First-time buyers in the French Alps
- Credit: Archant
Professional couple Katya Shipster and Darren Choppin’s frustration at rising London property prices led to a rewarding adventure in the French Alps
A chance encounter
Darren and I both live and work full-time in London and have always rented our homes. Like most young professionals our age (we’re both 32), we’ve been saving for many years to one day buy a place of our own. However, we have been watching the property market in London get more and more ridiculously inflated in recent years, and often for such tiny, even fairly grim, spaces.
Darren is interested in estate agency windows pretty much wherever we go. We were on a skiing holiday in Morzine with friends in March 2012, and he came back one morning with breakfast croissants and an impulse appointment to view a chalet that afternoon. Even before we went to see it, we definitely weren’t expecting to buy it. That would be crazy! We spent an hour there, absorbing the bright orange pine cladding, the tiny galley kitchen, stepping over the huge dehumidifiers everywhere (drying out mass flooding after all the pipes had frozen and burst), and fell completely, totally and utterly in love with it and the potential it offered.
We went to a nearby bar, wrote a series of sums on a napkin and worked out that we could afford to buy it, we could potentially afford the renovation and, if we got a certain percentage of rental income as a minimum, we could afford the ongoing mortgage. What’s more, the enormous life-altering challenge of taking on such a wreck and bringing it back to life was really exciting and attractive. We’ve always wanted to do a big renovation at some point but the plan was to do it later on in life, having bought our own home to live in first.
The other big life dream was to own a ski chalet when we were more settled and far older, but we fast forwarded and combined both of those dreams instead of taking a more traditional life path.
We still don’t own anywhere in London where we live and work full-time, and the rental income we receive from the chalet not only pays the mortgage but actually offsets our rent in London.
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Magic of Morzine
We know Morzine well, and we’ve been skiing there more than any other resort. Friends of ours got married there too. It is just over an hour’s drive from Geneva, and is one of the biggest ski areas in the world (650km of pistes). Because of its proximity to Lake Geneva, it benefits from a microclimate, so although it’s a low resort it still gets a big annual snowfall.
As it’s relatively snow-sure and has a short airport transfer time, it means that it’s easy to head there for a weekend from the UK, as well as being on a cheap flight route, so it really is accessible for us from London. Also, the accessibility and climate will have ongoing popularity for potential clients, hopefully rendering our bottom-line business estimates realistic for forthcoming rental occupancy. There is also a thriving summer season in Morzine, as well as the winter one, which gives us a further income stream.
Morzine is beautiful, astonishingly beautiful. The valley is stunning and, after a fresh snowfall, just as the sun is coming up, there is genuinely no better place on earth. It’s as great in summer as it is in winter, and there is such a huge variety of things to do here, from the usual famous winter sports to the summer activities such as horse-riding, white-water rafting, hiking, cycling and swimming. Lake Montriond is stunning, and five minutes away, and there are also two Olympic-sized pools in town. Lake Geneva and the famous town of Évian is half an hour’s drive from the chalet, and in the summer there are lakeside beaches to laze on. It is also a fantastically friendly and welcoming town, and there is a real sense of strong community.
Our aim from the outset was to provide a holiday property that we would personally want to stay in as customers too. The chalet is perfect for an active holiday, for groups or a family adventure, whatever the season, and we designed it to be a home from home. We also wanted our clients to enjoy a certain degree of flexibility with their holiday, in terms of whether they want self-catered or catered. We offer as much or as little of either option, depending on what the clients prefer to do, which makes each holiday fit the individual’s budgets and preferences.
Rising to the challenge
The journey to this point has been intense, and it certainly hasn’t been plain sailing. The biggest challenge was definitely the language barrier. I speak rusty A-level French, and my husband never studied it. Most of the really difficult negotiations or practical arrangements were with tradesmen or professionals who didn’t speak English so we had to forge on in French, come what may. That is how the marble kitchen work surface came to be, as well as the wood-burning stove installation. Both of those processes would have been difficult enough to sort out in English, let alone in pidgin French.
