Midsummer in Sweden signals the start of an annual migration as tens of thousands of Swedes abandon towns and cities and head to their summer houses for rest, relaxation and, in some cases, work.
Swedes have long been big on leisure time and small on the rigors of city life. Moving to the summer house is a ritual deeply engrained in the Swedish psyche. Before there was cheap and accessible international travel, many Swedes took advantage of something else cheap and plentiful: land.
All across this spacious nation, people built simple dwellings, often by the water, to retire to in the warm summer months; an idyll that for many still shapes their image of Sweden: red-painted cottages in an endless pastoral landscape broken only by a liberal scattering of beautiful blondes with flowers in their hair.
Traditions die hard in Sweden, and there are plenty of Swedes who still harbor that image. Despite the increasing number of foreign holidays sold in Sweden, 20 percent of the population still own a summer house. Many more have access to one through family or friends.
So what is it about the Swedish summer house that generation after generation still finds difficult to resist?
The county of Småland, southern Sweden, is one of many places made for those red Swedish summer houses. Photo: Tomas Magnusson / Smålands Turism AB
The simple life Swedish-style
Anna and PG Wiklund, a teacher and doctor living in Umeå in the north of Sweden, have their own reasons for coming back, year after year, to their summer house in the Hälsingland region of Sweden.
“It helps you to escape the daily obligations you have back home,” says Anna, whose grandfather bought the lakeside plot of land in 1942 and built the house that she and PG still use today. “And because you spend such a long time here, you feel that you live here. If you travel abroad for two weeks, there are so many things to experience and do; it’s not necessarily that relaxing. Most people have some sort of relationship to their summer house environment, through grandparents or through their childhood, so they can completely relax there.”
No couch potato
For PG, time at the summer house is about working – with his hands. “I dig holes, fiddle with bushes, fix things. And it’s not just me. When I look at our neighbors everyone is doing it. It troubles me that we work with our houses so much, but it pleases me too. After a week or two I begin to slow down, and I think that’s what I’m looking for: a gradual winding down to a very lazy state. It’s too much to go from daily life to zero in the time it takes to fly to Greece.”
Anna Wiklund enjoys chilling out at her summer house. Photo: Mikaela Hincks
Most summer houses were originally built to a basic standard, without hot water (or any water at all), drainage, insulation or electricity – this sparseness being an important part of their attraction. But times are changing.
Expanding urban populations and increasing property prices mean that what was once a rural summer retreat is now a desirable property within commuting distance.
Magnus Gidlöf, marketing director for Skandia Mäklarna, a chain of Swedish real estate agents, says: “An increasing number of people want a rural house they can live in year round. Around Stockholm and Göteborg in particular, young people are looking to get a piece of that red house back-to-basics dream, but with good communications. You can buy a summer house relatively cheaply, because the tax on it is lower than a permanent residence. Then, with a little bit of work, you can convert it into a permanent residence.”
The simple life, complete with outdoor toilets and washing by hand, is an appealing break from everyday stress for most Swedes. Photo: Tomas Magnusson / Smålands Turism AB
A labor of love
Whatever reasons Swedes give for their love of summer houses, it seems to be a secret they have kept to themselves. “Apart from a lot of Danish buying in Skåne in the south of Sweden, the market for non-Swedes buying summer houses in Sweden is almost nonexistent. The summer house is a uniquely Swedish obsession,” Gidlöf says.
Unique and obsessive; maybe that sums up a person who wants to spend his summers fixing his house and digging holes instead of lying on a beach. Either way, Swedes’ love of their summer houses isn’t about to end any time soon.
Summer houses: The facts
- Twenty percent of Swedes, or 1.8 million people, own a summer house
- About 40 percent of Swedes say they plan on buying a summer house at an average cost of 670,000 kronor (USD 91,250)
- In 2006/07 some 29,000 Swedes will buy a summer house, spending a total of 19 billion kronor (USD 2.5 billion)
Source: Nordea Bank
- The most popular areas to buy summer houses are the Stockholm archipelago, Skåne, Öland, Gotland, the West Coast and Småland
- Between 2000 and 2005, the national average price for a summer house rose by 48 percent
- During the period March to May 2006 1,282 summer houses were sold in Sweden
(source: Association of Swedish Real Estate Agents)
www.maklarsamfundet.se – The Association of Real Estate Agents (in Sweden)
www.lantmateriverket.se – National Land Survey of Sweden
www.hemnet.se – Complete listing of properties for sale in Sweden
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Rob Hincks is a British freelance journalist living in Sweden. He owns a summer house on a lake, where, rumor has it, the water is delightful. When he finishes fixing things in the wood shed, he’ll let you know.
The author alone is responsible for the opinions expressed in this article.
Photo 1: Jonas Ingerstedt / Johnér
Photo 2: Tomas Magnusson / Smålands Turism AB
Photo 3: Mikaela Hincks
Photo 4: Tomas Magnusson / Smålands Turism AB
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