A little house in the snow

So you think a holiday home in the Alps is beyond your wildest dreams? Think again, says Steve Emmett
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The Independent Online
A PROPERTY in the mountains might not spring immediately to mind if you are toying with the idea of buying a home abroad.

The obvious reason for choosing a mountain location is access to good skiing, but as any self-respecting Swiss will tell you, there's more to it than that. Summer climbing and touring, an appreciable investment with income from letting, a resale profit or, at worst, your capital back intact are all taken for granted in Switzerland.

The Swiss mentality does not take kindly to Alpine cellblocks. As a result there is just one purpose-built ski resort in the country - Thyon 2000 in the French sector. Buying an apartment or chalet, therefore, involves becoming part of one of the Cantons where punitive resale restrictions for foreigners have now been relaxed.

No resort is more than two hours from an airport and most are considerably nearer. The majority of apartments are spacious. Studios average 25m2 to 37m2 in floor area, with prices from an astonishingly low pounds 23,000. An apartment with separate bedroom will be around 40m2 and cost from pounds 33,000.

Even in prestige resorts like Crans Montana you'll find a two-bedroom flat for not much more than pounds 70,000. As might be expected, financing in Switzerland is relatively easy. Mortgages may be repaid in full or part at any time without penalty and any profits from rentals may be offset against the interest paid.

The high altitude resorts in France have a much higher profile. Hordes of young people on "working" holidays gather to work as chalet girls and boys, creating a "fun" atmosphere with all-night partying and daytime skiing when they are sober enough to cope with the chairlifts.

Whilst anything more than a broom cupboard is not cheaper, like for like, in France than in Switzerland, the unrestricted building for the 1992 Winter Olympics has left a significant glut of owners struggling to sell without losing money on their investment.

This over-optimistic creation of property finally resulted in the French government imposing a five-year moratorium on all Alpine construction. Now that new building has begun again, bargains can be found from disenchanted owners coming to terms with the position and accepting offers.

Andorra, between France and Spain in the Pyrenees, offers a totally different scene. The skiing is not as varied or extensive but, on the positive side, the Mediterranean is 90 minutes away by car.

Perhaps even more importantly, property is spacious. The majority of "studios" are actually one-bedroom apartments, but the Andorrans consider them too small at 35m2 to be called anything other than studios. Such properties can be bought from around pounds 28,000. A double unit, where two studios are combined to provide two bathrooms, balconies and kitchens, can be bought from around pounds 40,000. One other point to consider is that Andorra is a tax haven, so any profits earned from rental income are net.

Italy, too, has some interesting locations for skiers, though it is often overlooked. One reason is undoubtedly the cost of property in the best locations. Cortina d'Ampezzo, in the Dolomites, is favoured by the international jet set. Being a small town where most apartments are hewn from existing houses, the pressure on values has been tremendous. Yet even here some easing of prices took place during the recession of the 1990s and relative bargains can be found for those whose pockets are deep enough.

Close to Italy's border with France, the purpose-built resort of Sansicario is now well established. It boasts some impressive facilities built with the aim of making it an all-year-round resort. Like for like, property is quite cheap but with even the smallest apartments being very generously proportioned and supply now limited, don't plan on finding anything under pounds l00,000.

If you can bear to be an hour or so from the ski resorts, it might be worth looking at country property in Tuscany, Marche, Liguria and Piemonte. For example, north of the walled Tuscan city of Lucca is the resort of Abetone. Whilst facilities don't compare with the Alps and the season is shorter, many accomplished skiers find it perfectly acceptable to have an inexpensive village property in the Garfagnana and to drive 60 to 90 minutes to the snowy slopes.

q Further information from: Villas Abroad (Properties) Ltd, 0181-941 4499; David de Lara & Partners, 0181-742 0708; Federation of Overseas Property Developers, Agents & Consultants, 0181-941 5588.