People accustomed to fleeing to France for their fix of the Alps easily forget the innate charm of Switzerland, its smaller neighbour. A fiercely independent country with plenty of character, Switzerland has much to offer lovers of the great outdoors-its resorts aren’t vast, crowded ski-break factories and it’s bewitching in the summer.
Lately, however, much of the country’s political attention has focused on second homes and wealth taxation, causing some prospective property buyers to sit on the fence and wait for the dust to settle. There’s much to understand before one takes the plunge, but the experts at Knight Frank’s Swiss desk warn that, if you wait too long, you risk missing the boat altogether. Although Switzerland’s stability and security remain unmatched, recent legislation means that the number of new-build second homes available for purchase will soon fall to zero.
The country has long set strict criteria (and controls) on foreign ownership. For example, non-resident foreign buyers can only buy property in designated areas, within specified size limits-usually 200sq m 250sq m-and need a permit to do so (a maximum of 1,500 are granted every year). However, January saw the introduction of the Lex Weber, which limits the proportion of second homes in each munici-pality to 20%-an interesting figure when considering that some popular Alpine towns already have more than 60% second homes. Planning permissions granted at the end of last year still allow for a last batch of properties to be built, but, after that, the communities that exceed the 20% quota will get no planning consent for holi-day homes in the future.
Because of this, agents agree that, after the initial glut has come to market, the value of existing second homes will go up. ‘There will come a time when people look back at this coming five years and say: “There was that time period and we missed it”,’ predicts Jeremy Rollason of Savills Alpine Homes. ‘Of course, buyers will still be able to buy existing second homes as resales, but there will be nothing else new, off-plan, again, so if you’re interested in buying that, you need to think about doing it soon.’
Much has been made of this law, but few know that there is also a counterweight to the legislation, as Mr Rollason points out. Swiss residents, who previously hadn’t been allowed to sell to non-Swiss residents, may, from January, sell their property to non-residents, too, provided that they’ve owned their house for five years or more and meet a stringent set of conditions. This is a concession towards foreign buyers, however, this month brings yet another vote on res-tricting the total amount of land that can be developed in each canton and, if this goes through, it will put developable land at a premium-in effect, acting as an additional limit to future supply.
Another important change afoot is the potential end to the forfait fiscal, the agreement that allows residents who own a property in Switzerland to pay a relatively small lump sum in tax per year based on the rental value of their home (as long as they don’t do business in the country). Some cantons, including Zurich, have already withdrawn the arrangement, but others, such as Bern, have upheld it. However, all this becomes moot if a national vote scheduled for 2015 chooses to ban the forfait fiscal outright: in this event, every canton will have to comply.
As Alex Koch de Gooreynd of Knight Frank notes, however, even if the forfait fiscal is removed, it will take time to enact this in law, and anyone moving to Switzerland now would be likely to have
a guaranteed five-year period of grace before they were presented with (as yet undecided) alternative arrangements.
Swiss tax agreements remain generally satisfactory and this, coupled with low interest rates and with a set exchange rate of CHF1.20 to the Euro, which made the country more affordable to Eurozone buyers, ensured transactions in the final quarter of 2012 were noticeably up, according to agents. Now that a potential shortage of stock and the Eurozone wobbles are acting as additional incentives to buy-Switzerland is seeing benefits from France’s new tax regime, which has instilled doubts in many would-be buyers-the positive market trend looks set to continue into the future.
Swiss property focus: Grindelwald
High up in the Bernese Oberland, Grindelwald has been a favourite with the British for many years. The adventurous spirit that marked the end of the 19th century delivered British climbers to the foot of the Eiger, determined to conquer its forbidding vertical north face. These days, visitors come from all over the world to enjoy the Eiger, the Mönch and the Jungfrau, and Grindelwald has become a classic Alpine destination.
Getting there is easy. Regular flights link City Airport to Bern, then it’s just a 45-minute drive, and the roads are good. When you do arrive, it feels like stepping intoan idyllic past: local planning laws ensure that properties are all built in traditional style. The small town centre is little enough to walk through in minutes, and you get the impression of an utterly unspoiled place.
Although it’s not the highest of resorts, skiing is pleasant and geared towards families, with a total of 132 miles of runs ranging from fast to leisurely. Most of the in-resort runs pass through trees, with the better snow higher up at the base of the Eiger. Non-skiers also get their money’s worth: 62 miles of winter footpaths enable you to explore the mountains on foot and the toboggan runs are legendary.
Property values have roughly doubled in eight years, with lack of supply driving prices up steadily. Beat Hartmann from Hartmann Singleton (01845 597795; www.hartmann singleton.com) has been going to Grindel-wald for years and owns a property there himself. ‘It’s not as high as Zermatt, but its charm lies in the combination of great skiing until April, which is quickly followed by a beautiful spring filled with fresh flower meadows and swimming in the alpine lakes. Resorts higher up may boast snow for longer, but their summers are short.’
