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Property: Chalets

As Ryanair unveils its greatest-ever selection of cheap ski routes, where are the best places for you to invest?

Property: Chalets

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Route to the slopes

This time last year, reporting on the European ski market was a depressing prospect. A series of weak snow falls led to resorts cancelling events, and some even closed loss-making ski lifts. Puns such as “meltdown” and “piste-off ” were commonplace, and global warming became the hot issue, with commentators mulling over the death of the Alpine industry while sipping their mulled wine.

However, July’s Crystal Ski Industry Report – a yearly barometer of the UK ski industry’s popularity – revealed that skiers had not been put off by the chilly predictions, nor had they cut their annual ski jaunt out of their calendar. The 2007/2008 season saw the number of UK skiers heading abroad top 1.2 million, a 3% rise on the previous year, and the seventh consecutive year of growth. Yet while snow levels and climate concerns are not the main concerns for the upcoming 2008/2009 season, money and the credit crunch are. Will city bankers find their bonuses scrapped? Will the slide in the market affect their annual tumble on the slopes? At the time of going to press, skiing is bucking the trend, with family and luxury ski holidays selling well.

Figures from Ryanair underline this positive outlook, as the airline has this year its busiest ever winter ski routes. The 2008/2009 schedule has a choice of over 101 routes, a 40% increase on last year. Ryanair marketing manager Bridget Dowling says demand for new ski routes has been “huge” and “even those feeling the pinch this year can still get away for their week on the pistes”.

This is despite the fact that the Crystal Ski Industry Report also found that costs of the average ski trip for the new season have risen by about 8%. Meribel-based chalet company Fish and Pips claims that the global increase in food prices has added an extra 10% onto bills.

For those looking to invest in a ski property, France is still proving to be the biggest draw. Last year’s difficult season encouraged skiers and buyers to move to higher resorts with guaranteed snow. This favoured France, which still accounted for nearly 40% of holidaymakers – reflecting the enduring popularity of chalet and resort hotel holidays. Switzerland, which also benefits from high-altitude resorts, continued to edge up its share last season.

Club Med reports that during the first quarter of this year, sales to Alpine ski resorts rose by 14% due to the fact that many began closing unprofitable properties and investing and renovating underperforming chalets. With villages in ski resorts such as Val d’Isère and Chamonix, France remains the most positive market for chalet buyers as well as tourists. Austria, having been hit by concerns over climate change, is now back on track, especially for buyers looking for the best-value buys and rents. Crystal Ski managing director Mathew Prior believes that budget skiers are switching to Austria “because it is offering good quality accommodation at good prices”. It was also announced recently that in Austria they had just completed construction of what is claimed to be Europe’s “first energy selfsuffi cient eco-holiday village chalets”.

Last year, Austria broke through the 10 million visitors mark for the first time. This was due to increased investment in Austrian resorts, improved lifts and snowmaking facilities.

Austrian Tirol resort Ischgl, Spain’s Formigal, Switzerland’s Davos and Klosters and resorts in Finland such as Levi, are reported to be popular this season. Finland’s Levi is due to receive heavy investment over the next three years, the majority of which will be in accommodation.

Even though it hosted the last Winter Olympic Games in Turin in 2006 and the Knight Frank Global House Price Index reported this summer that its prices have risen by 5.4% in the last year, Italy was one of the losers in terms of results last season and its poor snow resulted in a 2% drop in interest.

Another big loser in the ski market was Andorra, which saw its share of visitors drop from 11% to 7%. Despite this, property figures rose by 5%, although it’s worth remembering Andorra is a tax haven and this attracts buyers who are interested in how much they can save rather than the quality of the snowfall.

For skiers and investors, Scotland proved to be a surprise hit last year – its resorts reported their best season for a decade. Good snowfall in March and Easter led to Lecht reporting a visitor increase of up to 20%. But, while skier numbers are up, the number of ski-able days has dropped by 80% in the past six years. And while the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors is reporting that property prices in Scotland are performing better than in the rest of the UK, buyer enquiries have dropped.

