Haven on earth

With its lakeside luxe, lenient taxes and discreet reputation, Zürich is becoming a highly sought-after address. Catherine Moye cherry-picks properties.

April 14 2010
Catherine Moye

Now that the UK’s 50 per cent income tax rate has come into effect, a growing number of Britain’s wealthiest individuals are expected to decamp to low-tax Switzerland, like cuckoos popping into their clocks. Traditionally, British expat wealth has headed to the French-speaking city of Geneva but a scarcity of quality property for sale there means that many have started to look further afield. It is upon Zürich and its neighbouring cantons of Zug and Schwyz that their gaze has alighted. Two of the UK’s leading high-end estate agents, Aylesford International and Knight Frank, have established a presence there in recent months.

“Zürich is not only important strategically as a leading financial centre, it’s a place of great beauty and culture that people quickly grow to love,” says Sergio Martinez, general manager of Aylesford International. “We’re seeing a lot more applicants for Zürich property coming not just out of the UK but right across the international business community.” Indeed, the drift of 1,000 Germans every month into the Zürich area has seen the international agency Engel & Völkers establish six offices there in just five years.

Most sought-after in the city are the traditional “country-style” villas nestled in the hills on the so-called Gold Coast: the north-east side of Lake Zürich. Largely built between the 1890s and 1920s, these desirable domiciles of the world’s billionaires are curiously reminiscent of a fairytale Woodcutter’s cottage. Rather than a business tycoon zipping up the drive in a Mercedes-Benz, one half expects to see the hunched figure of a troll lugging an axe to the door before slinging off his sheepskin. Don’t be deterred. At its best, this school of architectural design, with its steeply pitched roofs, soft gingerbread tones and richly coloured shutters, is among the most strikingly attractive in Europe.

Some people find it’s the quirky water towers of Manhattan’s apartment buildings, rather than the skyscrapers, that engender a love of the skyline. With Zürich you warm to the city through its rooftops; the oddly shaped chimneys and oxidised spires, and the dormer, lancet and latticed windows worked so enchantingly into them. And it’s the case with the property currently available through Aylesford International. Inside the 650m sq house, the original template remains, though with the necessary modernisations (this is the case in most traditional-style houses both here on the Gold Coast and in the hilly Zuriberg district, another popular city location). A cosy porch area leads into a front hall with a simple stairway leading to the upper floors. Straight away you are struck by how deceptively large these houses are. In this case, seven capacious bedrooms and four bathrooms are liberally distributed over five floors; plus there is a separate staff apartment.

The original wood panelling in the drawing room is painted a shade of beetroot; in the dining room it’s spinach green. The high ceilings, interconnecting sliding doors and parquet flooring – all original features – are offset by woollen hearth rugs, softly contoured furniture and Old Master portraits juxtaposed with modern chandeliers and glossily painted library shelves. In the kitchen, a state-of-the-art fridge and two cookers are joined by the original larder and cupboards.

The latter’s small glass sliding doors are the kind that would have no doubt prompted instant games of “grocery store” as a child and the association with hearty homemade meals is so strong you can almost smell them.

Off the dining room is a large terrace, which overlooks the glorious Lake Zürich where the River Limmat flows into it. The old town and the city’s foremost monuments, including the Grossmünster Cathedral, are set against a formidable backdrop of mountains and framed by a foreground of multitudinous species of pine tree.

Investment banker Brian Martin relocated here together with his wife and two small children in late 2007, a move that was more lifestyle than taxation related. “London has become the victim of its own success,” he says. “It’s too big and congested to live in comfortably now – especially if you’re raising a family.” Zürich, Martin says, is instead a city on a human scale. “Everything works here,” he explains. “The cultural life is as good as anywhere, my commute time is negligible, barely 15 minutes, and my children can ski, horse ride and do water sports all within half an hour’s drive.”

According to Urs Muller, managing partner of Engel & Völkers Zürich, the local property market bucked the downward trend that was experienced throughout most of Europe. “House prices in Zürich rose by around four per cent last year,” he says. “A higher percentage of our clientele is coming from Great Britain and other European countries, especially France. Now the biggest problem facing buyers is that there is much more demand than there are houses available.”

