Inside the Alps’ Toniest Towns
From St. Moritz to Meribel, here’s what you’ll find in France and Switzerland
By Claire Carponen
The French Alps have long been a favorite among British buyers. They’re easily accessible from Britain, are home to the world’s largest ski area—known as the Three Valleys—and are more affordable than Switzerland. But concerns about Brexit have made would-be second-home buyers hesitant about purchasing in France, and some holiday homeowners are choosing to sell their chalets because the euro is strong, according to agents.
Meanwhile, the Swiss market is seeing an increase in British buyers, who are wary of buying in places with the euro due to the upcoming Brexit, said Simon Malster, from Investors in Property.
“The strength of the Swiss franc is legendary and buyers are seeing it as a solid currency to invest in,” he said.
Agents say the majority of second-home owners buying in the Alps plan to rent their property and want to know if they can make enough income to cover the running costs. They are looking for evidence of the resort’s desirability year round and whether it is renewing their ski infrastructure and investing in non-ski activities.
According to Knight Frank’s most recent Ski Property Report, which was released earlier this week, France’s Chamonix leads in price growth in 2017 as compared to 2016, with prime prices up 4.8% in the year to June 2017. Chamonix, the report said, has now seen prime prices increase by almost 5% for two consecutive years.
Below, we look at what’s happening in the market in some of the best resorts in the European Alps.
A glamorous resort that’s been a winter playground for the rich and famous since 1864
Few ski resorts are as well-known and prestigious as St. Moritz. Synonymous with the rich and famous, it has been visited by many well-known faces. In its heyday during the golden age of Hollywood, Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin and Sophia Loren skied on its slopes. More recently, it has attracted the likes of George Clooney and Claudia Schiffer.
Located 1,800 feet above sea level in the Engadin valley, St. Moritz became an alpine resort in the mid-19th-century and claims to the birthplace of winter sports. It is home to the world’s oldest bob sleigh race track, the Olympic Bob Run St. Moritz-Celerina.
A combination of history, old school glamour, 300 days of sunshine a year and great snow records make St. Moritz one the most exclusive resort and ski areas in the Alps, with property prices typically ranging between €23,000 and €31,000 (US$27,241 and US$36,716) per square meter, according to Knight Frank.
Not only are prices prohibitively high, it is also very difficult to buy a home here if you are a non-Swiss resident. At present, the total number of homes that can be sold each year to non-residents in the whole of Switzerland is 1,440, according to Alex Koch de Gooreynd, partner at Knight Frank.
“Switzerland is largely closed to overseas purchasers due to the Lex Weber law, which restricts the percentage of second homes in any commune to 20%,” he said.
However, there is a new apartment scheme that is exempt from the restrictions and limitations that generally apply on the sale and purchase of Swiss real estate by non-Swiss nationals. Earlier this year the hotel group Grace Hotels launched a collection of 17 apartments, which will be serviced by the Grace St. Moritz Hotel, scheduled to open in 2019.
All of the homes will be put in the hotel’s rental scheme, but selling agent Knight Frank said it is too early to forecast return on investment at this stage. Prices start from CHF 740,000 (US$766,000) for a studio and CHF 9.9 million (US$10.2million) for a penthouse.
On The Market:
Location: St. Moritz, Switzerland
Price: CHF 740,000 to CHF 9.9 million (US$759,052 to US$10.15 million)
The former La Margna hotel, built in 1906, is being restored and extended by the luxury hotel group Grace Hotels to create a hotel and 17 apartments, which range from studio flats to a four-bedroom mezzanine penthouse. The apartments will have full access to the hotel’s spa and fitness center, restaurants, martini and cigar bar and 24-hour concierge.
A popular year-round resort offering value and great views of Mont Blanc
Chamonix is a world-renowned ski resort, which lies in the shadow of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps. A bustling year-round alpine town, there are more people visiting in summer thanks to incredible walking trails and mountaineering in the Chamonix Valley, according to Roddy Aris, an agent with Knight Frank.
Demand is growing for homes in Chamonix because it still offers value for money. Prices in Chamonix have increased year-on-year and the town is leading the charge as the resort with the highest increase in the Alps in price per square meter in 2017, Mr. Aris said. The average price per square meter in Chamonix in June this year was €11,000, according to Knight Frank.
Continual investment in the resort’s infrastructure has sparked interest from buyers and tourists, according to a report on ski property written by Knight Frank last year.
Compagnie du Mont Blanc, the operator of the ski area and mountain transportation in Chamonix, has pledged almost half a billion euro over the next 15 years, according to Mr. Aris.
“This will have a direct impact on the quality of life and infrastructure in the valley, which in turn will positively affect house prices,” he said.
Mr. Aris added: “The company is committing a further €477 million (US$565 million) of investment over the next few years to upgrade the lift system and part of the valley’s infrastructure.”
