Solace when the snow hits: Your duties as a homeowner

Digging away the snow ‘til you drop? The homeowners among you will have your hands full when the winter turns white. Read on for more on the red lines that apply when clearing snow, where best to dump it to prevent accidents and when you’re liable.


Homeowner shovels snow in front of his house in winter

There you are, nestling in your warm and winterproof four walls and admiring the winter wonderland outside. Icicles galore hang from the roof, snow blankets your garden path and the street sparkles and glistens. But however seductive such snowscapes are, the dangers they bring with them should not be ignored.

Leaving it to the authorities is fine for public roads and properties: clearing them is their job. So no need to hire a snow plough in other words. Hang on to that shovel though. It is incumbent on all private property owners to keep them clear of snow and woe betide you otherwise. If your “postie” tumbles on your snowy path while delivering the morning mail and breaks a bone, you are liable as the owner. Anyway to keep those parcels coming with peace of mind, read on for some of the key pointers on how to deal with and clear snow.

Where and how do I have to clear snow?

Access points

Making a snowman is probably more fun than shovelling the stuff, right? Unfortunately, however, the responsibility of owning a home brings with it the need to provide hazard-free access to your property, as set out in the Code of Obligations. And over and above the human traffic, this means all vehicles too. In a nutshell, the access roads have to be safe for drivers and pedestrians alike to negotiate. Remember: Maintaining the pavement in front of your property is also on you – right up to the boundary stone with your neighbours.

Gravel and pebbled paths

No-one is going to pretend that ridding your gravel path of snow is a breeze. Tackling the job with a shovel tends to cause more damage, dislodging the small stones into the grass away from the path on both sides when things thaw out. A better approach is to just remove the top layer of snow, then fill in the path with sand or grit.

Stairs and ramps

On stairs and ramps in particular, the risk of falling peaks, hence the need to be hyper-alert. The key priority is not just clearing the snow from the ground and railings but eliminating it completely. The worst scenario here is volatile weather: The snow melts and the slush becomes meltwater before refreezing, turning your incline into an ice-rink or slide in the process.


Salt is one of the first things people turn to when they start slipping and sliding, but a green approach it is not: the soil and plants suffer and it’s agony for pets’ paws too. Legally also, owners must first strive to remove snow “mechanically” (i.e. with a broom and shovel) before resorting to chemical means like salt.

All the same, as a homeowner, preventing the danger of slippery surfaces (on stairs and ramps above all) is a non-negotiable must. One way to do this more sustainably is to use grit or wood chips, or even sand, if you want to channel your beach holiday vibes during the work. Come spring, when the white blanket finally lifts, you can simply wipe away the grit.

Roofs among the riskiest places

From a single solitary snowflake came a frantic snow flurry, now rendering your rooftop much like the Matterhorn. And the avalanche hazard is real! The homeowners among you are duty-bound to keep any rooftop snowfalls under control as far as possible. The regions most prone to snow have streetside catchment grids to protect against the risk of roof avalanches. Also on your to-do list should be removing those sharp and dangerous arrow-like icicles, before they drop off and do any damage.

Winter service starts in autumn

If you really want to earn your snow-clearing spurs, right when the leaves turn red is the time to start. Once wet or frozen, fallen autumn leaves become slip hazards. Any rotten tree branches should also be removed before the first snow falls, as these can break under the snow load.

Must I shovel snow around the clock?

It’s been snowing around the clock and still now in the morning. So you call into work and ask for some time off – sorry boss, the law says I have to clear the path. Rest easy, the property-owners among you are not expected to deal with snow 24/7. Any winter maintenance needed around your home must be both technically possible and feasible with reasonable effort. And you don’t have to be up at midnight shovelling snow. As a general rule, paths only have to be cleared during “times of pedestrian traffic”. This is normally between 7am and 9pm, although it varies by location. You are not liable for any accident happening outside these hours.

