Overview: There's value in the most unlikely lands

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The Independent Online

Heavy snow kept us from the slopes during one day of our half-term holiday in the Swiss Alps, so a local architect gave me a conducted tour of the apartments that he had just finished in Saas Fe. They were impressive. Large and imaginatively designed, some even had the nice touch of a wood-burning stove.

Heavy snow kept us from the slopes during one day of our half-term holiday in the Swiss Alps, so a local architect gave me a conducted tour of the apartments that he had just finished in Saas Fe. They were impressive. Large and imaginatively designed, some even had the nice touch of a wood-burning stove.

But more surprising than the price (around £235,000 for two bedrooms) was that this pretty resort has no estate agencies. Impossible to imagine from the property-obsessed British perspective and yet it is just one of the indications that Switzerland is a very different place from the countries that usually come into the UK second-home orbit.

Not least of those reasons is that while some of the 26 cantons allow foreigners to buy there, subject to certain conditions, others forbid it outright. This is beginning to change, however, and our Saas Fe architect predicted that, in line with EU agreements, within a few years even bastions like Zermatt will open its housing market to foreign purchasers.

All this adds up to something that feels like new territory, extraordinary as it seems when you are talking about a country such as Switzerland. Ask most people about the prospect of buying or even holidaying there and they tend to shudder at the expense, while assuming that they might better be able to afford France.

But this is not necessarily so, if you compare the price per square metre, as apartments in Switzerland are considerably larger. And the era of £1.80 to the Swiss franc is long gone, with an exchange rate currently at more than £2.20.

Needless to say, this potential has been spotted by those familiar with mountain resorts. One of those is Larry Levene, who has owned property in France for years and has now found himself involved in not just the marketing of property in Switzerland but increasingly linked with the future of a whole resort.

Veysonnaz, little known but only 10 minutes from the airport in Sion and an hour and half by train from Geneva, needs investment. Levene's arrival has prompted local interests to produce new building sites and he has linked up with Chesterton International in London, which is selling apartments and chalets there and at least two other ski resorts.

For less than £200,000 you can get a two-bedroom apartment with views over the valley; a 2,500sq ft chalet is priced from £350,000, "a third of the cost of many places in France, which I believe has become vastly overpriced," says Levene.

Even he is surprised at his enthusiastic reception. "It is almost as though they were waiting for someone to pull things together and demonstrate that you get value for money in Switzerland."

The newly published Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors' European Housing Review 2004 goes some way to explaining this issue. Its author, Professor Michael Ball, told me that house prices have been falling in Switzerland and that it was the only advanced economy to experience deflation last year.

"Between 1990 and 1998, property prices fell by about 20 per cent because they built too many houses," says Prof Ball. "But 10 years ago was very different from now. They are opening up to foreign competition and have been putting in a lot of transportation structure."

These are the kind of comments one might expect to hear about countries we are less familiar with. In our rush to get a toehold in imminent EU entrants such as Slovenia, where property prices are shooting up, it would be a mistake to rule out Switzerland on outdated perceptions.

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