Lars Brown, senior sales executive at Erna Low Property, said that when their agents speak to clients regarding Chamonix purchases, most say they are looking to visit their property a lot, with an emphasis purely on the skiing—weekend trips with friends and weeks of off-piste training.
A 20% discount on new properties offers a big incentive for buyers. Buyers can reclaim the VAT on the price of some off-plan properties if they let out their property through the French leaseback scheme for 20 years.
On The Market:
Location: Chamonix, France
Price: €6.3 million (US$6.7 million)This six-bedroom, new-build chalet has been well insulated and features a geothermal heating system. The 4,500-square-foot home has an open plan living/dining room, separate kitchen, an indoor swimming pool with large doors leading out to the garden, a cinema room, gym and spa with sauna, steam room and a rainforest shower.
Courchevel 1850, France
A high-end resort in the Three Valleys where the super-rich like to splash their cash
A high level of service, an unrivaled number of hotels with five stars or Palace ratings, and myriad glamorous shops make Courchevel 1850 a hit with the global super-rich.
It is not uncommon to see people arrive by helicopter or private jet. The resort has fur coat shops, and a beer often costs around €18 (US$21). Despite the prices, for some, it’s the only place they’ll consider, Mr. Aris said.
The highest and most expensive of the four Courchevel villages, is the Three Valleys, said to be the world’s largest (and arguably the best) ski area.
Overall, 1850 is among the world’s most expensive property markets, with buyers paying an average of €12 million to €16 million (US$14 million to $19 million) for a 600- to 800-square-meter chalet, or €20,000 to €25,000 (US$24,000 to US$30,000) per square meter for an apartment, according to Olivier Roche, CEO of Courchevel and Megève Sotheby’s International Realty.
Top-end mountain homes cost more than €20 million (US$24 million). It is possible to buy a chalet for between €8 million and €10 million (US$9.5 million and US$12 million), though it would probably require modernization and won’t be centrally located, Mr. Roche said.
So, who buys here? About 70% to 80% of buyers are not residents in France, Mr. Roche said. “The British are the top investors, the Russians come second, and Brazilians, Swiss and Spanish are prominent buyers,” he said. “There has been growing interest from buyers from Saudi Arabia and Gulf states.”
Around 10 years ago, Russian oligarchs were pouring money into mountain homes in 1850, Mr. Roche said.
“Five years on, the market became more difficult. Now it is seeing signs of recovery,” he said. “The number of people buying and renting properties in 1850 has increased over the past 12 months, compared to the same period last year, and the Russians have started buying large chalets again.”
Chalets are the most dominant type of property. Regulations that limit the size of new developments to a maximum of 1,000 square meters in the Courchevel area have led to a dearth of new apartment schemes.
Mr. Aris added: “It is continually investing in itself with the new Aquamotion water park between Moriond and Village, new ski lifts promised elsewhere and a continued desire to keep itself at the top of the game by replacing older, less attractive buildings with state of the art residences and hotels.”
According to the Knight Frank report, investment in both ski and non-ski infrastructure in Courchevel is causing an increase in interest in the market.
On The Market:
Location: Courchevel 1850, France
Prices: From €1.5 million to €8.8 million (US$1.7 million to US$10.3 million)
Six Senses Residences Courchevel is a new development of 53 one- to five-bedroom apartments and penthouses, which are managed by Six Senses, a luxury hotel and spa brand. Housed in five linked chalets, the properties have a cellar/storage room for ski gear and residents have access to the in-house spa, 24-hour concierge and ski lockers.
Prices remain high in this popular, lively resort known for its off-piste terrain
Verbier is the largest resort in the Four Valleys, Switzerland’s largest ski area. Famed for its tough slopes and off-piste terrain, it is geared more toward experienced skiers, but there are beginner slopes too.
An elegant resort town, there is no shortage of apres-ski bars as well as restaurants and clubs with live music. It’s the type of the place where everyone hits the bars after the ski lifts close and parties through the night.
But Verbier wants to encourage property owners to live there for longer periods of time or on a permanent basis, rather than just a couple of weeks a year, and reduce the number of empty properties, or “cold beds,” during the summer season. As such, it has invested in new infrastructure, including new international school Lemania-Verbier International School, a French-English bilingual boarding and day school for children aged 3 to 18.
Meanwhile, more five-star hotels are springing up and the resort has recently spent €10 million (US$12 million) on new snow cannons, which has improved its snow-making capabilities, according to the Knight Frank report.
One of the priciest resorts in Switzerland, the average price per square meter in Verbier in June this year was CHF 21,600 (US$22,300), according to Knight Frank. Investors in Property said that the average price for the best properties is between CHF 25,000 (US$22,341) and CHF 30,000 (US$31,000) per square meter.
Prices are high but there is a wide selection of properties to choose from as foreigners may buy freely.