Let’s face it, mitigating every risk as a homeowner just isn’t possible and accepting that such hindrances come with the territory is a must, particularly in winter. Sprinting for the bus at the crack of dawn could be your fast-track to the emergency room in icy conditions. You’re not likely to have any claim for compensation there either. When temperatures plummet, pedestrians are expected to stop their own common sense hibernating and adapt to the conditions accordingly with a duty of self-care. If any dispute or grey area does arise, the civil court has the final say.

Clearing snow for condo owners

Condominiums, by definition, are single properties with multiple owners. But who among them is tasked with clearing the snow - the first one who can no longer make their way through when it gets too deep? Or the first one to leave home in the morning? Even though the night owls among you would love that latter idea, there are fairer solutions: Either the condominium contracts the work out to a specialist winter firm or makes up a rota, like an office would do, to divide up the snow-clearing work.

Issues like this tend to come up and be resolved at owners’ meetings, with any decisions made included in the house rules or the condominium owners’ regulations. And if any grey areas remain, you should organise a meeting to resolve them.

Bonus tip: Why not log the overall time spent on snow removal in the condominium? This is the easiest way to distribute the schedule fairly over several years in regions with little snow.

Snowball fight? Making snowmen? What do you do with the snow?

How about using a snow blower to help the snow magically morph away from your own path directly onto that of your neighbour, forming a mini Mount Everest in the process? Warning – this fanciful idea is only going to fly if the next-door children build an igloo and request extra snow. Heaping up the snow on the street or pavement is also a no-no.

Space is soon at a premium, particularly in densely populated areas where plenty of snow falls. The best place to put the snow is probably at the roadside, but without blocking the view of any motorists emerging from exits. You’ll also want to make sure people can get to zebra crossings and hydrants at all times without a problem. Finally, heaping the snow close to a drain makes sense, because however beautiful your monochrome masterpiece, it has to flow away sooner or later.

Properly insured for falls

If an accident happens, for which you as a homeowner may be liable, it’s incumbent on you to take out insurance beforehand to cover such eventualities. But doing so goes above the scope of compulsory basic insurance, which is why owners should always check their insurance cover before winter.

Insurance policies differ depending on the type of property involved. For owner-occupied detached homes, for example, it would be private liability insurance. In that case, owners would inquire to their insurance company directly about possible benefits in the event of damage. If you own a condominium, however, joint liability applies collectively to the community of owners and the insurance company having the final say is the building liability insurance provider.

Out into the frosty fray: tips & tricks for winter road clearance

Clearing snow while handling a full-time job and family – the challenges don’t get much bigger. Which is why we’ve compiled the following tips, to help you shovel the snow as efficiently as possible.

  1. Trust the weatherman: Stay one step ahead of the inclement weather and follow the forecasts. Buy grit, get your snow shovel ready and set the alarm. Also set up push notifications from weather apps, so you’ll get as much notice as possible of any snow coming your way.

  2. Beware the slip hazards! Snowflakes keep falling while you’re tied to your desk? Put up warning signs beforehand in critical places. Liability-wise, this isn’t a get-out-of-jail card, but it will go a long way to helping prevent any accidents.

  3. Stay home: Ask your employer if working from home on snowbound days is possible. As well as helping protect you against accidents, you’ll also have time and space to shovel again, if heavy snow falls over lunchtime.

  4. Snow-shovelling in the neighbourhood: Planning to caper off to the Caribbean as soon as the first flakes fall? Why not share the work with your neighbour in this case and help each other out when one of you is absent.

  5. Done is better than perfect: Keep the 80/20 rule in mind: 20 percent of the effort is usually enough to complete 80 percent of the task. And you don’t have to eliminate every last trace of snow from the property. The law only requires that two pedestrians can walk past each other without problems, except for stairs and ramps. Come what may, these have to be completely free of snow and ice.

  6. Become a prevention pro: Want to find out more? This brochure from Suva gives you further useful tips on Preventing fall accidents in winter(DE, IT and FR only).