Planning consent is difficult to get, and a popular new development from local firm GriwaPlan has been an outright success. High above the centre of town, with striking views and ski-in, ski-out access, the four-star Hotel Aspen offers apartments for sale and to rent. Although they come with top-of-the-range fixtures and fittings, including under-floor heating, the properties feel very tradi-
tional, and feature plenty of wood and other natural materials. They have log fires and large outdoor terraces, which offer unrivalled views of the village and the mountains. The two remaining units (out of a total of 14) are priced from CHF1.98 million (£1.32m) for the two-bedroom apartment (00 41 33 85 41 160; www.griwatreuhand.ch).
You can buy an apartment for self-use or just for investment. If selecting self-use, you can spend 120 days per year at the property (40 of those in high season), and when you’re not there, the apartment is let as part of the hotel (with a 50%-50% split between you and the developer). The
annual income for owners is estimated at £40,000-£50,000. GriwaPlan is also deve-loping another site down in Grindelwald itself, which should be complete by the end of July, with apartments starting from just above CHF1 million (£698,000).
The largest development currently under way in the area is Bergwelt-Grindelwald. The 60 apartments are priced from CHF950,000 (£664,000) and chalets start from CHF4.8 million (£3.35m) through Hartmann Singleton. The developer is also partnering with a luxury hotel brand to bring top-end service to residents, who can choose their style of villa and interior decoration. Buyers will own the freehold and won’t have to join rental schemes when they’re not at the property, something that is becoming increasingly common throughout Switzerland as the country continues its crusade against ‘empty beds’.
Near the charming little train station at Hotel Schweizerhof, the gregarious Anne-liese and Otto Hauser-Seger are expanding their very successful property empire. Having built an attractive mix of apartments and chalets on the land behind the hotel, they now have permission to build more properties. Mr Hauser-Seger also has resales from time to time, including a chalet bought in 2008, but hardly used. In tip-top condition, this large property has three double bedrooms and a games/billiard room on the ground floor. Upstairs is the vast open-plan living area with a large terrace, and on the top floor sits the master suite with private terrace, which offers incredible views of the surrounding mountains and the village below. The price is CHF4.25 million (£2.97m) through Hartmann Singleton.
Where else to buy Swiss ski property
Gstaad’s old-fashioned glamour and great range of skiing have always appealed to British holidaymakers and property buyers alike. However, owning a house near Roger Moore will set you back a pretty penny: apartments are priced CHF5 million-CHF7 million (£3.49m-£4.89m) and a chalet more than CHF10 million (£6.98m).
That said, houses here will always hold their value. Hartmann Singleton are asking a relatively sane starting price of about CHF4.5 million (£3.14m) for three- and four-bedroom off-plan apartments just three minutes from the centre, which have fine open-plan kitchens, living and dining areas with fireplace and large terraces.
Another very appealing destination, Saas Fee, in the German part of the Valais canton, boasts year-round glacier skiing and some of the best runs in the country. It also has a reputation for excellent dining and is investing heavily in infrastructure this year. A three-bedroom apartment here will cost about CHF1 million (£698,000)-a fraction of what you will pay in Gstaad or St Moritz.
However, the majority of British buyers traditionally turn to the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Montreux is one of the areas designated for foreign buyers and a jaw-dropping first-floor apartment with two double bedrooms, balconies, a large terrace and amazing lake views in the redeveloped National Hotel is being offered by Knight Frank for CHF3.950 million (£2.76m) (020-7629 8171; www.knightfrank.com).
The company is also selling the new Du Parc Kempinski Private Residences in a lakeside location 50 miles from Geneva. Complete with spa, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, this grandproject-whose huge apartments range from 200sq m to 650sq m-enjoys the services of the Kempinski Private Residence brand. Prices start at CHF6.3 million (£4.4m).
Savills Alpine Homes are forecasting a 5% annual rise in prices for desirable properties in the Four Valleys. Buyers’ interest is certainly there: ‘For the beginning of 2013, Verbier has been the third most popular search on our entire website, which covers the Alps in France, Switzerland and Austria,’ says Mr Rollason. ‘Most of our buyers aren’t looking for investment-only property-they’re lifestyle buyers who want to come and spend time in the Swiss Alps, possibly with a view to eventually passing on their house to their children without having to pay Inheritance Tax.’
Long a preserve of the British, Verbier offers very good skiing with excellent après-ski. From the top of Mont-Fort, there are impressive views in all directions, including Mont Blanc to the west and the Matterhorn to the east. The town itself attracts a mix of people and has a cosmopolitan charm. Currently on the market with Alpine Homes, a chalet in Chemin de Plan Pra, just 10 minutes from the Place Centrale, comes with five bedrooms, indoor pool, Jacuzzi and great mountain views, all for CHF18.85 million (£13.17m) (020-7016 3740; www.alpinehomesintl.com).
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