But following the Lex Weber law, which imposes restrictions on second homes, the number of new developments is diminishing. No new building permits are being given now for the construction of “second home” properties, according to Mr. Malster of Investors in Property.
As a result, more buyers are snapping up resale properties and having a local architect do it up and turn it into a luxury alpine residence, said Robert Keddy, of Investors in Property.
On The Market:
Location: Verbier, Switzerland
Price: CHF 12.5 million (US$12.8 million)
A fully furnished five-bedroom duplex apartment, Chalet Aquila has a convenient location—it is in the center of Verbier and a minute from the Medran lift, the main lift in the ski resort. It has a large living area with a wooden vaulted ceiling and access to a south-facing balcony, underground parking and a heated boot room. The building has a 24-hour concierge and a communal spa, hammam and gym.
A famous Swiss resort with global appeal, but non-residents will find it difficult to buy
Zermatt, a ski and mountaineering resort, lies beneath the shark fin-like Matterhorn peak and is surrounded by the high mountains of Switzerland’s Pennines Alps. Along with picture-book mountain scenery and wild landscapes, it has world-class skiing and one of the longest winter seasons due to its altitude.
Located three hours from Geneva by the famous Glacier Express, it’s more remote and tranquil than other Swiss resorts, and is famously car-free; people either walk or cycle or use battery-driven golf carts. There are no wild party spots but it has gourmet restaurants and cozy bars.
Loved for its long ski runs, cross-country skiing, alpine scenery and hiking and biking trails, it attracts visitors year-round and has a strong following from the British, the local Swiss and Scandinavians. As a result, it has a strong rental market.
As a buyer you find there are few properties on the market as property rarely changes hands. Prices in Zermatt are at around the same level as Verbier but a local rule restricts buyers only to Swiss residents, according to Mr. Malster.
The only exception to the rule is for commercial properties. “Foreigners are permitted to buy a large, luxury fully staffed chalet if it is established as a business,” Mr. Malster said. “They could use it themselves but it must be rented out the rest of the time.”
He continued: “The 7 Heavens chalet development was set up on this basis, and despite prices starting at CHF 17 million (US$17.6 million), it sold out.”
On The Market:
Location: Zermatt, Switzerland
Price: CHF 15 million (US$15.3 million)
A 5,380-square-meter chalet in the Petit Village area of Zermatt, Chalet Maurice is currently the only property for sale in Zermatt that is available to non residents. The three-story house has six en-suite bedrooms, lift access to all floors and a wellness suite with a sauna and massage room, and an outdoor hot tub, along with south-facing balconies with views of the Matterhorn.
The prime reason for Meribel’s popularity is its location. It sits between the ski resorts of Courchevel and Val Thorens and is in the center of the Three Valleys’ huge interlinked ski area. A lack of snow cover is never an issue because there’s access to such an extensive area.
Two hours from the Geneva and Lyon airports, Meribel is loved for its alpine charm and hamlets of chalets built with golden wood and flat stone roofs. It has a family-friendly atmosphere and great apres-ski options, and it tends to attracts wealthy, low-key holidaymakers. Prince William and Kate Middleton have been spotted on Meribel’s slopes.
It is the second most expensive resort in the Three Valleys after Courchevel, with prices ranging from between €8,000 to €20,000 per square meter (US$9,500 to US$24,000), according to Knight Frank. The average price for a large and centrally located apartment is between €800,000 and €1 million (US$948,000 to US$1.2 million), according to Gregoire Ferary-Berthelot of Savills.
Demand is particularly strong for large apartments in Meribel, Mr. Ferary-Berthelot said. “The perception is that apartments are easier to maintain and manage than chalets. ... even properties that are not being sold on a freehold basis are selling well.”
Take, for example, L’Hevana. This new development of 95 apartments, which is scheduled to be completed next year, is being sold through a leaseback scheme, designed for those seeking a holiday home for a few weeks of the year. Launched to the market last year, 55 apartments have sold off plan.
Meribel’s summer activities add to its appeal. Lifts providing access to summits are opening for longer, and more investment is going into its bike park and to creating more mountain bike trails. The area’s picturesque 18-hole golf course is a big summer attraction.
It’s popular with the French; the British are the second most represented nationality and then the Belgians. Erna Low Property's clients for Meribel are most often wealthy individuals who are searching for large properties for them and their family, Mr. Brown said. “They want that extra bit of luxury. For example, the apartments in L’Hevana come with sauna in the master bedroom.”’
On The Market:
Location: Meribel, France
Price: From €544,900 (US$558,929)
Four four-bedroom apartments in the new Les Chalets d’Olympes development have recently launched to the market. Scheduled to be completed next year, the homes have cozy wooden interiors, decked balconies and terraces, and are located 150 meters from the cable car in Meribel.