Owning a property in Switzerland – rather like having a Swiss bank account – used to be a considered an option only for the ultra-rich. The Swiss themselves were remarkably adept at keeping foreigners away, so despite its central location in Europe and its geographical beauty – lakes, mountains and traditional villages – Switzerland remained rather more famous for its watches and chocolate than its second-home market.
© Grimentz Tourist Board
With four official languages and significant legal differences between the 26 cantons (regions) of Switzerland, there is little that is straightforward about the country. The federal government controls the issue of permits that allow foreigners to buy property, only issuing 1,400 a year; many cantons simply do not allow non-Swiss nationals to buy property.
Property-hunters who are prepared to learn the rules, however, are rewarded with the chance to own a home in a beautiful country with a streamlined buying process, a stable economy and a fantastic ability to get things done.
“Although the restrictions may seem burdensome and involve additional legal expense they do have the advantage for foreign buyers of guaranteeing the relative exclusivity of neighbourhoods,” says Charles Weston-Baker of Savills International. “There was a mini-boom in house-price inflation between 2001 and 2003. Since 2004, price rises have settled at an average increase of two to three per cent a year.”
For many buyers it is this low-key stability – the Swiss market has no history of boom and bust – that appeals. Property is generally built to a high standard and often represents far better value than over the border in France. Astute British buyers are slowly getting the message, according to specialists in the Swiss market.
“We are experiencing a growth in year-on-year enquiries and sales,” says Sean Collins of Pure International. “The enduring appeal of Switzerland is about the quality of life, low inflation, low borrowing costs and low tax. These become even more important as a safe-haven investment in the current world of financial turmoil.”
The Valais moratorium
Prospective property-buyers in Switzerland were left out in the cold last December when seven areas of the Valais canton imposed a one-year moratorium on foreign buyers. With this one unexpected move, non-Swiss residents could no longer buy in popular ski resorts such as Grimentz, Nendaz and parts of Verbier. British buyers, lured to the Valais as the Swiss region with the highest concentration of peaks higher than 13,000ft, had to look elsewhere.
Now that year is almost up and speculation is rife over the next step. Will the moratorium be lifted or will it be extended for another year? “The moratorium was announced as a 12-month initiative designed to suppress buyer demand in the traditionally popular resorts,” says Collins. “There has not been any further information released concerning whether it will continue in 2008, although our expectation is that it will.”
Simon Malster of Investors in Property is altogether more upbeat: “The official announcement has yet to be made, but recent comments by a member of the Conseil Cantonal du Valais imply that the moratorium will be lifted in communes that have adopted new planning regulations to control new construction.”
Malster points out that buying restrictions have been gradually eroded. “Once, foreigners were not allowed to buy property over 100sq m, but that has changed to 200sq m now, and the rule banning resales within 10 years has changed to five years. We have found that the Swiss are welcoming to British investors.” Switzerland held parliamentary elections earlier this month and a decision on the future of the moratorium is due by Christmas. Watch this space.
Here are five examples to kick-start your Swiss house-hunt:
Residence Praçondu II, Nendaz, Four Valleys, The Valais: prices from £105,500
If you need proof that Swiss property doesn’t have to be expensive, look at the 40 apartments in this traditional-style building in the Four Valleys, two hours from Geneva. Residence Praçondu comes with underfloor heating, separate storage rooms and communal Jacuzzi and sauna, with prices from £105,500 to £375,000.
The one- to five-bedroom apartments in the second phase have a four per cent rental guarantee for 15 years and management company Alpvision will handle all maintenance and rentals.
The ski-in and ski-out location means owners can take full advantage of the 230 miles of piste in the Four Valleys, while summer visitors have a choice of seven golf courses nearby.
Contact Savills International (020 7016 3740; www.savills.com/abroad).
Beaulieu, Montreux: prices from £397,000
Enjoy lakeside living in the heart of cosmopolitan Montreux at Beaulieu, where nine contemporary apartments with one to five bedrooms are priced from £397,000. All apartments will have unobstructed lake views.
The festival town of Montreux is known as the gateway to the Alps with skiing at Villars only 20 minutes away and the world-class resorts of Verbier and the Portes du Soleil within two hours. Geneva and its international airport is an hour away by train or car.
The lake dominates the town, either for walks through the market stalls on the Grand-rue past the statue of local hero Freddie Mercury in the Place du Marché, or in views down from the charming Old Town with its colourful shuttered houses and steep, narrow streets.
Contact Pure International (020 7331 4500; www.pureintl.com).
Les Naturelles, Leukerbad, Valais: prices from £130,000
On the edge of the Valais in the German-speaking area of Switzerland, Leukerbad is home to the largest, natural thermal baths in the Alps. More than 60 springs produce water at a constant 51 degrees Celsius, which, when cooled, fills the 20 pools throughout the resort. The main baths are in the £27 million Alpentherme in the centre of the town, where you can swim between indoor and outdoor pools. There are Roman-Irish baths, ice baths, massage baths - the range of facilities and treatments is vast and prices reasonable.
Other facilities in the town include indoor tennis courts and ice rinks, an athletics stadium, gymnasium, bike track, endless therapy rooms and 50 restaurants all within walking distance. Two gondolas connect to 30 miles of high-altitude skiing and 16 miles of cross-country trails.
Five minutes' walk from the centre down a well-maintained path, Les Naturelles is a group of apartments built within five large interlinked chalets with views over the sheer walls of rock that enclose Leukerbad on three sides. The final remaining one-bedroom apartments in the development are priced from £130,000.
Contact Overseas Homesearch (0800 652 0769; www.overseashomesearch.co.uk).
La Residence, Grimentz: prices from £258,000
The pretty village of Grimentz lies two hours from Geneva and 30 minutes from Sion, in the Val d’Annivers. The dark wooden chalets in the heart of this 15th century village are swathed in colourful geraniums for much of the summer as hikers and bikers pass through the narrow streets. The skiing is good, with a 10,000ft glacier and the local lift pass providing access to five ski regions and 150 miles of piste.
La Residence is a modern take on the traditional Swiss chalet, with contemporary, loft-style interiors and vast glass expanses providing good mountain views. The one- to three-bedroom apartments start at £258,000, while the four- and five-bedroom homes are priced from £516,000.
Contact Pure International (020 7331 4500; www.pureintl.com).
Les Mayens De Sion, Les Agettes, Four Valleys: £1.1 million
Non-Swiss nationals are restricted on the size of property they can buy in most cantons, and these off-plan five-bedroom 10,000sq ft chalets are at the top limit. Buyers who sign up early can impose their own twist on the interiors, choosing to add a study or Jacuzzi, for example.
The five chalets of Les Mayes De Sion are 90 minutes from Geneva and set at an altitude of 4,265ft. The Piste de l’Ours ski lift is a three-minute walk away, ideal for winter skiing in the vast Four Valleys, the largest interlinked region in Switzerland, and also for summer hiking.
Contact Chesterton International (020 7201 2070; www.chesterton.co.uk).