Think of the Austrian Alps in winter and most of us conjure up images of cosy wooden chalets, snow-filled streets, subdued lighting and an apfelstrudel baking in the oven. Cut to France and pictures of daring pistes, great après-ski and fabulous shops spring to mind. Both are appealing to the point of being irresistible but which country offers the best deal for chalet buyers?

These days, skiers looking for snowy fun and a sound property investment need to take into account a new factor in addition to house prices, village charm, quality of pistes and après-ski snow assuredness.

According to a study published last winter by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, warming along the Alpine arc has been roughly three times the global average and, if the temperature were to increase by another 4C, only one third of the Alps’ ski area would have snow cover for at least 100 days a year. This is where French resorts have the upper hand over up and coming Austria. Many ski areas in France are located at high altitude, which makes them (on average) more snow reliable, whereas it is hard to find a chalet above 1,600m in the Austrian Alps.

Val strikes the right altitude

Val d’Isère is the megalopolis of French skiing and, lying at 1,850m, more snow-safe than most (although two World Cup races had to be cancelled last year due to lack of snow). But Val also has other attractions beyond altitude. Founded in the 1930s, the resort which is part of L’Espace Killy skiing area has more than 300km of runs and 90 lifts. It is the winter playground of some hundreds of thousands of tourists annually, many of them Britons. According to the Ski Club of Great Britain, the resort, which is dubbed ‘Val de Sloane Square’ by some, hosts more British skiers than any other destination in the world. ‘Fortunately,’ they add, ‘the French also favour it and provide counter-balance.’

The village stretches along the road from purpose-built La Daille to Le Fornet. At the centre is a cluster of smart boutiques, huddled around an 11th-century church. Val is not France’s prettiest resort, and is not known for high-class gastronomy, but the lift system is one of the best in the Alps and it is very hard to get bored with the skiing on offer.

Snow-sure in Sankt Anton

However, all is not lost in Austria, where Sankt Anton am Arlberg is a reliable choice. The resort itself lies at just over 1,300m, but the skiing is high enough to be snow-sure. ‘St Anton is really the exception: it has high skiing, world class off piste and is very picturesque, although Lech, which is day trip territory, is prettier,’ says Andrew Maude of Alpine Specialist, a ski property search company.

Although Lech and Kitzbuhel two of Austria’s most established resorts have the edge on glamour (the former is favoured by European royals, the latter by Russian billionaires), St Anton ticks all the boxes for a ski holiday. ‘It’s not as pretentious as Val,’ says Betony Garner of the Ski Club of Great Britain. ‘The skiing is excellent for all round experience, facilities are efficient and it has the most famous apr?s-ski in Austria.’

An added advantage is Sankt Anton’s year-round charm. ‘We have lots of clients who want to know what resorts are like in the summer,’ explains Mr Maude. ‘Austria will always outweigh other resorts for chocolate box appeal. What makes French resorts so good in the winter often makes them less so in the summer when big meadows look rather severe.’

Austrian resorts score more points on attractiveness because they are with the exception of purpose-built Obertauern established market and farming towns. ‘This means that they are lively outside the season,’ says Guy Taylor, an architect who bought a house in Rauris. ‘Even in season, the ratio of tourists to locals is always about 50:50.’ And because they lie in the valley basins, they are often more easily accessible than their French equivalents.

Investing time and money

Whether they choose Val d’Isère or St Anton, buyers need to make a sizeable investment of cash for the former and of patience for the latter.’Val is one of the top five resorts in the world,’ says Mr Maude. ‘There’s constant demand, few developments but a good spectrum of properties, from modest apartments to spectacular chalets that come with a hefty price tag.’

A two-bedroom flat in the centre of Val d’Isère costs from ?500,000 to ?1m (about £337,218 to £674,562), so many buyers are looking to nearby villages such as Sainte Foy, which has strict building regulations, a good atmosphere and easy access to the Espace Killy or La Plagne ski areas. ‘The price of a high-end property in Val d’Isère is probably four times that in a good village location outside the resort,’ says Chris Harrop of French Mountain Property. ‘Our top chalets go from ?2m to ?3m [about £1.4m to £2m], whereas 15 minutes up the road in Val, something similar could set you back ?8m to ?12m [about £5.4m to £8m].’ St Anton, by contrast, is cheaper than Val but suffers terribly from availability, according to Mr Maude.

