Switzerland does things differently from the rest of Europe, mainly because no ruler since the 14th century has been able to claim more than a theoretical sovereignty over the small, well-organised and prosperous group of cantons that comprise it. The Swiss do not like centralised government, they do not like foreigners, and they do not like surprises. The cycle of ‘boom and bust’ now so familiar in other European countries is not for them.
Switzerland is not a member of the EU, although nearly two-thirds of its exports are sold to EU countries. But even the 26 fiercely-independent cantons of ‘Fortress Switzerland’ cannot survive in total isolation. With the economy in a state of stagnation for more than two years now?largely a reflection of conditions throughout continental Europe?strenuous efforts are being made to expand tourism on a year-round basis. The industry contributes some $12 billion annually to the national economy.
With this in mind, the number of authorisations allowing foreigners who are not Swiss residents to buy a property in Switzerland, has been increased to about 1,700 a year, mainly in tourist cantons such as Berne, Ticino, Grison and the French-speaking Vaud and Valais in the south-west?the latter both close to Lake Geneva, and increasingly popular with British buyers. The German-speaking cantons have generally been less accommodating, with non-resident foreign ownership still not allowed in smart resorts such as Klosters, St Moritz and Zermatt, although Gstaad is a notable exception.
The result has been an influx of buyers, including many Britons, to the Valais in particular, where 900 applicants are currently chasing 400 authorisations, resulting in a two-year administrative backlog. This is not quite such a drawback as it sounds, because most properties are new-build and bought off-plan, so the completion of the property can be expected to coincide with receipt of the authorisation?in theory, at least. In addition, foreigners who buy a property in the Valais must now hold it for 10 years before they can sell it on, whereas previously they could sell after five.
Former Swiss banker Beat Hartmann ?one half of the Anglo-Swiss Hartmann Singleton agency based in Thirlby, North Yorkshire, which aims to steer British buyers through the minefield of Swiss property purchase, sums up the main provisions of the legislation introduced in January 1985. ‘First of all, having chosen the property you wish to buy, you must obtain an ‘authorisation to purchase’ from the cantonal authorities and from the Federal Department of Justice and Police, through a notary (in Switzerland, these are government officials). This can be a long-winded process involving a thorough scrutiny of the prospective purchaser’s financial and personal credentials, although applicants will usually be informed at an early stage if there are likely to be any problems.
‘As a general rule, non-Swiss may only buy one property per family, of a net floor-space and surface area not exceeding 200sq m and 1,000sq m respectively, although in cases of particular need, larger areas can be authorised up to 250sq m and 1,500sq m respectively.’
‘Finally, ownership of real estate in Switzerland in no way entitles the owner to Swiss residency.’
Notwithstanding all that, Mr Hartmann insists that nowadays ‘it is a myth that only the rich and famous can afford to buy property in Switzerland’. A view borne out by the findings of Savills International’s Global Residential Market Review 2006 (above) which shows ‘moderate’ house-price inflation in Switzerland compared with much of the rest of Europe?around 3% annually for the past four years. Charles Weston-Baker further points out that: ‘During the late 1990s, house prices even fell slightly, so that current values are significantly cheaper, relative to many other European countries, than they were a decade ago’.
All of which will be music to the ears of discerning Britons who, in the past two decades have seen rampant price inflation both in the UK and in traditional overseas destinations such as France, Italy, Spain and the Caribbean. ‘With the property market in Switzerland showing remarkable stability over the same period, the net result is that, today, property in Switzerland represents excellent value for money,’ Beat Hartmann adds.
Certainly, the prices quoted by Hartmann Singleton (00 44 18 45 59 77 95) for luxury chalets built to traditional Swiss high standards of comfort and design, in some of the most picturesque and popular resorts in the Valais, look reasonable enough to British eyes. For example, a classic, 200sq m, three-bedroom, alpine chalet near the ski slopes in the picture-postcard village of Grimentz, with its sun-browned wheat storage-barns known as ‘raccards’, costs from about £450,000.
A luxury three to five-bedroom chalet with an indoor swimming pool, games room and sauna, in glitzy, glamorous Crans-Montana?’the ideal winter-summer resort with great skiing and winter sports, but also a great golf course, and a vast network of tracks for hiking and mountain-biking, as well as superb restaurants, hotels and shops’?costs upwards of £1 million.
In the chic resort of Verbier, in the shadow of Mont Blanc on the French-Swiss border, a splendid four-bedroom chalet with a swimming pool and fitness room in the heart of town, with spectacular south-facing views of the Alps, costs about £2 million.
And the proof of the pudding is that, despite the complexities of the buying process, British and Irish skiers are already queueing-up to buy chalets and apartments in picturesque resorts throughout the Valais and the Vaud. Having climbed and skied in Switzerland for more than 25 years, Roger and Caroline Murray from Aberdeen?he is a senior BP executive, she is a doctor with the NHS ?were standing on the top of a mountain with the world at their feet, when they decided to take the plunge. The Murrays paid £636,400 through PURE International (00 44 73 31 45 00) for a new five-bedroom chalet at Les Flives in Grimentz with com-pletion due later this year. In the meantime, they have entered the tortuous authorisation process, from which they expect to emerge ‘some time between now and 2008’.
As Mr Murray explains, no formal transfer of ownership from developer to buyer can take place until the authorisation comes through, although another ingenious piece of Swiss lateral thinking will allow them to occupy the house in the meantime. ‘Our new chalet will be a welcome retreat from the stresses of fighting local authority plans to run the new Aberdeen by-pass within 300 yards of our home in Scotland, a process which could take seven years to resolve,’ Roger Murray comments wryly.
After five years of taking their three children?Charlie (13), Edward (10) and Harriet (5)?on skiing holidays to Switzerland, Oxford hotelier Gwyn Harries-Jones and his wife, Susan, decided that it made financial sense to buy a family apartment in the popular Domaine des Alpes develop-ment at Villars, in the Vaud, now that they could no longer all share one hotel room. They paid £440,000 for a four-bedroom ground-floor apartment, through PURE Inter-national, and already have their ski equipment safely stored in the basement, ready for the first snowfall of the winter. The sale was facilitated by a mortgage taken out with a Swiss bank at 3% interest, fixed for five years ?a relatively simple process, which took about a month to complete.
Meanwhile, music-industry legend Larry Levene was so taken with the prospects for long-term development in the Four Valleys ski area of the Valais, that he formed Alpine Homes in association with Savills in late 2005. ‘The aim,’ says Jeremy Rollason of Savills International (020?7034 3740), ‘was to raise awareness among British buyers of the excellent value offered by the Swiss property market which, despite its “fur-coat and glitz” image, runs like Swiss clockwork’.
The Résidence Pracondu at Nendaz, the neighbouring resort to Verbier, is the latest in a series of successful developments launched by Alpine Homes in the Four Valleys region and aimed mainly at British investors. The first phase of the Pracondu project, due for completion within months, consists of 36 fully-furnished, one to five-bedroom, ‘ski-in, ski-out’ apartments in a stylish apartment building with traditional wood façades and superb views of the Sion valley.
Prices start at £105,000 and the properties will be managed as part of a ground-breaking lease-back deal negotiated with Transmontagne, which currently manages 16,000 beds throughout Europe. This guarantees owners a rental income of 4% for 15 years, in addition to a holiday voucher which entitles them to the use, for a number of weeks each year, either their own apartment, or similar accommodation at any one of Transmontagne’s other projects across France.