Lake Maggiore sparkles under the warm late spring sun. Elegant houses in pastel colours line its azure waters, where equal numbers of swans, ducks and sailing boats gently bob under the watchful eye of croaking seagulls.
Languidly stretched between the Swiss Alps and the lake, the one-time fishing village of Ascona, in the Canton Ticino, encapsulates the old Europe charm that makes Switzerland so attractive to property buyers from around the world. It is good then that it happens to be one of the Swiss towns where it is easier for foreigners to buy a second home.
With a population of just 7.5 million, the Swiss are understandably worried about their country turning into a weekend-home destination full of empty beds. For this reason, both federal law and individual cantons and villages limit the number of properties available for purchase to non-residents, who must get a special buying permit.
Northern German-speaking cantons, such as Zurich or Zug, are usually the most restrictive. Earlier this year, however, Canton Valais?a long time favourite with British buyers?introduced a one-year moratorium on new permits in seven sought-after areas, including Grimentz and Verbier, to cope with the demand backlog.
Prospective buyers, however, should not despair. ‘There are still lots of properties you can buy, even in Valais,’ says Beat Hartmann of Hartmann Singleton estate agents. ‘The moratorium only applies to new builds. Any property that has a permit already and meets the resale requirements can be sold to a foreigner, because the permit remains with the property. You only have to transfer the deeds, but then you can become the legal owner.’
Take it easy in Ticino
And of course people can buy in the cantons that have a more liberal attitude towards foreign property purchase, such as the Italian-speaking Canton Ticino.
‘Canton Ticino has the same rules as Valais or Vaud in terms of living space that foreigners can buy?up to 200-250 square metres of net living space, in a plot of land of up to 1,000-1,500 sq m?but it has no resale restrictions,’ says Mr Hartmann. ‘They are also a bit more liberal about granting B [residency] permits to foreigners. And buying costs are lower than in other cantons at 2% to 2.3%, depending on area.’
The best news, however, is that Ticino has many first-rate destinations, which have perhaps a lower recognition factor in Britain but are just as appealing as better-known resorts.
Take Ascona, for example. In the Middle Ages, it became a safe haven for some Italian families fleeing Milan’s internecine wars. Their arrival gave Ascona, which is close to the Italian border, a bevy of fortified walls and crenellated towers.
Today, the remains of those fortresses preside over the cobbled side streets that criss-cross Ascona’s old town. Down on Lake Maggiore, stout ferry boats flying either Swiss or Italian flags take ice-cream-licking passengers to the peacock-studded botanical marvels that dot the waters?the heavenly scented Isole di Brissago and Gambarogno on the Swiss side of the lake, and Villa Taranto, the Isola Bella and the Isola Madre on the Italian side.
Inland, wooded hills and snow-capped peaks loom large at either side of Ascona’s slim 16th-century belltower. Although the winter skiing at nearby Cardada and Monte Tamaro fails to match Klosters or Sankt Moritz, the Swiss stretch of Lake Maggiore more than makes up for it by having the best weather in Switzerland, with an average of 2,300 hours of sun every year. Not to mention excellent food?plenty of cheese, cold cuts and fresh pasta?and a little known, but easily quaffable white Merlot.
‘The Canton Ticino has very good restaurants, very good hotels, and lots of interesting events, such as the Locarno Film Festival,’ says Mr Hartmann. ‘It is not for someone who is only interested in skiing?you can ski there but it is not as great as other Swiss resorts. It is more for summer or year-round buyers who are interested in the quality of life and boating across the lake. And a lot of people buy here for the golf.’
The vivid green of the several golf courses between Ascona and Locarno is indeed a big draw for outdoor types. But the tame wildness around Cardada, or along the narrow paths of the Centovalli, also demands long summer walks in search of old stone churches, mountain huts and ancient Roman bridges. It is here, on the hill just up from Ascona, that artists and philosophers from Germany, Scandinavia and Russia moved at the beginning of the last century to adopt a lifestyle founded on self-sufficiency, heliotherapy, the arts and a vegetarian diet . Today, Ascona, like the rest of the Ticino, attracts an altogether different crowd.
