allowed to carry out cadastral surveying in Switzerland.

There is an established system through which the private sector is commissioned with projects through a tendering process. The government invites bids on the projects and the private sector offices express their interest with a proposal. This means that the private surveyors are acting as public agents, providing a decentralised service.

The process of surveying land in Switzerland is never ending, as new roads and buildings are always being constructed. Cadastral land surveyors are always performing ongoing updates, measuring the changes to the landscape from human activity (for example, the construction of a new building). The costs for these updates are on a user-pays basis.

They might also make updates periodically when natural changes occur, such as a change in the perimeter of the forest (the cost of which is borne by the canton.)

For a visual explanation of how the system is organised, see this image:

Organisations involved in the cadastral system. Source: CadastralTemplate.org

Why is the Cadastral System Set Up in This Way?

Why do private land surveying offices bid for projects at the municipal level? One of the main advantages of setting up the system in this way is that it creates competition for the private land surveying offices.

The market situation forces these providers in the private sector to be constantly improving their systems and learning new technologies and processes to stay ahead of the competition.

Also, another one of the reasons why the system is set up in this way is so that it is easier to obtain information about the public-law restrictions related to a given plot of land. Because every Canton is responsible for publishing their records via the geo-portal, the system allows easy public access to all of this data and it can be accessed at any time in digital form.

What are the Values and Benefits of Cadastral Surveying?

So, why establish this system? What are the benefits? Well, it turns out there are many.

SBB Train (historic)

When it was first established, the cadastral system was only really used in connection with the land register. However, over time it has evolved and it has ended up benefiting many other areas of private and public life in Switzerland.

The main benefit of the cadastral surveying system is legal security. The creation of these highly detailed maps makes it abundantly clear where one landowners’ property ends and another begins. No confusion, no disputes — the land register gives a legally binding description of the exact location and dimension of the plot.

Another benefit of the cadastral system is that cadastral land surveyors boost the national economy by the detailed and reliable information they provide. These surveyors collect important geographic data to create an accurate picture of the entire country, including farmland, lakes, roads, rivers, railways and much more. These information can be used to benefit a number of initiatives, including construction planning, navigation systems and tourist information. Engineers and architects will be able to base their plans on accurate and reliable data.

The system also benefits urban development. When the municipality is planning a development, such as a train or tram route, a traffic solution, a web application for displaying locations of disabled parking facilities or a district heating system, spatial planning is necessary. The data provided by the cadastral system is incredibly valuable for these innovations.

Even farmers benefit from the cadastral system. They can use the GNSS (Global navigation Satellite System) to optimise their application of seeds, fertilizers and pesticides.

By recording and documenting property boundaries across all of Switzerland, the cadastral system contributes to a prospering economy and a healthy country.

What Does This Mean for Land Owners in Switzerland?

The Swiss Land Registry System offers security for land owners in Switzerland.

When you purchase a property and apply for a mortgage loan in Switzerland, you’ll know for sure that the loan is secured by collateral of equivalent value. All of the maps and the entry in the land register will be legally binding and official.

This means that anyone who purchases land in Switzerland is making a solid, verified investment.

Also, this means that when it comes to understanding any regulations or restrictions on your land, you can get a clear answer quickly and easily. You’ll be able to access geo-data via the web portal and see all public-law restrictions on land ownership, displayed in an easy to understand map.

It is also possible to take a static extract from the map as a PDF, which will contain detailed information about all of the individual public-law restrictions that apply to a given plot of land. These Static Extract PDF documents are official and can be notarised if required.

This means that when you purchase a plot of land, you’ll be able to find out any public law restrictions that apply to it — with only a couple clicks of the mouse.

What is required when registering a Property with the Swiss Land Register?

Albula valley, Graubünden, Switzerland

Every single property in Switzerland must be registered with the Land Register in Switzerland. This requires a notarised sale-purchase contract. The Swiss Land Register must be notified after signing the sale-purchase contract and the transfer of ownership must be entered into the Land Register’s system after transferring the money.

What Does a Typical Grundbuchauszug (Land Register Record) Look Like?

To gain a better understanding of what a typical Land Register Record looks like, take a look at this example. You can see that it includes the details of the company or private person who currently (at the date of issuing the record) owns the land. This detailed record cannot be changed, only added to — and it is only associated with one specific plot of land.


FAQ

1. Are there restrictions on what property a foreigner can buy?

Foreign citizens are allowed to buy a property in Switzerland under certain conditions, for example they must live in it for at least 6 months. We address this subject in a separate article which you can read here (LINK).

2. How do the annual property taxes in Switzerland work?

Foreigners who own property in Switzerland pay taxes to three different bodies — the Federal Government, The Canton and the Commune.

You’ll have a choice — you can complete a tax declaration that discloses all of your worldwide assets, or you can be assessed on the fiscal value of your Swiss Property. (Most decide to be assessed.)

The tax on your property is calculated according to a theoretical rental value of the income that could be derived from the property. This is based on the fiscal or tax value of the property.

3. What taxes are there on property resale?

If you are re-selling a property as a foreigner in Switzerland, the property will be subject to an appreciation tax. That tax is the difference between the sales price and the total purchase price, including any special renovations, improvements to the property or fees. Deductions can be made from this tax for commission to real estate agents and other costs.

The rate of the capital gains tax decreases with every year of ownership. Essentially, the longer you own your property the less resale tax you will need to pay. If you sell within the first year, you’ll need to pay 30%. However, if you sell after 10 years you’ll only pay 9% and if you sell after 25 years you’ll pay 1%.

4. What extra fees and costs are included when purchasing a property?

There are a couple of extra fees that you should be aware of when purchasing a property. These include:

  • Notary fees: Compared to most countries in Europe, Swiss notary fees are relatively affordable. The fees vary depending on the canton, but they will usually be around 2.5–5% of the purchase price.
  • Mortgage Registration: This fee also varies depending on the canton, ranging anywhere from 0.6% to 1.6%. Or, if buying a resale property you could take over the existing mortgage deed and avoid the charge.

Conclusion

The Swiss Land Registry system seems complex at first, but it’s actually a beautiful system. Like a Swiss clock, it has many moving parts that all work together in a clever way to keep ticking along. As a result of a commitment to excellence from all parties involved, it can be relied upon to provide data that is accurate, specific and reliable.

The idea behind this example of Swiss precision reflects the old adage, “a place for everything and everything in its place.” When this system is fully implemented, there will be not a patch of forest, acre of farmland, section of road or block of flats in Switzerland that is not clearly defined.

With the cadastral survey information available online in an easily accessible way, it is possible to look up any property and immediately know who owns it, what the exact boundaries are, what public-law restrictions apply to it and other important information.

When it comes to market transparency and legal matters in the real estate sector, this is incredibly valuable. However, could this system be improved upon even more? Yes, we believe with a properly implemented blockchain solution — an idea we will address in our next article. Stay tuned!