The other massive challenge was doing the whole build at arm’s length from London. We flew over to France most weekends during the renovation, but it was still not enough. We weren’t there for some crucial moments, and many of the really stressful aspects of the build originated from being too far away.
This physical distance meant that we had to source the correct items to be delivered at the right time, and quite often we were not there in person to answer key questions. We often had to make subsequent quick adjustment decisions that had further implications. And then, what happened quite frequently was that the wrong item was supplied, which would give rise to the issue of how to swap this item for the correct one without severely affecting the timeframe.
We were also having to manage this build alongside our already extremely full-on jobs in London. The renovation had the potential to be a full-time job in itself, if we let it, but we had to keep the two sides clear and separate. Our social lives paid a heavy price, as every free minute outside of work was dedicated to the chalet build!
Running the rental business remotely has had its problems too – not being on the ground and being able to diagnose any problems personally leads to delays in solving them, and potentially bigger expense for what would otherwise be fairly straightforward issues. Also not being able to visit some businesses to help the clients get ski lessons or childcare at the last minute can also be difficult as phones can go unanswered at busy periods in the season.
A rewarding experience
However, these are all challenges that I feel we have risen to, and continue to do so as we draw on an increasing bank of experience. We are loving running the business, and the biggest satisfaction is definitely derived from the mixture of clients we have had.
We have only been live for one season, so our experience is so far relatively small, but dealing with a range of different people, and being able to deliver their perfect holiday to them is extremely rewarding, especially when we get great feedback about the property that we’ve worked so hard to make perfect for them. It’s lovely to hear that they’ve noticed the little details we spent so much time and imagination planning.
Another source of great satisfaction is how running this business has enabled us to make friends with many others in the Morzine community. When we set up the business, we joined up with many local businesses to provide various different services to our clients, such as ski hire, childcare, catering and so on.
We have worked with a number of different people in the town fairly regularly, and what has started as a business relationship in some cases has progressed to genuine friendship. We have been extremely lucky in the support and advice we’ve had along the way. We would have found the whole process much more difficult without that help and support from our friends and neighbours, especially during some pretty hairy moments!
Planning is key
This is our first renovation, which has inevitably involved a steep learning curve from which we have accrued a lot of knowledge and experience. To anyone who is thinking of undertaking a similar project, in terms of renovation I would recommend a clear electrical plan from the outset. A lot of our rooms changed size markedly through the renovation as we straightened walls and so on, and in some cases the lighting position had to be adjusted by as much as 10cm, which is a big difference! Had we had something really clear from the outset, a lot of stressful or confusing moments would have been averted.
Another essential mantra is ‘insulation, insulation, insulation’, especially in an area susceptible to colder weather. It will pay dividends in years to come to keep heating bills down, as well as maintaining the building at a regular temperature in summer months. In addition, investing in LED lights rather than halogens keeps the electricity bills way down; if clients keep the lights on all day and all night, it won’t make a bit of difference.
In terms of B&B or holiday rental advice, you must have a very clear idea of who your client base is likely to be, snd then go after that group of people, without being distracted by trying to cater to everyone. We invested financially in the marketing of the chalet, making sure we had great photos of the property, as well as having a great platform to launch from in the website. I also set up a blog which documented the renovation process, and then morphed into a lifestyle blog to promote the facilities and showcase the local area. This investment has already paid off.
Make sure you have a clear idea of where your client base looks for their holidays and that you are found easily in all of those places, whether they’re websites or even the local tourist board. As long as the group of people you’re catering for can find your property, discover that you offer exactly what they’re looking for, and then you deliver on their expectations for the holiday, the bookings will start flooding in and you’ll then start getting repeat custom year after year.
Chalet de Soie, Tel: 07780 604383, chaletdesoie.com
The chalet is also part of the Sawday’s collection of over 1,500 properties in France (sawdays.co.uk)