The UK is not the only country having to come to terms with the aftermath of a controversial referendum. In 2012, the Swiss made sweeping changes to their alpine economy, voting by a paper-thin majority to set a cap on the number of second homes that could be built.
For a long time it has, of course, not been easy for those without a Swiss passport to secure their own patch of the world’s most beautiful mountain playground. Since 1983 a law has been in place restricting the number of foreign purchasers of second homes to just 1,500 a year, and confining them to buying in “designated holiday zones” around the main ski resorts. But the new law, the Lex Weber, which became statute in 2016, limits the number of second homes allowed in every Swiss commune to just 20 per cent, making such properties now as rare as snow in August.
“Lex Weber has made it particularly difficult to buy in some of the major ski resorts as many had already exceeded the 20 per cent,” says Jeremy Rollason, managing director of Alpine Homes in association with Savills. Indeed, in some cases, far exceeded it. Gstaad, for example, sits in the commune of Saanen, where some 50 per cent of properties are second homes; Verbier, in the canton of Valais, is also well above the cap.
The Lex Weber was born of admirable intentions to preserve the country’s natural landscape. But it was carried through by a largely urban electorate not fully appreciative of the dynamics of ski-resort economies, where locals rely heavily on the income generated by the building and maintenance of holiday homes and on the money spent by those who use them.
“The effect of the second-home initiative is already proving a challenge for the area,” says Alexis Munier, editor-in-chief of Gstaadlife magazine. “Local restaurants, stores and businesses are all starting to feel the pinch.”
It’s not all bad news, though, for those looking to secure a luxurious retreat in the Swiss mountains. Some quick thinking and creative problem-solving has already eased some of the rigours of the new regime. Following the referendum, developers were quick to act, hurrying through their planning applications before the small print of the legislation was allowed to dry. Anyone seeking outright ownership of a property fresh off the production line can now reap the rewards of their efficiency.
“Over the past three years a significant supply of new stock has come on to the market,” says Alexander Koch de Gooreynd, head of the Swiss and Alpine network of international estate agent Knight Frank. “Within the next five years, however, there will definitely be a squeeze on what’s available.”
Those looking to take advantage of this limited offer could, for example, consider a recently completed six-bedroom apartment (SFr12.5m, about £9,999,000, through Savills) in the Rosalp Residences, just 100m from the main ski lift in Verbier, which, as well as having “second-home consent”, comes with such pleasing accessories as a Bulthaup kitchen, geothermal heating (including heated ski storage), integrated audio and high-level security.
But there are other solutions to the shortage of second housing stock. In St Moritz, Grace Hotels – a pacesetter in the boutique hotel market – has purchased historic Hôtel La Margna, which first opened in 1906 and originally helped put St Moritz on the ski map. It is now polishing both its period charm and building a striking extension to include 17 fully serviced private apartments that will not only come with all the benefits of the hotel but, when not in use, will be let out to paying hotel guests. The refit will be complete in 2019. Aficionados of the ski resort have been quick to see its potential and half of the apartments (about £614,000-£7,898,000, through Knight Frank) have already been sold to buyers from the UK and Europe, Russia, China and the Middle East.
Another obvious market might seem to be for second homes already in existence. Many older chalets, built when ski resorts themselves were still in their infancy, are often in the best locations. However, Switzerland doesn’t have a strong tradition of stripping out and starting again.
“Buyers often don’t feel confident about being able to find the right builders and are also reluctant to take on what can be a two-year project,” says Koch de Gooreynd. “They generally want to use their property immediately and are looking for something ready to go.”
Impatience, however, is not the only reason why the Grand Designs approach has been slow to catch on. “Whether you decide to refurbish or knock down and rebuild, a property has to fit in,” says Charlie McKee, of buying agent Hindle Baldock. “The material will need to match the local resort, so if you’re hoping for something super-modern it can be difficult.”
Swiss interior design also tends towards the traditional. “The quality of what’s built in Switzerland is superb – it’s made to last – but the Swiss don’t necessarily understand the idea of redoing your kitchen every five years,” says Sharon Grob of international interior designers Oliver Burns. “If you want a look that you’d find in Mayfair, you might find it easier to take your designer with you.”
However, the developer and estate agent Pyret Renvall of Verbier & Partners believes the Swiss are beginning to catch on. “Things have really changed in the past two or three years,” she says. “It’s become much less about old wood and much more Scandinavian, with large windows, lots of light, a mix of mountain and modern that’s also very practical.”
Those willing to undertake a bit of renovation will certainly find plenty of potential in properties like an impressive eight-bedroom chalet in Gstaad (£26.5m, through Chestertons International). Already blessed with panoramic views of the Alps, complete privacy, staff quarters and parking for seven cars, all this home requires is a more contemporary approach to the decor.
To widen the pool, some have already begun to explore the possibilities of buying in less celebrated locations where there is still a reasonable pool of second homes on the market. “We’re starting to see the emergence of secondary areas,” says Koch de Gooreynd. “Buyers, for example, are now looking at villages near Verbier, such as La Tzoumaz.” It has direct links to the Valais’ Four Valleys ski area and significantly cheaper housing stock, so its appeal is easy to appreciate, and here Savills is selling a five-bedroom chalet (about £1,358,000), just 300m from the nearest ski lift.
Other spots to watch include the tranquil and traditional Val d’Anniviers, which has recently installed a new cable car linking it to neighbouring resorts, and Nendaz, which has been updating its attractions in preparation for increased demand, adding, for example, the Hôtel Nendaz 4 Vallées & Spa. “Nendaz has been doing very well in the past 18 months,” says Anne-Marie Dubuis of Chestertons International. “It’s a year-round resort with plenty to do during the summer and a real winner in this situation.”
Whatever the obstacles, the appetite for a second home in the Swiss Alps remains undiminished. Indeed, since the beginning of 2016, property sales, which had been subdued while the detail of the law was under debate, have seen an energetic rebound. “House buyers who had put their searches on hold began to return once the implications became clear,” says Koch de Gooreynd.
The interest from wealthy buyers from around the world seems only likely to increase. The country is arguably the world’s safest safe haven, and the fragility of the global economy, the recent geopolitical crises and tax shifts (such as the UK’s non-dom regulations) are all playing their part in driving the world’s wealthiest to Switzerland. Knight Frank predicts the number of millionaires in the country will rise by 12 per cent over the next decade. Even the ferocious strength of the Swiss franc, which takes purchasing (and existing) here into a rarefied stratosphere, has not been a deterrent.
This is undoubtedly because of the star quality of the country’s ultra-prime resorts – Gstaad, Zermatt, Verbier and St Moritz – which remain 24-carat components of many wealthy investors’ real-estate portfolios.
And, while nearly all non-Swiss buyers opt for Switzerland primarily for lifestyle reasons, the Lex Weber – which has made second homes more precious than ever – is likely to guarantee their investment.