In software development, we have a saying: “Good, fast, cheap: pick any two.” I’m sure many other technical fields have a similar saying. Essentially, it expresses if you want something done right, it’s either going to take a while or be expensive. I am finding that this applies to searching for an apartment in Zürich.
The only word that comes up consistently in speaking with people here who actually have a place to live here is "luck." "I was lucky." "You need some luck." "With a lot of patience, and a little luck, you'll find a place you like." So. Good. Fast. Cheap. Lucky. "Good" here means a reasonably sized place in a reasonable location. "Fast" here means getting a place in a reasonable amount of time, as I have a sublet now, and an excellent roommate, but it's short term and would like to be out by the first of August if at all possible. "Cheap" here means under 1500 CHF/mo, which I cannot go over until I dispose of the house in Pittsburgh. So, that leaves Lucky.
So far, I've seen quite a few variations on Fast and Cheap; in other words, not Good. I have decided that I do not want an apartment that is actually a Renault dealership (I've seen two of these actually). I do not want an apartment that is actually Bahnhof Wipkingen (one of the city's most abused, least useful stations, which means it's still serviced about as well as, say, much of the LIRR or SEPTA). And though it means I could have a view of the lake and two large, recently renovated rooms for under 1500, I'm reasonably certain I don't want to live in Horgen; while Swiss suburbs are not quite the affront to the senses as, say, Dulles, or Alpharetta, they are still suburbs, and I'm not particularly inclined to have to ride the train in for half an hour every morning, and to worry about the Last Train each night. Yes, I know. It's immeasurably better than the Port Authority. But I'm here now. I want to do way immeasurably better than the Port Authority.
The places that I do want to live: small and kind of close to the lake, small and expensive and close to the lake, tiny and expensive but renovated yesterday and with an incredible view of the lake and the city (there's a lake theme here isn't there?) I are gone usually before I have a chance to see or apply for them. And that's basically the problem. The open market here is a sucker's game. The only apartments that actually have to be advertised are pretty much those which by definition have something wrong with them, be it price, or location, or the giant pile of used cans of heating oil out front.