Home life: Living on the slopes

Do you love your skiing enough to buy your own alpine retreat? It can be done, says Felicity Cannell, and it could even be an investment
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Indy Lifestyle Online
BRITISH SKIERS may look inept compared to many Europeans who are virtually born on the slopes, but a growing number of us are taking skiing seriously enough to buy a holiday home in the Alps. It's close enough to reach for the weekend, and you can always make money renting the place out. Prices start as low as pounds 23,000 for a studio apartment in Switzerland.

It's not just a place for winter holidays - summer in the Alps can include riding, grass skiing, hang gliding, sailing and windsurfing on the mountain lakes, golf and tennis. The ski lifts convert in the summer to transport mountain bikes up the slopes.

Most letting agents can guarantee owners 12 weeks' rental in winter and six weeks in summer. They estimate (optimistically) an annual eight per cent return on the price you paid for the place. Halve this figure if you plan to use it yourself during peak season. Bear in mind that almost any property, large or small, will be in demand for winter renting. In summer, visitors prefer villages with traditional Alpine charm, rather than the purpose-built jungle of apartment blocks in La Plagne.

French-speaking Switzerland is popular with Britons. "Forget cuckoo clocks, cheese and chocolate," says Arlette Adler of Villas Abroad, "think investment, a rock-solid currency, financial flexibility, and an absence of the EU."

Favourable tax laws also mean that any private rental income can be set against your mortgage. A studio in Verbier will cost from Sfr63,000 (just over pounds 23,000). But Ms Adler points out that in square footage this is equal to a one or two bedroom apartment in France. The French are more comfortable with cramped surroundings. As Zigi Davenport of Alpine Apartments Agency (AAA) confirms: "An apartment you may find ideal for four can often accommodate six or even eight to some French families!"

In Meribel-les-Allues, France, a two bedroom apartment in the village centre will cost at least Fr950,000 (pounds 102,600).

Buying in France is relatively straightforward, but costly. Purchase costs can run to around 10 per cent. The local government notaire acts for both buyer and seller, and after signing the preliminary contract the sale is binding. If you are gazumped then the seller has to pay you twice the deposit, although for 28 days the local community has the right to buy the property, or land, for the same price, for justifiable reasons such as road widening or using the site for a new school.

In Switzerland total buying costs, particularly for resale properties, are much cheaper than in France, between three and five per cent. Swiss mortgage rates and conditions are also competitive and this, combined with the changes in law on foreign ownership in the French speaking sector now makes buying in the Swiss Alps much easier.

The Swiss Germans are still keeping places like Gstaad and Wengen for themselves, but in Canton Valais, covering Verbier, Crans Montana and parts of Les Portes du Soleil, foreigners may buy and then re-sell to anyone after five years' ownership. If you decide to hang up your skis within five years, the sale must go to a Swiss national.

At the upper end of the market, demand appears to outstrip supply as chalets big enough for multiple buyers are very popular. Estate agent Zigi Davenport says: "Even relatively large budgets of pounds 300,000 don't have a great choice and buyers have to move fast. One client saw details last Saturday, got a flight the same day, viewed Sunday morning and signed immediately."

Ms Davenport reckons that chalet prices have risen 20 to 30 per cent over the last two years. "Once a chalet sells, the next similar place comes onto the market at a higher price."

Janna and Roger Pratt's view of the Alpine property market is more jaded. The couple have been trying to sell their apartment in Avoriaz for the last two years. Their apartment, which sleeps five, was bought for Fr374,500 several years ago. Two estate agents in Avoriaz failed to shift it, but now a private buyer has been found for a price of Fr280,000 (just over pounds 30,000). This for a ski-in, ski-out apartment built into the slopes. Mrs Pratt says: "In my opinion it's an absolute load of rubbish that there are insufficient properties. The agents' windows are full of them."

Piers Boothman and his family bought a large chalet eight years ago in Meribel after renting in the area for several ski seasons. Four years' later the place next door came up for sale. The building already had a demolition order on it and rather than risk a developer buying the land, the family clubbed together and bought the place.

They rebuilt the chalet with a self-contained apartment above, and now run it as a business. They employ two chalet staff, one as housekeeper and caterer, the other chiefly as minibus driver, and in the peak season charge guests up to pounds 500 per week each.

Mr Boothman says: "We originally offered it to a ski company, who promised quite good returns, but wanted to tie it up for three years. We decided we could achieve even better returns ourselves, and keep control."

But this level of investment is not for the average second home owner. It is a full-scale business venture, and yearly taxes for rental property are high. "We could only manage running it as a family business. One of us runs it for a year or so, and then another family member takes over," says Mr Boothman.

A chalet in the Alps suffers under harsh weather conditions and needs a lot of maintenance. For the novice second home owner, an apartment is a good start. This doesn't have to be faceless concrete. Many chalets are divided into apartments, and giving the traditional alpine feel without the effort. Maintenance costs will be around pounds 1,500 per year for a two bedroom property. This includes all utilities.

If you can bear to rent the apartment out for a few weeks of the season, you can cover all your costs and then spend the rest of the winter on the pistes.

Alpine Apartments Agency 01544 388234. Villas Abroad 0181 941 4499. The Ski and Snowboard Show is at Olympia, 30 October to 8 November. Admission pounds 9 weekends, pounds 6 weekdays. For tickets call 0121 767 4433