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Property: No business like snow business

Just as with learning to ski, caution is the key word when buying a ski chalet abroad.
Buying a ski chalet, like the activity of skiing itself, has a natural rhythm: you start on the beginners slope and then you progress gradually, and, when you have reached the peak of your ability, you take a good look around and a deep breath before taking the plunge.

"Too often, British skiers fall in love with a chalet, see a local agent, and sign on the dotted line." says Marie D'hont, a French lawyer with the London-based solicitors Russell-Cooke Potter & Chapman. "Afterward they may realise they have made a mistake, or they make an offer which they think is not binding only to discover, after the vendor has accepted it, that the offer is in fact binding."

In short, whether you are buying in France or Italy, in Australia or Austria, in Colorado or Vermont, first get the legal lay of the land.

For example, France does not distinguish between freehold and leasehold. With chalet prices at alpine levels, most British skiers buy flats within chalets. They become co-owners, possessing the interiors of their flats and a share in the roof, basement, lifts and other communal parts.

Overenthusiastic Britons also tend to miscalculate vacant possession. Mme D'hont notes that "many chalet apartments are rented so that, for example, a property for sale may have already been let to a tenant for the entire season. This means that, although it is for sale, vacant possession will have to wait for the next season."

The chalet may prove elusive in other ways. "With new builds, we strongly advise you to try to get a penalty clause included in the reservation contract which ensures that the developer will complete the building as and when agreed," says Mme D'hont, who admits that developers tend to resist this request. "Alternatively, you should try to get the developer to agree to provide similar premises if your property is not ready on time."

Mme D'Hont says that "most French ski resorts have a special tax, the taxe de sejour, which the tenant is expected to pay but is, in any event, the responsibility of the owner". In addition, homeowners can be short- changed by some developers who fail to buy certain kinds of legally required insurance. Legal assistance is vital.

As in Britain, a buyer may find that, on completion of a sale, a property may not be all that it is supposed to be, in terms either of design or workmanship. "It is important to ensure that the property is finally checked by an independent architect prior to your paying the final amount," says Mme D'hont.

But that's enough law. Let's get out of the chambers and on to the ski slopes. Debbie and Peter Fitzcharles were enjoying a ski holiday when, says Debbie: "Out of the blue Peter suggested that we buy a chalet. We looked at several, but we could afford only very small apartments, so I bottled out. Months later we mentioned it to friends in Devon, who offered to buy with us, and later another couple joined."

In December they found a house in the French resort of Morzine selling for pounds 160,000, and, by mid-January, it was theirs. Debbie says: "Legally, it's a tight package. Once the deposit is paid, there is no backing out. It is very slick, and they sew it up quickly." However , be warned. The slickness that Debbie found noteworthy is all the more reason for buyers, as Mme D'hont warns, to be cautious. Peter agrees: "There are complications, and we used a local solicitor who specialises in buying French property. We had to form a limited company so that shares can be passed to our respective spouses or children."

The three couples made a second agreement: "None of us can sell within five years, and we have to offer it to the other two owners first," Debbie explains. Each family gets 17 weeks each year, with winter split into weeks, and summer divided into fortnights. "In the summer we walk, go rafting, paragliding and swimming and play tennis. Many of the chairlifts are still open, so we can ride up and cycle down the mountain. It is lovely."

Sometimes the three couples and their total of seven children occupy the property simultaneously. "It's a squash, but, yes, we manage it. We also have an annual meeting in England - we all live in different parts of the country."

Switzerland is different again. "British buyers should not forget," James Wilson of Lane Fox Acquisitions reminds us, "that Switzerland is outside the European Community, hence outside EC regulations. The Swiss can act unilaterally."

They already have. "Only foreigners with permits can buy chalets, and permits are limited," says Mr Wilson. "Foreigners can buy either a new flat, or an `apart hotel', an apartment hotel, which is like a timeshare. Foreigners have to sell to Swiss buyers, who are not keen on this type of apartment. You also can't sell during the first five years."

Skiing notwithstanding, "people buy for a mixture of income, capital growth and pleasure of use. Income alone does not provide sufficient justification, although the strong pound makes prices very attractive. Gross yields tend to be between 4 and 5 per cent". Mme D'hont says buyers must remember that, regardless of the country, winter has its own logic and laws. "Snow and harsh winter weather generally mean that the building will probably deteriorate more rapidly than a development in the south of France and will also be more costly to maintain, repair and heat."

The buyer's beginners slope is a local newsagent, for skiing and international property magazines. Ski and Board magazine contains buy and sell property advertisements, and the publisher, the Ski Club of Great Britain, periodically hosts "Buy a Chalet" seminars. "Club members have access to our noticeboard," says Vanessa Haines, the club's information services manager, "and in the future people will be able to advertise on our Website."

Lane Fox: 0171-499 4785; Russell-Cooke Potter &Chapman: 0181-788 1299; Ski Club of Great Britain: 0181-410 2000