In 1741, the young English aristocrats William Windham and Richard Pocock discovered the remote alpine priory of Chamouni hidden among the peaks and glaciers of the mysterious Mer de Glace. Following the conquest of Mont Blanc in 1786, mountaineers and skiers flocked to the area, but it was the advent of the railway in the early 1900s that made Chamonix a Mecca for winter sports, and the venue for the first Winter Olympics in 1924.
Today, despite the advent of mass tourism and residential development, the largely unspoilt Alpine towns and villages of the Chamonix Valley from Les Houches, Les Bossons and Chamonix, to Les Praz, Argentiere, Mont Roc and Vallorcine at its upper end have retained much of their unique Belle Époque charm, thanks to fiercely conservationist policies enforced by the local planners. In property terms, Chamonix has always been linked to the upper end of the residential market, accessible only to the most affluent of British buyers. But that may be about to change, as vendors start to realise that, even in Chamonix, buyers no longer expect to pay the asking price.
As Gareth Jefferies of Winkworth reports: ‘We’re seeing record levels of activity on our website from buyers attracted by recent price-falls but they want a bargain. Offers of 10–20% below the asking price are being made, with some being accepted, others not. If the snow is good this year and, so far, the signs are encouraging then the Alpine market could well see a busy season, as buyers seize the opportunity to acquire a property in one of the best locations in the Alps, at a price they could only have dreamed about a year or two ago.’
Winkworth France (00 44 20 8576 5582) are asking €1.49 million for a four-bedroom luxury duplex chalet with private underground parking and storage at the exclusive Chalets de la Tannerie in the hamlet of Les Tines, near Chamonix, a superb location close to the ski lifts, with magnificent views of the Mont Blanc massif. A chalet such as this would command a rental return of about €45,000 for the entire 20-week season, the agents reckon.
In a bid to boost year round occupation of holiday homes in this scenic valley, the local authorities have allowed the construction of a small number of upmarket sale-and-leaseback developments linked to exclusive small hotels. Savills Alpine Homes (00 44 20 7016 3740) are handling the sales of 10 two/three-bedroom, fully furnished ski lodges at Les Granges d’en Haut in Les Houches, at €1.78m each.
The chalets will be managed by the on-site hotel (a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group) with guaranteed rental returns for a period of 11 years, after which the owner can retain the lodge for his own exclusive use or continue as part of the rental scheme. Chamonix’s growing popularity as a year-round holiday destination has prompted France’s biggest Alpine developer, Annecy-based MGM (00 44 207 494 0706) to build a fifth and final freehold chalet of seven two- to four-bedroom apartments at the award-winning Le Hameau des Glaciers in Les Houches, in addition to the four already built and sold.
At €322,000 for a freehold, 560sq ft, two-bedroom apartment, prices at Le Hameau des Glaciers are roughly half those of comparable properties in the resort, the developers maintain. Proof that the British spirit of Alpine adventure is still alive and well in the Chamonix Valley is provided by the creators of a charming small development of three state-of-the-art chalets and a part-restored/part-new village house at La Ferme de Chosalets, in the environmentally sensitive hamlet of Argentiere. Here, English expats Simon Warren and former Royal Engineer Richard Barker have teamed up as Base Chalets (00 33 624 814987) to build the houses, using traditional craftsmen and materials, such as cedar roof tiles and the local limestone render. Two chalets are on target for completion by Christmas snow permitting.
The third chalet and the village house, which incorporates a 17th-century grenier tower, will be ready in time for the summer season. Prices range from €1.375m for a four-bedroom/three-bathroom chalet to €1.75m for the largest five bedroom/five bathroom chalet; the village house is priced at €1.55m. Knight Frank (020–7629 8171) are handling international sales, and rentals will be managed by the locally-based Mountain Retreats (00 44 16 35 253946), which is run by Richard’s wife, Veronica.