‘You get lots of old German money buying here,’ says Mr Hartmann. ‘And although it is very international, you also get people from Switzerland?old families from Basel, people in the chemical industry, or in banks. But the British are starting to discover it too.’
Grand Swiss and German families also vie with Italian and, increasingly, Russian buyers for second homes along Lake Lugano, a smaller lake about half an hour’s drive from Ascona.
Lugano oozes wealth, but of the subtle, old-fashioned kind. It shows in the elegantly enigmatic shapes of the bronze statues lining the lake waters, steely-grey under a pale morning mist. It shines in the grand turn-of-the-century palazzos on the opposite side of the lakeside promenade, which house dozens of discreetly signposted banks, auctioneers, and plush boutiques selling modern and antique watches. It even emerges in the jumble of narrow streets of the old city, where exquisite pralines, velvety slabs of artisanal chocolate, small but luscious strawberries, and the creamy expanse of Ticino Alps cheeses jostle for window space at the foot of pale pink and yellow palazzos.
Living a life of luxury
Together with Lake Maggiore, Lugano is the luxury hotspot of the Canton Ticino, which otherwise is the poorer relative of the German and French cantons. Property prices obviously match this privileged status.
‘In Lugano, we have seen an increasing trend for penthouses and luxury apartments,’ says Marco Fässler of Wetag Consulting estate agents. ‘At the top end of this market, you’d be looking at a minimum of CHF16,000 [£6,616] per sq m, up to CHF20,000 [£8,270], which is top price for Lugano. You will rarely find a penthouse for less than CHF3 million [£1.2 million].’
Luxury villas with ample grounds and gardens cost even more. ‘Villas of some significance, with 2,000-3,000 sq m grounds and 600 to 1,000 sq m of living space are certainly beyond CHF8 million [£3.4 million], and more often around CHF10 million [£4.1 million],’ says Mr Fässler.
‘Patrician houses can be CHF15-20 million [about £6.2m to £8m],’ agrees Mr Hartmann. ‘For other places on the lakes, you can spend anything from two, three or four million pounds. But if you go a bit outside in the valleys, you can get nice properties for £500,000 to £600,000.’
And although they are not always available for sale to non-resident foreigners, some old rustici in the more secluded mountain slopes go for as little as £40,000 to £50,000.
‘The prices in Locarno are much higher than in the Valli,’ says Catherine Frigo Schmidiger of Engel & Völkers. ‘In the Locarnese region (especially in Ascona) there is a big demand for properties?we have a waiting list of people who are looking for a property next to the lake or with view over the lake.’
Among the most popular buys on both Lake Maggiore and Lake Lugano are apartments in developments with 24-hour servicing, which includes anything from security to cleaning, from swimming pools to cigar bars.
‘People who are interested in a property here do not like to spend much time cleaning the house or looking after the garden,’ says Mrs Frigo Schmidiger. ‘They only like to enjoy their holiday and close the door before leaving,’ she adds.
This kind of apartment can cost easily up to £1 million or more, and lake views command a further premium. Mr Hartmann warns that neither apartments nor villas are ever going to
fetch astronomic yields and high capital appreciation, although they are going to maintain their value over time.
But then hard figures are not what make Switzerland attractive. ‘If you want an apartment to rent out, you can do it, but really you don’t need it to be in Switzerland,’ he says. ‘If you buy in Switzerland, you buy a piece of lifestyle. And the Canton Ticino is the perfect place to sip your wine and enjoy life.’
The ins and outs of buying in Canton Ticino
Non-Swiss residents can only buy a home of up to 200 sq m (about 2,152 sq ft) of net living space, set in up to 1,000 sq m of grounds. This means that foreigners can only bag the lovely Art Nouveau villas that line Lake Maggiore and Lake Lugano if they are prepared to get a Swiss residency permit. For those who would rather not bother with a resident’s permit, however, there are plenty of beautiful apartments available for sale — often situated in period lakeside buildings – which meet teh Canton’s size restrictions.