Investors in Property managing director Simon Malster says that “property prices in the Alps have hardly been affected by the seesawing world markets”. Having weathered the 1990 crash, Malster recounts that while volume and demand of properties fell extremely, prices did not. “We had some bank repossessions in the 1990s, but most were at the very bottom end of the market. The Swiss market was particularly robust. Most clients who buy here have good liquidity and are buying for the long term, so when things get tough they do not need to sell. The Alps has not experienced the huge building boom that has created an oversupply of new property and falling prices in countries like Spain,” he says.

The Swiss franc is always a safe bet, he adds, and recommends the Verbier ski area for buyers because, while it is a touch expensive, his company has found reasonably priced properties for just over €258,700 near to the high-speed lifts. In Austria, he recommends the Gastein Valley, about an hour from Salzburg. There has been a lot of development in the last two years, as well as investment in a new hotel and luxury chalets. However, you can still get properties in the area for a 10th of that. Now where did I leave my skis again?


An OECD report in 2006 put the ski tourism figure in Europe at 60 million– 80 million tourists, with 160 million “skier days” in France, Austria, Switzerland and Germany each year, and about 666 medium-to-large Alpine ski areas.

Average per m2:
France              €9,329
Italy                  €7,054
Switzerland       €5,534
Andorra            €4,140
Austria              €3,000
Germany          €2,332

% cost of buying:
Italy              17.00%
France          16.30%
Austria          11.82%
Germany       11.46%
Andorra        10.00%
Switzerland      5.74%

Take Five
Winter wonderland hideaways

Zehnerkar Resort
Obertauern, Austria

PRICE:From €190,262
DETAILS: of Austria’s highest resorts, and consists of 41 luxury apartments all situated only an hour from Salzburg airport.

Pyrenees, France

PRICE:From €194,400
DETAILS:A 2nd-floor apartment in a chalet built in 1837 at Luchon, described as “the Nice of the Pyrenees”. Closest to Pau airport, it has one bedroom and 4,000m2 of land. The chalet has six apartments in total.

La Tania
Trois Vallées, France

PRICE:From €1,925,000
DETAILS:A new-build, freehold chalet at the relatively new La Tania resort in the Three Valleys, France. This high-quality, 140m2 property has five bedrooms, an open log fireplace and occupies a panoramic spot. La Tania is set between Courchevel and Meribel, and can be reached via Grenoble (Lyon) airport.

Canton of Valais, Switzerland

PRICE: From €3,680,100
DETAILS:This four-bedroom duplex apartment is located in one of Switzerland’s most prestigious resorts, close to Les Esserts. The property has traditional alpine architecture, and a balcony with views across Verbier and the valley.

The Silk Mill Lofts
Briançon, France

PRICE:From €145,500
DETAILS:Set in the Unesco-listed town of Briançon and located closest to Turin airport, this former silk mill will consist of about 250 apartments. Just a short walk from the gondola that takes you to the mountains, it provides quick access to the Serre Chevalier ski area.

Been there done that
Building a B&B in the snow
One family loved the Alps so much they set up their own guesthouse business there
Fiona Hopkinson, her husband Christopher and their children, Geoffrey, 15, Lilas, 13, and Alfie, 11, are clearly big snow fans – but it was perhaps global warming that first led them to their dream home in a ski resort in France.

“We have holidayed in France for years and used to own a property in Burgundy. When we were staying there it was desperately hot,” says Fiona. “The family decided to go to the Alps to cool down and we found Les Contamines quite by accident. At the end of two days I told my husband that I would like to live here and we discovered a plot of land for sale moments before we had to leave.”

At the time they were living in a small village outside Newbury in the UK, but started the process quickly. After finding the site in August 2003 they agreed a price by October, received planning permission by December, started construction in March when the snow melted and on 18 December 2004 their new B&B business, Chalet Chovettaz, opened for guests.