‘The properties are owned by families, not developers, who are not looking to turn a quick profit,’ he says. Whereas the natives of Savoie have long been accustomed to selling houses to international buyers, the Austrian property market is only nascent, due to previous restrictions on foreign ownership. In some Lander (counties), foreigners could only buy a house if they lived in it permanently and proof of permanent residency sometimes involved inspections of window boxes.

‘Up until Austria joined the EU in 1999 it was only possible for Austrian nationals to purchase property, therefore development was on a small scale, as it catered purely for domestic buyers,’ explains Sean Collins of PURE International, who sold out of a development in Austria last year. ‘Now the Austrian market is maturing and its appeal is growing,’ he says. ‘We believe the sales pattern will be similar to Switzerland, where a ski destination that was relatively unknown to the international market becomes a very popular second home option.’

On the market

Close to the slopes

Erna Low (020-7590 1624) are selling six luxury apartments on the main slope in Val d’Is?re by the Solaise and Bellevards lifts. The property, to be completed in December 2007, comes with many ownership options, from leaseback to freehold. Prices start from ?650,000 (about £440,185).

Fun powder plot

Erna Low is also marketing a ski-in ski-out chalet, ‘Le Fornet’, 1km from Val’s village centre, for ?9m (about £6.1m). Pitched as the last remaining chalet plot in Val d’Isere, it is being designed and constructed by one of the first chalet builders in the French Alps. The property is for sale as a freehold and is due for completion ‘in time for the winter season.’ Call 020-7590 1624 for further details.

Complete with a hot tub

French Mountain Property have been in the business of restoring old Savoie farmhouses and building new properties using traditional materials and craftsmanship for a number of years. Behind the traditional fa?ades lie properties with all the accoutrements that one could wish for: outdoor hot tubs, gyms, steam rooms and indoor swimming pools. ‘These refinements are a draw for those who were once sniffy about being out of resort. At Chalet Merlo you can be chauffeured on and off the slopes, have five course dinners with Champagne and all at a fraction of the price,’ says Chris Harrop. French Mountain Property have a range of apartments and chalets on their books ranging from ?300,000 to ?3.2m (£202,123 to £2.1m). Contact them for further information (0845 324 3521; www.frenchmountainproperty.com).

Three’s company

If L’Espace Killy has a French rival, it’s the Trois Vallees (Courchevel, Meribel and Val Thorens), the largest ski area in the world. In Courchevel 1850, PURE International (020-7331 4500; www.pureintl.com) are marketing Les Chalets du Forum apartments, which have been built in traditional Savoyard architecture. Ski lifts are a mere 100 metres away and the properties enjoy views over the Mont Blanc. Prices start at £330,000.

Austrian adventure

Savills’ first foray into the Austrian property market has been the Sch?nblick Mountain Resort in Rauris, Salzburgerland, which is being built by Austrian Chalets (01943 882302; www.austrianchalets.com). ‘We are offering Alpine property that is truly within everybody’s reach,’ says Jeremy Rollason at Savills International. Prices start at £133,000 for a two-bedroom apartment (020-7016 3740; www.alpinehomesintl.com or www.savills.com).

Within an hour of Salzburg

The team behind Austrian Chalets (01943 882302; www.austrianchalets.com) have been successful at developing projects in Austria by gaining the respect of the locals. ‘We employ local builders and have nurtured close links with the Austrian tourist board,’ explains Guy Taylor. ‘And this means that we are given greater access to land.’ They are developing a number of projects within an hour’s drive of Salzburg airport (the busiest winter destination for UK airlines), one of which includes luxury ski-in, ski-out apartments in Obertauern.

Tyrolean tradition

If the very pretty village of Kitzbuhel is a must, Engel & V?lkers have a handful of properties on their books, including a traditional Tyrolean style chalet with four bedrooms and a separate guest apartment. Price is on application (00 43 535 671 615; www.engelvoelkers.com/kitzbuehel).