The Alpine property market has held up well in recent years, but resorts are still having to adapt in order to avoid going downhill fast, writes Catherine Moye
As the ski spirit sweeps through Europe faster than a world champion on a black run, owning a ski chalet is often uppermost in the thoughts of anyone serious about Alpine sports. Forget that Tuscan farmhouse or sun-splashed villa on the Côte — quaintly traditional wood cabins, nestling among pines like hibernating creatures upon snow-capped pistes, are some of Europe’s most sought-after properties. Their values have also, more or less, held their own since the financial crisis of 2008 while so many others have crashed.
‘Alpine apartments are our most important core market,’ says Rob Green of Sphere Estates, ‘mostly because even throughout the downturn, the ski market weathered the storm better than anything else.’
Nevertheless, the major resort owners have lately realised that they can no longer just sit toasting marshmallows by the fire and rely on the Alps’ breathtaking beauty and the athletic impulses of the surrounding multitudes (the Alps have a catchment area of 400 million people in eighteen countries) to ensure that each season manna falls on them from heaven together with the snow.
The winter sports market, the bulwark of the Alpine economy, is seeing new trends that will alter the fortunes of towns, villages and property owners in the region. Skier numbers are shrinking as European populations age. The digitally connected Generation Y, having entered its thirties, comes to the Alps clutching its selfie-stick as much as its ski-poles. That change has ushered an entirely different demand for property in terms of lifestyle, connectivity, and especially sport and retail offerings. Whether buying mountain real estate for profit or pleasure, the savvy purchaser needs to consider a resort’s preparedness to adapt to changing times, because those that do are most likely to weather the storms ahead.
According to Knight Frank’s Alpine Property Index, which tracks the performance of luxury ski homes across fifteen major resorts in the French and Swiss Alps, there is a noticeable correlation between resorts that have renewed their ski infrastructure and invested heavily in the wider provision of non-ski activities, and the rise in property prices. Val d’Isère and Chamonix, where prime prices rose by 6 per cent and 5 per cent respectively in twelve months against an average of 3 per cent, are examples of success, as is the Swiss resort of Verbier.
‘The baby boom generation is fast approaching its third age and the new kids on the block have higher expectations and want different experiences from just skiing in the Alps,’ says Roddy Aris, Knight Frank’s chief Alpine sales agent.
This generation, who prefer weekend breaks to week-long vacations, will not tolerate interminable queues at outdated ski-lifts and want more extreme forms of skiing and snowboarding. They expect free wi-fi on the lifts and slopes (to post those selfies on Instagram), and restaurants that provide more than just gloopy cheese raclette, preferably everything from Thai to tapas. They also seek out snow parks hosting winter X-Games, a party scene and music concerts, making them a lot more promiscuous than their predecessors when it comes to choosing resorts.
‘Unlike the baby boomer generation, who went year after year to the same location, notably to Courchevel and Megève, Generation Y is not loyal to specific resorts,’ says Aris.
Nor are the new entrants to the second homes market likely to regard their Alpine retreat as a good investment in its own right and leave it sitting unoccupied while monitoring its rising value from some leafy part of the Home Counties. ‘Gone are the days when you could park half a million pounds up a mountain and say goodbye to it for several years,’ says Aris. ‘Ninety-five per cent of younger buyers want their asset to work for them now.’ Letting’s aim is to cover maintenance and personal overheads, rather than build a high-yielding investment; most ski homes generate a 2-2.5 per cent return. Swiss resorts and those in the Three Valleys, where snowfall is more reliable, can produce higher returns.
Above all, the ever-growing range of leisure options open to Generation Y means their sporting preference extends beyond the winter season, into summertime Alpine activities of mountain-biking, hiking and white-water rafting. All good news if you own a chalet in a resort such as Val d’Isère or Verbier, both of which are dual season trailblazers, ploughing significant funds into their year-round amenities. However, the resort that can claim the title of best-serviced year-round resort is Chamonix, which now has more tourists in summer than winter.
Simon Malster of the high-end agency Investors in Property reckons the Alps are a long way from turning into some sort of 21st-century space-mountain, though. ‘Our clients tend to be those who’ve been going to the Alps for ten or twenty years,’ he says. ‘Mostly they want a ski home because it extends their family life for them. Their children won’t want to sit on the beach with mum and dad beyond a certain age but kids will always go skiing, especially if you’re paying for them, and even more so if they can use it in the summer to do mountain biking as well.’
Malster reckons this category of mature buyer is especially prevalent in the Swiss Alps, which tend to be more expensive than the French. Furthermore, the pound’s recent fall to an all-time low of 1.2 Swiss francs and the 2013 Lex Weber law that restricts second home ownership have not dampened its appeal.
In spite of the modern amenities, conveniences and even the most luxurious additions including spas, hammams and even swimming pools to today’s high-end chalets, their cosy appeal and rustic Alpine charms remain largely unchanged. Interiors are still mostly characterised by solid wood beams, eaves and floors upon which cow-hide rugs are splayed before open log fires. A deer-antler chandelier commonly hangs over an untreated wood table and Savoyard-style pine beds are complemented by fur or woollen throws. The breathtaking mountain views are generally the only artworks one requires.
Properties on sale in the Swiss or French Alps include the spectacular Chalet La Clarté, a seven-bedroom ski-in/ski-out log home in a secluded location above Verbier, and Chalets Le Sitelle & Le Picotin, a twelve-bedroom doubled-linked cabin in the heart of the village (POA, through Sphere Estates). Over at One Courchevel in the eponymous exclusive French resort is the first ‘Six Senses Residences’ scheme of 44 luxury apartments, ranging from one to five bedrooms and featuring concierge and wellness spa (completes December 2017, through Savills).
In this more health-conscious age, beach life is going to find it tough to compete with the attractions of the Alps, just as Alpine properties will remain at the sharp end of the European property market.