“We sold our house in the UK for just under £1 million (€1,283,875) and paid €250,000 for the plot of land and €900,000 for the construction. As the UK property was 300m2 and Chalet Chovettaz is 600m2 we got twice as much property for the same price and a business into the bargain.”

Fiona says the French planning system was simple to negotiate but she highly recommends speaking to the local town mayor and seeking their agreement upfront as it can push the process along quicker.

“Moving to Les Contamines was surprisingly painless. Some of our furniture arrived early, along with the first heavy snow of the season, but we soon sorted this out. The chalet itself is phenomenal. My family lives in our own private and self-contained three bedroom apartment, while the guest section has a further six bedrooms and sleeps 12–14 guests.

“Living in France is very different from the UK – healthcare and education are super. Before we moved to France I hardly saw the children. They were at school from 8am–6.30pm and apart from Geoffrey, the eldest, they weren’t happy. While Geoffrey remains at boarding school in England, Lilas and Alfie are attending local French schools. They are completely fluent in French and are very happy.

“Christmas in Les Contamines is a bit different from the UK. Because the area is dependent on tourism we don’t take the holiday in the traditional UK sense. The children have school holidays but everyone works on Christmas Eve and then celebrates with their families that evening.

“Each year, the village organises a spectacle that involves Santa Claus parapenting on skis onto the nursery slope in the heart of the village. The ski-school instructors and all the children are gathered at the top of the slope with burning torches, and when the Santa Claus lands they follow him down the piste. Then there is a procession through the town with Santa distributing sweets from on top of a horse-drawn sleigh. Parents are provided with drink. It’s great!”

The Hopkinsons bought through Chesterton international, www.chesterton-international.com

Tips & debate
Don’t get taken for a ride!
When investing with an agent or development you’ve never heard of before, what sort of basic questions should you be asking?
Each year many people lose money by giving deposits to internet agents, watching developments go overdue or not completed, or ending up with properties that cannot be rented out. Although not foolproof, the following tips may educate you in avoiding any pitfalls and help you to avoid becoming one of the nightmare statistics.

Do they have accreditation?
Depending on where you are from, we all like seeing the “Guaranteed Irish” or “Royal Warrant” on goods. The Association of International Property Professionals (www. aipp.org.uk) is a good place to start when looking for a reliable agent, as the organisation aims to find the best property agents in each country and also has a code of conduct for its members. The Federation of Overseas Property Developers, Agents and Consultants (www.fopdac.com) was established in 1973 and is another organisation that seeks to highlight reliable companies and recently joined with the UK’s National Association of Estate Agents.

Is the company award-winning?
While many say awards are subjective and can be biased if a developer or agent has been hailed by its peers, it can be a good indication that it is reliable – how many cowboys are going to put themselves in the spotlight for scrutiny from the media and the industry? The two main consumer awards are the Homes Overseas Awards (www.homesoverseas.co.uk/ awards) and the International Property Awards (www.propertyawards.net). There are also two new trade awards run by AIPP and Overseas Property Professional (www.opp.org.uk).

What’s the word on the ground?
Check with your local embassy (www.embassyworld.com) in the country or area you want to invest in. It can provide accurate, independent and unbiased advice as to which agents are the best in the region and what the local, on-the-ground concerns might be. Is the nice family oriented seaside resort really a party town? Are the locals beginning to feel the global pinch, or tourists starting to stay away?

What are the financial/legal aspects?
When you buy abroad you are taking on more than just bricks and mortar. You should consider the legal entitlements and get yourself a good independent lawyer who also speaks the language. The Global Property Guide website (www.globalpropertyguide.com) outlines what you’re likely to pay, the procedures and the contact details for lawyers. A service called IDIP (International Developers Information Pack) also allows buyers to see financial reports, legal documentation and ownership details of developers and developments.

Is there any other side to the story?
The country may have great beaches, fantastic sun and lovely food, but what is its crime rate like? Get the lowdown on the place you are about to invest in at www.nationmaster.com. You can also find out which are the happiest countries to live in and the best places to retire.

Shane Mcginley is overseas property correspondent for the Sunday tribune.

07 November 08