Buyers can expect to pay from SFr25,000 (about £15,630) per square metre for a traditional house in the city and £12,500 per square metre for a modern apartment in a decent part of town, providing it has lake views.

The shortage of supply can be largely attributed to the fact that quality property in Swiss hands is generally passed down through generations and rarely comes onto the open market. Gaining access to view some of these homes, let alone acquire pictures of them, is like trying to break into one of the city-centre banks. For in Zürich, privacy, discretion and the phrase “price on application” are so strictly adhered to they may as well be legal requirements. Such tight-lipped rectitude not only applies to old and new Swiss money: it appears to be what attracts so many international billionaires to the city.

The home of one such can be found, anonymous of name and denuded of furniture, perched in the hills of the desirable residential north side of the city, together with the gallery that the late owner constructed in his back garden. Touring the 12-bedroom mansion would take the better part of an afternoon and a serious art collection might be comfortably accommodated in the gallery, spread over five levels. Needless to say, the price is also a blank canvas and only available on application (through Engel & Völkers).

The left-hand side of Lake Zürich, while not benefiting from the same late-afternoon sun as the Gold Coast, is also highly sought-after. And this is particularly true of the buildings by Zürich’s leading luxury developer Peach Property Group, which is jointly owned by brothers Thomas and Oliver Wolfensberger. For example, Schooren is a modernist oblong building straight out of the German Bauhaus school, consisting of nine adjoining apartments. It is perched so close to the lake that you could practically cast a fishing line into it from the huge expanse of these slick open-plan homes, whose occupants, according to Oliver Wofensberger, “read like a Who’s Who of German wealth”.

Its knife-sharp lines, walls of lacquered concrete and plush white furnishings certainly make for dramatic apartments. Yet the gaze is continually, and dreamily, drawn out and onto the pulsating body of the lake where birds drift and circle, making Schooren as much balm for the soul as a fix for the senses.

Several miles further along the same coast is the location of Peach’s most recent project, The Peninsula. This imperious-looking former garment factory and its grounds are being transformed into sumptuous, new and renovated homes and apartments with many facilities that will appeal to sporty types. Much of the principal factory building is protected by the equivalent of architectural listing and many of its remaining interior features such as high ceilings, thick walls and some arched window casings give it a loft-living appeal. A separate 1,400m sq mansion will be one of the largest properties on the lake when finished, with two mooring spaces and a helicopter pad. Phase one of the development will take around two years to complete and prices start from about £12,500 per square metre.

Those looking to capitalise on some of the area’s most appealing tax deals should make for the adjoining cantons of Zug or Schwyz, both less than an hour’s drive from the city. For while taxes still remain much lower than in the UK, Zürich recently ditched its system of lump-sum taxation for foreigners that is based on living expenses as opposed to income – an appealing system for the wealthy that’s still in operation in both nearby cantons.

In Zug, the stuff of dreams has come onto the market in the shape of a vast estate extending over 18,000m sq. In an idyllic park setting, the 20-room grand villa comes with a swimming pool that converts into a 100-person ballroom, outhouses, stables and horse meadows. It is available through Aylesford International for Cap Ferrat-scale money.

In Schwyz, close to where tennis ace Roger Federer has a house, is a completely different kind of property: a four-bedroom, 725m sq vision of jutting angular sheets of glass, looking like something that at any moment might lift off into outer space (also through Aylesford). Built on the shores of Lake Lucerne, the house has its own mooring and large terraces, plus separate staff quarters. Think three-bedroom Kensington town-house kind of money.

The influx of non-Swiss and their money into Zürich over the past 10 years is said to be introducing an era of change, with more art galleries, international schools, restaurants and bars. Certainly, whereas once it was a handicap not to speak German, now it is hard to find anyone who isn’t bilingual in English. Yet the sense of secretiveness, quiet conservatism and understated wealth remain, which is one reason why, unless it’s a new-build development, buyers should never expect to see a price tag.

See also